The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Monday, June 30, 2003

Bobcats North and South
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, June 2003, © 2004

My wife and I drove around the high curve of the ski hill and dropped down where a wall of balsam, spruce and oak opened up to show the lake. The surface stretched away for nine miles, a flat pan of ice under the gray afternoon sky. At the bottom of the slope was a short bridge over one of the creeks which feed the big waters. I glanced toward the lake, hoping to see an eagle on a hunger sweep for open water and good fishing. Instead there was something on the ice below the bridge, a mammal hunched there, but I could not identify it. We used our binoculars and were excited to see that it was a Bobcat. It was staring down at a hole which opened at its feet. About 25 yards away there was another mammal, a muskrat eyes on the predator. They were both as still as the frozen winterscape. Swiftly the scene changed. The cat plunged into the hole up to its hindquarters. The muskrat did not move. Next, out of the hole came the cat spraying water as it shook another muskrat vised in its jaws! Then it swung away and padded across into the gray-brown marsh grass where it disappeared. We looked at each other truly thrilled with the chance to see this unusual hunting experience. However, the other muskrat simply walked away. And there you have the difference between man and muskrat.

We do not often see the big cats, although they occasionally sprint across the road in front of the car, or slip like shadows along our river trail. They are hunted and trapped in the north, and sometimes the local newspaper features a story with photographs showing the Nimrods posed with their kill. They look a bit silly since the Bobcat seldom reaches 28 pounds. In Texas we have seen them at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a reliable spot to see them.

This attractive creature, sometimes called the Red Lynx because of rusty markings, has adapted well to the encroachment of man ranging the entire U. S. except for the central agricultural states. Apparently, it is a lover of woodlands. The cat is a pure meat-eater feeding on everything from eggs to small deer. The latter would be a challenge because of the Bobcat' s size and the fact that it is not a courser. Its long legs do help in leaping, however. It is just not built for speed like the Cheetah, so the usual catch is mice, rabbits, and ground birds One advantage is its hearing; there are tufts of fur on the ears whcih serve as antennae. As a matter of fact, if these are removed, hearing is less acute!

The males have a wide territory, at times as much as 40 square miles, but the females stay close to home. This is a solitary mammal except for breeding season. Their disposition might be a factor..they are spitfires. A friend who restores injured wildlife to health ranks the Bobcat as the most difficult patient. Bears, badgers, foxes and deer are treatable, but a Bobcat kitten is almost impossible to handle, spitting, snarling and clawing.

We come to an interesting consideration. This mammal is one of the prime examples of Bergmann's Rule, devised by a 19th Century German scientist who proved that animals in the northern parts of the world are larger and bulkier than those of the same species in the southern regions. Why? You did ask, right? It seems that larger body size retains heat better than the smaller, and conversely, the smaller the size the more heat is dissipated thereby cooling the creature. You can see then why Bobcats in South Texas should want to be smaller. And wouldn't we all? This rule has been found to apply to many species, such as Downy Woodpeckers and House Sparrows, not just mammals.

I was always astounded by the Richard Moore programs showing those Texas White-tailed Deer with antler racks like chandeliers Things are bigger in Texas, it is said, but I could not believe their size until I realized that these are much smaller-bodied bucks than the northern counterparts. This was pointed out when a wildlife photographer and naturalist visited our place in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan. As the deer fed in our clearing, he exclaimed, "Look at the leg and body size of those deer!" If you have been through a Michigan winter, you would hope for more bulk.

We have come from the icy cold to the heat of Texas, from big cats to smaller cats and from little bucks to big bucks....Just like wandering through nature's paths, one experience or idea leads to others. Whether you are in the north or in the Valley, take the path.

Shots that Count
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, June 2003, © 2004

Mostly they wait. They wait in torrid heat or numbing cold. Rain drenches them. Snow covers them. Insects sting them. They wade shoulder deep in ponds and marshes or trod the desert and climb rocky slopes under the weight of tripods and cameras. These patient men and women are dedicated to making the ultimate portrayal of a living creature. It could be for competition in a photo contest like that of the Valley Land Fund, a book, an article, or a collection in a gallery. These, however, are not the true motivations. Why do they go through it all? Because they have to... just as a sculptor has to sculpt or a painter has to paint. It is an inner drive to depict what they love, the perfection of nature. They are probably never satisfied completely with the results in the same way that an artist is never content. That would be a defeat, because then there would be no advancement in their art. This is a personal quest for perfection. Their days and nights are filled with moments of excitement, disappointment, amusement and physical trial. That is what makes it one of the most absorbing pursuits in the world. And so they have stories to tell.

Dr. Steve Bentsen, a Valley photographer with a national reputation, reflects on some of the hazards involved. "I was photographing at a water hole one summer, and the hawks that came always saw me moving through the "camo" cloth, so I triple-wrapped one afternon and got myself so entwined that I couldn't gracefully exit the blind in a hurry. This worked well for the hawks but presented a bit of an issue when I sensed movement and looked down to discover that a rattler had joined me in the blind. The option was to hold still uintil he moved on. Another photographer, Tom Urban, was also camo'd next to me and could see my dilemma. He calmly offered me advice not to move...and went on shooting."

Another time, videographer and jornalist Richard Moore and Steve erected a scaffolding to photograph nesting hawks. They were both about 12 to 15 feet up the platform. Suddenly one of its legs began to sink in the sand, and the whole structure started to topple in slow motion. The sandy soil, however, which had caused the leg to sink, also made for a soft landing. If you run into Steve, ask him about the time he was smacked in the back of the head by a Great Horned Owl.

Laura Moore, also an accomplished member of the craft, was photographing with a friend. Their focus was on a mother bobcat and her three kittens. While Mom was facing away from the camera, one kitten started playing with her tail. Laura's friend was so impressed she uttered an exclamation, and the kitten bolted for cover. The mother spun about and growled at the blind for at least 45 seconds. This was both memorable and unnerving, but the real threat came from Laura and was directed toward the "friend." She was not happy about missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Who knows how long the family would have played there? This could account for the fact that many photographers go solo.

Besides blinds, another tactic is to use certain attractions like bait. At an Audubon convention years ago, a photographer showed slides of his work shooting Andean Condors as he crouched on the slope of a spectacular peak. He said that the next slide would show his bird feeder. When it popped up, there were the huge condors gathered around the feeder...a dead horse.

Larry Ditto, along with his partner Greg Lasley, a Grand Prize Winner in the Valley Land Fund Wildlife Photo Contest, has good scorpion story: "Several years ago, noted nature photographer, Tupper Ansel Blake, invited me to use a "floating" blind he'd left on the bank of a remote pond at Laguna Atascosa NWR. The blind was really just a truck inner tube draped with a camouflage cover. I arrived at the pond one afternoon several days after Blake had departed for other areas in the Valley. It was early summer; the Least Grebes had just hatched, and I was anxious to wade in and start shooting. With photo equipment in hand, I stepped into the tube, dragged the dark material over my head, and eased into the water. For the first time in my like, I felt claustrophobic, like being in a small submarine with no lights. After pausing to get my breathing rhythm back to normal, I began easing toward a family of grebes. Preoccupied with my quarry, I almost didn't notice the odd sensation of something crawling along my right arm. Then panic took over, and I jerked away the dark cover to reveal a huge scorpion, making his way down my arm with tail raised and pincers spread. Imagine the shock to those poor grebes when what seemed like an harmless nutria nest suddenly turned into flying camo cloth, flailing arms and spewing water. Why the tube didn't flip and spill thousand dollars worth of camera, lens and film into the water, no one will ever know, but it didn't. "All that flinging and flailing sent my monster flying into the water. Guess what? Scorpions can't swim...he sank like a rock! It was another hour before the grebes and I calmed down so that I could begin shooting again. The lesson here is make sure you check your equipment first."

There are occasions when Fortune smiles, and you chance upon a moment of pure gold. VLF Photo Contest Director Ruth Hoyt was shooting one day when she looked down to see a Green Anole, the little lizard we all have on the sides of our houses. Its wide open mouth was clasping shut the jaws of a small Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. What a smooth defensive ploy! The shot provided Ruth with a scene for her business card and many others who shared vicariously a unique wildlife event, the kind every photographer dreams about. I wonder...would this be the Old West standoff?

More on Hummingbirds
Bill Lindemann, Fredericksburg Standard/Radio Post, Kerrville Daily Times, June 2003, © 2003

Last Sunday I spent some time in Vahn Adams backyard near Johnson City admiring his two hummingbird visitors from Central America. I was lucky to get a good photograph of the mature Green Violet-ear hummingbird. Although Green Violet-ears seem to show up almost every summer in the Hill Country, the Adam's visitors were special in several ways. They were the first pair (not necessarily a mated pair) to appear at a feeder at the same time, and they have stayed for 16 days. Often these birds are skittish of people being around, but the presence of birders did not appear to affect them.

The Adamses moved back to their hometown last year after retirement and have a very nice place for birds to congregate. When the violet-ears were not commanding center stage, there were Painted Buntings, Lesser Goldfinches, Black-chinned Hummingbirds and many of the other local birds coming in for a bit to eat, or a sip of water. As the Adamses add native plants and increase cover and food plants, even more birds will come calling.

In the 16 days they were in the Adam's backyard, more than 100 birders from around Texas came to see them. Adams had inquires from interested birders from as far away as New York. Those people who came to Johnson City in most cases not only saw the birds, but also had good looks at them. Seeing them around the feeders with our Black-chinned Hummingbirds left no question about the visitors being different from our hummers. The violet-ear's larger size and dark plumage definitely set them apart.

Hopefully the birds will not be frightened away by a thunderstorm passing through the Johnson City area at the present time. If they do not return to the Adams' back yard, they might be calling on your feeders. Keep a vigilant eye on the feeders for the next month or so for them.

On Saturday, I had the pleasure to visit the Nature Conservancy's Love Creek Preserve near Medina with the Hill Country master naturalist's organization. I got to experience a first for me in seeing a hummingbird nest with two eggs in it. The nest was on a sycamore tree limb about six feet above Love Creek. One of the master naturalists saw the female Black-chinned Hummingbird leave the nest as we passed by. I have found several nests, but never containing eggs. The nest is made of plant down and spider webs. The top opening was about the size of a quarter coin. The two white eggs were larger than I would have expected for such a tiny bird. Another egg would have been capacity for the nest.

Hummingbirds stick small lichen and moss fragments on the nest to give it excellent camouflage. The builder had the nest well anchored with spider web "guy-wires" to keep it solidly in place. The nest is built to allow for expansion as the offspring grow larger. The size of the opening can double by the time the young birds fledge.

Please check with Vahn Adams (telephone: 830-868-2558) about the presence of the Green Violet-ears before traveling toJohnson City. Again I extend thanks on behalf of all of the visiting birders to the Adamses for sharing their unusual visitors.

Photo by Mary Curry

Birds and Beyond
Don't Mess with Baby Birds
Claire Curry, June 2003, Wise County Messenger, © 2003

You may find it on the ground, in a path, on a sidewalk, or in your dog or cat’s mouth. You could find it while taking a walk, while gardening, or letting out the pet. What is this? It’s a baby bird, seemingly helpless and orphaned, hopping around on the ground.

At this time of year, many young birds are getting ready to leave the nest. Some, like the familiar Killdeer, hatch covered in down (precocial) and depart their nest almost immediately. Others, such as the Blue Jay, hatch helpless and naked (atricial) and stay in the nest for a while. Once they have become feathered, the still-flightless birds hop out of the nest. This is perfectly normal. However, people sometimes find these birds on the ground, and try to “raise” the bird.

If you happen to discover a young bird on the ground, first determine if it actually needs help. If it is a nestling (helpless and naked or with some down), find its nest and put it back in. Parent birds do not care about human scent. If you can’t find the nest, make a substitute out of a small container, and line it with grass or leaves. More often, though, fledglings (the feathered but flightless young birds) are found. They should be left alone. The parent birds will feed them, even though they are on the ground. The young birds will make sure that Mom and Dad know they are hungry! If the young bird is in imminent danger from a cat or dog, keep the pets in house, locked up, or away from the bird until it can fly. If the bird is in danger of being trampled, you can set it in a bush or a tree.

For more information, please visit and click on “Found Baby Bird”. The American Bird Conservancy’s website is also useful concerning the dangers of outdoor domestic cats, which can prey on young birds.

Sunday, June 29, 2003

Spoonbills and Wood Storks
Ro Wauer, June 29, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

This is the time of year that some of our oddest birds put in their appearance. Although roseate spoonbills can usually be found in South Texas year-round, wood storks reside in our ponds and resacas only during the summer months. Both are large waders that are hard to miss, in flight as well as when feeding.

Spoonbills might be considered the "pink elephants" of the bird world. These birds are almost three feet tall and with a wingspan of about 50 inches. But their most fascinating features include their pinkish color and strange bill. Seeing a pair of large pink birds flying by can not only make one wonder about one's eyesight, but also question what or how much was consumed the night before. Not many birds come in pink! But yes, this one - most properly known as roseate spoonbill due to its color - shows lots of pink in flight. Breeding adults possess bright pink wings.

The spoonbill name, however, is derived from the bird's really strange flattened or spatulate bill, widest at the tip. Wading spoonbills utilize their partly opened bill to sift through mud while feeding in ponds. They sweep their head side to side. Tiny organs inside their bill are able to detect small animals such as various invertebrates, fish and frogs. They also are able to locate food visually.

Nesting birds frequent islands along the coast or further inland where their nesting sites are well enough protected from predators. A colonial nester, some colonies can include a dozen or more pairs, and often at sites also utilized by a variety of herons and egrets. But spoonbills often feed even further inland at ponds and other wetlands.

Wood storks also nest on islands and similar localities, but always south of the border, such as on mangrove islands in Veracruz, Mexico. Only post-nesting wood storks are found in Texas. These taller waders begin to arrive in South Texas in late May or June, and they can be fairly common at certain localities by late June into July. Although the two species - spoonbills and wood storks - are not related, both can sometimes be found feeding side-by-side in the same wetland.

Wood storks are even larger than spoonbills. Wood storks can be 40 inches tall and with a wingspan of more than 60 inches. In flight, they can be misidentified as white pelicans because of the black-and-white plumage. But white pelicans are long gone to their breeding grounds in the northwestern portion of the United States by the time wood storks put in their appearance. A flying wood stork shows white wings with a broad black border on the trailing edge. And they're long all-dark legs stick out behind.

Feeding behavior of wood storks is quite different than that of spoonbills. Wood storks wade slowly about a pond with its partially open and rather tender bill submerged in the water. When detecting an animal by feel or sight it will immediately snap its bill shut, capturing its prey. Researchers have found that a wading wood stork will shuffle its feet as it walks about a pond, presumably to flush prey. Like spoonbills, its diet consists largely of aquatic invertebrates and some small vertebrates, such as fish, frogs and snakes.

Both spoonbills and wood storks seem to be holding their own in Texas, but some populations, such as those in Florida, have considerably declined in recent years. The greatest threat to these large waders is habitat removal, when wetlands are cleared for malls and homesites. But they also are susceptible to the numerous pesticides and herbicides used by farmers and ranchers in fields surrounding their essential feeding sites. Spoonbills and wood storks, like so many of our wild neighbors, are dependent upon human beings for their long-term survival.

Sunday, June 22, 2003

Matagorda County Birding Nature Center
Ro Wauer, June 22, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

A few days ago I made my fourth visit to Bay City's new Matagorda County Birding Center. Matagorda County will be included in my butterfly site guide for Texas, that is about ready to send to the publisher (Texas A&M University Press). The gardens at the Nature Center attract a wide assortment of butterflies, providing a pretty good perspective of what can be found throughout much of the area. Exceptions include a few species that might be restricted to the immediate area of the coast, such as Salt Marsh and Obscure Skippers.

Bay City's nature center is more than a few gardens that attract butterflies, however. The 34-acre center grounds include a good variety of natural habitats that add to the value and importance of the site. The ponded area, surrounded by willows and other trees, is most impressive. I recorded more than a dozen viceroys, butterflies that utilize willows as a hostplant, around the pond and nectaring on the adjacent gardens. The pond also was supporting green herons. And several other birds, such as Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and Carolina wrens, were found in the immediate vicinity. A red-shouldered hawk passed overhead, undoubtedly nesting nearby.

The pond also had attracted a number of dragonflies. I was able to identify only a few of these, but I was impressed with the numbers of common green darners; roseate, twelve-spotted, and great blue skimmers; Eastern pondhawks, and common whitetails. I also found a number of damselflies. In time, the ponded area, including the north end that is more marsh than pond, will attract a whole new set of dragonflies and damselflies, many that are not currently known for Matagorda County. The Odonate hobby (watching dragonflies and damselflies) is gathering more and more interest, and I can imagine Bay City's nature center becoming a must visit site for those enthusiasts.

The center also includes a small stream that flows through the eastern side of area, where there is a woodland of hackberry, cedar elm, and other trees. That area looked to me like a great place for screech-owls. A trail that circles through the woodland and along the east side offers easy access into that habitat. Other trails provide good access throughout the center grounds.

I spent about four hours wandering around the area, during which time I recorded 34 species of butterflies. That's pretty good, considering the area has only 34 acres. My grand total butterfly number for my four visits now includes 52 species. Besides the number of viceroys that occur there, several other species have impressed me. For instance, I have never missed seeing monarchs. While monarchs are migrants only in most of Texas, there is a full-time population along the Gulf Coast, and Bay City apparently is one of those places where one can expect to see them most of the year.

White-striped longtail is another really special butterfly that I found there recently as well as on previous occasions. This is a skipper with an extremely long tail and a bright white slash along the hindwings. This butterfly is a tropical species that in recent years has been found all along the Gulf Coast. And the single most common species was the pearl crescent, a fairly small butterfly with a black and orange pattern. It was commonplace in all the weedy areas, near the pond and as well as along the streams.

Perhaps my favorite butterfly was the Texan crescent, similar to the pearl crescent, but mostly black with numerous, scattered white spots, including a line of white spots across the hindwings, and reddish markings near the base of the wings. This species, with a wingspan of only about 1.5-inch, is pure Texan. Although it has been recorded west of the state, along the southern borders of New Mexico and Arizona, it is one of our specialty butterflies that people come to Texas to see. In my mind it should be the official Texas butterfly, rather than the monarch, a species that occurs throughout North America. I would definitely vote for Texan crescent!

Monday, June 16, 2003

Zebra Heliconian
Photo © 2003 Ro Wauer

Zebras Provide a Great Welcome Home!
Ro Wauer, June 16, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

After a trip to Lubbock to give a talk on "Naturalist's Big Bend" to the Llano Estacado Audubon Society, and with stops to see butterflies en route up and back, I found the rarest of all back home in my own yard. In fact, a zebra heliconian was the first butterfly found that next morning. And as I watching that gorgeous creature, two others appeared as if by magic. This sighting is especially interesting because none were seen in my yard at all the last couple years. They last appeared there two years ago.

Now, for many of my naturalist friends, who think zebras only apply to the striped horse of the African plains, this zebra is a tropical butterfly that is fairly common at certain localities to the south. For example, they can almost always to found at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. But zebras sometimes stray northward by early summer. It has been recorded as far north as Colorado and Kansas, and as far west as southeastern Arizona. So, finding zebras in Victoria is not totally unexpected, but seeing one of these gorgeous, long-winged butterflies close-up and personal in your own yard is pretty exciting.

Zebra heliconians, or sometimes referred to as zebra longwings, have a wingspan of about 3 inches. They are easy to identify because of their very distinct wing pattern of yellow stripes on a black background. They also possess a series of yellow dots across the hindwings, with a rosy pink patch at each tip. No other butterfly looks even close. And the zebra's flight is also distinct. Their flight usually is slow and fluttering, with considerable sailing and drifting. When disturbed, however, they can swiftly dart to safety.

My zebras starting nectaring on butterfly plant (Buddelia sp.) flowers. They would nectar awhile and they fly out to circle or to wander down the edge of my brushy yard. But they soon wandered back to again feed on the Buddelia flowers. Zebras first gather minute amounts of pollen on the knobby tips of the proboscis that they dissolve with a fluid; it is then able to drink that liquid to obtain nutrients in the usual manner.

Zebras are considered to be among the most intelligent of all our butterflies. Males and females roost together in low shrubbery each evening, sometimes (especially in the Tropics) in clusters of 60 to 70 individuals. And in mating, the male is attracted to the female pupae by scent. According to researchers, the male is able to open the chrysalis with his abdomen just before emergence, and he mates with the still unreleased female. He then deposits a repellent pheromone on the tip of the female's abdomen, which repels other males and thereby prevents her from mating again.

The female, once she emerges and begins to fly, lays a few eggs each day over a period of several weeks or months. She may deposit up to one thousand eggs, depending upon an adequate diet of nutrients. The average life span of a zebra heliconian is usually less than four months. During that time she usually stays within a few hundred yards of its home territory. But each successive brood may gradually move northward, so that products of the Lower Rio Grande Valley breeders can begin to appear along the central Gulf Coast in June or July.

The closely related Julia heliconian, with a similar range and behavior, can also be found in the Coastal Bend on occasion. It too is a long-winged butterfly, but rather than being banded black-and-yellow, it is all orange color. Males are brighter orange than the females, but both possess brownish bands and smudges on the underside on their wings.

Zebra and julia host plants, species that provide food for their larvae, are limited to passion flowers. Since these plants are native throughout much of the state, there is a chance that zebras and julias can colonize local sites in Texas, weather permitting. Finding three zebras at once suggests that there may be a colony of zebras in the area. Whether my zebras are only visitors or will reproduce and stay around all summer is still a question. But whatever happens, they are most welcome!

Sunday, June 15, 2003

Green Heron
Bill Lindemann, Fredericksburg Standard/Radio Post, Kerrville Daily Times, June 2003, © 2003

Lurking somewhere along a water area near you this summer will be the smallest of the shore patrol of egrets and herons stealthily searching for a fish, frog, large insect or anything else looking attractive - as a meal. Most of the Green Heron's length (size) is divided among its feet, neck and bill; what is left could be described as "chunky." Egrets and herons could best be described as appearing graceful rather than being beautiful, but the Green Heron has a colorful array of plumage feathers.

Its former name, "Green-backed Heron," more aptly describes its appearance, as most of the remaining parts of the heron are chestnut-brown, yellow and orange. Its back is more blue-green than green coloring which looks good with its dark crown. Its breast is a rich chestnut color that contrasts with its whitish belly. Mother Nature gave it a light central breast stripe to help it blend into the grassy areas where it hunts. The bird's feet are generally yellowish green, but during the breeding season the male's legs
turn orange.

Young Green Herons have streaked breast pattering, which helps them hide from their predators until they have learned all the survival skills. Nature has many schemes to protect young and immature birds and animals. Most prevalent it is plumage camouflage, but other protection schemes include young being odorless to avoid leaving any scent. A bird's greatest survival
risk is during its earliest days of existence.

The Green Heron is a summer resident of the eastern one-half of the country, in the southwest area and along the western coast. It winters in Florida, the Gulf coast, northwest Mexico and up the Pacific coast. A couple winters ago, one decided it was not up to traveling south and settled in at the lake in Lady Bird Johnson Park in Fredericksburg. We had a light winter (did it know this in advance?) and it survived in good shape. Often wildlife seem to be better long range weather forecasters than humans.

Most summers I have had one set up territory along Live Oak Creek on my place, so I have enjoyed watching it hunt along the water's edge. The viewing is best when it thinks that I haven't seen him and he goes through his normal hunting routine. Ever vigilant for anything that moves in or near the water, this heron displays extreme patience and goes into his super slow motion mode. His neck is coiled and ready to strike whenever his prey gets within reach. With feet firmly planted, the head and bill propel forward into the fish or small frog. Success reigns more often than failure.

If you surprise a Green Heron while it is hunting, the bird will let out a loud "skee-op" as it takes flight. It also sends out a burst of "white-wash" as it gets airborne; maybe the heron uses this action much like our spacecraft use rocket boosters on take-off. This act has brought the bird some less than desirable nick-names, but to them making a successful escape is more important than picking up a colorful name. Green Herons take refuge in trees during the day to sleep and rest until they are ready to resume hunting.

If you see one of these diminutive herons, take some time and watch it perform its slow motion, sneak up and attack routines. You will enjoy, if you are as patient as the hunter.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Birds and Brooms
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, June 2003, © 2004

Bird Song Birds and Brooms: It is 3 a.m. Do you know where your wife is? I know where mine was one morning. She was outside the bedroom window wielding a broom to stop a Northern Mockingbird from keeping us awake. Even that poet of the mockingbird, Walt Whitman, would have used more than a rhyme scheme to end the serenade.

Another relative of this bird rudely stirred me before dawn every day for a week. I must admit I was impressed. Instead of counting sheep, I counted the variations in his repertoire, which amounted to 40 different songs, including imitations of chachalacas, grackles and kiskadees. The rest was pure improvisation, I think, unless he had taken a vacation in the jungles of Sumatra.

That is not the best, however; it is said that some mockers can do about 400 noises, including chainsaws and dogs barking. Even better, the Brown Thrasher may deliver over 1000 different tunes. Not at my window, I hope.

Our favorite may be the Winter Wren, smallest of its family at about 4 inches and the most musical, in our opinion. They nest in our northern woods in the root systems of overturned cedars. From there or a stump their tunes bubble, cascade, trill and run the scale. When they pause, they might bounce up and down and squeak like a mouse. These are the first birds we hear when we return in May.

Ernie and the Owl: A former colleague arrived on his motorcycle to spend a couple of days. That evening we sat around the campfire and reminisced. Suddenly, a Great Horned Owl boomed three deep hoots from just beyond the firelight. Ernie the Biker Man jerked up his head and cried out, "Why do they do that?" I guess the answer was to scare prey. At the time it seemed an odd question.

The Barred Owls in our woods speak the usual, "Who cooks for you?" noted in all the field guides, and it really sounds like that. They also play Hallowe'en and send maniacal eerie laughter into the nights. It has something to do with mating season.

Ave Maria: Another beloved song is the sad, clear whistle of the Greater Pewee, an unromantic name for a flycatcher of the West. (One spent time last year at Anzalduas County Park to the delight of birders). We first heard its song one bright morning in a Southeastern Arizona canyon. One would swear that it is saying "Ave Maria" in an imitation of the hymn.

Birds and Words: If you are a birder, you probably know Roger Tory Peterson's method of including in his field guides phrases that help identify the songs of birds. (Theodore Roosevelt had a similar method.) For example, the White-throated Sparrow says, "O Canada, Canada," except in New England where they think it calls, "O Sam Peabody." The Eastern Towhee commands, "Drink your Tea." In the Valley, folks maintain that the chachalacas rap out, "Wake him up, Wake him up." And you know they do.

This is an effective way to learn the songs, but we had a neighbor who took this technique beyond reason. One day she brought me a written description of the song of a bird she heard in her backyard. It went like this: "In the woods. In the woods. Here I am. Here I am. Listen here. I am a good singer. Don't you think? You can't see me. Ha. Ha." This was a songster of some complexity. Whew! Roger Tory, come back.

The Henslow's Hit: Finally, the best one of all is perhaps the little Henslow's Sparrow, a grassland species with streaks, an olive complexion and a bill like a little Roman nose. He prepares for his aria by perching in a tall grass. He throws back his head and burst forth with, "Hiccup!" That's it. But the girls love it.

Poets like Shelley, Keats and Whitman have written great poems about the beauty of bird songs. The delight of hearing the spring chorus and the musical quality of avian vocalization and its amazing variety have led naturalists to study them in depth. The world would be poorer without them....most of the time.

Sunday, June 08, 2003

Coots are Rails, Not Ducks
Ro Wauer, The Victoria Advocate, June 8, 2003, © 2003

After a recent nature note about mottled ducks, an acquaintance told me that I had forgotten about the abundant coots when I stated that the only common summertime ducks in South Texas were wood and mottled ducks. But I had not forgotten about coots, because those all-black waterbirds are not ducks at all, but members of the rail family. Coots are more closely related to the clapper rail that is commonplace along the coastal wetlands.

Properly called, "American coot," but also known as "mudhen," coots are full-time residents of South Texas and almost everywhere else in the state. They are most abundant in winter, when a few to hundreds can be expected in almost every lake or pond in Texas. Congregations of 1500 or more coots are not unexpected at some area lakes in winter.

Coots are easily identified by their relatively small size, all-black plumage, except for a white undertail patch, white bill and frontal shield (upper portion of bill), sometimes with a small red patch, and red eyes. Although they spend most of their time in the water, they also come out onto the land where they wander about searching for food. Then, the adults' yellowish legs are obvious.

Coots are true opportunists, able to feed on a wide variety of materials. In the water, they will take almost any kind of edible foods, including algae, and will often dip underwater for submerged plants. They are able to dive to as much as 25 feet in deeper water for bottom-growing plants. On land, they commonly graze on grassy areas, including golfcourses and parks. They seem to get along very well on land, able to run quite fast when threatened. Stems, leaves, roots, and bits of trashfoods are taken whenever available.

Coot behavior is fascinating, and has been the subject of considerable research over the years. They are extremely territorial, in spite of spending a good deal of their time in large flocks. However, on their breeding grounds, males can be extremely aggressive. Kent Rylander, in "The Behavior of Texas Birds," points out that they "often rear up and attack each other with their sharp-clawed feet. The white frontal shields help paired birds recognize each other." They will also vent their emotions against an intruder or competitor with explosive cacks, clucks, coos, and wails.

Like other members of the rail family, coots build floating nests made of cattails and other marsh plants. They may build up to nine optional nests, and may use two nests at a time. They then place 8 to 12 eggs on these platforms, and both parents participate in the incubation. The eggs hatch in about two weeks, and within three or four days the young are out and about swimming alongside their parents. But the youngsters are among the least graceful of all marsh birds. Called "spalatterers," they seem to scramble across the surface of the water with wings flapping in an amusing manner. They and their parents have been called "aquatic pigeons."

Rylander includes the following paragraph in his fascinating book: "American coots are the most aquatic members of the family Raillidae. They are better adapted for diving than dabblers and many other ducks, as their feet are set back on the body and their toes bear lateral flaps. Like grebes and diving ducks, they must run across the water when taking flight. It is said that when severely frightened they dive and cling to underwater vegetation, sometimes until they drown."

Friday, June 06, 2003

Interactions with Ruffed Grouse
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, June 2003, © 2004

Living on the same planet with other animals, we have interactions which can be amusing, horrifying or exciting for us and the "other-bloods," as one writer once called them. We hear about raccons in the chimney, opossums in the laundry, bears in the kitchen and rattlesnakes under the hood -- even car/deer encounters where the poor animal ends up in the front seat beside the driver. On the friendly side, there are pet fawns, rehabilitated hawks and wolves crossed with German shepherds.

One example of the thrilling kind occurred to my wife Sharron and me in northern Michigan. It may not have been so for the creature. We had just bought our summer place, a woods on a river, and were enjoying sitting outside in the clearing among the big trees, reading and waiting for the scattered birdseed to attract something. We looked up from our books when a Ruffed Grouse stepped out of the shadows and circled us, pecking at the feed. This is a much-desired game bird not usually pigeon-like in an affinity for human companionship. Its circles about us grew tighter, and I must admit that the hair on the back of my neck began to rise. It was an eerie encounter. `We stopped breathing, frozen in wonder. Suddenly, my wife's eyes opened wider. There was good reason, because the bird had hopped to the back of her lawn chair. You know those times when you say, "If I'd only had a camera" --- well, I did, and I snapped the bird and the wife, both looking surprised. I know we thought that this must be a pet, but who keeps a pet grouse? They don't sing like canaries, and they don't talk like parrots. But they are delicious, I hear.

After a few minutes, the bird dropped off the chair, fed a bit more and then strolled casually into the woods. We were dazed. The next day we were still talking about it when the bird returned. This time Sharron held out some seed, and the grouse accepted it from her hand. Every day, we were treated to the same experience. We tried bunchberries, a `grouse favorite. They were a big hit. Then. after a few weeks, the bird disappeared.

We were concerned that tameness had softened its natural wildness and caution and that some predator had taken it. I wrote the state's number one expert on galliformes (chicken-like birds) describing the behavior. His reply indicated that grouse do indeed respond to chainsaws and other small motor sounds, even approaching lumbermen at their work in the big timber, because what they hear approximates the mating season drumming for which this species is known. The thrumming noise of their wingbeats is quite dramatic, beginning slowly and so low in pitch that you feel it first in your chest, the tempo building in a crescendo as its wings go faster and faster. This fails to explain why were visited in the clearing that first time.

We were relieved when Ruff returned after two weeks. The rest of that magical summer many of our guests were also able to feed the bird, and a neighbor boy told us he had been driving his motorbike down the road when a grouse flew out of the trees and landed on his handlebars! We were not the only friends it had.

When fall came, we reluctantly had to return to our home downstate. The next summer no grouse appeared. We did not like to think of what may have happened to a creature which had lost its natural fear of people.

We still delight in hearing their drumming, and one even performed on our front deck. On the other hand, we do not delight in a habit they have of eating fermented berries and launching suicide flights into our vehicle windows. Their top speed is rocket velocity. Once we returned home to find my studio window shattered, glass shards on the floor and embedded in a candle across the room. There were nicks in the ceiling caused by the grouse which now lay dead under a table. Both cats were hiding in the bedroom -- under the bed. My carving chair was right in front of that window; I often quiver to think what might have happened to the back of my head if I had been home working. I can see the headline: "Bird Carver Decapitated by Bird."

Interaction can be dangerous.

One summer over 25 years after the Ruff experience, whenever my wife drove the garden tractor out to the road to pick up the mail, a grouse would dash out of the woods, run alongside and peck at the tires. This one would not be fed, but like many of the creatures in our woods, it reminded us that there are "other-bloods" who live there, too.

Sunday, June 01, 2003

Why Everyone Should Love Dung Beetles
Ro Wauer, June 1, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Most "bugs," especially those closely associated with dung, face an up-hill battle for respect, much less appreciation, by the majority of human beings. Yet, dung beetles are not only fascinating to watch, they also are extremely important to a healthy soil, by recycling our natural resources. And a healthy soil serves as a cornerstone for the well being of the majority of our native plants and animals.

Dung beetles, also known as scarab beetles, tumblebugs, or "poop-rollers," are fascinating creatures. Our North American species are seldom more than an inch in length, although one African species that processes elephant dung is 2.5 inches long. All are dark-colored beetles, sometimes shiny and brown, green and orange, or black in color, with club-shaped antennae. They possess a sort of brush-like sieve mouths, for slurping wet dung. Males often possess a horn or toothlike projection on their back. Dung beetle's appearance is one that only another dung beetle can truly appreciate.

Although dung beetles are commonplace in healthy soil communities, they are seldom noticed. But when they are noticed, they usually are seen going about their work in a very business-like way, rolling manure into balls, sometimes larger than themselves, and rolling the balls across the terrain (often a considerable distance) to underground tunnels constructed by both male and female beetles. Malcolm Beck and John Howard Garrett, in "Texas Bug Book," state that "This is the only known case among insects where the male aids in providing for the young."

Female dung beetles lay a single egg in each dung ball that serves as both an incubator and food source for the larvae. Once a tunnel is filled with dung balls, the tunnel, that may be more than 18 inches deep, is back-filled, and the adults fly off in search of fresh treasure. New adults eventually dig their way out and immediately begin their search for fresh manure. They usually over winter in the soil as larvae inside brood balls.

Watching one or a pair of dung beetles rolling dung can be fascinating, especially when they are struggling across a terrain filled with obstacles. They walk on their front legs, going backward, using their hind legs to guide their treasure. It is obvious that dung beetles love dung. As ecologist Pat Richardson wrote, "They slurp it, haul it, roll it, fight about it, and bury it...They don't bite or spit or sting. They simple live, eat, sleep and dream dung." However, there is a good deal to learn about the importance of dung beetles. Researchers have discovered that dung beetles "will bury a ton of wet manure per acre per day and remove 90 percent of the surface material... A horse pad can disappear underground in 24 hours, leaving only a soft fluffy layer of undigested plant material."

In a dung beetle fact sheet, Pat explains the immediate benefits of dung beetles on pasture and rangeland thusly: by "reduced fouling of available forage, breaking life cycle of pest flies and internal parasites (those whose eggs or larvae incubate in dung), improved soil aeration, increased soil organic matter, nitrogen and moisture, increased water infiltration in soil (reduced erosion and flooding), removal of non-point source pollution from the watershed, and improved soil foodweb health (in turn producing healthier vegetation). On pasture and rangeland, we routinely measure double and more often triple water infiltration rates where dung beetles have buried a cowpat."

She also points out that a colleague "estimated than an adequate population of dung beetles on pastures throughout the USA could save cattle raisers two billion dollars annually just from increased grazing, improved nitrogen recycling, reduced parasitism and reduced pest flies." Today's pastures and rangelands often lack dung beetles, due principally to the use of insecticides and parasiticides.

The story of the lowly dung beetle is a fascinating one, and demonstrates better than most the value of each and every creature within our world. Even the lowest and less obvious has a fascinating life history, and one that often is extremely beneficial to our long-term health and survival.