The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Land Conservation And Preservation Concerns
Bill Lindemann, Fredericksburg Standard/Radio Post, Kerrville Daily Times, April 2003, © 2003

Two hundred years ago what is now Texas was an ecological wonderland covered by seemingly endless grass covered prairies located between lush forests in the east and the mountainous desert region in the west. These grasslands have all but disappeared; having first been transformed into rich faming and ranching development and now is changing again to a more urban and industrial development.

Severe overgrazing has impacted erosion of our once rich topsoil, limited recharge of our aquifer systems and fostered large tracts of land being occupied by juniper, mesquite and cactus. These changes in our eco-systems have also impacted the quality of life of our wildlife, the scenic beauty of the landscape and eventually will impact our quality of life.

What can be done to protect our land and preserve our rich natural heritage for future generations to enjoy? A number of conservation minded organizations have formed to do what they can to inform the public about land conservation issues, raising public awareness of options available that encourage responsible land stewardship, and working in partnership with landowners who elect to preserve the natural character of their property through the donation of a conservation easement. On April 4 a group of twenty such organizations met in Blanco to discuss and compare plans on how to be more supportive in reaching common goals.

More than five land trust groups from Central Texas were represented, as well as representatives from the Texas Land Trust Council, The Nature Conservancy, Hill Country Conservancy, Natural Area Preservation Association, Land and Greenspace Committee of the Austin/San Antonio Corridor, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas Forest Service, Texas Historical Commission, National Audubon Society, and the Cave Conservancy. My interest here is that I am a member of the Hill Country Land Trust Board, who hosted and organized this meeting.

Each of the representative groups was given an opportunity to report on their activities in the region. In a round table discussion and brainstorming session after lunch, everyone discussed how they could share mapping technology, improve communication, and help each other reach common goals. This was the fourth such meeting to allow all of the participants to
meet and share ideas.

The Texas Hill Country is current undergoing a substantial population growth. Many retirees are choosing the area in which to relocate, while urban sprawl from Austin and San Antonio is beginning to reach into the area as well. That ranches are being bought and sub-divided by developers applies increased pressure on our aquifer systems and affects the visual serenity of
the landscape. Many scenic natural areas like, Enchanted Rock Natural Area lie in the path of increased development pressure. Increased development in the region also impacts wildlife like the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo. In my opinion, much is at stake for the long term vitality of our region.

Next week, I plan to discuss some of the options available to landowners who might be interested in meeting the challenges of conserving and preserving our Hill Country land and eco-systems.

Photo by Mary Curry

Birds and Beyond
Summer Surprises
Claire Curry, April 2003, Wise County Messenger, © 2003

Wise County has a wonderful variety of birds in the summer. You probably know about the bright red cardinals, the fierce little hummingbirds, and other common birds that live here. Here I will describe some lesser-known summer residents of Wise County.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a rather hard-to-see bird. You usually hear its odd call, “guck-guck-guck-guck-guck kow kow kowp kowp”, before you see the cuckoo up in the trees. The cuckoo is brown above, with reddish brown visible in the wings during flight. The underside is creamy white and the slightly curved bill is yellow at the base. There are large, round spots on the underside of the tail, which show as white tips in flight. This stealthy bird is also called the rain crow, since some people say it calls before a rain. The cuckoo may call before rain, but it sure calls a lot when it doesn’t rain, too!

There are five species of flycatchers that live in Wise County in the summer, plus one year-round resident (the Eastern Phoebe). Eastern and Western Kingbirds and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are usually seen frequently, but the two other summer flycatchers, Great Crested Flycatcher and Eastern Wood-Pewee, are not noticed as often. Despite its name, the Great Crested Flycatcher doesn’t have too much of a crest like a cardinal, but it does have a rather bushy head of feathers when it gets excited. It is brown above, with rufous in the wings and tail and a yellow underside. This flycatcher is sometimes easier heard than seen, as it gives a loud rolling “brreep!” call. The last flycatcher on the list, the Eastern Wood-Pewee, is not quite as common as the others. It is a nondescript olive color with two wingbars. This bird calls its name, giving an upward-sounding “peeaweeee” call.

The tiny Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is another interesting summer resident. These delightfully antsy birds hop all over, regularly giving busy buzzing calls. They are a pretty blue-gray color, with a long tail and thin beak. The males have a slightly brighter blue tint to their plumage than the females, and a dark line over the eye. With their long tails and wandering, buzzy song, I sometimes think of them as miniature mockingbirds.

Of the vireos, small insect-eating birds, we have three summering species. The two most common are White-eyed Vireo and Red-eyed Vireo. The other, Bell’s Vireo, is scarcer. The White-eyed Vireo sings quite persistently and loudly, but even with the frequent clues as to its location it can be a pain to find. When you do see it, the White-eyed Vireo is quite a bird. It is greenish above, with a flush of yellow below on the flanks. On its head, it has yellow “spectacles” around its white eyes. (Juveniles have dark eyes.) A quick and insistent “chuck chip and marie! chuck” is its song, although the exact notes vary from song to song. The Red-eyed Vireo is similar in its ability to sing loudly and not be seen, but it sings from way high up in the trees, so you get to strain your neck while you look! Its song has been described as “I am here. Where are you. Look at me. Here I am. Way up here. In the tree,” and so forth.

There are many species of warblers that migrate through this area, but only one seems to stay for the summer. This is the Black-and-white Warbler, which, as the name suggests, it streaked black and white. This pretty bird has a thin, high-pitched song that can be approximated to: “seepy seepy seepy seepy seepy”.

We have cardinals here all year long, but in the summer you may want to double-check your red birds. You might find the Summer Tanager, a superficially cardinal-like bird. However, instead of a bright orange, conical beak, the tanager’s beak is longer and more of a grayish, off-white color. The two birds’ red colors are slightly different, too. The tanager has a hint more of rose red, while the cardinal seems to have a shade of orange in its plumage. Female Summer Tanagers vary from greenish-yellow to a more orange yellow.

Three sparrows show up here for the summer (two other species stay year-round). These are Lark Sparrows and Grasshopper Sparrows, plus the less common Cassin’s Sparrow. The Lark Sparrow is one of our most boldly marked sparrows. It has a bright rufous, black, and tan face pattern, a smudged spot on its breast, and in flight, white corners on its tail. This sparrow also has an interesting courtship display; the male puffs up and sticks his tail in the air like a turkey gobbler. The Grasshopper Sparrow seems like the exact opposite of the Lark Sparrow, being an inconspicuous bird with a quiet, insect-like buzz for a song. Its plumage is streaked brown on the back, light tan on the front, and a hint of yellow in front of the eye.

Now, for a taste of the tropics. The Painted Bunting is dressed in a rainbow of red (on the underside), blue (on the head), yellow (on the back), and green (on the wings and tail). Its song is a short, sweet, downward warble. The females and immature males are greenish yellow and can be harder to spot. Even the adult male, with his brilliant plumage, can be surprisingly hard to see. A relative of the Painted Bunting, the Indigo Bunting, also can be found spending the summer here in Wise County. The male is bright blue in good light, but appears dark at times. The female of this species is brown. Another brightly colored summer bird is the Blue Grosbeak. It resembles the Indigo Bunting, but has a bulkier, cardinal-shaped beak, and chestnut wingbars. The female grosbeak is brown, not unlike the Indigo Bunting, but the heavy beak gives away its identity.

Orchard Orioles, which are actually in the blackbird family (this family also includes meadowlarks, cowbirds, and grackles), are occasionally seen in the summer. The males are rich brick-red and black, while the females are greenish yellow, with gray wings and whitish wingbars. Orioles have pointed beaks, rather like a meadowlark’s.

Eastern Meadowlarks live here year round, but in the summer a smaller look-alike shows up. It is the Dickcissel, which has a shorter, more sparrow-like bill, reddish shoulders, less extensive yellow, and a very different song. The Eastern Meadowlark sings a clear whistle, while the Dickcissel gives monotone chirps (usually in sets of three).

With all these exciting birds roaming the woods and fields, there are plenty of feathered reasons to brave the humid, hot summer weather, and go birding.

Sunday, April 27, 2003

Naturally Texas
House Sparrows Have Evolved Rapidly in North America
Terry Maxwell, April 27, 2003, San Angelo Standard Times, © 2003

Do you understand the following sentences? "The axes of variation of principal components run orthogonally to one another. Given this, plus the differential character loadings on components I and II, we here assume that we have identified distinct sets of covariant characters." No? Well, don’t worry about it. I often struggle with the jargon as well, and for me, a biologist,
it’s the language of an indispensable tool.

Research develops its own vocabulary, whether in engineering, law, psychology, music, history or biology. But what are you to make of the conclusions drawn by those whose investigations are reported in such a confusing vocabulary?

In your defense, there’s certainly nothing wrong with a healthy skepticism of what you do not understand, but I think you should assume that the results are worth your temporary acceptance when you understand that they have been scrutinized by others who know the vocabulary and are in a position to judge their worth. The words and the ideas they convey could not have been published in a reputable science journal without that peer review.

The particular quote above comes from an important article of 30 years ago by Richard Johnston and Robert Selander - an article entitled "Evolution of the house sparrow. II. Adaptive differentiation in North American populations." Johnston and Selander teamed up for better than a decade to examine what had occurred to this species following its introduction from Europe to our continent.

In their choice of words, house sparrows (Passer domesticus) were "innoculated" into North America between 1852 and 1860. These birds largely came from central England, and that is a very important fact in the subsequent history I relate here today. That they mostly came from one population means that they were similar in their genetic makeup and in the physical
characteristics dictated by those genes.

Johnston and Selander found that in populations of European house sparrows, for which samples existed in the 1850s and in the 1960s, there had been no obvious change. For example, comparison of specimens taken a hundred years apart from Renthendorf, Germany showed no differences in lengths of wings and tails.

So, it is reasonable that house sparrows from central England today are pretty much alike those taken from there and introduced into North America in the 1850s. The central question today is "what changes if any have occurred among these sparrows since they were introduced to our land?" Well, to put it simply, central English sparrows do not look alike or fit the measurements of the same species found today at San Angelo.

House sparrows can be easily shown to have evolved in response to different climates and other environmental features encountered as they have spread. Johnston and Selander measured 16 skeletal features of 1752 specimens from 33 North American localities.

They found, for one example, that North American house sparrows living today in cold climates at high latitude are larger than the original ones introduced. That was predicted by Bergmann’s rule – within a species, smaller body sizes, on average, are found in warmer climates and larger body sizes in colder climates.

And you see the only rational way house sparrows could have those different body size averages in different climates is for them to have evolved. All the introduced 1850s birds – the original stock – were pretty much identical in body size.

Every feature examined, including feather color, demonstrated a change from that seen in the original stock. And those changes were predictable based on what we understand about how organisms adapt to environments.

House sparrows at San Angelo and Austin are today smaller and lighter in overall color than are house sparrows from Seattle and Mexico City, and yet they all trace their origins to a more uniform set of birds from Central England.

That they changed does not surprise me nor any other biologist I know. To us, it would be insensible for them not to have changed. But what did surprise us was its rapidity.

Any house sparrow feeding in your alley cannot be more than 151 generations removed from an English ancestor dumped on our continent’s shore. Sometimes you just have to wade through some difficult language to get to an amazing observation.

Lots Of Evidence Of Twig-Girdler Beetles
Ro Wauer, April 27, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

There is lots of evidence of twig-girdling beetle activity of late. Hundreds of twigs from my cedar elm trees litter the ground. More are added to the number each windy day as the twigs break off from the larger twigs and fall to the ground. A close examination of each twig reveals a blunt end. That evidence suggests that it is the result of a twig-girdler beetle, a species of longhorn beetle of the family Cerambycidae.

Although the South Texas twig-girdler beetle is only about an inch in length with antennae about the same length as its body, it is able to cut twigs that may be almost an inch thick. Evidence of their work is fairly easy to detect; the cut twigs are all neatly severed with a blunt edge, rather than being jagged as if they were torn off by the wind or by a bird. Also, the newer twigs still support leaves, although these will wither and die soon afterward. The twigs break where they are girdled and fall to the ground. Thus the cause of the clutter we see this time of year.

Twig-girdler beetles spend considerable time as larvae within the fallen twigs. In spring, the larvae pupate within the stems, and the adults emerge a few weeks later. After mating, female twig-girdlers fly into a nearby tree, lay their eggs on the tips of the twigs, and then crawl down the twig and cut a circle around it. This action will kill the isolated twig tip, apparently a condition better suited for certain stages of the insect's development. The adults then fly off. When the eggs hatch, the resultant larvae burrow into the twig and consume the dying wood; they may remain there for a period of two to three years.

Longhorned beetles are a members of a huge group of insects with more than 24,000 species worldwide, and 1,100 in North America. They range in size from 1/8-inch to the five-inch Titanus giganteus of Brazil, a huge reddish brown creature that may be 1 1/2-inch wide. Some species possess antennae that are two to four times the length of their body. One 3-inch species that lives in New Guinea possesses antennae that may grow to seven inches in length.

All of the longhorned beetle larvae feed on wood from either live or dead trees. During the larval or grub stage they are sometimes considered delicacies by various native peoples. They are especially prized in Australia and South America. The larvae are extracted and toasted until brown and crisp, somewhat like certain cocktail snacks. Recent reality TV shows have utilized some of these creatures, both alive and dead.

Since longhorned beetles usually fly at night, they are not regularly encountered. Finding these fascinating creatures in their natural settings will require careful observations, since most are about the same coloration as the woody material that they inhabit. And to experience a tasty larva will require even more effort and considerable patience to examine a cut twig, extract one of the tiny inhabitants, and toast it to a crispy brown. It's a special treat somewhere!

Monday, April 21, 2003

Nature In The Heart Of Texas
Bill Lindemann, Fredericksburg Standard/Radio Post, Kerrville Daily Times, April 2003, © 2003

When the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department completed their Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail in 2000, a wonderful precedent was established to showcase nature, in this case birding, in our state. The maps of the three zones of the 400-mile Texas Gulf of Mexico coastline featured over 300 excellent birding sites on both public and private lands stretching across 43 counties. Other states scrambled to develop similar guides for their birding areas to match this very successful Texas venture.

Now these same two Texas agencies are ready to unveil a new set of maps to cover wildlife viewing across our state's expansive and diverse ecological regions. The first map will feature wildlife viewing in the Panhandle Plains and is expected to be released sometime in late April or early May. Following soon after will be a map of the Heart of Texas West beginning in the Del Rio area and winding its way to the San Angelo area. The third map will feature the Heart of Texas East, which begins in the Brownwood area and ends in the Laredo area.

Each of these wildlife trails will be divided into loops and within each loop will be a number of stops or sites for nature buffs to explore for wildlife. The Hill Country is mostly covered in the Heart of Texas West map; Fredericksburg area sites are part of the Peach Loop, while Kerrville sites are included in the Little Deutschland Loop. The featured sites will be given a number corresponding to the locations on the map and signposts located along the access highway. A text portion in the map will give directions to the site and list some of the wildlife that might be seen there.

Selected sites include state parks, city parks, nature centers, lakes, historic sites, nature oriented businesses, private ranches and bed and breakfast businesses. Some sites will be free, while others will have admission fees. The Heart of Texas West Wildlife Trail will have twelve loops and 115 sites. Each site will be responsible for providing any literature, checklists and other information pertinent to that stop. Each stop will be unique as it could provide historic and cultural insights in addition to the wildlife and scenery.

Eco-tourism is the driving force in bringing government agencies, businesses, conservation groups, private citizens and communities together to make such a venture possible. In the past ten to twenty years more and more tourist dollars are being spent each year by birders and other nature enthusiasts to pursue and enjoy their interests in the great outdoors. If you look in travel magazines today, many advertisements are aimed at the tourists with nature-oriented interests.

This scenario is a win-win situation for all concerned, but the biggest winners will be the wildlife residents. They will benefit from heightened awareness of their plights and the enhancement of the habitats in which they live. Nature enthusiasts benefit by having more areas opened for exploration and discovery, while businesses and communities are happy to see new opportunities for financial gain.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Nesting under a house eave, this house sparrow has chosen a
home location typical for the species for thousands of years.

Naturally Texas
The Never Ending War: House Sparrows And Your House
Terry Maxwell, April 20, 2003, San Angelo Standard Times, © 2003

For the first few years that Ann and I lived in our present home in an old, established neighborhood of San Angelo, we tolerated the house sparrow colony on our own and adjacent property. One or two nests were regularly occupied under the east eave of the house where utility line connections provided support. Other pairs of the colony nested across the alley.

We were a tad nervous about the bulky straw nests intermingled among all those lines, including those transmitting electricity, but complacency or rather resignation prevailed and we let them be. Last year, I decided to end their cohabitation with us, revealing foolish ignorance of the war ahead.

Both of the names of this true sparrow, native to the Old World, represent truth in advertising. House sparrows (the English name) indeed prefer nesting on houses or other buildings and erected structures and Passer domesticus (the Latin name) reveals their long and intimate association with man.

Anyway, I crawled up a ladder and with wooden sticks carefully tore down the nests. I did this thing when the nests were being newly refurbished for the start of the nesting season (usually March at our inland latitude), and harbored no eggs. Little did I know that this was only the opening skirmish.

Within hours, both a male and female were carrying straw to the site and by the next day a considerable beginning to a replacement nest was well established. A little reading on the natural history of this persistently successful commensal of man would have better prepared me for the coming battles.

Although there is considerable geographic variation in their pair-formation behavior, in many areas house sparrows pretty much mate for life. Unmated young males of a colony select a desirable, protected nest site, defend it and sing there in hopes of attracting a female. These nest sites become traditional ­ they are the focus of pair-formation and long-term pair-persistence.

After the completion of the nesting season, sexual urges subside and house sparrows form flocks and may move away to seasonally rich food sources ­ grain fields, livestock feeder lots, or, increasingly, backyard bird feeders in urban settings. But when those breeding urges return in late winter, old mates (who still recognize each other away from the nest), that remain alive, return to the original nest site.

My own experiences now confirm that those old nest sites mean something special to these birds. I tore down the second, third, and at least fourth attempts to rebuild under the eave of my house ­ all in the space of a few weeks. Finally, the war was won ­ by me ­ a representative member of an equally persistent species. But I can tell you one thing those birds did win ­ a healthy respect for stubbornness.

They will nest anywhere that people build structures. During my childhood, Mom fought them for years in our large tin barn that housed thousands of chickens. We thought their skin parasites (lice and mites) could be passed on to our chickens. A colleague mutters about them nesting under his carport roof.

The world authority on this species and its close relatives, J. Denis Summers-Smith, relates the most extraordinary house sparrow nesting site stories. In 1949, a pair nested on a house boat, never budging while it plied up and down the Nile River in Egypt. Another pair nested in a sweltering hot steel factory in Wales in the British Isles. In fact, this pair nested on what is called a coke oven ram machine. Coke is superheated coal, used to fuel the steel making, and there is no way to imagine the temperatures endured by these nesting house sparrows.

In 1968, in Kansas, were found several house sparrow nests on oil well pump jacks. The nests were on the structure that moves up and down ­ what I call horse head and some call a "nodding donkey." Apparently, the nests were not located out on the head end that moves through the greatest arc, but nonetheless were on a part of the machine that every 4 seconds moved up
and down about 2 feet. Good grief. How do they even feed babies under those conditions?

My local colony pairs have not attempted to nest on my house again, but we¹ve had other wars that they have won. I don't much attempt anymore to feed native birds in my yard ­ the house sparrows can clean out feeders within an hour.

But following a hearty engorgement on food somewhere in the neighborhood, they still rest on my deck railing, apparently finding the setting cathartic.

I finished this column on Sunday night last. Late Monday, I settled into a deck chair to render my initial sketch of the illustration you see here, fully expecting to draw an imaginary house sparrow nest in the old site. Well, no imagination was required ­ there's a new nest there. Alas, I must soldier on.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Port Aransas Birding
Bill Lindemann, Fredericksburg Standard/Radio Post, Kerrville Daily Times, April 2003, © 2003

The Texas Gulf Coast is a springtime Mecca for birders from all over the country as the millions of migrants pass over the shoreline heading northward to their breeding areas. Many of the birds take the direct approach over the water from the Campeche Peninsula in Mexico to the United States Gulf of Mexico coastline. Some prefer to travel up the coastline over land - a longer, but safer trip. Many great spots along the Texas coast afford opportunities to find them, but the city of Port Aransas, aware of the potential eco-tourism dollars, has developed a number of excellent birding sites.

The first venture the city undertook was to make their wastewater facility available to birders. They built boardwalks and towers for birders to be able close looks at birds that prefer wet habitats. As enticement, the city painted murals on the sides of their water storage tanks of birds that can be seen on the premises. From the boardwalks, birders can see ducks, egrets, shorebirds (and occasionally an alligator) up close and personal - so close that binoculars are not necessary. Native plants are planted around the parking lot perimeter to add to the site's education and esthetic value.

Last week I passed through Port A, as it is known to the locals, and found new construction at Paradise Pond, a migrant trap just south of the water treatment plant mentioned above. A migrant trap is a wooded area along the coast where tired migrants take refuge after completing the 500 plus mile journey over the Gulf of Mexico. Paradise Pond, has been a favorite place for birders, but it was undeveloped and behind private property - not an easy place to view birds around the pond.

Port A officials who have now designated the site as a birding center, have built a parking lot, a concrete sidewalk to the pond and a wonderful board walk out into the pond, making it almost too easy for us hardy birders now. However, we will enjoy with much appreciation the results of the city's efforts. The timing of my visit to the pond was fortunate; a north wind was making travel for the migrants difficult so the tired travelers were taking refuge there.

Thirty or more Black and White Warblers were foraging along the willow tree limbs looking for bugs to replenish their lost body fat. Many of the warblers were within an arm's reach and not taking notice of us gawking birders. There were nine species of warblers working the vegetation around the pond, including Nashville, Yellow-throated, and Black-throated Green warblers and a couple of Louisiana Waterthrushes.

The checklist of birds for the Port Aransas area includes almost 300 species of resident and migrating birds. Located on the north end of Mustang Island, the city is close to Corpus Christi, Padre Island, and Rockport, all good birding venues. Many habitats, i.e. coastal prairies, jetties, beaches, tidal flats and the migrant trap woods give birders many opportunities to find a wide variety of birds. For example, a good bird I was pleased to find was a Peregrine Falcon perched on one of the water towers.

All cities interested in bringing eco-tourism to their area should look at what Port Aransas has done to make birding more accessible and fun. If you want to take in this spring migration spectacular, take a few days off in April and visit Port A and surrounding areas. Birding doesn't get much better, anywhere.

Learning the Birds
When Birds Drop In
Ruth Rogers Erickson, April 17, 2003, The Canadian Record, © 2003

When you live in the country, people drop in. Birds drop in, too.

Just the other day I found a Bob White trapped in my garage. It was in a panic of confusion regarding a glass window, and was hurling itself against the glass trying to get out.

As luck would have it, I knew what to do. I grabbed an empty feed sack and held it up against the glass, so I could envelope the bird with the sack and grab hold of it. When I let it go, it flew off easily enough, so I'm guessing it was fine.

Sometimes birds drop in the house. One day a Phoebe flew into the living room after being briefly blinded by a light on the porch. The next thing I knew it was "Phoebe on the lampshade," "Phoebe on the mantle," for a long while it was "Phoebe on the fridge" --- a frantic Phoebe indeed who eluded every one of my clumsy attempts to shoe her near the door.

If I'd known then about the feed-sack trick, I could have used a towel and gathered her up, but I learned that trick too late. As it was, I was making no progress catching her with my bare hands, but the cat had become interested in the proceedings. The next time the Phoebe flew into reach, the cat made a move and was heading up the stairs with the bird in his mouth when I caught up with them, and I laid down the law.

Somewhat miraculously, the cat opened his mouth and gave me the bird, which was unmarked and apparently unharmed. Its little heart was certainly beating very fast when I carried it to the door. When I put it down on the porch, it fluttered off into the gathering darkness.

Sometimes, they drop from the sky. After a furious storm one night, I found a Merlin hawk dead in the yard. I knew it for a Merlin from its small size and cryptic coloring of grayish tan and white. I felt lucky to get such a close look at the handsome little raptor, but I hated that we had to meet that way.

One day I heard a sound like gunshot, as though someone had fired at my house. Thinking this unlikely, I stepped outside and found a larger hawk than the Merlin, one who had apparently just flown directly into my downstairs window. The big bird was sprawled face down in the dirt taking rapid breaths. While I watched, it turned its head to look at me, and there was a panicky look in its yellow eye.

From head to tail, there were 18 inches of stripy sandy-brown and white. There was yellow around that hooked beak, to match the eyes and feet. I think it was a Prairie Falcon. I could see a wound over one eye that looked recent, but no blood. It was likely he had quite a headache, but was clearly alive --- perhaps he was only stunned.

I went inside and put on gloves and a leather jacket. (I didn't have a clue what to do, but whatever it was I'd need protection.) When I got back outside, the bird was gone without a trace. There wasn't even a mark in the dirt to prove he'd ever been there.

I was glad he'd gathered his wits and flown off, devastated that I hadn't stayed around to watch. It seems to prove that we'd better be on our toes when the birds drop in.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Photo by Mary Curry

Birds and Beyond
A Spring Stroll
Claire Curry, April 2003, Wise County Messenger, © 2003

Mid-afternoon rolled around, warm and slightly windy. I was tired of standing around in the yard fidgeting with my currently small garden. It took me a few minutes to grab all my birding equipment, but I soon started through the yard and along the path to the woods. I went in hope of watching a hummingbird nest that we had recently found.

As I walked I heard a mockingbird singing from the direction of the woods. Each of the several mockingbirds scattered around the property has its favored hang-outs, and the one currently singing preferred a brushy area near the woods. A Bewick’s Wren also declared its dominance of the woods.

In less than ten minutes I arrived near the woods. An unfamiliar, quiet song was emanating from a brush pile. Intrigued, I moved closer to the clump of brush and thorn trees. With the wind I was having a difficult time figuring out precisely where the soft song was coming from. Then, success! A Lincoln’s Sparrow (a migrant through our area) was moving about in the lower parts of the brush pile, singing in an unobtrusive voice.

While I was sitting and writing my notes about the sparrow, I was told that a gnatcatcher nest had been discovered! I hurried through the grass into the woods. There, at the corner where we always see two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers flitting around in the oaks, was the well-hidden nest! The tiny nest was quite a work of art. It’s hard to see, as it is 30 feet up in a tree, tiny, and covered in flakes of lichen, but it is a natural work of art anyway. In fact, the gnatcatcher’s nest seems rather like an overgrown hummingbird nest, the nest I had originally taken my walk to see.

We watched the gnatcatchers a few minutes more, and then found out why one of them was scolding us. The other member of the pair was on the nest! A tell-tale gnatcatcher tail peeked over the edge of the nest. So, we all departed to give the antsy birds peace.

I now decided to head over to the hummingbird nest. I stopped along the path where the hummer’s nest was located. The problem was, though, I couldn’t find the nest! It shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, since hummingbird nests are as camouflaged as a gnatcatcher’s. Plus, they’re a whole lot smaller! I finally realized that I was looking at the wrong spot, and I then relocated the nest.

The female hummingbird perched nearby when I first set up my chair, but after that I didn’t see her much. The nest, which we had discovered two days before, seemed to me to be almost finished. I sat for nearly an hour, and even moved out of sight of the nest, but I don’t think she worked on it. I suppose that she had other important things to do, like eating.

Despite the lack of activity in the hummer department, other birds were around to keep me busy. The resident mockingbird and cardinals sang frequently, while the excited calls of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers popped into the air. After sitting for a while I started to hear other, quieter call notes in the trees. I turned and faced a different direction, and began to see occasional movements in the trees. Another unknown song also piqued my curiosity. I wondered if it might be a louder version of the Lincoln’s Sparrow, but the true singer soon set me straight. A male Yellow-rumped Warbler was singing as he foraged among the leaves. As an extra treat, this winter resident and migrant was in crisp breeding plumage instead of its duller winter plumage.

Another delightful bird, the Chipping Sparrow, was looking for a snack up in the oak trees. It too gave me a thrill with its breeding colors: a rich chestnut crown, a bright white over the eye, and a bold black eyestripe. What a bird!

It occurred to me that I ought to glance at the titmouse nest. Titmice nest in cavities, and this particular hole was a good ways up a dead tree. So although I couldn’t actually look in the nest, I gave a quick look at the tree. I didn’t see anything happening, but the titmice had been seen working on the nest earlier.

After sitting for almost an hour, I was ready to walk again. I headed down the path, and noted a Mourning Dove and a Lincoln’s Sparrow as I went. I found a spot where I could see the tireless mockingbird singing his head off. I watched him for several minutes, and then walked onward. It was almost dinnertime, and about time for me to meander home. As I headed home, I heard the tinkling version of a Grasshopper Sparrow song. The other version of their song is a short “tick” note, followed by a buzz. It may not be impressive to us, but I guess the lady sparrows like it!

Over two hours after I started, I was once more in the front yard. A mockingbird was rambling away from a commanding perch, while Eastern Meadowlarks were whistling their clear songs from areas around the yard. An afternoon walk sure is a pleasant way to end a weekend!

Sunday, April 13, 2003

Naturally Texas
True Sparrows Are The Most Successful Birds On Earth
Terry Maxwell, April 13, 2003 , San Angelo Standard Times, © 2003

How does a student of birds spell success? Surely one way is Passer - a genus of birds native to the Old World but now found just about all over the planet. They belong in the bird family Passeridae – the sparrows. Now, it’s about here that the problems begin with today’s subject.

My budding students of ornithology begin field study by wanting to place all small birds that are not bright blue, yellow, or red into the category of sparrow. In their defense, even professional ornithologists newly encountering small seed-eating birds, couldn’t resist calling them sparrows. Many of our New World buntings (family Emberizidae) are listed as sparrows. And the name is
venerable, extending back through Old English "speerwa" to the more ancient Aryan "spar", meaning to flutter.

But our subject today is limited to the genus Passer in Passeridae, the so-called true sparrows. They number about 20 species. Among them are 13 that the authority J. Denis Summers-Smith called the "black-bibbed sparrows." The males have black on the throat often extending to the chest or upper breast.

The family’s probable origin is in tropical Africa, where there is more variety found today than in any other location. The likely ancestral habitat, and one still favored, is the edge between savannah and woodland. They are mainly ground feeders on seeds, but are naturally tree nesters in contrast to many of our New World bunting-sparrows that are ground nesters.

At least six of these black-bibbed sparrows have the habit of closely associating with the most successful species on earth – humans. They are today true commensals with man. Another two of them, at least occasionally, nest under the eaves of buildings.

One of the commensals, the house sparrow (Passer domesticus), was helped across the Atlantic, opening up a whole new hemisphere to the true sparrows. But long before that event in the mid-19th century, this species was on the move.

Summers-Smith describes the early association between house sparrows and sedentary man and his grain crops. He argued that from a Mediterranean ancestral home 5000 years ago, house sparrows moved north into Europe and were in the British Isles by Roman times.

By 1800 the species had spread east to the steppe grasslands of old Russia and to the Malay Peninsula east of India. Whatever else you may think of them, their success at living off our bounty has been a ticket to the world. They have even been known to colonize far northern locations too harsh in winter for their existence, by living inside buildings, such as cattle barns in Norway.

House sparrows seem best adapted to temperate and somewhat dry climates. In those conditions, the species is seen more away from buildings and out some distance into the countryside.

But it is their resounding success at living with us that amazes. They have been seen feeding on an observation floor of New York’s Empire State Building – 80 floors up. They live, totally, inside many major airport terminals. Some lived and even successfully nested 2000 feet below ground in an English coal mine where they were fed by the miners.

House sparrows were introduced successfully to North America in 1852 and Texas specifically in 1867 in Galveston. William Lloyd did not report them in the Concho Valley in his 1887 publication, but 20 years later, Vernon Bailey found them to be common in San Angelo, Colorado City, and Big Spring.

It’s not a popular thing to describe this pest bird as successful, but biological success is not constrained by niceties. Many a bacterium functioning as an agent of disease is quite successful in any measure of that term. And so as well is Passer domesticus, now perhaps the most widespread bird species on earth.

One of the well-known bird researchers of the lower Great Plains is Richard Johnston of The University of Kansas. Johnston published some 13 research papers on this reviled bird in the 1960s and 70s, some of which I want to share with you in the future.

But I tell you now about Dick Johnston because I have a vivid memory of the man at a science gathering a couple of decades back. He wore a T-shirt emblazoned with an illustration of the house sparrow and labeled "Sparrow Power."

Johnston knows full well how to spell success.

Bird Migration Is An Amazing Event
Ro Wauer, April 13, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Spring in South Texas is an exciting time of year! This is when birds of all colors, sizes, and shapes are passing through our area en route to their nesting grounds in Texas and beyond. An incredibly high percentage of all spring migrants pass through South Texas in April and May. Anyone with even the slightest interested cannot help but be impressed with the varieties and numbers. Folks I visit with this time of year are not only awed, but also filled with questions about bird migration. Here are answers to a few of the more common queries.

Where are the migrants going and where are they coming from? Most of our migrants have spent their winters in the Tropical, from central Mexico to South America; a few may have overwintered in extreme South Texas. These Neotropical migrants come north in spring to nest, fanning out all across North America from Texas to Alaska. Some Arctic shorebirds that winter in southern South America and nest in northern Alaska travel a round-trip distance of well over 13,000 miles.

Most of the songbirds passing through South Texas are Trans-Gulf migrants that leave Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula in the early evening and arrive along the Texas Gulf Coast the following day (depending upon weather conditions), a distance of about 550 miles. Songbirds are able to fly nonstop for 80 to 90 hours. You can watch the night migrants passing overhead on a clear night by setting up a spotting scope aimed at the moon; the abundant birds appear as black specks.

Do all birds migrate at night? Most do, but many others, such as swallows and some flycatchers feed in flight, usually migrate during the daylight hours. We see many of these birds flying north over the fields and woodlands of South Texas. Many raptors also fly during the daylight hours, roost overnight, and head out again in the morning as soon as the day warms up enough for them to take advantage of the rising thermals.

How fast do birds fly? Most long-distance migrants travel between 25 and 40 mph. Flight speeds vary, however. For instance, Purple Martins fly at 27 mph, shorebirds fly between 45 and 55 mph, and hummingbirds may fly up to 55 mpg. Raptors sail along with the prevailing winds, but can fly much faster when necessary; Peregrine Falcons, for example, can dive at about 140 mph.

How high do birds fly? It varies with the topography, but 90% of all migrating birds fly below 5,000 feet above ground level. Many fly much lower so we are able to hear chips on a calm day or night. They tend to fly higher at night when flying over land. The Trans-Gulf migrants usually fly very low, often able to take advantage of even the slightest updrafts.

Do birds migrate in mixed flocks? Mixed flocks of songbirds, ducks, and shorebirds are normal, but some species, such as nighthawks and Chimney Swifts usually stick with their own species. In the fall, several raptors species can often be found within one area, but most hawks also stay with their own. However, many species of hawks and other raptors often roost together at choice sites, so that their morning departures incorrectly give the impression that they are migrating in mixed flocks.

How do birds prepare themselves for migration? Most accumulate great quantities of fat as fuel for their long-distance flights. Many double their weight. The tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird, weighing 4.5 grams, uses 2 grams of fat to fly nonstop for twenty-six hours. A typical bird will loses almost 1% of its body weight per hour while migrating.

What is a bird's signal to migrate? Although the answer is complicated, a simple answer is the increasing hours of daylight in spring. You need not worry about your feeders preventing wintering birds from leaving. Your bird food only helps those birds prepare for their journeys.

Sunday, April 06, 2003

Naturally Texas
Snowy Plovers, Old Friends, Are Back
Terry Maxwell, April 6, 2003, San Angelo Standard Times, © 2003

In the last few days of March, I had my ASU ornithology class on an outing to the Gulf Coast. At least one of those young people - one reared high in the Panhandle grasslands - had never seen the ocean. That's among my thrills in taking young West Texans to the Gulf.

But it is a particular joy in decline. If you can believe it, the first time I took students to Port Aransas - it was about 1978 - over half of that class saw marine water for the first time. You would have thought that ferry to Mustang Island was a space ship. Anyway, my point today is about birds, not ferries or oceans.

For our last day of birding on this trip, we spent a lot of time at Oso Bay in Corpus Christi. As usual, it was stunning. Clouds of dowitchers, stilt sandpipers, least sandpipers, marbled godwits, and black-necked stilts whirled above the sand. All those shorebirds can be seen in lesser numbers on reservoirs in the Concho Valley, but it's the uncountable numbers of them on that organically-rich bay that make Oso so memorable. Anyway, that's really not my point either.

A bird that we did not see that trip, but that we did see on our first day back in San Angelo was snowy plover (Charadrius alexandrinus). It can, of course, be seen coastally in Texas, but its presence out here on these dusty plains has always been special to me.

It was all I could do to get the students to pay attention to the other species hurrying, probing, and sifting along the shore of O. C. Fisher Lake at San Angelo State Park. They were completely taken with those little white plovers.

Plovers live in the same habitats as sandpipers, but they exploit those same areas in different ways. Plovers are visual hunters of invertebrates (mostly insects), whereas just about all sandpipers are tactile probers that insert the bill into sand or mud and feel for prey. That's not a plover thing to do.

Snowies, like all plovers I know, have the peculiar, jerky run and peck way of foraging. It sort of gives them a wind-up toy appearance. Their large head and eyes contribute to the image.

Our snowy plover occurs on every continent, and has a long list of English names, including Kentish plover, Peruvian plover, and Ceylonese plover. Some authorities refer to it as the sandplover, to which you can put the same modifiers such as snowy sandplover.

The prolific author Paul Johnsgard pointed out that this plover is usually found along seacoasts but can be seen in limited numbers inland on "sandy riverbanks, saline flats, and barren reservoir shorelines." Concho Valley snowy plover habitat falls into that barren reservoir shoreline slot. That's not a particularly pleasant feature out here in these drought years, but more often than not our reservoirs seem to be receding and making snowy plover habitat.

O. C. Fisher Lake was built by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers when I was a child in the early 50s. Since those blue jean and black tennis shoe days, I have seen this little plover species nest on its shores just about every year. If they're there, you can't miss them.

In their breeding season, males divide up the mud flats into hotly defended territories. I know that I'm a biologist and not supposed to give in to emotional images, but there are few more enjoyable scenes in nature than a collection of small white wind-up toys running back and forth chasing each other. It's serious business for them, but it will lighten up your day.

Snowy plovers are in trouble in some regions. In our modern world, many beaches are increasingly occupied by people and their vehicles. It seems that it's all we can do to allow these little plovers a few sections of coastal sand to continue what they need to survive.

Our inland plovers, by contrast seem less disturbed - fishermen and sunbathers care little for mudflats. It may not be Oso Bay, but the snowy plovers, pretty much undisturbed, are fighting it out for territories on the mud flats among the half-buried beer cans.

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers Are Arriving in South Texas
Ro Wauer, April 6, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Of all the Neotropical migrants that pass through South Texas, the lovely scissor-tailed flycatcher is probably the most welcome of all. Few birds have the appeal of this charismatic flycatcher. It not only is one of our most beautiful and gregarious birds, but it seems to prefer a relationship with humans, nesting on utility poles and in trees often surprisingly close to our homes and other structures. Its amazing courtship flights and continuous singing tend to give it an additional appeal. It therefore is often called the "Texas bird of paradise." And its arrival in our area is a sure sign that the new season has begun.

The long-tail, brighter males arrive first with the shorter-tailed females appearing a few days later. By then the males have already established territories and are chasing competitors away from preferred sites. But when the ladies arrive, the males will take on a very different persona, performing some amazing courtship flights, ascending to more than 100 feet before sailing back, often with outstanding aerobatics. These dramatic flights include up and down flying, much zigzagging, and even reverse somersaults, usually at great speeds, and with tail flowing and fluttering and wings out to display their salmon-colored underwing linings. All the while he is performing he will be giving cackling-snapping calls. She often will join in the fun. Scissor-tails also give a unique dawn song on their breeding grounds that includes a series of loud stuttered "pup" notes that conclude with an emphatic "perlep" or "peroo."

Like all flycatchers, the scissor-tail's diet is principally insects, at least during their nesting season. Although most insects are captured in flight, scissor-tails will also take insects on the ground, perhaps more often than most flycatchers. Grasshoppers are a significant part of their diet. After nesting and on their wintering grounds, however, they will also consume berries.

Although paired scissor-tails are generally loners, as soon as the youngsters are fledged they will usually join other family groups. In some cases these flocks can include up to 200 individuals. And unlike most other members of the flycatcher family that usually are quite after nesting, scissor-tails continue calling until they leave for their wintering grounds in September or October, throughout their migration, and also on their wintering grounds. These flocks often congregate at choice sites. And 100 or more scissor-tailed flycatchers can create quite a racket.

Many Texans think of this bird as their "state bird" instead of the mockingbird, which is the official state bird. That undoubtedly is because of the charisma of this long-tailed songbird, and also perhaps because the mockingbird is so commonplace. While mockingbirds are full-time residents throughout most of the state, leaving only the far northern portions of the state in winter, scissor-tailed flycatchers normally are present only from March through October. But during that period they can be found in all but Far West Texas, where they occur only occasionally.

By November the vast majority of the summer residents and migrants passing through the state from Oklahoma, Kansas, and southeastern New Mexico have gone south. Recent records, however, suggest that lone birds may remain in South Texas all winter. The rest migrant south to central Mexico and into Panama. There they occur in huge flocks, utilizing open grasslands, pastures and fields.

But by March they are with us again. Few songbirds are as well loved and admired as our lovely scissor-tailed flycatcher.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Burr Williams, Midland Reporter Telegram, April 2, 2003, © 2003

Deborah and I, as did my parents before us, keep journals of our travels. Recently I flipped through my parents' journal volumes - thirty years of weekend, vacation, and retirement wandering fill a thousand pages. I found more than a dozen entries about one roadside park in the Davis Mountains. Two of the earliest entries documented my mom's discovery of a previously unrecorded bird for the state of Texas.

In the first entry, she mentions finding the bird, and details some of its activities. The second entry, a few weeks later, records her efforts to lead other birders to further document the bird. As an aside, she mentioned that the roadside park had been a favorite place to visit for years, so I turned to the albums of their black and white photographs of the vacations of years even further back. Sure enough, the site was featured in several sets of photographs, from the two decades before the commencement of the journals.

My parents were fearless, or foolhardy. They often camped on the side of the road, if a roadside park could not be found. The roadside park in Madera Canyon, ten miles west of Mt. Locke and McDonald Observatory, is on the highest road in Texas. Ponderosa Pines fill the valley. At the head of the valley is Mt. Livermore, the highest peak in the range. I can remember camping with them in Madera Canyon at least a dozen times in my childhood. We would take long walks along the road, identifying plants, watching birds, enjoying the lively bounding of panicked deer when we accidentally startled small groups of does and fawns.

Few people travel the Davis Mountain Loop Road (FM 118) on weekdays of the off seasons of fall, winter, and spring. My dad often added an entry about the numbers of cars over the span of the stay. “Only three vehicles in fifteen hours - one highway patrolman, one highway department vehicle, and one ranch pickup.” Only once in the thousand pages, does he write of strangers approaching their cabover camper with anything other than an offer to provide help, if needed. That time, in the mountains north of the Ghost Ranch west of Taos, several young men woke them at three in the morning, seeking help. He lent them his emergency vehicle repair toolbox, and they came back after daybreak to return it.

One of the reasons for my mom's love of the Madera Canyon roadside park was that there she had a chance to hear or see species of owls that prefer mountain habitat. She never found one species, the pygmy owl, despite a hundred trips to its proper habitat to almost every U.S. mountain range west of the Mississippi River. In the effort to find it, she even went on a high-dollar guided trip in the mountains of southeast Arizona, hiking miles in the dark at age 70, up steep trails with uncertain footing. The trip produced ten species of owls, but not one pygmy owl.

I can remember one evening in Madera, during the early hours of a moonless night, following a hooting Flammulated Owl, the stars barely above the tips of the trees and easily lighting our way. It briefly sat motionless in the beam of a bright flashlight, then hooted and dived into a clump of alligator junipers and out of sight. We then turned out the light, and waited for its next vocalization. A second owl hooted, and after an hour of listening and carefully and quietly moving, we found the nest tree, and the female awaiting its mate to bring food.

Under the pines, junipers and oaks of the roadside park, is a population of a rare species of grass. I have looked for it, but never found it. Its exact location in the park has not been published, to my knowledge. I have walked the ten acres of the park several times, at several seasons, hoping to recognize it. I always visit a patch of silver pony-foot - a species of dichondra I believe might make a good groundcover for the shady landscape. I have never found a seed, so once, and only once, I dug up a tiny clump that grew where visitors often stepped on it. My skills as a horticulturist did not measure up, and it died in the pot, never regaining vigor.

To the south of the roadside park is the old McIvor ranch, now owned by the Nature Conservancy. Careful research by dozens of invited naturalists have revealed several more species of birds previously unrecorded in the state of Texas, as well as a new species of oak. Scientists from all over the nation have come at the Conservancy's request, methodically developing a database of its biodiversity.

I joined John Karges, regional biologist for the Conservancy, on the McIvor, for an Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count a few years ago. We climbed an old ranch road among trees laden with thick sheaths of ice, our skin raw from the cold wind, until we finally climbed off of the north facing slope and into a windless canyon. There, the ice glittered in the beauty that we try to reproduce at Yule. Thousands of trees sparkled gold and silver, and as the sun warmed the scene, the ice began to fall, slipping off of the needles, tinkling with the sound of a harp's upper register. And in the sunlight, dozens of birds gathered, wriggling in abandonment, absorbing the returning warmth.

Two wonderful experiences with people also occurred in the park. One evening, an old cowboy drove up, and after being offered some supper, repaid us with stories of the mountains. His grandfather had been one of Captain John Bullis' renown Seminole-Negro scouts, and his father and uncles had worked on every ranch within a hundred miles, as had he.

Another evening, three old school buses pulled in for the night. After their supper, the traveling bluegrass bandmembers brought out mandolin, banjo, harmonica, guitar, fiddle, mouthharp, jugs, and bucket fiddles and rehearsed their show. I can still hear, when I close my eyes, and get real comfortable, letting my mind go, the incredibly mournful wails of one fiddle song. Then, in my imagination, I see the tall pines reaching high into the sky, black against the Milky Way.

I love Madera Canyon, too.