The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Trees of Texas
Ro Wauer, © 2003

The new book - Trees of Texas by Carmine Stahl and Ria McElvaney - is a winner! This book is a very different from any of the other tree books for Texas because it contains life-sized images of leaves so that anyone can easily compare them with the real thing, making tree identification easier than ever before. The new Trees of Texas will be extremely helpful for students, teachers, field naturalists, and just about anyone interested in identifying and learning more about Texas trees.

This book uses a very simple two-step process for tree identification. I tried it with leaves from my yard and found it very, very easy. For instance, one of my yard leaves contained several large pointed leaflets (compound leaf) with rough edges. The book's key to leaf shapes instructed me to turn to pages 182-197. I then compared my leaf with the images on those pages, and I readily found a match on page 186: Mexican buckeye. Page 186 not only contains exact images of the leaf, but also of the tree's flowers and seed-pods, along with a descriptive narrative.

The author's narrative: "Mexican buckeye produces rich foliage and pretty spring blossoms that resemble the fuchsia clusters of redbud (p.127) flowers except that they are larger and sparser. The interesting seed-pods consist of three compartments, each holding a round, marble-sized black seed. These seeds are toxic to humans, but rural children found a use for them long ago - as marbles...This attractive small tree often develops a shrublike form with several trunks. Despite its common name, it is not a true buckeye (p.211) but rather a cousin of the western soapberry (p.178)...Mexican buckeye thrives in Central, South, and West Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. It has recently received more recognition as an ornamental, and today its admirers often plant it in landscapes outside its native range." Good information, but not too technical or detailed.

This new book contains more than 200 Texas trees, all with images and narratives like the one above for the Mexican buckeye. The majority of the 200 species are native trees, but several "naturalized" trees are included as well. But there is more. The book also includes extensive lists of "Tree Families," with all of the known Texas tree species, as well as a second list of the "Scientific and Common Names." Additional lists include "Introduced Species," 25 species; "Trees by Region," including all ten vegetation regions of the state; "Butterfly Host Trees," only nine, such as hackberry, ash, and willows; "Light and Water Requirements;" "Recipes for Wild Edibles," including pecan pie, acorn bread, mayhaw jelly, and yaupon tea; "Glossary," and "Bibliography." The bibliography includes books and an extensive list of electronic sources. I checked out some of the web pages and discovered tons more of really great information about trees and plants in general.

The two authors include a naturalist and forester, Carmine Stahl, who recently retired from Mercer Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, and Ria McElvaney, an attorney and illustrator. The idea for the book originated with Ria's frustrations in her attempt to learn more about trees. Trees of Texas, with a subtitle "An Easy Guide to Leaf Identification," was published by Texas A&M University Press. It contains 338 pages, 270 b&w photos, and 18 color photos. It is available only in hardcover at $29.95. It should be available in most bookstore, or it can be ordered direct from Texas A&M University Press at 1-800-826-8911.

I personally recommend this marvelous, new book to anyone with even the slightest interest in what trees grow in their yards, students interested in good grades in science or plant taxonomy, or those of us with a curiosity about our great outdoors. - Ro Wauer

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Book Review
God's Country or Devil's Playground
edited by Barney Nelson
Ro Wauer, December 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

This is a book especially for all those who love West Texas, particularly the Big Bend Country and the adjacent wild lands of northern Mexico. It contains a marvelous selection of short and longer articles by a wide assortment of authors, from Edward Abbey to O.W. Williams to your's truly. Article dates extend from John Bartlett's 1850 piece, "Horse-Head Crossing to Delaware Creek," and William's 1908 "The Lobo," to Mary Austin's "Jornada del Mureto," published in 1924, to Kirby Warnock's 1982 piece, "Ghost Lights," above the Marfa lights.

"God's County or Devil's Playground" covers a huge diversity of topics, from geology, such as Kenneth Ragsdale's fascinating article, "Cinnabar," and Walter Prescott Webb's "Wrecked Earth;" various animals, such as Frederick Olmsted's classic "The Mustangs;" to various plants, such as Keith Elliott's "The Marvelous Maligned Mesquite." Other animal articles include some of my long-time favorites, some that I read years ago, but somehow got away. Evelyn Mellerd's 1977 piece on scaled quail - "They Live Here Too - Our Quail" is a favorite, as is Virginia Madison's "Pronghorn," and Vernon Bailey's 1905 classic: "Mexican Bighorn." Of course, William's "The Lobo" is one that should be read by anyone who loves the outdoors. Plus, Roy McBride's "Las Margaritas," about a Mexican wolf that eluded him for years, is one that I had never before read. And I suppose to counterbalance those two wolf pieces there is John Duval's "Mr. Cooper was a Humbug," about being attached by wolves and his incredible escape by climbing into a high snag for the night.

Barney Nelson's selection also includes a few articles that are centered in northern Mexico. The best of all these, of course, is a chapter - "Maderas del Carmens" - from my book, "Naturalist's Mexico." It covers several trips that I took into the highlands of Mexico's Sierra del Carmens. Barney also includes a marvelous 1949 article by Aldo Leopold, "Guacamaja," about his search for the thick-billed parrot. Bob Burleson and David Riskin's "Rural Housing" includes fascinating descriptions of Mexican frontier housing. In addition, Joe Graham's article - "Candelilla Wax" - offers the reader a really good perspective of the candelilla wax industry, including the processing and transportation. And a new translation of Antonio de Espejo's 1583 article, "Exploring the Rios" is also included.

Several articles that might be lumped into an adventure category are included, as well. My favorite is Robert Hill's "Running the Canons of the Rio Grande," a true classic. And "My Final Trip," an article Fred McCarty, describes a near fatal river trip through Santa Elena Canyon. Louis Agassiz Fuertes's "A Letter from the Chisos Mountains, " Herbert Brandt's "Birding at Boot Spring" are two favorites. And Nelson has even included William H. Echols's 1860 article, "The Camel March," about the Army's early experiments on using camels in desert areas.

From the above you can readily see that "God's Country or Devil's Playground" contains a bunch of articles that truly express the essence of the Texas Big Bend and adjacent Mexican frontier region. Nelson, professor at Sul Ross State University at Alpine, introduces six sections of articles with her own perspective. Her anthology contains nearly 60 articles that she believes are the very best nature writing from the Big Bend of Texas. The authors include several well-know writers as well explorers, trappers, cowboys, tourists, historians, and waitresses. Her selection is excellent!

"God's Country or Devil's Playground" was published by the University of Texas Press (ISBN 0-292-75580-5). It contains 347 pages and is available both paperback (at $22.95) and hardcover (at $60.00).

Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, December 2003, © 2004

Once there was a woman who wore a halo of fireflies. It happened on a night stroll with a date down a country road. They stopped to listen for owls. The fireflies were flashing. For some reason, they converged around her head and in her hair. She asked her date to take them out, not aware of his intense "entomophobia." He did not want to look like a wimp, so, marshalling great courage, he managed to pick them off and let them go.

Why are some otherwise sane people afraid of bugs? Creeping, crawling and flying, the six million species have ranged throughout the world for 350 million years, causing disease and destroying crops. The mosquito, for example, is probably our most dangerous animal, bringing dengue fever, malaria, West Nile virus and perhaps the next plague into our lives. Reactions to fire ant, wasp, hornet and bee stings can be fatal. How much damage have the locusts, weevils, fruit flies, tsetse flies, and many others caused us?

At times we have a perversity about our relationship with insects. Hence the boll weevil statue in the South and the killer bee memorial in Hidalgo, Texas. When traveling the mountains of British Columbia, my wife and I stayed in a little town where the newspaper bannered the upcoming spruce budworm festival. This is a pest that destroys many acres of the lovely evergreens that lend character to the north country. Pictured was an array of young ladies competing for the title of Miss Spruce Budworm. The honor must be heavy to bear.

And yet, these invertebrates can be beautiful. Not only butterflies and moths, but beetles and dragonflies are marvelously colored and patterned. Insects are amazing in their variety and structure. Take a look at a walking stick, a mantis or a rhinocerous beetle. Consider their legendary qualities: an ant can lift 450 times its own weight, and a flea can jump 150 times its own length! The sheer reproductive numbers are impressive. If all the offspring of a single fruit fly could live a year, it would produce 25 generations, and the last of these could form a solid ball of bugs measuring 96 million miles in diameter. Fortunately, they lead short lives.("Insects of North America," Alexander and Elsie Klots, Doubleday and Company, New York).

However, we have also learned that insects can be beneficial to their human overlords. The honey bee, for one, and bees in general. No plants! Have you heard of cochineal? This is the red dye which the Native Americans used for blankets, and, I understand, was also adopted by the British for their red coats. This tiny, 1.3 millimeter beetle is a relative of the aphid and can produce a brilliant red when processed. You can see their colonies on prickly pear cactus at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, for example. They look like white powder upon the nopales.

Fireflies are even more interesting. One of our featured speakers at two McAllen Texas Tropics Nature Festivals, Dr. James Lloyd from Florida State University, is one of the world's top experts on the "lightning bug," He has documented their highly variable flashing patterns, which are used for mating. He even trolls for them by using lights on the end of fishing poles! Yes, the flashes can even decoy other fireflies, because the little "glowworm" is a carnivore, and some of the species have cannibalistic propensities.

The chemical which produces their luminosity is being studied for use in detecting diseases. The glow is produced in the underside of the last abdominal segment. The insect uses two layers of cells, one a reflector and one a light producer. Oxygen and luciferase are combined to create greenish yellow to reddish orange glows amounting to 1/40th of a candlepower. The frequency and intensity are regulated by the quantity of the oxygen. This technique could be handy for some of our Valley outages.

Of course, there is the pure romance. People used to collect fireflies and make them into living lanterns for parties. It is pleasant to spend time on a porch during a summer eve watching the fireflies light up your garden.

By the way, the man in the story above can trace his fears back to the toddler stage. His father thought it would be amusing and instructive to drop a handful of grasshoppers on the tray of the lad's high chair, but he forgot that this was usually the place for food! The boy grabbed the creatures and aimed for his mouth. His mother screamed in terror, and there you have the traumatic roots of a phobia. He is much better now especially after learning about so many fascinating insects in the Valley and getting to know the expert entomologists who live here. Still, my wife loves to tease me about that incident long ago. She married me anyway.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

New Year's Resolutions for Nature Lovers
Ro Wauer, December 28, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Christmas has come and gone, and we all are about to turn the next page to a new year, 2004. Wow! Where did 2003 go? It seems it went faster than any other year I can recall. Of course, I am told that time goes by faster with age, and if this last year was any kind of a sample, I would fully agree. I am not, however, admitting to being older than last year, but it apparently has happened nevertheless.

Last New Year's, or was it the year, or two, before that, when I suggestions a number of resolutions for those of you who had not yet made any commitment. Such an effort is not always easy, partly because even those resolutions that I made in the past only last for a few weeks. Then I drift back to status quo. But I want to try again, at least to provide a few suggestions that you might consider. No, they don't include suggestions on being sweeter to your spouse; I assume we already are about at sweet as possible. It certainly is part of my nature. My wife doesn't read these notes until they appear in the newspaper, so who's to argue?

First, and I suspect that not many of my readers (smart and proper folks that they are) need to consider keeping the roadsides clean and neat. But one of my long-standing pet peeves has been finding garbage along backcountry roadsides, especially in adjacent creekbeds. For the few of you who do "Mess with Texas," grow up and start being a responsible citizen. Take your garbage to the dump.

Second, how many folks that place martin houses and other birdhouses out leave them in place all year? Such inaction is intolerable for several reasons! Most importantly, two nonnative birds - European starlings and house sparrows - will take advantage of the houses to produce more offspring. These two species replace many of our native songbirds, and come the next season they will be greater competition for housing and food. We already are seeing some incremental declines of some of our most attracting cavity nesters, such as bluebirds, martins, and crested flycatchers.

A closely related peeve is leaving feeders unattended. I am amazed at the number of folks who purchase feeders, both seed and hummingbird feeders, hang them out in a suitable locations, stock seed or sugar water once or maybe a couple times, but then totally ignore the feeders thereafter. Why spend the money and effort when they become little more than an eyesore?

And fourthly, what about house cats that are left to fend for themselves or are taken out to some country road and deserted? A few friends with cats claim that their cat never kills birds or any other wildlife. But house cats are marvelous creatures that have evolved into true killing machines. Anytime a house cat is left outdoors, unless it is within a closed yard of course, they automatically revert to what made them so successful. And turning cats out into the wilds is to show absolutely no respect for the natural environment that we all must eventually depend upon for our long-term survival.

Well, those are just a few ideas to consider when deciding on resolutions for 2004. I could come up with lots more, but those are foremost in my thinking as a nature writer. But if you still want more, how about establishing a butterfly garden. Almost any sized garden, from a single tub with flowering plants to an acre or more, would contribute considerably to butterfly's well being. Almost all butterflies must feed at flowering plants, and, like hummingbirds, they benefit our nature world in numerous ways.

Still more? How about selecting one of our more worthwhile conservation organizations and making a donation? My favorites include The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Wilderness Society, and Natural Parks Conservation Association. But whatever you decide, may we in 2004 begin to heal our Earth to where it is not continuing to decline. It is a long road, and your help is essential!

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Should Santa's Reindeer Really be Caribou?
Ro Wauer, December 21, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Christmas and reindeer became forevermore united with the memorable words of Clement Moore, "Twas the Night Before Christmas," that introduced the fleet-footed, high-flying companions of Saint Nicholas - Dancer, Prancer, Cupid, Vixen, and the rest. Rudolph with his red nose appeared on the scene long afterwards. No one is quite sure how Santa found his way before the appearance of the most magnificent reindeer of all.

Yet, much of the world, at least those folks living within the Arctic Circle, have been utilizing reindeer long before Clement Moore. The Northern Indians and Eskimos used reindeer much like the North American Indians utilized bison (buffalo); meat and bone marrow for food, hides for clothing and shelter, bones for tools, etc. Although there are no records of when reindeer were first domesticated, reference to a domesticated reindeer appeared in Chinese literature in AD 499. Siberians trained them to pull sleds and for riding.

Although the Old World reindeer were tamed, reindeer, known as caribou in the New World, could not be tamed. Yet, the two genetically are the same, both listed by mammologists in the genus Rangifer. It is unique in the ungulate world because it is the only deer in which both sexes bear antlers, although those of females are somewhat smaller. Even fawns have small spikes that appear two months after birth. Bulls drop their antlers in early winter; does drop theirs in May. And second, it is the only deer that socializes in tremendous herds; a herd of 25 million animals was once recorded in Alaska.

Caribou/reindeer antlers are rather unique in themselves. The beams and brow tines sweep out in almost a semi-circle, and those of the males are semi-palmated (like a spoon), especially the single, flat brow tine that extends down almost to the nose. Their hooves are splayed (like a moose) for walking on snow and ice. Such structures cause minimum damage to the moist tundra, especially important during mass migrations. Their coat is brown with white or gray on the lower parts and on a buttock patch. Height of North American animals is about 50 inches to the shoulder, and it can weigh up to 500 pounds. Old World reindeer are somewhat smaller.

Migratory caribou calve on the tundra in summer, and they winter in sparse forests to the south. They feed principally on "reindeer moss" that becomes covered with deep snow and ice on their summer range, the reason for making the mass movements southward in fall. They are able to dig through moderate snow and ice for food, principally with their feet, but are unable to dig through packed ice.

North American caribou are divided into three groups: Woodland caribou, from the boreal forests and alpine tundra, is the largest. Barren ground caribou uses tiaga forests and tundra and is medium in size. Pearly caribou from high Arctic islands is smaller with shorter legs, face, and ears, and lighter coloration. Woodland caribou once ranged as far south as the United States, but the last Maine caribou was killed in 1901.

Clement Moore, a bible professor at New York's General Theological Seminary, wrote his poem - "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" - as a gift to his children in 1822. But, the obvious question is why Old World reindeers and not New World caribou? Probably, Clement didn't know one from the other. But he was inspired by a plump, bearded Dutchman who took him by sleigh on his errands throughout the snow-covered streets of New York. And as a scholar, he probably drew on the Dutch-American and Norwegian traditions of a magical, gift-giving figure who appeared at Christmas time. And maybe he had read of the German legend of a visitor bearing gifts who entered homes through chimneys.

After all is said and done, Clement Moore was more familiar with reindeer than caribou.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Welcome to the House of the Blue Mockingbird
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, December 17, 2003, © 2004

That might be an appropriate sign at the entrance to the residence of Allen and Kellie Williams and their three young children. Yet it would not fully emphasize the myriad of attractions that delight visitors from all over the world.
You would never suspect what awaits you as you turn off a Pharr main street in a mixed residential and commercial neighborhood. Once inside the gate you are in a one-acre shaded expanse of front yard canopied by thirteen great Texas Liveoaks bordered on the west by a dense row of Texas Ebony and Anaqua. A dead palm, which Allen scavenged from a nearby field and erected in the yard, displays holes where Red-crowned Parrots have recently nested and fledged a chick. Many nesting boxes adorn the trees. One spot has been a regular home for Eastern Screech Owls. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers are also regular occupants of nesting boxes of varying size and shape A large set of playground equipment indicates that not only feathered young are being raised here. Allen often relates how the Black-bellied Whistling chicks have shared the swimming pool with his own children on several occasions.

Great Kiskadees call boisterously as you park near a white pickup with a red sign that reads "Arroyo Reds." The sign advertises upscale river front homes for rent on the Arroyo Colorado where Allen also guides fishing, birding, kayak, and photography trips. You move past a low-lying house which blends into the landscape in the manner of the "organic" architecture of the fabled Frank Lloyd Wright.

On the west side of the house, a gate, arched by a Mexican Love Vine, opens to a trail winding through Valley citrus and Wild Olives amid beds of Blue Mist, Scarlet Sage, Heliotrope and other appetizing greenery for birds and butterflies. Then you arrive at the place of Legend...the fountain and feeding area where hundreds of birders have sat in the chairs and benches to wait eagerly for the phantom, the Blue Mockingbird! This phenomenon from Mexico, a shy bird quite unlike our local Northern Mockingbird in behavior and plumage, first appeared in November of 2002 and has since remained off and on for weeks at a time. Sometimes it vanishes for a while, and although it has not been reported from adjacent yards during those absences, it probably does not stray far.

This ruby-eyed vagrant has been enjoyed by birders from over 42 states, Canada (Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec), England, Scotland, Norway and even Taiwan. The occurrences of arrant avians, such as this rare and beautiful Blue Mockingbird, are peak moments of great delight for birders. The Valley is recognized as a fantastic location to see birds and butterflies which have wandered far from their normal range. When they are first discovered the excitement boils among the birding and butterflying community.. Such was the case of the Two-day Wonder! As a dozen people anxiously awaited the Blue Mocker's appearance, a rather large, scarlet-bellied warbler entered the lower mesquite branches. With all binoculars now focused on this unfamiliar bird fanning its black tail edged in white, the excitement and speculation began. A few minutes later after several field guides were studied, it was determined that a Slate-throated Redstart, another Mexican wanderer and a new species for the Valley, had been attracted to the habitat of the Williamses' back yard. It came; it was seen by many, thanks to the birders' informal "hotlline"; and then it was gone.

What about the person who created this Eden? Allen Williams grew up in Dallas with a nature-loving family. He brought his respect and interest in the outdoors to the Valley in 1990. He is a US Coast Guard-licensed guide and host of "Arroyo Reds." While attending the very first Harlingen RGV Birding Festival, he was inspired by area artist Tony Bennett's program on creating gardens which attract wildlife. He was further intrigued by all the out of state bird watchers he met at Santa Ana NWR. Because of these experiences and the enthusiasm shown by birders and nature lovers in general, he sought to create an oasis of wildlife-attracting habitat which would produce an assortment of seeds, berries, fruits and shelter. In 1997, he began planting drought-resistant vegetation and designing the "paths of glory" that you can now enjoy.

With over 20 species of trees, 43 species of shrubs and lots of ground cover, you may not know where to look! Is it Up or Down? At your feet are the swirled red Turk's Cap flowers, a favorite nectar stop for the many Buff-bellied hummingbirds. The dainty white flowers of the native Plumbago intermixed with the pink, yellow, red and orange-flowered lantanas, et al., are a-flutter with skippers, crescents, checkerspots, fritillaries and many other lepidoptera that you need to view. Above you are compelled to look at wintering or migrating warblers such as the Black-throated Greens and Orange-crowns. A true delight is when they splash about in the fountain, showing off their splendid colors.

For many birders, the reason why the Ruby-crowned Kinglet is so-named becomes clear as its well-concealed rich ruby crest flares brightly during a bath. From the surrounding mesquite and hackberry trees come chirps from Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers foraging closely with Black-Crested Titmice. Curved-billed Thrashers snack on the ever present Fiddlewood berries. Inca Doves sun on the edges of the trails as the much larger White-tipped Doves rustle through the shaded leaves under an aging Huisache tree. A Golden-fronted Woodpecker swoops from behind and noisily lands above the bathing station. With all this activity, it is no surprise that Allen has tallied 114 species of birds on the property and over a dozen more flying over head.

"Plant it, and they will come." Allen suggests that you use native plants when possible but cautions not to be fanatical by restricting yourself to natives only. Calliandra and Hamelia are excellent non-native yet drought-tolerant nectar sources for butterflies and hummingbirds. This seems to be a reasonable approach because many species of birds and butterflies do thrive on the exotics.

Allen's future plans include two ponds, already under excavation, both specifically designed for photographers. Because he knows that Great Kiskadees enjoy fish as much as he does, one pond will be stocked with fish from the local irrigation canals. Following the completion of the ponds, an observation tower will be built to observe more clearly the daily flights of Red-crowned Parrots and the seasonal migration of hawks.

Just outside the gate there is a parking area for school buses. Teachers are invited to visit for a learning experience that would include the right way to reforest the Valley and also learn about and appreciate the birds and butterflies that inhabit this area in greater variety than anywhere else in the United States. If teachers would like to bring their students, they can call Allen at 956-460-9864. Individuals may also arrange private nature tours and landscape consultations.

Here on the border land there are places of special beauty, oases in the mad rush to build and change. These places are lushly green and fascinating in their habitats alive with creatures of rare appeal to the humans who care about the natural world. If you come for a visit, you will realize that this is surely one of the best...and accessible to all. We need to create more of these trails of natural wonder. Allen Williams can show you how it is done.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Christmas begins with Bird Counts
Ro Wauer, December 14, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

For almost 56,000 nature lovers, scattered all across North America, the Christmas Season truly begins with Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs). These counts begin just before Christmas when groups of birders spend a 24-hour period tallying all the birds they can locate within a 15-mile diameter circle. The information obtained, including both bird species and the number of individuals, is later submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the official keeper of the data that has become the most extensive database for winter bird populations anywhere in the world.

Last year, participants tallied 49,456,347 birds of 660 species on 1,585 counts in the United States. Eighty of the U.S. counts produced 150 species or more. Nineteen of those high counts were conducted in Texas, including five of the top ten: Mad Island Marsh with 243 species, Freeport with 231, Corpus Christie with 223, San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) with 199, and Bolivar Peninsula with 187 species. Other Texas CBCs with 150 or more species included Port Aransas (175), Attwater Prairie-Chicken NWR (171), Galveston (170), Houston (170), Rockport (165), Choke Canyon (163), Corpus Christie Flour Bluff (159), Kingsville (159), Sea Rim (158), Santa Ana NWR (157), Laguna Atascosa NWR (1560, Aransas NWR (155), Harlingen (152), and Austin (150). Victoria counters (22 participants) missed the 150 threshold with 135 species and 31,598 individuals. A grand total of 55,994 volunteers participated in the 2002-03 CBCs; 98 counts were undertaken in Texas.

The 2003-04 CBC period begins on December 14 and lasts through January 5. Local counts start with the Mad Island March Count on December 15, Victoria on December 20, and Aransas NWR on December 29. Count coordinators welcome participants, whether experienced birders or not. Anyone wishing to participate in any of these counts should contact the count coordinator: Brent Ortego (576-0022) for Mad Island Marsh, Bill Farnsworth (578-9745) for Victoria, and Barbara Bruns (575-5505) for Aransas. Feeder counters, those individuals that count only the birds that visit their feeders on count day, are also welcome.

For more information on CBCs, including individual counts, bird species, and how the data is used to better understand bird numbers and distribution, go to the Internet. I found tons of data at by simple listing "Christmas Bird Counts." Although the resultant information obtained on CBCs during the last 100-plus years since the program was first established is important and is part of the reasons to help count birds, for many of the volunteers the CBCs are much more.

For many of us the CBCs are as much a part of the holiday as trees and presents. They offer an additional excuse to be outdoors, enjoying nature and our natural heritage. They are a significant part of Christmas.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Robins are Back!
Ro Wauer, December 7, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Robins are Back! Robins are back? Such as announcement means something very different to folks living in the northern states than it does to those of us in South Texas. In the North it means that spring days have arrived, and the robins will remain until winter weather arrives. In South Texas, on the other hand, it means that the northern birds have begun to appear. And although robins probably will be with us throughout the winter months, they do not necessarily remain in a single location, but move about as available food supplies are depleted in one place and they search for another.

Although northern birds, especially those feeding nestlings, rely on earthworms that they find on lawns and in fields, wintering birds rely largely on fruit that they acquire from various shrubs and trees. And they gradually harvest these fruits from site to site. They may move into one area filled with fruiting yaupon and beautyberry, deplete those shrubs, and then may move elsewhere to where bayberry and sumac berries are more plentiful. Robins utilize a wide variety of berries; examples include bayberry, beautyberry, blackberry, greenbriar, hawthorn, various hollies, honeysuckle, juniper, mulberry, poison ivy, pokeberry, pyracantha, sumac, viburnum, and yaupon.

Some winters, robins are super abundant. But other years their numbers are minimum. Wintertime populations in South Texas depend on the available food supply and weather conditions further north; these hardy birds may remain far north of South Texas when berries remain available and mild temperatures prevail. But a good cold snap in the north can bring thousands of robins to our neighborhoods overnight. At times, a flock of robins, flying across the sky, can include many thousands. Christmas Bird Counts tally all birds found within a 15-mile diameter, and the highest number of robins ever was 1,620,000 individuals tallied on Burnet County, Texas, Christmas Count in 1981.

The robin, more probably known as American robin, is probably America's best known bird. It usually is one of the birds we learn as a child from books, toys, nursery rhymes, and even songs. Who has not heard the 1926 classic, "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along?' And there are several books written on this single bird. The best, of course, is the one that I wrote, simply called "The American Robin," published by the University of Texas Press in 1999. Here are some interesting robin facts that I included: Average estimated life span is 1 year and 2 months. Maximum know age is 17 years. Length is 10 to 11 inches. Weight is 14.75 to 16.50 ounces. Adult average body temperature is 109.7 degrees F. Flight speed is 17 to 32 mph. Number of feather is about 2,900. Song description is "cheer-up, cheerily, cheer-up, cheer-up, cheerily."

The American robin's nesting cycle is 27 to 38 days, including 3 to 10 days for nest building, 13 to 15 days for incubation, and 13 to 15 days of nest life. Nest size is 6 to 7 inches across the top and 3 inches high, with an inner cup about 4 inches wide and 2.5 inches deep. Clutch size normally is 4, but ranging from 3 to 7. Food for an average brood is 3.2 pounds in total or 356 feedings daily.

The robin name was derived from the little red-breasted European robin, totally unrelated to our American robin. Early settlers to North America bestowed that cherished name on the red-breasted American thrush because of its friendly manner and close relationship with people, behavior that reminded them of the European robin back home.

But back to South Texas and our wintertime robins. They will remain in our general area, moving about in search of fresh berries, until early spring when the urge to return to their ancestral nesting grounds takes them northward. But they are here for now, so enjoy this cheery, red-breasted songbird.