The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Monday, March 31, 2003

Original Author's Statement and Guidelines

tony gallucci
march 2003

Update: This has been edited to reflect the move to this site.


I am sending this email out to writers nominated for inclusion on the week-old Nature Writers of Texas website. While several of you are familiar with this project already, and some have already sent materials, please bear with me while I explain this to the several who probably have no idea what this is about. I will also beg all of you to read completely through this email, because even if you don't want to participate there will be information of importance to you here.
In early March [2003], Midland nature columnist Burr Williams broached two subjects in an email to the Texas Birds listserv. One was the idea that a separate listserv or group of Nature Columnists/Writers might benefit from shared insight. The second was that a communal website where writers could place their more current columns and archive past ones might be a valuable addition: collecting the various works at a central location where naturalists, birders and people who just enjoy reading about nature might be enriched by the writerly resources of our state.

Burr is handling the group idea. Meanwhile, I volunteered to do the website. My doing so came about for several reasons -- one, I used to be a nature columnist (and a fulltime reporter for that matter); and secondly, I already "own" and maintain about 30 websites and so have some "expertise" (although more about that later) in doing these things, and access to a free host server with 100megs of space [now unlimited blog space]. It took little time to get a website going, and already 10 folks have contributed in some way to the site, with others letting me know material is on the way.

The "clientele" of TexBirds quickly nominated 22 writer/columnists they thought were deserving of inclusion, and others have been added since. Not that it takes that, necessarily, to be on here, but that's where it started, and so far all of the nominations have originated there. I am still trying to contact Richard Moore, Julius Knebel and Shannon Tompkins -- if any of you have email addresses for those folks, please pass them on to me, and i'll send them this email [some since contacted].

Now for those of you who have not already responded, and those who are just now finding out about this: This site is already online and it has a set of pages with YOUR NAME on it. I'd ask you to continue reading to the end, maybe check out the site some, etc., BUT if you already know you want no part of this, just reply to this message saying TAKE ME OFFA THERE, and I'll have you off within a few hours (I need a little sleep!). Again I'd ask that you take this for a test drive first before making a decision.

I have to admit straight up that I made some subjective and arbitrary decisions about the website in putting it online. However, when i did so I thought I was just developing an idea. So far, the site design has been accepted by everyone that has corresponded about it (there are some issues I'll deal with later). So I guess we're here by acclamation until the "group" decides differently.

In any case, everyone on this list was set up with a personal page (for a photo if you'd like, and a bio, contact info if you wish, and links to your article pages), a separate page for your current article or one you choose, and an archive page for past articles.

If you cruise the site you will already notice a couple of variations on that theme. Ro Wauer had a number of book reviews, separate from his columns, which I thought were wonderful, so I set up a separate page for him for those [now handled differently]. I can do the same for anyone else who has something "different" like that (perhaps feature articles, or a page advertising books you have published; after all the idea is to showcase writers too). Two writers have obligations with other sites that republish their pieces so we used the personal pages to provide links to the other sites so everyone can access their columns though they won't actually appear on our site.

Having worked on a newspaper myself I fully understand the obligations there. I already know some folks receiving this message have all or some of their articles archived by the newspaper online. We'd really like to reprint your articles here, but if we can't (because you'd rather not, or because the paper won't release copyrights, etc.) we'd at least like a bio and the ability to link to your current pieces and archives, if you'll agree to it. P.S. getting your copyrights back often involves simply asking for them. I did that automatically when I left my last paper job and it was as simple as getting a letter from the editor (AP papers, or syndicated pieces may be a little more difficult, but attainable if you want it done I think).

We can always provide as little or as much information as you would like.

You'll notice that one of the articles, appears on both a "current" page and on a page I've labelled "Feature" column [no longer handled this way -- current articles by any writer are always on or near the top]. Just a way, I thought, to highlight a writer. My idea was to change the feature article weekly and to do so by a constant rotation of authors (so that everyone is featured before we begin again).

Many great suggestions came from both the "group" who have participated so far, and even from TexBirds readers who aren't columnists. Carol Cullar, in particular, provided a host of wonderful ideas. Some of these things are in place -- Carol's idea of putting contact info in the sidebar under the author's picture for instance, and Ro Wauer's idea of a site search engine (which I'd never done before, and is a monster job to initiate, and to keep current for that matter; nevertheless one's in place and let's hope it works) [the sidebar is moot now; the blog search engine is much improved over the earlier version]. Some authors have already requested that we not add contact information and that's an easy request to honor. If you do want contact info, I'm smart enough to not display the entire address (so that web-crawlers can't add you to their spam lists).

There are some suggestions I haven't acted on yet. Some of those because, as a webmaster and a longtime editor, I value the stylistic integrity of a site and want some consistency (especially in simple things like design placement, font types, formatting, site-mapping, etc.). Some of the things I did not put in place have simply to do with my idea that some things may be better left as "group" decisions, and I plan to wait to see if a group forms, and if so, if they want to set some specific formats for me to follow. In the absence of that, these may eventually become editorial types of things (with author input).

Let me explain a little about the site set up, the snafus, and the possible solutions. I have all these sites up because they're free and they're easy. I use a Trellix Sitebuilder web-authoring program on FortuneCity's server. I like it because it's unbelievably simple, flexible enough for me to make it graphically exciting, and MOST OF ALL because I don't have to know or write any code to put it up. It's fast too. Since May of last year I've put up over 10,000 photographs on 12 of my sites, about 800 of butterflies and insects for instance on my 5 Fauna and Flora of Kerr and Trinity County sites.

Now, what does all this mean to you. Well, what it mostly means is that for as long as you're stuck with me, you're also stuck with this program and the server it goes on. That's because of my lack of skill at writing code (which, frankly I have no need, incentive, desire, or time to learn -- not to mention that it would vastly expand the number of things I'd volunteer for).

The downside of this is, as some folks have already determined, you get banner ads on the site (though they're not TOO terrible), and worse, pop-ups (some of which are thoroughly obnoxious -- for instance the Xupiter and Weatherwatch programs). The pop-ups you can click out of, but you're gonna get more than one. For anyone interested i can direct you to a popup killer software program (for about $20) that takes this headache away [banner ads and popups are no longer an issue].

We are working on attaching a professional domain name to the site, which also will do away with the ads. The process is not simple, and will require money, which have not figured out how to raise.

Other sites are also a possibility, but . . . [this is allmoot now]

The banners and pop-ups of course are the means by which the server pays for allowing us free server space. If we had to pay for that 100Megs of space I think we're looking at a minimum of $100 per year (there are other fees to consider as well). We could pay less, but get less space. We could do it with less space, but where we'd sacrifice would be in pictures mostly, and secondarily in archives.

Now the domain name may not be all that necessary. I have already registered an alternate name that will appear on the site that I think will do right fine. It will add a popup on opening as well, another price to pay. The domain I have registered is or in your URL space it would be also works, though I think it's more unwieldy. [this has changed to]

In actuality that name is only a mask for the name most of you already have, which is: which still works perfectly fine, and if you'll save the site in favorites that way you'll get one less popup. But I think the name we ought to put out there to the public is the address. It ought to be much easier to remember. [this is moot]

Now, when/if it comes time that: a) someone with the higher skill level and expertise volunteers; or b) the "group" decides to go to a code-based site; I'll gladly turn the site over. It will require paying a host for the space ($ based on megs used), paying for both the domain name itself and maintenance of the rights (sometimes done by the server host, but more $), and possibly hiring someone to write the code and set up the site, which requires more than just a simple set up job and occasional tweaks -- it requires posting several to many new articles on a weekly basis (all more $). Those are just things to consider if and when the group decides to go biggertime. [although this is still a possibility, in two and a half years no one has volunteered, and the issues which would make it a priority are now non-issues]

Finally, let me address the nuts and bolts of sending materials. I'm going to insist that all pictures and large files be sent to this address I am writing to you from ( -- which is reserved for this website). My personal email account fills hourly with much important mail (I have several non-bird lives), and one large picture will (has) completed wiped out my account. I suspect some things have already been kicked back for the same reason. If I stay alert with this Swallowtail account that should never be a problem.

I think pictures of the authors would be great. Also note that Carol has sent a picture with her column, and I've added some to Terry Maxwell's article. Those too are most welcome, though I may not be able to archive them for long, depending on space.

If you send pictures please send jpegs if at all possible. It simply helps me avoid time manipulating the image. Also, the ideal size, if you are capable of resizing them, is 2 inches wide at 300 dpi (with the dpi more important than the width). At that size i can resize without losing quality, and they are not so large as to flood the email. Try not to send lower resolution pictures as they tend to pixilate or come up with reduced color repertoires if you do. If you have other types (gif, tiff, bmp, bitmap) or sizes of pictures, you can email me for instructions. Super large pictures may get kicked back altogether. And remember to send them to the Swallowtail email.

We already have a wide range of article reprinting situations in place. My concept was that this was a review, where published articles were reprinted for the benefit of a larger audience -- a sort of Reader's Digest of Texas nature writers. I already have one syndicated writer who is sending me things in advance at the same time they are delivered to other publications. It matters not here. I'll simply put the most recent on the current column page and bump the last one to archives, unless you tell me different [the placement is now a non-issue].

For the archives I can simply start with the first thing you send when it gets bumped or, if you'd like, you can send me as many back columns as you wish to be archived. I will decide on a page by page basis when to split archive pages, perhaps monthly or seasonally. You might even want to provide only a "selection" of what you deem to be your best pieces. Whatever. [this is now a non-issue]

When you send me articles on a weekly, or regular, basis, they can be sent in the body text of the email. I'd ask that you put spaces between your paragraphs if possible. If not, cut-and-paste runs them together. For submitting large numbers of archive pieces it would be best if you pasted them in a string (in reverse chronological order) in a single Microsoft Word document and send that as an attachment. Alternately (and I know how valuable your time is) you could send each article as a separate attachment. That will take me a bit longer to get everything posted, but will work fine. And the first initial burst of archiving from everyone should be all there is.

Those of you who have archived pieces already online through your paper, AND who want to reprint on this site, need not send me anything. Simply direct me to your archive, tell me which (or all) articles to archive and I'll grab them straight from there.

A bio would be most nice. I think many people access sites like these as much to learn about the writer as the subject. It also makes for a nice online bio in case someone wants to know more about you anyway (and of course, once this is Googled, your page will come up on searches of your name). Please also let me know the correct name and spelling of your paper (all of them if you syndicate or publish in more than one). And please put the publication date of the article on each one so I can post it with the article. Please, somewhere in your first submission indicate for me the region you would like to be associated with if you want to be regionally identified [this has never been followed much].

My server will not allow any movie files (such as AVI, MPEG or Quicktime), sound files (such as WAV, CDA or MP3) or document retrieval files (which are stored only for downloading and not open access). Not that any of those fit our objectives here, but I thought I'd warn in advance.

On a technical basis, your providing these articles implies that we (the "group") are obtaining secondary one-time serial electronic publishing rights (that's not exactly the right term, but I'm dead tired and worse-lazy right now). The idea is that first rights belong to your paper, and that we are republishing "once", if on a permanent basis. The obtaining of "one-time" rights explicitly means that once published here rights revert to the author; and neither the site, the group, the "officers", the site-owner nor webmaster have any claims whatsoever to any rights to your pieces. We have already noted on the site that rights belong to the authors and their newspapers, and that all permissions for further reprints must be directed to the authors. I would hope that this might be a springboard to someone offering to syndicate or reprint your articles (maybe those magazines that I constantly encounter in my writing life that are looking for specific articles for instance).

I know from being in the "writing world" that it's writers who most know about other writers. There are certainly more writers/columnists out there we haven't heard about yet (in fact I learned of another, thanks to Georgina Schwartz, right before sending this out). Please let me or Burr know of these folks so we can add them to the "group".

Well, I'm certain there are other things that need discussing here, but as I said my head is sleepier than my body right now. I hope this at leasts spurs folks to contribute. If not, and you want yourself removed from association here, please let me know. I hope that by the weekend there is nearly full participation and we can go public with it and make a big deal. I have a pretty good distribution network.

Check the site out at:

All my best, tony g

tony gallucci
hunt, kerr county, texas
p.o. box 6
camp verde, texas 78010-5006

Sunday, March 30, 2003

Springtime Birding
Bill Lindemann, Fredericksburg Standard/Radio Post, Kerrville Daily Times, March 2003, © 2003

Enthusiastic birders anticipate spring more than any other time of the year. The northward migration of Neotropic birds from Central and South America makes up the main event during the time period from February to May. An extra bonus for birders is the change in plumage of our wintering birds from the drab non-breeding colors to the more colorful breeding plumages. While we enjoy the change of our weather to warmer days, the change is not critical to our enjoyment of the migration parade.

The first of the migrants to arrive in Central Texas are generally the Purple Martins; the first arrivals this year I know of came on January 15 to houses managed by Glenn Thompson of Fredericksburg. He told me that these early birds survived our very cold mid-February weather period. The martins and their cousins, the Cliff and Barn swallows are presently streaming into our area by the thousands. Check local bridges, buildings and cliff faces for these swallows.

Another early migrant is the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler. They, like the Purple Martins, come early and leave early, usually by mid-July to early August. I do not know of active nesting sites in Gillespie County, but golden cheeks are known to nest in deep wet canyons in Kerr and Bandera counties that feature a mixture of old juniper trees and oaks. Try Lost Maples State Recreation Area near Vanderpool for these warblers.

The bird I most eagerly anticipate each spring is the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Late March and early April is their expected arrival time. Along with them come their flycatcher relatives, the Ash-throated Flycatchers and Western Kingbirds. Look for yellow plumages on these gray flycatchers, while the scissortails will flash their reddish orange under wing colors. Flycatchers are noisy creatures, so you might hear them before you see them.

Hummingbirds are other spring migrants welcomed by all of those folks who diligently feed them during the summer months. The Black-chinned males have been here for about a week now and soon their mates will be arriving. Also look for the spectacular red- throated hummingbirds - the Ruby-throated and Broad-tailed hummingbirds. The latter is identified by a high pitched whistle emitted by the male's wing feathers. If you haven't put your feeders out, please do so asap.

I mentioned the winter residents changing their plumage colors; the American Goldfinch is my favorite of this group. I justify my winter feeding bill by hoping they will stay around long enough to change from their olive drab winter plumage to their bright yellow, black and white breeding plumage. The common Yellow-rumped Warbler also changes from drab colors to dark contrasting yellow, black and white colors and patterns.

The ducks, hawks and sparrows will soon be leaving, but they overlap sufficiently long to be included in spring birding trip counts. Be sure to check flocks of Sandhill Cranes for any white companions - they could be Whooping Cranes. It is that marvelous time when both the expected and unexpected birds might appear. Be vigilant.

Photo by Mary Curry

Birds and Beyond
Summer Hummers
Claire Curry, March 2003, Wise County Messenger, © 2003

The big event should be only a few days away. In fact, this annual occurrence fills souls with delight all across the country. What is this phenomenon that causes such eager anticipation? The return of the summer hummingbirds!

Here in Wise County, we have two species of regularly occurring hummers: Ruby-throated and Black-chinned. The familiar Ruby-throated Hummingbird is found throughout the eastern United States in the summer. The male of this species has an iridescent red throat that shimmers from glowing flame-red to brilliant gold. The Black-chinned Hummingbird, more of a southwestern species, has a black chin bordered by a broad, iridescent amethyst band. The females of both species both lack the iridescent throats, and so are almost impossible to tell apart in the field.

As I mentioned above, the hummingbirds usually return here in the third week of March. My hummer feeder is already out in anticipation of their arrival, and you might want to get yours out too. If you are planning on buying or making a hummingbird feeder, I would recommend getting an easy-to-clean one. Mold grows quickly in warm weather in the sugar solution, and bottle-shaped feeders with small necks can be a real pain to clean. For the nectar, a solution of one part sugar and four parts hot or boiling water works well. You don't need to add red food coloring, as the red on your hummingbird feeder should be enough to catch their attention.

Hummer-friendly flowers are also a great way to get these bejeweled birds to visit your yard. Plus, you don't have to refill flowers. A few good plants for hummingbirds include coral honeysuckle, salvia, penstemon, cardinal flower, and trumpet vine. Also, hummingbirds eat many small insects. So, using pesticides on your plants is probably not going to help the hummers.

Once you've got hummingbirds buzzing around your feeders and flowers, you can sit back and watch them fight. Hummingbirds are very territorial little birds, and fight over the prized nectar almost constantly. We've heard their beaks clash and seen them buzzing in an angry ball of feathers. At times you wonder how they ever find time to do anything else. But they do.

Male Ruby-throated and Black-chinned hummingbirds sometimes can be seen arching back and forth, performing a pendulum in an effort to impress the lady hummers. It obviously works at least some of the time, as female hummingbirds lay two pea-sized eggs in an extraordinarily hard-to-see nest. The nest is made of dainty materials such as spider web (the nest stretches as the babies grow), lichen, and plant down.

If you'd like to learn more about these delightful creatures, two interesting hummer websites are and You can also find photos and identification tips on our local hummers on / in the Wise County List section. So, get ready to enjoy a summer of hummers!

Naturally Texas
Black-chinned Hummingbirds Return
Terry Maxwell, March 30, 2003, San Angelo Standard Times, © 2003

The Hopi, who regard them as Kachina spirits, call them "Tocha", and they have returned to the Concho Valley as well as most of western Texas by now. They are, of course, hummingbirds. In particular, out here on the western Edwards Plateau and Rolling Plains, they are black-chinned hummingbirds (Archilochus alexandri).

I spoke recently with Joann Brown of the famous Hummer House in Christoval, and there the black-chins were back by about March 8. Cindy Burkhalter, whose family feeds great numbers of hummers along Dove Creek reports that the hummers returned about two weeks back.

My assessment is that you may now be a little behind the time if you don't already have your hummingbird feeders out. It may well be that you'll attract them to your feeders whenever you get them out, but it is now, when black-chins are returning, that they establish territories. You're more likely to get them early and keep them for several months if your feeders are out soon.

The black-chinned hummingbird seems to be the forgotten one in the national scope of hummingbird passion. The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummer that nests in the eastern half of our continent, so it deservedly gets most of the press and affection over that way.

Rare, mostly tropical species - admittedly spectacular birds - draw oohs and aahs in the Texas Hill Country and Trans-Pecos Mountains. There, reports of such exotically-named feathered gems as green-breasted mangos, green violet-ears, Lucifer hummingbirds, and violet-crowned hummingbirds draw the attention of enthusiasts.

But I would beg your indulgence now to consider our black-chinned hummingbird. I assure you that its familiarity should not lead to indifference.

Those individuals returning now to the San Angelo region are coming from western Mexico - mostly from the states of Colima, Jalisco, Michoacan, Morelos, Guanajuato, and Nayarit - where they have been since late last fall. Oddly enough, some black-chins winter along the Gulf Coast fromTexas east to the Florida panhandle. This U.S. wintering has been a recently-reported phenomenon (beginning mostly in the 1980s), but whether those birds previously overlooked or are newly wintering there is unknown.

Males typically arrive in spring a week or two earlier and depart earlier after breeding than do females. These migrant black-chins, particularly in fall migration, tend to feed more on insects than flower nectar, unless they encounter sugar water feeders put out by people. And that brings up their diet, a more involved subject than you might have thought.

Black-chinned hummingbirds eat flower nectar and sugar water from feeders (no surprise) but also insects and spiders caught out of the air, picked out of tubular flowers, and gleaned from foliage and spider webs. When you think about it, it only makes sense. Nectar provides energy, but not enough of the lipids and proteins needed by all animals.

Hummingbirds don't actually suck nectar out of a flower or feeder. Their long tongue is grooved. Nectar moves into the tongue grooves by capillary action. The tongue is then pulled back into the bill and nectar squeezed out of it as it's again pushed out the nearly closed bill. The appearance really is a rapid series of licks.

Also, hummingbirds don't necessarily prefer red or orange over other colors, but many plants that have evolved hummingbird-pollinated flowers have those colors because insects are not much attracted to them. Hummingbirds learn that such colored flowers have good stores of nectar and for that reason search them out.

You have undoubtedly noticed your black-chins defending a feeder against other hummers of the same or different species. Artificial feeder defense declines when large numbers of hummers are using the same feeder, but during the middle of the summer females hotly defend feeders against all others that would use the feeder. Males will defend agains other males, but they typically back away from female aggression.

I have one more black-chinned habit to tell you of. No pair bond is formed between males and females. For sure males, but perhaps also females, of this species are promiscuous. Females build the nest, incubate the two eggs, and raise the young, while males are feeding and off chasing other females. This is unusual among birds as a whole since the class exhibits the greatest amount of monogamy among vertebrates.

This could be the most abundant hummingbird in Texas. That, I think however, is no reason for it to have any less appeal. Those Allen's and calliope hummers are good for spicing up a regional bird list, but it's the black-chinned that's there for you to enjoy every day from spring to fall.

Get those feeders up.

The Greenery of Spring is All Around
Ro Wauer, March 30, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

In spite of the daily news, one cannot help but be thrilled by the greenery of spring that has begun to dominate our South Texas landscapes. The bright to subtle green of our fresh foliage is almost overwhelming! The live oaks have begun to produce new leaves, after shoving out last year's brown ones, and the new catkins are producing the constant hum of bees. Bright green leaves are beginning to appear on my redbud, mulberry, hackberry, acacia, and retama trees. Even the honey mesquites are growing new foliage. All this greenery is a sure sign that spring has arrived.

Officially, spring beings with the spring equinox, on March 21. On that day, the earth's axis is at a right angle to the sun so that both poles receive equal illumination from the sun, and therefore the days are of equal length, hence equinox. Spring continues until June 21, the summer solstice, when the earth's axis is at it's greatest angle to the sun, when the noonday sun is directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer, and daylight lasts twenty-four hours north of the Arctic Circle.

Edwin Way Teale, author of "North with the Spring," provides us with an additional perspective: "Spring advances up the United States at the average of about fifteen miles a day... It sweeps ahead like a flood of water, racing down the long valleys, creeping up hillsides in a rising tide. Most of us, like the man who lives on the bank of a river and watches the stream flow by, see only one phase of the movement of spring. Each year the season advances toward us out of the south, sweeps around us, goes flooding away into the north."

It is the fresh greenery and the anticipation of new life that is most appealing. More than any other time of year, one can wander along a quite roadside or on a woodland trail and experience, up close and personal, the rebirth of the abundant plant life that has been dormant for months. Then is when it is possible to better understand the interrelationships of the earth and sunlight. It was John Muir that wrote: "In every walk with nature one receives far more than he sees."

But, what is that special metaphorical effect of spring that appeals to us so much? Perhaps, Loren Eiseley hinted at it when he wrote: "Once in a lifetime, if one is lucky, one so emerges with sunshine and air and running water that whole eons pass in a single afternoon without notice." Perhaps, it is the greenery itself, the green leaf pigment called chlorophyll, the one link between the sun and life, the conduit of perpetual energy to our own frail organism.

Plants, after all, are the key organisms on which the development of all other forms of life depends. It is the chlorophyll, that produces starch from the complex molecules of carbohydrates and proteins, which animals must eat by eating plants or by eating other animals that in turn have eaten plants, that is the basis of our living world. And there is no better time than spring, as we walk among the reawakening of Mother Nature, that the reality of our roots becomes so apparent.

The optimism of spring is everywhere. It is a wonderful time to be alive, to wander outdoors and experience nature at it's best. Promise is all around us, and fulfillment is just ahead. Fresh green leaves, bright new blossoms, birdcalls and songs, spring begins!

Saturday, March 29, 2003

The Tarantula Hawk
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, March 29, 2003, © 2004

Squeamish Alert: Readers who have delicate systems may wish to stop now.

Tarantula Hawks will never be recorded on the Valley's hawk watches. Why not? They are WASPS! On a birding tour in Southeastern Arizona in 1980, we watched wide-eyed as one of these creatures flew very close. It was was was loud. And it distracted us by intimidation from observing a life bird. This insect is a member of the spider wasps in a subfamily called Pepsis. There are hundreds of species of spider wasps in deserts from South America north to Utah. They can inhabit elevations of 4000 feet in the Andes, but usually reside in the arid lowlands. They reach two inches or more in length. Their coloration is a striking metallic blue-black with orange-red wings which warn predators, "You don't want to eat me." Some grasshoppers, moths and flies will mimic this pattern to avoid becoming a meal. You will find the "hawk" wherever tarantulas are present. There is a somewhat gruesome reason for this. They really, really like a living nursery for their young!

Hunting on the ground, they smell out the spider's burrow, yank the dweller out, and when it rises in defense, grab a leg and throw it on its back. Tarantulas usually do not attack in defense, but when they do, the battle may go on for hours. Incidentally, if a spider resists in the lair entrance, the wasp can crush its legs. Next the paralyzing stinger is jabbed into the prey. Now immobilized, the tarantula is hauled back into its burrow where the nightmare begins. The "hawk" lays one egg on the victim's abdomen, and when the larva emerges? A constant, very fresh, living meal. (I warned you, didn't I?)

Although they can avoid this nightmare, humans can be stung by the hawk, but usually only if they handle it. This comes way down on my list of life goals. Thank goodness they won't come at you like a mosquito. I did not know this on that first sighting, however, which can account for the dent in my binoculars when I dropped them. Did you realize that there is actually a rating scale for stinging insects, according to a Web site called DesertUSA? It ranges from one to four for the most excruciating. The hawk is only one of two insects to receive the top rating. The theory is that this power is needed because it spends a lot of tme in the open exposed to predators.

Another odd behavior is that they can go on drunken binges. You see, they are nectar eaters, and the same thing occurs to them that occurs to birds which eat fermented fruit. Nothing worse than an inebriated Tarantula Hawk.

Despite all this, New Mexico has proudly named it the state insect, and there is a South Dakota band named the Tarantula Hawks. They are, indeed, a fascinating, albeit bizarre, story in nature. Hmmmm...I should tell you that they ARE here in the Rio Grande Valley?

The Little Monster
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, March 29, 2003, © 2004

A creature that shoots a stream of blood from its eyes surely must be a monster in a video game. "Help! It is Lord Hemogag --- Zap him!"

Not true! It is real and it is here, the Texas State Reptile, actually: a Texas Horned Lizard. Sports teams borrow its name; advertisers use it in their ads; and, regrettably, people remove it from the wild to keep as a pet. This is a bad idea, because the lizards usually die.

The "Horny Toad" or "Horned Frog" is found statewide except for eastern Texas, and ranges north to Kansas and south into Mexico. There are 13 species in the New World, some of which even give birth to their young instead of laying eggs. The speciesprefers arid and semi-arid regions with sandy and loamy soil for burrowing. You can find them up to 6000 feet, but they really like level terrain with sparse vegetation. A threatened species, their decline is due to the usual reasons: habitat loss, pesticides and the illiegal pet trade.

Despite the fact that it only reaches a length of four inches, this is one mean-looking critter. The body is spiny and fringed beneath. Sweeping from the back of the head are two long horns --- if enlarged many times the little terror could be a dinosaur in a Spielberg movie. To the contrary, this reptile is gentle and harmless.

There are many enemies: dogs, cats, hawks, and other predators. Because of this, it needs to develop certain defensive moves. One is flattening against the earth where its brown to gray coloration blends with the soil. It may also dash a short distance and stop dead, relying on its camouflage to protect it. Another remarkable move can be alarming if you are squeamish. Under stress it increases its blood pressure to the point that blood will squirt from the corners of its eyes. (Ever feel like that?) This is a last resort defense. However, it does not always do this. I have met those who say they have handled them and did not see this phenomenon.

The Horned Lizard's favorite food is the Harvester Ant, although it will eat other insects. The tongue darts out, and the prey is swallowed in one gulp.

This might help you understand a typical horned lizard day:
1. Get up before sunrise.
2. Put your back to the sun.
3. Watch for predators.
4. Warm up your blood vessels.
5. Avoid overheating later in the day...find shade.
6. Hunt and eat Harvest Ants.
7.. Watch for predators.

And for a seasonal agenda:
1. Hibernate from fall to spring.
2. Wake up.
3. Watch for predators.
4. Mate.
5. Watch for predators.
6. Lay up to 45 eggs.
7. Watch 'em hatch.
8. Watch for predators.

There is a Horned Lizard Conservation Society whose Web site details various methods to preserve this little wonder. These include sane pesticide use, elimination of the competitor Fire Ants, wise land measures and control of the illegal pet trade. A great feature is a poignant narrative by the short story writer and Texan, William Sidney Porter, better known as O.Henry. It involves a
young Texas Ranger, a Mexican desperado and a Horned Lizard named Muriel!

The feelings that Texans have for this little lizard are expressed by Channel 5's videographer and journalist Richard Moore: "Horny toads have made quite an impression on me for just about as long as I can remember. Actually, my earliest wildliferecollection is my fascination with this curious animal. When I was a youngster growing up on West Lincoln in Harlingen, I was able to go out my front door and soon find one or two. Rather than take one home and put it in a box, my favorite pastime was to place it near a red ant bed and watch it snap up the juicy quarry. To this day, I remain fond of the little rascals who, despite their inability to elude even a determined youngster, manage somehow to survive in the South Texas wildlands."

Butterflies and Hummingbirds
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, March 29, 2003, © 2004

Mariposas y chuparosas. Butterflies and Hummingbirds. In either Spanish or English, these are poetic and descriptive words, and so are the names of their species.
A scene:
"Come Here!"

The excited cry bursts from the butterfly garden at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.
"It's on the Blue Mist. A Southern Dogface!"

Ah, the naming of butterflies. There must be some Grand Council of Common and Uncommon Appellations striving in a dark-paneled room somewhere to arrive at the most inventive words for these creatures. One of my favorites is GREAT SPANGLED FRITILLARY! If you say it with exuberance, it sounds as if you have just struck oil on your ranch. The subject of the scene above was an easy one to call. On the upper side of its dark forewing is what the yellow image of a dog's face. Other butterflies are challenging and amusing to label for identification.

Of course, there are categories to use as guidelines: color, shape, pattern and behavior. Regarding color, we have the whites, the sulphurs, the blues., et al. One of the latter resides in the Rio Grande Valley, the Western Pygmy Blue, the world's smallest butterfly. If you wish to see a larger, more obvious species, try Trail A at Santa Ana at the right time. A number of Malachites can be a special treat as they flash green wings against a dark chocolate pattern. Their name comes from the mineral, a carbonate of copper. About the size of a Monarch, they seem like large flying emeralds.

Other lovely sights are the Red-bordered Pixies with their red and orange-yellow spots against dark backgrounds; you cannot miss the swallowtails, with streaming hindwings like the bird's tail; or the leafwings, whose imitative shape is for protection against predators; and as for patterns, you have Ringlets, Checkerspots, Pearly Eyes, Broken Silver Drops, Broken Dashes Long Dashes, and Hairstreaks. There is one with the number eighty-eight for a marking. It is called the Eighty-eight! The hordes of American Snouts that hatch out here in the fall have been known to darken the sun...and clog your car radiator. What appears to be a long proboscis, actually palpi, makes them easily identifiable.

Behavior determines some names: Skippers and Skipperlings are known for their erratic flight. There are the Crackers which make such a sound on the wing and the Flashers which flare their colors. Certain habits also determine names. The Harvester is the only carnivorous butterfly, so named because its larva gathers up and eats aphids.

Pure poetic imagery is the criterion for names like Bog Elfin or Frosted Elfin. There is a Painted Lady, along with the American Lady and West Coast Lady...White Admiral, Swarthy Skipper and Red Admiral sound like combatants in a naval battle among several nations. One of my wish-to-see butterflies is the elegant Erato Heliconian. The genus name was the Greek Muse of lyric fitting!

There is a category that makes one wonder, but there have to be good reasons behind the names. Here we have the Fatal Metalmark, the Rusty-tipped Page. and the Confused Cloudywing. Concerning the latter, the confusion results from the variability of the wing spots, making identification a problem.

Let us turn to those feathered dazzlers, the hummingbirds. Here in the Valley, we have resident Buff-bellied, Black-chinned and migrant Rufous and Ruby-throated; these are the common ones, but a great stir among the birding community occurs when Green Violet-ears or Green-breasted Mangos hum up from Mexico to our residential feeders.

There are 400 or so species of this family in Latin America all the way from our border to the southern latitudes of South America. Their names sound like like precious stones or fairyland characters.

There are Sunangels, Sparkling-tailed Woodstars, Little Wood-Satyrs, a Mexican Woodnymph and a Mexican Hermit (sounds like a fairy tale romance)...Sabrewings ( fighter jets, perhaps)... Purple-crowned Fairies ( sprites from the Mexican rainforest)... Golden-crowned Emeralds (there is treasure for you)...Starthroats...Black-crested Coquettes (sounds like dance hall girls from an old Jimmy Stewart western), Green-throated Mountaingems...and Blue-throated Sapphires.

After all of this, it should be clear that the names come from wonderfully creative minds. However, the name is not the creature,. Have you ever just wanted to look at a bird or a flower without labels, without identifying it in a field guide? Knowing the simple, pure enjoyment of the object for itself and taking pleasure in the essence of it? Human beings need to name everything, to tag it with their own language.. Scientifically, it does make sense, because we do need nomenclature in order to seek what is in nature for enjoyment or use. And it does sell field guides!

At any rate, you can enjoy these fluttering miracles with or without a name.... just keep your book handy to appreciate the naming of things.

Sunday, March 23, 2003

Warmer Days Bring on Bats
Ro Wauer, March 23, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Bats are some of our most beneficial creatures! These nighttime fliers appear in South Texas each spring when the temperatures become warm enough for nighttime flying insects. That is when these flying mammals are most appreciated. They have enormous appetites. A single bat colony can consume billions of insects every summer night.

The majority of the bats that we find in our spring and summer skies are migrants, coming north, like the Neotropical bird migrants, each spring. Others remain with us year-round, hibernating in dark, protected locations during the colder winter months. Those hibernating species go into a torpor state during cold weather when their metabolism is much reduced to conserve energy. Their body temperatures drop to just above freezing. But as soon as outdoor temperatures climb back into the 60s and a food supply becomes available, they will awaken and begin their nighttime flights.

A feeding bat is able to capture some of the tiniest of flying insects. They do this by the use of echolocation, high-frequency sounds that they emit in flight. The sound bounces off objects that are then received by the bat that is able to zero in with pinpoint accuracy to capture its prey. This ability, as well as bat's preference for dark locations, suggests that that they are blind. But that assumption is incorrect. Bats are not blind. They can see everything but color, and they can detect obstacles as fine as a human hair.

Another misconception about bats is that the majority carries diseases, including rabies. Although all carnivores (meat-eaters) can contract rabies, bats have the worst reputation. Yet, only 40 U.S. residents are known to have contracted rabies from bats in the past 50 years. To put that into perspective, 900 Americans annually die in bicycle accidents, 150 in accidents caused by deer, 20 from dog attacks, and 18 in lawn mower accidents. Less than one-half of one percent of bats become infected with rabies and these rarely attack humans.

Texas has 32 species of bats, and these flying mammals can be found in every Texas County. But not all of the 32 species occur throughout the state. As might be expected, there are more species in the southern portions of the state, especially in the Big Bend Country and along the Lower Rio Grande Valley area. Only six species are known from the Central Gulf Coast region. Those six species include the eastern red bat, hoary bat, northern yellow bat, evening bat, eastern pipistrelle, and Mexican free-tailed bat.

The eastern red and hoary bats roost in foliage during the daylight hours, flying at night and feeding principally on moths. They also take various beetles, assassin bugs, planthoppers, leafhoppers, and spittlebugs. Northern yellow bats roost overnight in Spanish moss, and they seem to prefer flies, mosquitoes, flying ants, and may even take damselflies and dragonflies.

Evening bats and eastern pipistrelles roost in tree cavities, behind loose bark, in buildings, and in bat houses. A colony of 300 evening bats was documented to consume approximately 63 millions insects per summer, especially spotted cucumber beetles. Pipistrelles usually feed over water and along wooded edges; they can catch an insect every two seconds.

Mexican free-tailed bats are our most numerous species. Free-tails roost in caves, crevices, buildings, bridges, and bat houses. Backen Cave, near San Antonio, hosts about 20 million individuals, considered the largest aggregation of warm-blooded animals on Earth. The species also inhabits numerous other Texas caves, including Eckert James near Mason, Frio near Garner State Park, and Stuart Cave in Kackapoo Cavern State Park. The species also inhabits Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin and Devil's Sinkhole near Bracketville.

Bats are not only extremely beneficial, but also one of our most fascinating creatures. More information on bats can be obtained from a new little, illustrated book, "Texas Bats" by Merlin Tuttle, published by Bat Conservation International, available for $9.95 in most bookstores. You can contact the organization on line at or at P.O. Box 162603, Austin, Tx 78716.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Learning the Birds
By Any Other Name
Ruth Rogers Erickson, March 18, 2003, The Canadian Record, © 2003

It is an irony of Bird World that a number of birds are far more interesting than their names might suggest. The Brown Thrasher is on my list of these.

It's the “brown” in his name, I think, that puts us off - brown sounds pretty boring when used in the name of a bird. A respectable name would have a word like cinnamon, mahogany, coffee, or bronze.

A few of his old nicknames suit him better: the sandy-mocker, the fox-colored thrush, and the red mavis more adequately describe this handsome bird. His back, wings, and tail are a coppery cinnamon, and his underparts are the color of golden sand with dark speckled streaks. He has a pair of surprising yellow eyes that seem lit from within.

Thrashers got their name for several reasons. When they forage on the ground, rifling with their long bills and overturning leaves, there is undeniably a fair amount of thrashing going on.

But there are also many accounts of thrashers acting in defense of nest and young, doling out to their attackers actual thrashings. That sharp bill can be a formidable weapon. An opponent would need a stout heart to stand up to an angry thrasher.

The word “thrush” is often associated with this bird, but mistakenly. Thrushes are birds of the air, and include robins and bluebirds. Thrashers are larger, ground-loving birds, members of the Mimid family, as are mockingbirds and catbirds. Thrush/thrasher confusion is long-established, though, as an old name for the mimid family was mimic thrush.

Like their official mockingbird and catbird kin, brown thrashers have remarkable vocal abilities. Mockingbirds are known for mimicking other birds, reciting long lists of birdsong not their own. Catbirds do this, too, mixing in renditions of croaking frogs, squawking chickens, and as you might expect, cats.

What sets the brown thrasher apart is a propensity for improvisation. Mockingbirds and catbirds, for all their virtuosity, sing their songs the same way every time. A brown thrasher sings a phrase twice or three times, tinkers a bit and sings it again in its slightly altered state. In a single concert, one brown thrasher may sing thousands of different songs.

There are several theories about why mimids sing the way they do. Singing a number of different songs might communicate to a female age, experience, or learning ability. Or it might run off a rival, fooling him into thinking an area is already full of competent males. But what drives a thrasher to continually improvise does not seem clearly understood.

In spring planting season, people say the brown thrasher sings a song of advice and encouragement. The words most often put to the song are “plant-a-seed, plant-a-seed, drop it, drop it, drop-it, cover-it-up.”

If you hear the thrashing of a thrasher in the leaves, or listen to his innovative music from the treetops, remember that a word as forgettable as “brown” may well describe a multitude of virtues.

Sunday, March 16, 2003

What Is A Species Worth?
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, March 2003, © 2004

What is a Green Jay worth?

What would an Ocelot go for on the stock market?
Can you offer a Malachite butterfly on eBay?

Here in the Rio Grande Valley, we often talk about a million dollar bird when a rare species shows up. Birders from all over the country and even the world arrive to see it, spending money on gas, accommodations, food and other miscellany for sustenance during their quests. This might also include medical attention from binocular strain. The world of commerce is delighted. We all are as the enjoyment of nature and its wonders contributes to the economy and the human desire for beauty. People have even been known to move here just for the birding and butterflying. (Yes, we did). Some species have been saved or maintained because of their attractiveness for ecotourism.

However, in the ideal dream world, some might prefer to think of the pure value of experience. The respected naturalist E.O. Wilson said that "evaluating a species solely by practical value is business accounting in the service of barbarism." Is it somehow crass to regard nature in financial terms? It may be enough merely to look. If you see an Altamira Oriole, do you think of dollar bills? Watch a child's eyes observing a Painted Bunting for the first time, Then the overused word "Wow!" goes beyond even the descriptive power of the great poets.

What is a species worth? It is worth much more than its weight in joy.

Consider an additional offshoot of the basic question. There is another worth beyond pure pleasure and commerce which has its own nobility. "Biodiversity engenders productivity," it is said. To rephrase this: the greater the number of species that exist together, the more stable the ecosystem. Some scientists predict that in 30 years one-half of all the plant and animal species could be extinct. Those who disagree may still mantain a membership in the Flat Earth Society, along with global warming skeptics. Experts say that all 17 oceanic fisheries are at or below sustainable levels. No great improvement is possible!

Think in terms of the world's food supply. Ninety percent comes from only 100 species out of a quarter of a million. Twenty species carry most of the production load, and the big three are rice, maize and wheat. Out there in the rainforest, jungle, marsh or savannah there are 30,000 more potential plant sources of food, 10,000 of which are suitable for domestication.

Why do we need biodiversity? Why should we save an endangered species? Some people who still have the mentality of the l9th Century continue to ask this question. We need to see a Bengal Tiger and we need a bowl of rice. There is nourishment in both.

What is a species worth? Well, we know even the annoying and disease-toting mosquito has been discovered to pollinate flowers in the Arctic summer, and recently we have been told that a protein in Vampire Bat saliva can affect stroke-causing blood clots!

And somewhere out there in a lively and verdant land threatened by development, hidden under twisting vines, there may grow a fungus that cures a dread disease...or alters the environmental short-sightedness of politicians.

Hill Country Woodpeckers
Bill Lindemann, Fredericksburg Standard/Radio Post, Kerrville Daily Times, March 2003, © 2003

I have had a number of recent inquiries about our woodpeckers and some of their tactics which can be annoying to some home owners. We have two common species of woodpeckers who permanently reside here and equal number of common woodpeckers who spend only the winter months with us.

Let's start with our two common permanent residents, the smaller Ladder-backed and the larger Golden-fronted woodpeckers. The barred backs gave one of them its name, "ladder-backed." Both of theses species have a preference for drier habitats, feeling very much at home in mesquite and oak woodlands. Most male woodpeckers have some red on their heads, and in the case of the Golden-fronted, a red orange cap with golden yellow on his forehead and nape.

Both of these species dig holes in dead tree limbs. The Golden-fronted often carries his penchant for cavity construction to telephone and high power line poles; a habit which does not make him popular with the electrical companies. Equipped with chisel-like bills, these birds penetrate mainly dead wood to search for ants and beetle larva, their main food sources. Their abandoned cavities are also used as nesting sites, including several other non-woodpecker species, such as bluebirds, flycatchers and titmice.

When these birds are in the neighborhood, it is difficult to not hear their noisy calls and hammering exercises. The Ladder-backed Woodpecker has a distinctive squeaky "whinnying" call, while the Golden-fronted makes a ratcheting-like sound and series of cackling 'kek-kek" calls. Both species come to my suet feeder; the golden-fronted will also carry off sunflower seeds to store for another day's meal.

Our winter residents are the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and the Northern Flicker. The former's name is often used in cartoons to poke fun at birders and their pastime. Many people are surprised to learn that there really is a bird with that name, but his name adequately describes his plumage and his use of tree sap as food and a trap for catching insects. Besides their yellow bellies, sapsuckers have a distinctive white bar on their wings. If you have ever noticed a pattern of equally spaced holes on smooth barked trees, it is the work of this woodpecker.

Flickers in the Hill Country come in two forms, a yellow-shafted (eastern) and a red-shafted (western) When flying the bird's under sides of the wing feather shafts will show either yellow or red. I am pleased to have one of each bird roosting in a building on my place. Both forms have a black bib, spotted breasts and white rump patches. The males have common red nape patches, but differ with different colored "mustache" stripes - black in the yellow-shafted and red in the red-shafted forms.

Flickers often get in trouble with homeowners who have wooden-sided houses. The birds will peck holes in the siding to gain entry to a warm roosting site. Unfortunately they are persistent in their mission to make the hole and often meet the wrath of the homeowner.

Woodpeckers as a whole are beneficial birds, although there are those who might disagree with that assessment. I think they are great birds to have around both to see and hear as they go about their daily activities. Please have patience with their occasional crossing the line and becoming bad-boys.

Naturally Texas
Open Hunting Season on Montezuma Quail Not Wise for Texas
Terry Maxwell, March 16, 2003, San Angelo Standard Times, © 2003

Hunting has not always had good press. For an extreme example, take the prehistoric overkill hypothesis offered to explain the large mammal extinctions at the end of the Wisconsin glacial period 11,000 – 10,000 years ago. Were early North American peoples responsible for the loss of mammoths and ancient bison species? Perhaps - the evidence is not clear.

Closer to our time, the rise of wildlife management and environmental ethics, fathered by Aldo Leopold, were pushed by loss of wildlands and excessive hunting that decimated game populations in the first half of the 20th century. Leopold taught us that with knowledge of species’ biology can come management of habitat and regulation of hunting pressure. We then can have both the sport of hunting and nonconsumptive enjoyment of wildlife well into the future.

But despite the application of Leopold’s philosophy by state and federal game management agencies, hunting appears to be in sharp decline in our society. At the beginning of this new millennium, reportedly only 10 percent of hunters are in the age group of 18 to 24, down 14 percent from 1991.

Some have blamed cultural urbanization, but then others point outthat even rural kids spend a lot of their time at computerized play stations and television sets. Others point out a growing change in attitude about nature. Rising human populations with loss of plant and animal habitats have become associated with attitudes of protectionism and nonconsumptive uses of wildlife.

So, what are hunters’ options for countering this downward trend in their beloved sport? And let me state clearly that I am a proponent of responsible hunting, however little of it I actually do. I have fond memories – amazingly - of a goose hunt on the Texas coastal plain, a hunt in which I embarrassed myself by unintentionally letting every goose in my sights escape Scott-free. That sport takes real skill.

Well, my point today is that I don’t have even a few ideas to help improve hunting’s plight - except for one. Do not go out of the way to give yourselves more bad press in this nature protectionist time by proposing to hunt remnant species for which basic natural history and population level are so poorly known as to make guesswork out of management decisions.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife agency is proposing Amendment 65.62 to the state wildlife regulations. Recommendations will be made to the TPW Commission at their meeting in the first week of April. We now are in the period of public comment on the proposed amendment.

The agency proposes to open the hunting season on Montezuma (Mearn’s) Quail (Cyrtonyx montezumae), allowing a daily bag limit of two birds. Their reasons are to protect hunters of other quail species who unintentionally kill Montezumas and to give hunters an opportunity to bag all 4 quail species native to Texas.

Those reasons, presumably, will not be offered to allow hunters to bag all native columbids in Texas (including red-billed and band-tailed pigeons) or get away with mistaking nongame sandpiper species for snipe. Responsible hunting involves not pulling the trigger on what you cannot identify.

More importantly, the best current information indicates that Montezuma Quail are reduced to remnant populations in four Edwards Plateau counties and in several mountain ranges in the Trans-Pecos. The distribution has been declining for over 100 years. The cause of the decline is not in dispute - it isn’t hunting. Habitat degradation (from natural drought or overgraziing) has brought this species down, but even light hunting of the remnants is not going to help,

Furthermore, the species as a whole is poorly understood and practically nothing is known of its natural history in Texas. What is needed, clearly, before the state proposes hunting this quail, is a sound, research-based knowledge of its local population levels, local reproductive rates and covey home ranges under varying environmental conditions, and a host of other facts that will put the agency in a defensible position with regard to such a proposal.

My preference is that this unique Texas quail not be hunted now or in the future. With a season so long closed, Montezuma quail has assumed a nongame stature with the naturalist public, however the department classifies it. Its odd appearance, behavior, and secretiveness have made our "crazy quail" something different – something of a regional protected icon – even to many of the land owners and residents within its range today.

Let’s work on improving northern bobwhite and scaled quail conditions in Texas such that traditional quail hunting of potentially widespread species resumes its former grandeur. If you want to comment on this proposal to hunt Montezuma Quail, write Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Attn: Robert MacDonald, 4200 Smith School Road, Austin, Texas 78744; or phone 800-792-1112; or email

A western spotted skunk performs
his handstand defense posture. If
you're this close, you're probably
going to get sprayed.

(art by Terry Maxwell)
Naturally Texas
Spotted Skunks Rarely Seen, But They Are Not Rare
Terry Maxwell, March 16, 2003, San Angelo Standard Times, © 2003

About 1970 in the parking lot behind the San Angelo Standard Times, smack downtown at about 1 a.m., I saw only the second civet cat that I ever had seen. My first was on the earthen dam of O.C. Fisher Reservoir when I was a rock-chunking kid, and that seems light years back.

Now, why should those observations be remembered or be of interest? Because I have spent a lifetime outdoors, and the animal turns out to not be as rare as my few encounters would indicate. In fact, Jeff Doty, a graduate student of biology at ASU, has live-captured and radio-collared 12 of them just within the past few months. A rancher friend in Irion County has caught several over the past few years.

So, why are sightings of this species so rare in comparison to the striped skunk or the western hog-nosed skunk? Before considering that question, I should point out that the so-called civet cat is a real skunk, not a cat in any way.

The spotted skunks of the genus Spilogale are composed of three species. In a small corner of southwestern Mexico can be found the diminutive pygmy skunk. The other two species (western and eastern spotted skunks) have been the subject of taxonomic debate in the U.S. where they mostly occur.

Some authorities consider them to be geographic variants (races) of one spotted skunk species. But they differ in important ways, perhaps most startlingly in a reproductive quirk of the western one (Spilogale gracilis), found in western Texas.

Western spotted skunks mate in early fall. Pregnancy or gestation lasts about a month - and pay careful attention here - the infants are born in April or May. Have you been counting months? Yes, well something's wrong then, right? For about seven months after mating, fertilized eggs don't develop - they're delayed from growing in the uterus. It's called delayed implantation. Eastern spotted skunks have pregnancies like ours - they don't do that delayed thing.

Spotted skunks are the smallest of skunks - the larger males are about one and half pounds.

Their white markings are complex, consisting of spots and broken stripes, bringing us back to that question of rarity of sightings. They are difficult to see at night. The striking jet black pelage with broken white striping is nearly impossible to distinguish from moonlight shadows. Apparently because of more strict nocturnality and preferred shrubby habitat, the animals are seldom observed by diurnal people.

One of the oft-told habits of this species is its response to danger. Spotted skunks stamp the front feet when threatened. If that doesn't work, they do a handstand - a moving handstand - perhaps to present a larger and more threatening appearance. They shuffle forward and backward while handstanding - probably a balancing act.

Unfortunately, I've never witnessed this remarkable behavior. Their last resort is to spray with what is widely considered to be the most obnoxiously scented spray of all skunk species.

What we know the least and what we need to know the most is the ecology of the species. If we are to understand its role in the countryside of our state, then we have a lot of field research ahead of us. Fortunately, the ASU skunk corps has a goal of gaining just that knowledge.

Two western spotted skunk research projects are in progress - den site selection and home range characteristics. Although those 12 radio-collared ones have been tracked and analyzed for home range size, the data at this point are too slight to reveal much with confidence. It is apparent now however that this species' home ranges overlap with striped skunks. The spotteds prefer denser woody plant growth than is required by the larger striped skunk.

More solid results are presently available on den site selection. Fifteen dens have been located and their environments described. They tend to den in areas with more large mesquite trees, denser shrubbery, more shade from tree canopy, and more prickly-pear cactus than is required by striped skunks. Fifty percent of the dens were in large prickly-pear cactus clumps, 20 percent in wood piles, and 10 percent in trees. Yes, trees. Spotted skunks, unlike all other skunks, are great tree climbers.

Spotted skunks are one of the secretive and almost legendary animals of our landscapes. That gives them an exotic-like appeal, but one that requires using the tools of scientific investigation to understand. Coming to more fully know this mammal can only be of benefit to its kind in a world increasingly adjusted to human wants.

Cattle Egret Numbers Increase with the Arrival of Spring
Ro Wauer, March 16, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Cattle egrets have become synonymous with spring in recent years. Each year as the days lengthen and become warmer, the number of cattle egrets increase as those that winter to the south of our area return for yet another season. But this has not always been the case. For cattle egrets have only been resident in North America since the 1950s. Prior to that time, this all-white bird was found only in Africa.

Cattle egrets are native to the vast savannahs of Africa where they feed alongside the native grazers, such as antelopes, zebras, and elephants. They often perch of the backs of these "cattle" to feed on ticks and flies. This behavior provided them with the names of "cattle" or "tick" birds. But sometime during the 1930s, they suddenly appeared in South America, probably the result of a hurricane that carried a few across the Atlantic from West Africa. The South American populations increased dramatically, and within 20 years they began to appear in South Florida. The first Texas record was an immature bird found on Mustang Island in November 1958, and by October 1967 it was recorded at Big Bend National Park in West Texas. By the turn of the century, cattle egrets could be found everywhere in Texas and as far to the west as California.

The cattle egret is only one of several long-legged herons that occur in Texas, and the only one that spends more time in grassland habitats than in wetlands. The other two all-white herons - great and snowy egrets - frequent ponds, streams, or wetlands, feeding on fish, frogs, and other aquatic creatures. Cattle egrets feed principally on insects and other invertebrates that they find in fields and on cattle. The larger great egret is recognized by its heavy yellow bill and blackish legs, while the much smaller snowy egret has a black bill, black legs, and yellow feet. The small, more compact cattle egret is all white with a heavy yellow bill; the exception is during the nesting season when breeding adults put on orangish feathers on their breast, shoulders, and head.

Cattle egrets usually are migrants, although a few can normally be found throughout South Texas each winter. But the majority of our birds move south into Mexico for the winter months, returning to our fields and pastures in spring. Flocks of a few to several dozen can often be often then, flying rather low in groups or trailing out in scattered flocks. At night they congregate at communal roosting sites, usually along the river or near ponds, and often with other herons. They may utilize these same sites for nesting, which also occur in colonial groupings.

Although cattle egrets are not pure Texan, like their two all-white cousins, they are now a significant and valuable member of the avian community.

Sunday, March 09, 2003

Monarchs Rebounding Nicely
Carol Cullar, Eagle Pass News Guide, March 9, 2003, © 2003

As a part of its continued interest in monarch butterflies, the Rio Bravo Nature Center sponsored its third eight-day trip to the Biosfera de la Mariposa Monarca in Michoacan, Mexico, at the end of February.

Scientists are marveling at the impressive comeback of the monarch butterflies, which once again are festooning the fir trees of central Mexico in a sea of orange and black, despite a deadly freeze last year that killed forty-seven percent of the population. Cold rains, followed by a six-inch snow, in the Preserve at El Rosario and Chincua in late January 2002 caused wide-spread alarm in the conservation world. The unprecedented numbers of deaths--some inaccurately estimated as many as 500 million butterflies perished, followed by severe drought conditions last summer in the northern central U. S--prompted concern that fewer numbers of the insects would arrive south of the border this year. The population this winter in the Transvolcanic Region of central Mexico appears to be about that of last year after the freeze—possibly as high as 100 million butterflies.

The continuing eruption of Popocateptl east of Mexico City and some 200 miles away had in no way disturbed the monarchs, since smoke was being blown in other directions.

The Nature Center group visited 4 preserves: El Rosario and Chincua, located in the state of Michoacan near Zitacuaro, and Capulin and Valle del Bravo sites in the state of Mexico. For the last two sites they were accompanied by Eligio Garcia Serrano, biologist formerly in charge of butterflies at the Preserve from 1991 to 2002.

On two occasions (at Capulin and Valle del Bravo), the group experienced rivers of monarchs flowing down off the mountains using the highway itself as a conduit to facilitate their flight. Biologist Garcia Serrano said that in his ten years collecting data and monitoring the monarchs, he had never before had the opportunity to observe such an amazing movement.

The flow at Capulin was 90' wide, and the group monitored the central flow in a rectangle 15' x 30', observing a continuous rate of 40-45 monarchs per second. This resulted in an extrapolation of 5,520 per minute; 331,200 per hour; and for 5 hours of the flow from 10 a. m. to 3 p.m., a population of 1,656,000 which were moving at 20 to 25 mph down an arroyo to the valley floor.

Ms. Carol Cullar, director of the Nature Center, said: “Numbers in no way enable me to describe what it was like to stand in the road with their orange fluttering filling the air, to feel the wind of their passage and, even in my hearing impaired state, to hear the passage of so many wings!”

When the group arrived at Valle del Bravo the following day, there was a similar, but much smaller population using the road as their departure flyway under the aegis of heavily armed state police, who enforced a slow crawl of the traffic through the fluttering ranks. Ms. Cullar said: “We rolled down our car windows and, sticking our arms out the window ‘flew along’ with the migration! There was something quite humorous about such delicate creatures being protected with sub-machine guns!”

Despite many reports to the contrary this past year, the monarchs are alive and well and headed toward Eagle Pass in two to three weeks. Their normal travel distances average about twenty-five miles per day. The monarchs are expected to spread out through Central Texas looking for milkweed on which to lay their eggs and will die soon after. This spring and summer their subsequent generations will reproduce and spread through much of the Eastern U. S. and Southern Canada before their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will once again make their way to the extinct volcanic slopes of Michoacan.

The Nature Center is sponsoring a research workshop this spring for teachers in the region who are interested in participating in a monarch monitoring/outdoor education project in conjunction with the University of Minnesota and the National Science Foundation. Teachers interested in participating and gaining CPE credit for their involvement should call the Center immediately.
Anyone spotting monarchs in Maverick County this March and April is asked to call the Nature Center at 773-1836 to report their sightings.

Learning the Birds
Bird Words
Ruth Rogers Erickson, March 9, 2003, The Canadian Record, © 2003

A large part of learning the birds is the attempt to gain fluency in a new language. Bird words, I call `em. Memorable words like melanistic, pileated, accipiter, and axillar - none my spell-checker recognizes. These fine words permeate the bird books, meticulously staking out descriptive territory.

There's an intoxicating rhythm in the hyphenated phrases:
white-breasted, brown-crested;
ladder-backed, dusky-capped;
sulphur-bellied, scissor-tailed.
(The list of these is long.)

Birders are people for whom subtle differences are carefully noted, and it's important to get the lingo right. Colors are precise, with shades of tawny, bay, cinnamon, chestnut, and buff. I'm still figuring out the difference between ruddy and rufous, sooty and slatey, mottled and splotched.

Birds are chunky, dumpy, stubby, or stocky; richly spangled or semipalmated; chisel-billed or zebra-backed. Owls can be flammulated or ferruginous. Many birds are gregarious, colonial, or cosmopolitan.

Body parts are carefully articulated: there are upperparts, underparts, and outerparts; primaries and secondaries; mandibles, scapulars, and speculum. We hear about rumps, flanks, cheeks, napes, throats, chins, and vents.

Birds are found wearing things. They wear badges, masks, hoods, necklaces, bibs, and crowns; mustaches, whiskers, eye-rings, and spectacles. They sport ear-tufts, eye-stripes, wing patches, air-sacs, tail spots, and throat-collars.

There is bird-slang, too, though it's buried in the literature: Hummingbirds are hummers, Empidonax flycatchers are empids, and loggerhead shrikes are “butcher birds.”

Proper bird names can be as colorful as the slang is. Consider the Magnificent Frigatebird, the Elegant Trogon, or the Solitary Sandpiper. Names affect our perception of a bird despite ourselves. I'm still hoping to see a Blue-Footed Booby and a Chuck-Will's-Widow, but I'm not so keen on the Lesser Scaup, the Sooty Tern, or the Parasitic Jaeger.

Careful attention is paid to a bird's migratory status. There are residents, visitors, breeders, migrants, and vagrants. Some are abundant, others are casual, common, uncommon, accidental, or rare.

There are avian activities and proclivities, such as nomadism, albinism, dimorphism, and kleptoparasitism. Family life includes monogamy, bigamy, and polygamy; cooperative breeding, nest swapping, egg-dumping, and siblicide.

The world of birdsong may be where bird lovers outdo themselves in descriptive ecstasy. Songs can be:
bubbling, burbling, warbling, drawling;
nasal, sibilant, petulant, mournful;
harsh, hollow, guttural, ghostly;
plaintive, staccato, liquid, tremulous;
rolling, vigorous, emphatic, ecstatic!

You could go on and on, if you wanted to. Bird books are full of passionate description. Finding an excuse to talk this way is reason enough to study birds!

Naturally Texas
Studying Spotted Skunks Requires Technology and Money
Terry Maxwell, March 9, 2003, San Angelo Standard Times, © 2003

I want to visit with you today about the smallest species of skunk in our region, but I might end up with too little space to tell you anything. The problem is that I am drawn to introduce you to the modern world of wildlife research.

Finding out what we need to know about spotted skunks involves the use of battery-powered radio transmitter collars, a yagi directional antenna and radio receiver, GPS, GIS, UTMs, CALHOME, and LOCATE, among other sundry electronic doodad. And all that costs money before you ever fill up the tank and head to the field in your skunk clothes.

Two things we don't know about spotted skunks - among many things that we want to know - involve habitat use. How big are their territories and where do they den? The only way to get a definitive handle on that sort of understanding is to follow individuals - not an easy thing to do, but nonetheless we're going to do it. So, let's get started with your training.

We're going to catch skunks using two methods: live trapping with Tomahawk traps and hand-catching using the skunk corps. The Tomahawk traps are simple, humane cages with a trap door sprung by the skunk entering for a tasty morsel.

I described hand-catching for you a couple of weeks ago. Briefly again, you gather the students who live for this sort of thing - the skunk corps - and head to the brushland in a pickup truck at night. When a skunk is spot-lighted, it's a mad dash out of the truck and off into the night - you can join the chase if you want to as long as you've had your rabies shots. The object is to catch the animal, preferably without bodily injury to yourself or the skunk.

Upon capture, the skunk is returned to the truck and anesthetized with an injection of a carefully determined cocktail of sedatives. Someone in authority has the permit to possess these chemicals for wildlife research.

Once our spotted skunk is sufficiently groggy to handle, all participants gather around and contribute to the data collections: external parasites are combed from its fur; its general body condition is recorded; measurements - total length, and length of tail, ear, and hind foot - are taken; sex and reproductive condition are recorded - a female might be lactating, indicating young in a den; an ear tag with a unique identifying number is attached and so on.

Most critically, a collar with a battery-powered radio transmitter is carefully fitted to the skunk. For the western spotted skunk, we'll use a collar weighting 24 grams. That gives a functional battery life of two years.Uh-oh, someone points out that our skunk is waking, and I notice you backing up a little. C'mon now - a little courage. Well, our work is done on this little fellow, se we stand back while he comes out of his stupor. When released, we want him alert and able to take care of himself.

Before we leave the scene, we need to see if his radio is working. The radio receiver with its yagi directional antenna is fired up. Our graduate student in charge of the project - it's his graduate thesis research - slowly rotates the antennna until the signal is received. It works.

On future nights, we're going to pinpoint the locations of this skunk with our antenna and a GPS unit. A handheld global positioning system (GPS) device uses satellites to pinpoint the location. The skunk corps drives to established points of known location and uses the antenna to locate the direction of the skunk from the point. After repeating the procedure from at least one other fixed point, the data is fed into the computer program LOCATE. This program calculates the triangulation of directions and fixes the skunk's location.

You might be discouraged - I was - to find that the skunk locations are recorded in UTMs - universal transverse mercator units - not in latitude and longitude. It's a system of mapping developed by the U.S. Army in 1951. I could get really involved here in describing how it works, but suffice it to say that it uses a decimal grid system rather than one of degrees, minutes, and seconds. It's supposed to be more efficient - yeah.

Back in the lab at school, we're going to plot all the individually known skunk locations using a GIS - geographic information system - and then using the computer program CALHOME, determine home range size for each western spotted skunk we

Did you get all that? Well, guess what? I don't have any space left to talk about what we've learned about the animal. But I think we needed to go through this training exercise for you to develop a little savvy about the modern world of wildlife research. I'm sure you'll have to hear most of it again before you're comfortable with it, but for now let's just get our skunk clothes and running shoes. There's night work - still the best part - to be done.

Saturday, March 08, 2003

Feeling Blue
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, March 8, 2003, © 2004

Toss out those tranquilizers and other medicines that take off the edge. Save some cash and eliminate side effects! I heard recently that just visualizing the color BLUE will relieve your stress. This seems contradictory to our usual concept of the "blues," and the frightening thought of "turning blue," which could be your final color! Moreover, it is true that blue food is not appetizing except to children who love blue Jello and to those imbibers who like to drink Curaçao, the blue booze. Then too there is the blue corn tortilla, mainly famous in Santa Fe, New Mexico and other regions of the Southwest, but I'm not sure why since it is more gray than blue. Our cat Flan (named for her coloring, not a sweet disposition, by the way) has blue eyes that are menacingly icy and even wicked. The Buff-bellied Hummingbirds that tap on our windows are not intimidated, it would appear. However, these are all exceptions.

In order to use this soothing technique, it seems to me you must come up with an object or a background. For this, let's turn to Nature: the sky is blue, especially here in the Rio Grande Valley. It might not work in Seattle. I know someone who sails peacefully off to slumber by picturing a blue sky adrift with comforting clouds. There are other representations in the natural world. Look at our Green Jay; that blue head is delightfully dazzling, complementing the bird's bright greens and yellows. And farther north there is the Blue Jay. Even though jays are not restful but rather noisy, active birds, their coloring may be so. The Eastern, Western and Mountain Bluebirds are seemingly more peaceful beauties, especially the all-blue of the latter, showing stunningly against rocky western backdrops. Actually, as most birders know, blue birds are not really blue at all! That is to say that their hue is not the result of pigmentation, as in most birds. Color is refracted through feather cells, not absorbed but bouncing back to us as blue. If you crush a bluebird's feather, it will lose its color as the cells are destroyed. Do that with a Northern Cardinal feather, and you still have the basic red. It really does not matter; they are to be admired anyway.....especially in the case of my favorite shade of blue: the Hyacinth Macaw, a large and rare parrot with plumage of plush royal blue. Just don't dwell on that enormous beak, which probably has a crushing power of more pounds per square inch than a pit bull.

There is blue in butterflies, too. The Spring Azures, the High Mountain Blue, the Morpho, those huge bright blue species of Latin America. the Bluewing here in South Texas and others. Blue flowers abound. Helen Hunt Jackson's poem about September has the line "the gentians' bluest fringes are curling in the sun." You don't see them here in the Valley, but if you travel north, there they are --- gems of autumn along with the asters. What could be more relaxing than gazing on a field of Texas Bluebonnets, their coolness enhanced by the contrasting warmth of firewheel and paintbrush? There are also Bluets (damselflies and butterflies have species called this, too), Morning Glories, Plumbago, Blue Mist (the butterfly magnet), and many more decorating the gardens, pastures and woods.

Also in nature we have blue waters, blue lagoons, blue moon, blue heaven, and not to be slighted, thanks to Willie Nelson's, "blue eyes cryin' in the rain."

Alas, I have to admit that my favorite color is red-orange, perhaps akin to the shades of alarm, alert or anger. You know, that does not seem to have a calming effect. Now that I think about it, maybe I should go lie down and contemplate blue.

Friday, March 07, 2003

David Taylor Bio

David Taylor is the Academic Advisor for the Honors Program at UNT and teaching environmental philosophy as an adjunct in the Philosophy Department at the University of North Texas in Denton. He has published poetry and creative non-fiction essays in such journals as "ISLE," "Southern Poetry Review," "Environmental History," and "Mountain Gazette." He edited South Carolina Naturalists: An Anthology, 1700-1860 (USC Press, 1998) and co-authored Lawson's Fork: Headwaters to the Confluence (Hub City Press, 2000).

Co-author with Gary Henderson. The Lawson's Fork: Headwaters to the Confluence. Spartanburg, SC:Hub City Writers Project, 2000. (now in its 2nd edition)

Editor. South Carolina Naturalists: An Anthology, 1700-1860. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

"James Holbrook." Dictionary of Literary Biography.

(forthcoming) "'Thinking Small' Diameter: An Interview with Brett Ken Cairn." Ecological Restoration (March, 2003).

"'Base Commoditie': Natural Resource and Natural History in Smith's The Generall Historie." Environmental History Review 17.4 (1993).

"Ethnopoetics and the Healing Poems of Turtle Island." Contemporary Philosophy 12.10 (July/August 1989).

Book Reviews
Rev. of Wildearth: Anthology in ISLE

(forthcoming) Rev. of Nature by Design in Environmental Ethics

(forthcoming) Rev. Of Cruising State: Growing Up in Southern California, Christopher Buckley. Western American Literature 31.1 (1996).

Rev. Of Living on the Edge of America: At Home on the Texas-Mexico Border, Robert Lee Maril. Western American Literature 28.3 (1993).

Rev. of Crossing the River, Fenton Johnson. CFA News (August/September 1990).

Creative Non-Fiction Essays
Guest Columnist, "Coming Home." Denton Record Chronicle (October 24, 2002).

"The Ned Beatty and Me: A River Trip from Spartanburg to Columbia." The Upcountry Review, 1999.

"' ... considerable depth beneath it': A Natural History of the Hampton Heights Neighborhood." Hub City Anthology. Eds. John Lane and Betsy Teter. Holocene Press, 1996.

"Leroux Fire," Mountain Gazette (May/June, 2004).

"Restoration." Terrain, December, 2003.

"SnowBowl," Mountain Gazette (#90, January, 2003).

"San Juan Spring," and "Coyote." ISLE, Fall/Winter, 2002.

"87 Flat" and "A Second Letter to You." Southwestern American Literature, Summer, 1998.

"The Giving Away," "Saying to You," "Love Poem and Nature," "What We Know." Point, October, 1997.

"Texas River Song." Southern Poetry Review, Summer, 1997.

Under Consideration and In Progress Here
(100-150-page general audience manuscript about place) Texas Nature Writing (University of North Texas Press)

Jesse Gunn Stephens Bio

I do a weekly column for the Sherman Herald-Democrat, and am the author of two books, Touring Texas Gardens and When to Do What in Your Texoma Yard and Garden.

Ron Smith Bio

Ron Smith is a bird carver with collectors in 40 states. In almost 40 years he has carved over 1000 birds in the realistic style using the media of basswood and oils. His work has been featured in museum shows in Texas and Michigan.

Ron attended Alma College and Eastern Michigan University where he earned a Masters in Literature. He taught English for 32 years, mostly in Alcona County in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan. He met his wife, Sharron Denby of Auburn Hills, MI while teaching in Novi, MI. They were married in 1965.

The literary world of nature has also been a part of his accomplishments. He edited the Thunder Bay, Michigan Audubon Society newsletter for thirty years. Also, he was one of the contributing writers for Harlingen, Texas Valley Morning Star nature column. He edited Valley Land Fund Wildlife Photo Contest books III and IV. This is the world's richest wildlife photo contest.

He has contributed articles on birding for the disabled to Bird Watcher's Digest and pieces on Valley wildlife to the magazine, Rio Grande Nature. Currently, he writes a nature column in The McAllen Monitor. For five years he has been chairman of the McAllen Texas Tropics Nature Festival, one of the major birding and nature festivals in the U.S.

Because they are avid birders, Smith and his wife Sharron spend the winters in Pharr,
Texas. During the summers they live in their 70-acre woods on a branch of the Thunder Bay River in northern Michigan.

You can view his writing and carvings at these websites:

Bill Lindemann Bio

William L. "Bill" Lindemann was born in Gonzales County and attended public schools there. He received two degrees in geology (BA in 1960 and MS in 1963) from the University of Texas at Austin. He has been married to his wife, Janet, for 42 years and they have two children and three grandchildren.

Lindemann began his career with Humble Oil and Refining Company in 1963 in Wichita Falls, Texas. Other career stops included Tyler, Corpus Christi and Houston Texas, Denver and Littleton Colorado, and Darwin and Sydney, Australia. He worked as an exploration geologist for 34 years searching for oil and gas, uranium, coal, synthetic fuels and copper. He worked extensively in Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Thailand and China before retiring from Exxon in 1994.

After retirement, Lindemann moved to Fredericksburg where he has switched his vocation in geology to an avocation in birding. And avid birder for almost 40 years, he began writing a weekly column in 1997 on "Birding in the Hill Country" in the Fredericksburg Standard-Radio Post and The Kerrville Daily Times.

Lindemann has served as president of the Native Plant Society of Texas and is still active in the society. He helped form the Friends of the Fredericksburg Nature Center in 2000 and has helped develop nature trails in Lady Bird Johnson Park in Fredericksburg and inventorying the wildlife found there. He frequently speaks to schools, garden clubs, professional and
service organizations in the Hill Country on nature subjects. He also has taught classes at adult education schools and nature centers.

Lindemann has also served on the board of directors for the Gillespie County Historical Society and the Hill Country Land Trust. He has had a lifelong interest in all facets of nature and is currently promoting historical and natural preservation in the Texas Hill Country through education, outreach and example.