The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Monday, August 26, 2002

Mambas And Corals
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, August , 2002, © 2004

Have you ever done the two-step mamba? Probably not, because it's not a dance but an extremely dangerous African snake. The term comes from the notion that you only have two steps to live after being bitten.

A friend on an African safari was curious about the myth and asked his guide, "What would I do if I were bitten by a mamba?" The renowned white hunter replied, "Start signing your traveler's checks." Actually, two steps is quite an exaggeration, but you really have a 100% chance of dying in ten minutes without medical attention. Don't you feel better?

The four-foot long Black Mamba of central and southern Africa is indeed that continent's deadliest snake, loaded for game with a powerful neurotoxin which attacks your nervous system causing breakdowns in respiratory, cardiac and muscle functions. In addition, it is not comforting to know that this reptile is perhaps the fastest snake in the world, capable of tearing over rough terrain, holding its head high off the ground and striking at its favorite food, usually small creatures such as other snakes, rodents and birds. The mamba can hunt from a tree perch, too, but it is not a true tree snake.

Everything has its predators, and so does this snake: The Secretary Bird is one, so-named for the feathers sticking out of its crown (Do secretaries still stick pencils in their coiffures?). It roams the veldt with its long legs ready to stomp snakes to death; the mongoose, a champion herp-killer, can also fearlessly take on the mamba.

We have a relative of the mamba here in the Rio Grande Valley, a lethal beauty called the Texas Coral Snake. Although it belongs to the same Elapidae family, which includes the kraits and the cobras, it is a very different animal! You would be lucky to see one. Many of our Valley naturalists have never found one in the wild. You might have to check the fabulous reptile house at the Gladys Porter Zoo.

The coral only averages a bit over two feet long and prefers to burrow into the earth and hide in crevices. When alarmed, it buries its head, shakes its tail and pops its vent!

There is no problem spotting one in the open, however. Spectacular bands of scarlet, yellow and black are features which lead to the cautionary rhyme, "Red and yellow kill a fellow." This helps to distinguish between the coral and the Scarlet Kingsnake, whose red and black bands are adjacent: "Red and black, venom lack."

Even though its venom is twice as deadly as that of the rattlesnake, fatal bites on humans are rare. Most attacks occur when children are attracted to the bright colors and try to handle the snake. Toes and fingers are then targeted. There is a misconception that its small mouth and fangs make it necessary for the coral to part with its venom by chewing, but in reality it can strike rapidly and often. A photographer friend was hammered on his gloved hand three times in the blink of an eye. By the way, you have more than two steps to seek medical help. It used to be called the "twenty-minute" snake. However, twenty-four hours might be your window, depending on how much of a payload is delivered. With that much time you could write your will, call friends, arrange your funeral and do a crossword puzzle. Another thing about the bite is that the pain and swelling can be deceptively mild when compared with other poisons.

One place where you might see this snake is Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. It has even been discovered near the visitor's center, and one was unfortunately, and we hope unintentionally, crunched in the automatic door several years ago.

Here is a South Texas legend: An illegal alien traveling through the Falfurrias brushland was bitten by a coral and angrily bit off its head! With his teeth, he stripped the snake's skin and wrapped it around his upper arm as a tourniquet. He struggled to the highway, flagged down a Border Patrol vehicle and was taken to the hospital. His recovery enabled him to be returned to Mexico.

Like most animals, all that these beauties desire is to be left alone. Appreciate but don't approach. That is a good maxim when dealing with many things in the natural world.

Saturday, August 24, 2002

Nature Encounters
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, August 24, 2002, © 2004

"I have learned to look on Nature, not as in the hour of thoughtless youth, but
hearing oftentimes the still, sad music of humanity."

-- William Wordsworth

Remember the first moment when an eagle planed across your field of vision? Or when a big buck stepped out of the shadows into the fading light? Or maybe it was a whale breaching in the Gulf of Maine with the sun highlighting the rivers running down its sides? These are the events we call "encounters with nature.''

There are other such moments just as moving but very, very different. On one Santa Ana morning my wife Sharron and I were birding the trail to Willow Lake under drooping Spanish Moss and sun-scattering Hackberry and Cedar Elm. Great Kiskadees and Plain Chachalacas were racketing a counterpoint in their usual way. It's an easy trail where we volunteer for monthly bird walks. Like most Rio Grande Valley hotspots, anything is possible for birders.

We barely heard the approaching footsteps. Turning, we saw him - an elderly man walking only a bit unsteadily. As he neared, bright butterflies flicked away from him, the malachite-winged and the zebra-striped. It was not his presence that was so unusual; all ages visit the refuge to view the subtropical life: jays clothed in lemon, lime and blue; orioles brushed with flame; rosetted wild cats; and coral blooms lit with hummingbirds' emerald fire.

The thing that made us look was what he carried in his hand...we were used to seeing lens-heavy cameras and binoculars slung about necks or scopes and tripods riding shoulders. Instead, it was a framed portrait of a young woman, done in the older style. He did not clasp it to his chest as others might but held it slightly before him like an offering.

Since a friendly greeting such as "What have you seen?" is customary on the trail, it seemed appropriate to say the least we could. "Hello." There was no response, and he seemed to look beyond us into another time - but with clear eyes and no surface sadness, or any other emotion for that matter. There was only a quietness, even a serenity.

Who was she, sharing this place? A wife, mother, sister, daughter? Had they strolled here together long ago? Was it a regular visit or a one-time vacation outing? What memory was he holding?

There was birdsong, watersound, treesound and the warm air. As we watched him circle back from the water's edge, a quiet flock of large white birds drifted onto Willow Lake.

We stayed there for only a moment. Together. There were other wonders to see.

The mind holds its great reservoir, and much, much later, memories come unbidden to the surface. We recalled what occurred on that trail... finally. It had been a rare and moving experience. There are many ways to think about its meaning... we do know that Wordsworth was right.

And that there are different ways of sharing. It was an encounter in Nature.

Friday, August 23, 2002

Perils Of The Mutual Life List
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, August , 2002, © 2004

"Did you see it?" "No, it flew just as I got my binoculars on it!"

My wife Sharron and I often have this exchange when we encounter a "Life Bird." Most people know this is the term for a species which you are seeing for the first time, one you can add to your Life List. It's somewhat like checking off countries when you travel, collecting autographs of movie stars and athletes, or playing different golf courses around the world. Very early we discovered a common interest in these beautiful and mysterious creatures, thanks to parents who encouraged a love of nature. We began birding, or birdwatching, as the sport was once called, agreeing to have a mutual life list instead of competing. In other words, we both have to see the bird and its best field marks in order to count it. I have to say that we have many other things in common, although there are exceptions. She doesn't like science fiction. I am not interested in playing bridge. We have continued to bird for almost 40 years of sharing some great experiences in nature.

However, these rules of the game have led to moments of panic and desperation...what every marriage needs, of course. One of the early examples occurred in the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia, a haunting place of quaking land and lush scenery. From the car, I spotted our first Summer Tanager whisking down a dark trail of jungle-like vegetation. "I didn't see it," she lamented. "Go get it!" I barked, and she disappeared from view. Returning a minute later, she wore an expression I had seen before. There was something wrong. Through her gritted teeth came, "Yes, I saw it, but I had to crawl over a sign that said, 'Trail closed...poisonous snakes!' "

But we got the bird.

On another trip, while driving the picturesque roads of Marin County north of San Francisco, I glimpsed a dark vision in a roadside bush. A lifer! A Black Phoebe. "I missed it," she said. I pulled into a side road, and she got out and followed my directions toward the bird. Abruptly she dropped to one knee! I thought, "She's going to pray for it." Then I realized that she had gone through a wider-than-usual cattleguard up to her hip! Extraction was not easy, but she made it, and a daily ice pack enabled us to finish what was a long and enjoyable trip. It could have been a disaster.

But we got the bird.

At this point I should stress that she often sees the quarry first. Her acute hearing is an advantage: she can detect the chip note of a warbler before the bird hears itself. I also remember her sightng a tiny five-inch Elf Owl in a tree in southeastern Arizona as darkness fell, beating the professional tour leaders to the call. In another instance, she was the first in a small group of birders to spot the exotic Black-tailed Gull which had been reproted at the Brownsville landfill. It was in a shallow pool right in front of us 30 feet away. We had just overlooked it. After it flew, I had to resort to scoping it in a swirling mass of other gulls.

Then there was the ultimate crisis concerning our 600th species. It was during a trip on Monterey Bay. The surface was gently rippling. There was no storm in sight, and we were in a fifty-foot pelagic tour boat. Usually, Sharron does not get seasick, having been raised by a fisherman father from the big lakes of Michigan. Ah, but she was intimidated by the warnings of the guide and swallowed Dramamine. It made her very ill...and groggy. That was when the milestone of birding appeared --- a Rhinoceros Auklet gracing the current. This was the BIG moment. I gently but firmly shook Sharron's head as it hung there next to me. She lifted up like a boxer coming to on a 9-count, weakly raised her binoculars and aimed in the general direction. She saw it and sagged back to sleep.

But we got the bird.

Sometimes it's my turn. We were being driven around Montana's wonderful Gallatin Valley searching for new grassland birds. I was in the passenger seat, and Sharron was right behind me in the back. We came upon a pond decorated by a striking pair of Cinnamon Teals, our first. Bang! I found myself pushed forward with my nose against the dashboard as she bolted from the car. I can only guess she did not want to be accused of saying again, "I didn't see it!"

I confess that these were rare events in all the years we have been together. Most of the time we see target birds at the same time. I don't mean to disparage competitive arrangements, because they can be fun, but if you and your mate-for-life would like to have a mutual life list, I might say, "the couple that birds together"......but I won't. That would be corny....just avoid cattleguards.

Saturday, August 17, 2002

Wild Trees I Have Known
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, August , 2002, © 2004

One of my favorite childhood books was naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton's "Wild Animals I Have Known." I was dazzled by his knowledge and interaction with such creatures as Lobo, King of the Currumpaw, a southwestern wolf. Even though he participated in the hunt for this marauder, he reflected a sympathy and humane regard for him and other animals with which he came in contact. The book stirred my interest in the natural world to the point that I wanted to be a naturalist also.

Recently, I was thinking that this interaction can apply to trees. Our "nostalgia database" is packed with memories of the trees we have known and loved. For example, in the backyard of the first house I remember, there was a Box Elder, one of the maples. It became my favorite place to climb; you know how that higher view of the world is essential for growing up. One could do worse than be a climber of Box Elders, to paraphrase Robert Frost. I also loved to watch the winged seeds helicopter slowly to the earth stimulating my further interest in living things and how they grow.

Later in life, another important tree was the Eastern White Pine. Over a 100 years ago the robber lumber barons denuded the Michigan forests by taking enough pines to cover, theoretically, the entire state with one-inch boards. Only a couple of virgin stands remain. One day, my wife Sharron and I visited one of them called Hartwick Pines to see a nesting pair of Bald Eagles. I was driving a convertible with the top down. Passing the immense trees, We looked up and with binoculars watched a dot against the clouds bloom into a plunging eagle ...stooping straight for the car. We anticipated the "attack" like doomed rabbits. Of course, we knew the bird had no interest in us as prey, and he spread his wings, leveled into a glide, and landed on a bare branch displacing another eagle. One could identify with a rabbit, however.

Another wild tree I have known is the ancient sugar maple that looms outside the living room windows at our home in the northern Michigan woods. It is multi-branched, gnarled and seamed as these venerable trees can be. We have observed in its arms countless creatures over the years. They vary from a Cerulean Warbler out of range to common mammals like Raccoons. Up its gray branches in the spring scamper the baby coons. They begin as mere furballs just learning to climb; they look frightened and fall all over one another.. However, by the time summer saunters on, they are as acrobatic as the members of Cirque du Soleil. At night, we watch the delightful Eastern Flying Squirrels as they paraglide en route to our sunflower feeders. hey are all eyes, soft fur and quicksilver. Our old maple is a welcoming host.

That brings us to the Valley. South Texas is shaded by unusal trees: Sugar Hackberry, Rio Grande Ash, Anacua, Mexican Olive, Cedar Elm, Live Oak, Sabal Palm, Texas Ebony, et al. Even the thorns of many trees and shrubs are interesting. I have a fondness for the Honey Mesquite. Though it is a bane to some, you have to appreciate the beauty of those writhing trunks and branches and the light green glow of the lacy leaves. Another reason to like this species would be the numbers of birds and other living things that perch, nest and prey from its protective and convenient limbs. Driving down here on 77 or 281 it is a treat to see the White-tailed Hawks, White-tailed Kites and Crested Caracaras perched in mesquites. Owls love the tree for cover day and night. Orioles swing their baskets from them. Woodpeckers drum on them. Butterflies dance in their leaves. Cooks smoke with them. And because of their grain and durability, woodworkers use them for furniture, bowls, and many other wood projects. Some parts are even edible.

I have come to the end without quoting Joyce Kilmer's sentimental poem...till now: "I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a........" You may finish if you want.

Sunday, August 11, 2002

Gardening With Native Plants
Carol Cullar, Eagle Pass News Guide, August 11, 2002, © 2002, 2003

Scientists have just announced that this has been the hottest century/decade/year we have had in the last 800 years or so; and debate rages over hot issues like global warming, greenhouse effects in the atmosphere, El Nino weather patterns, and holes in the ozone. Other researchers have found a river of fresh water beneath the Atlantic Ocean flowing off the melting polar icecap and expect this to disrupt the Gulf Stream, plunging North America into a mini-ice age. Most of us would just like to live a peaceful life and as the ancient philosophers advocated, simply tend our garden.

Despite recent rains, drought in the Southwest is now being compared with that of the early 50s and covers about one fourth of the nation, while tension and frustration over water and water allotments and water debts between the U. S. and Mexico continue to rise.

The Rio Grande is a limited water source, and as populations and water usage increases in the region, alternative water sources will be required, which in turn will involve passing increased service costs on to the consumer. That's inevitable. But what if we break the chain and, rather than increasing our water demands, begin to find alternatives? Some of those options can really be attractive and don't even involve showering with friends!

One of the most productive means of conserving water is gardening with native plants. Once it has established its extensive root system, then a genuinely native plant is on its own and can be relied on to grow, blossom and bear fruit without large expenditures on upkeep or water.

The trick is identifying a "native plant!" Despite the very best intentions of gardening centers and commercial nurseries in the region, there is a caveat emptor, a buyer beware, that should be noted: the "native" label on a tag at a nursery ONLY means native to Texas! Native to Maverick County is, well, a rose of another color!

Texas is generally divided into nine biotic regions based on rainfall, soil types, and regional vegetation. Maverick County sits at the extreme north edge of the South Texas (Tamaulipan Biotic Province) division and shares characteristic vegetation with regions to the west (Chihuahua Desert) and north east (Hill Country.) We are in Zone Nine when it comes to frost periods.

Within the County are regions with little topsoil and primarily limestone, caliche soils. Other regions are given over to sandy clay river bottoms in the vegas. Gardeners need to consider their location before selecting trees and shrubs better suited to the vega and vice versa. Sycamore, pecan, cottonwood are ideal trees for the sandy lowlands. Up on the bluffs overlooking the river, the Texas or Mexican persimmon is better suited and will grow beautifully when planted singly or in a small grove. Other ideal trees/shrubs for Maverick County are Texas ebony (Pithecellobium ebano), retama (Parkensonia aculeata), Texas paloverde (Cercidium texanum), Border paloverde (Cercidium macrum), and huisache (Acacia farnesiana), as well as numerous other varieties of acacia, hackberry, and mesquite.

It is generally recommended that tree and shrub planting be done in December and root systems for these plants be given a two year period of generous watering in the form of deep soakings to get them started. After that they are hardy to long dry periods.

Ideal shrubs that are rarely utilized are the Calderona (Krameria ramosissima), Allthorn (Koeberlinia spinosa), Blackbrush acacia (Acacia rigidula), Guajillo (Acacia berlandieri), and my personal favorite, Guayacan (Guaiacum angustifolium). Guayacan flowers between March and April with lilac to purple flowers and forms interesting seed pods containing two large red seeds. Its dramatic branches are dark, stark and leaved close to the bark, creating bold silhouettes against light walls.

The bonus one receives for planting native plants is the increase in nesting birds and wandering butterflies attracted to their blooms and branches

Gardening for scent can also create pleasant spaces for humans and wildlife alike. Cresote (Larrea tridentate) is particularly redolent, flowering through August with yellow flowers and thriving on the limestone soils away from the river.

For more showy flowers and hundreds of butterflies, the blue boneset or mistflower (Eupatorium coelestinum), is a must.

Further examples of South Texas plants can be found in Trees, Shrubs & Cacti of South Texas by James H. Everitt and D. Lynn Drawe. Butterfly gardening or gardening for hummingbirds are also topics upon which large amounts of information can be found on the internet.

In a later article the Nature Center will deal with perennial flowering plants that take little water to thrive in this region and should be planted in the fall or late winter.

Friday, August 02, 2002

Animal Names & Football
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, August 2, 2002, © 2004

Bobcats. Javelinas. Horned Frogs. Mustangs. Broncs. Longhorns.

The names of Texas animals are popular for our high school and college sports teams, because they have dramatic and historic connotations. They evoke emotions and represent spirit, power and courage, giving announcers and columnists opportunities to say things like, "The Mustangs are thundering down the field," or "The Bobcats are ripping up the opposition!" Even Horned Frogs, really Texas Horned Lizards, are beloved. It might be because they emit blood from their eyes when alarmed. (Rather like lining up against a guard with glaring bloodshot eyes.)

However, we have what might seem at first to be a strange nickname here in the Valley. Do you wonder why the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Memorial teams are labelled the Wolverines? These mammals have never been within 1000 miles of South Texas. Yet this was an appropriate choice. Coming from the Wolverine State of Michigan, I have a natural appreciation of this selection. The University of Michigan Wolverines are my favorite team. Go, Blue!

Well then, what are the qualities that might have motivated the school to choose this fascinating animal? It is the largest North American representative of its family, the Mustelidae, which includes the weasel...but don't let that put you off. Remember that the marvelous mink is also part of the family. Wolverines can reach about 70 pounds and over three feet in length. For their size, they are among the world's strongest animals. They do prey on smaller creatures, even eating eggs, but they are renowned for pulling down others five times their size, such as caribou, elk and deer...rather like tackling a 250-pound fullback. They hunt quietly, swiftly and tirelessly pursuing quarry at a steady, loping gallop even in deep snow thanks to their large padded feet. They have been known to run at speeds of 15 miles per hour for an hour...TD! Swimming and climbing trees are part of their skills. Not surprisingly, wolverines can drive wolves, cougars and even bears away from a carcass. This stamina galore and boundless courage make them a formidable animal.

Wolverines are also handsome, treasured for their luxuriant dark brown fur decorated with a lighter stripe on each side. This pelt is treasured by trappers for its frost resistant qualities in lining parkas and coats. As a result of this market and the fact that they will raid traps for food, they are declining from their range across the northern latitudes of the world. Breeding only once every two years does not help maintain their population either.

They prefer timber country, the taga, but survive on the tundra, too. They can tolerate the worst weather. Oddly, they probably never inhabited Michigan, but the appellation came from skins brought in from Canada by the fur traders.

If you want to read about the Wolverine, try the fictionalized book "Carcajou" by the nature writer Rutherford Montgomery. Carcajou is the French-Canadian name for the animal. The main character is a wolverine in deadly conflict with a wily human.

I have not mentioned the negative qualities of the subject, and there are several, but no animal is perfect. Many teams are named after less qualified creatures. In the Wolverine you have beauty, speed, power and perseverance. What more could fans want, and besides, they are mostly nocturnal...Friday night football!