The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Friday, May 30, 2003

Tales of the Ringtail
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, May 2003, © 2004

"I remember one incident from the days when I was the assistant manager at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge," relates wildlife biologist Stephen Labuda, now with the South Texas Refuge Complex.

"I got a call one morning from some folks down the road, near Bluefields. They were a family living in a small house in the middle of brushy fields. It was in the spring, and the weather was cool, so the evening before they had been in their living room watching TV with the windows open. Soon they heard their many dogs barking outside, and at first thought nothing of it. The dogs frequently chased opossums and armadillos into their holes in the ground. Soon the dogs' barks got louder and louder. Suddenly, a Ringtail jumped into their living room and ran between them and the TV. Right behind it came eight or nine hounds in hot pursuit. The Ringtail led them, dogs and people, into the bedroom, where it jumped out another open window, ran a short distance from the house and then up an old hackberry tree. The people were able to catch it with ropes, nets and a burlap bag. After the call, I traveled to their home where they produced the bag with the mammal still inside, proof that their story was true. I was surprised because my experience with this creature had involved animals in the Trans-Pecos and Edwards Plateau of Texas. This specimen, 20 miles east of Santa Ana, was not out of the species range, however. Later, I released it in a heavily wooded area on the Rio Grande not far from where it had been caught."

One of the country's most elegant and interesting mammals, the Ring-tailed Cat ranges from California and Oregon to Arizona (it is their state animal), New Mexico and Texas. However, you may be surprised to know that this "cat" is not really a cat! It is Bassariscus astutus, a relative of the Raccoon with which it shares some of the same characteristics such as a mask and a banded tail. However, there are distinct differences. The Ringtail's mask seems more like white-rimmed spectacles, and the tail? Oh, what a tail it is! A banner, a marvel, a pride of a tail! It is a long, luxuriant plume of beauty, and in the smaller, tawnier Texas subspecies, the black bands go completely around against the whitish background. This definitely reminds you of the spectacular Ring-tailed Lemur, the primate of the island of Madagascar.

The "cat" is sleekly modeled and considered beautiful because of its coloration, striking markings and soft fur. The feisty males measure about thirty inches from nose to tail tip, weighing a mere two and a half pounds. The gentler females are only slightly smaller. Its foxy appearance leads to one of its many names. the Raccoon Fox. Other monikers: the Miner's Cat (because they seemed happy to catch mice in caves, early prospectors made them pets); Cacomistle; and Civet Cat, incorrectly named after a European mammal.

The Ringtail is a nocturnal predator which hunts with its mate for insects, birds and rodents in habitat like cactus plains, rocky cliffs and chaparral. An adept climber, it is very much at home in trees where it makes a mossy nest in hollows, fairly safe havens for raising a family.. A litter averages about three or four. The young are born blind and naked, but they develop rapidly, and in five weeks they are weaned and off on the hunting trail with the parents.

These little wonders do seem to tangle occasionally with humans. Texas naturalist John Tveten writes: "Our most memorable encounter with a Ringtail was when I was leading a Smithsonian travel program raft trip through the Grand Canyon.

On a rainy night, My wife Gloria and I had put our sleeping bags out on a sandy beach beneath a rock wall flanking the Colorado River and had pulled a tarp over us in an effort to keep dry. Just as we were falling asleep, a prowling Ringtail decided to seek shelter, too. It crawled in between us on the pillows. Of course, it startled us, and we both sat up suddenly. The tarp went blowing down the beach in the driving rain, and the Ringtail was so startled that it turned a backward somersault and scurried off into the rocks. There we sat, soaked by the rain, laughing uproariously at the surprised looks on our faces and what seemed to be an equally startled expression on the face of the opportunistic Ringtail."

These wonderful mammals are out there in the South Texas dark. They are to be cherished for their attractive and engaging character, a part of the world of the night hunters we seldom see. You may be the lucky one.

Exotic Birds in the Hill Country
Bill Lindemann, Fredericksburg Standard/Radio Post, Kerrville Daily Times, May 2003, © 2003


Occasionally I get reports from readers of sightings of unusual birds here in the Hill Country. Generally they are parrots or parakeets that have likely escaped from their keepers, but sometimes other species are seen. Most of these birds have been introduced into the pet trade from foreign countries, some legally and some illegally. Most of the escapees do not survive long in the wild because they can't find adequate food, or they become prey to predators.

I have read that approximately a million birds are brought into our country every year and of these, one third are illegal. Many of the smuggled birds do not survive their transport. Because many of these birds command large dollar amounts, profit fuels the illegal trade. As these birds are captured for illegal trade, the species' survival in their native areas is greatly stressed.

Recently I learned of a Monk Parakeet being seen at a feeder in Kerrville. He was likely an escapee. Monk Parakeets have survived in some areas of the country and have formed fairly large colonies in proximity to cities. For the most part these parakeets have not been a problem, but in their native Argentina, they are considered an agricultural pest. To avoid such a problem in this country, many of these colonies have been eradicated, or their numbers reduced to the point that they are harmless to nearby agricultural business.

I do not think that there are enough Monk Parakeets in the Hill Country for residents to be worried about their becoming pests. There are enough backyard feeders to sustain them for a while, but their chances of survival are low. If one appears at your feeder, just enjoy it while it is visiting. Budgerigars, natives of Australia, and other common pet birds may also escape from time to time, but as with the Monk Parakeets they will not likely present any problem to our community.

I have had reports of strange looking duck-like geese, most often the Egyptian Goose, being seen in the area. I know that a pair has been at Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park in Fredericksburg for years and they have produced goslings. Offspring of these long-legged, masked geese have likely ventured away from Fredericksburg and may be found on farm and ranch ponds.
As their numbers are very small, these birds not likely to have any impact on our native duck and geese populations.

I believe there is little chance exotic birds will ever become the problem that exotic animals, like blackbuck and axis deer, will become on our resident white-tailed deer population and our ecology. These animals have been introduced slowly and have adapted to the climate and plants in our region; therefore, when they escape, they are likely to reproduce in large numbers and negatively impact our region. Birds, like European Starlings and House Sparrows, which were also introduced in our country, have not only survived, but have become pests. I think they are the exception and not the rule.

If you find someone's "Polly" in your back yard, just enjoy it while it is there. It will not become a threat to our environment. Once these parrot family members taste freedom, they become very difficult to trap, or retrieve. Most birders do not add them to their life lists as they are out of their natural element.

Sunday, May 25, 2003

The Mottled Duck is a True South Texas Specialty
Ro Wauer, May 25, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Although as many as two dozen duck species occur in South Texas during the winter months, only a few remain and nest. And only two species - wood and mottled ducks - can be expected in summer with certainty. The wood duck frequents woodland ponds, where it nests in cavities of trees, boxes, and the like. The mottled duck occurs in more open ponds and marshlands, in both fresh and brackish habitats. It nests on the ground on streambanks and similar wetlands, but it sometimes nests at considerable distance from wetland feeding sites. In a sense, the mottled duck is the typical "dabbling duck" of South Texas.

Mottled ducks seldom receive the recognition they so rightly deserve. Although they are commonplace along all the coastal areas of the state, they seldom are recognized as something special. Perhaps it is because of their very unassuming plumage. They lack the glamour of most other ducks. Even the closely related mallard seems to get more recognition, probably because the male mallard is easily identified by its all-green head and cinnamon chest. And the wood duck is considered one of the world's most beautiful ducks; males possess a myriad of colors, along with a gorgeous crest.

Mottled ducks resemble female mallards or black ducks. Black ducks do not occur in Texas, and wild mallards usually are present in South Texas only in winter. So, the female mallard look-alike, so common year-round, is the mottled duck. Its name was derived from its mottled appearance, brown to tawny color, and with a bluish speculum (wing bar) with a narrow white outer edge. Their throat is buffy, and their bill is yellowish, but not as bright as that of mallards. And in flight, mottled ducks show their all-brown to cinnamon body and silvery-white wing linings.

Another interesting characteristic of mottled ducks is the constant close association with their mate. More often than not, pairs are usually seen together, both in flight and when feeding. And because of their preferred coastal habitats, a mottled duck diet contains a considerable amount of animal food, far more than mallards and most other puddle ducks. They feed principally on mollusks, snails, crustaceans, fish, and insects, but will also take some grass, grains, seeds, aquatic vegetation, and berries. They construct their nest of grasses, rushes, aquatic vegetation, and reeds, and they line their nests with down, fine breast feathers. Females lay 8 to 10 eggs, and the female does all the incubation. During the incubation time the drakes will spend most of their time in bachelor parties. Once the young are able to leave the nest, the hen leads the young to feeding sites where they often forage independently. At about this time is when she will again associate with her mate.

Although mottled ducks are most abundant along the Gulf Coast, from Mexico to Florida, they do rarely occur inland. And in those cases, they are known to hybridize with mallards. The results are ducks that may be difficult to tell whether they are a mottled duck or a mallard. But so far researchers have not found any hybridization within the coastal plains, where mottled duck are dominant.

Our mottled ducks are not the most colorful and charismatic of ducks, but they are the single most common waterfowl found in Coastal Texas in summer.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

For the Love of Birds
Bill Lindemann, Fredericksburg Standard/Radio Post, Kerrville Daily Times, May 2003, © 2003

Of the 90 million people in North America who spend some time watching birds during the year, I doubt few of these birders could match the passion and love for birds that Hanna Richard had during her lifetime. Hanna left us this week, but she also left those who knew her a legacy of caring for the feathered creatures she loved, especially hummingbirds. For the past many
years, Hanna banded hummingbirds so that ornithologists could learn more about these tiny, colorful flying machines.

Hanna and her husband Artie retired to Ingram from New York City and together they birded all of the special birding places in Texas and the Southwest. On short notice they would pack up and head to the place where a special or rare bird had been sighted. Being excellent birders, they generally were successful in finding their quarry. When not in pursuit of a rare bird or just making a birding trip to a special place, Hanna used her back yard as her haven to work with hummingbirds.

Placing a tiny band on a hummingbird's leg requires more patience that Job ever imagined. Watching Hanna handle a hummingbird was a special treat and demonstrated her love and affection for the birds as much so as a skilled nurse caring for one of her patients. Hanna would make the required measurements, identify the bird's species and gender, take its weight and place the numbered band on its leg before releasing it back to the wild. Included in this process is detailed note taking, the part that keeps me from engaging in this activity.

Hanna told me that her interest in banding started on Long Island in New York where she got involved with a hawk-banding program around a major airport. This adventure sparked an interest in birds that would stay with her for the rest of her life. She obtained the necessary training and licensing that is required to perform the banding operation. Scientists use the banding process to gather data on birds as well as track them in their travels. The bands, which are placed on one leg, and the banding process
cause the birds no harm.

Hanna and Artie's back yard had no special features to attract hummingbirds, but in a normal summer, Hanna would band well over a thousand individuals there. We think that we are feeding just a few hummingbirds, but in fact thousands might be stopping at our feeders for a sip of sugar water. Some of Hanna's banded birds were found in places like Florida and the Pacific Northwest, so these birds drifted far from Ingram in their travels. On the other hand, she often encountered birds that she had banded in the past - some several years previously.

Hanna as an individual was a special person. She was one of those people who spoke her mind and generally was not one to waste words. Her stature was not tall, but that never bothered her as far as I could tell. Hanna possessed a sharp wit, one that took some time to appreciate. Her compassion and love was evident in one visit with her tending to her hummingbirds. She was
special in so many ways and all of us who knew her will miss her spirit that set her apart. Her friends will be reminded of that spirit when they watch the birds she loved most.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

Common Nighthawk are Not Hawks but Goatsuckers
Ro Wauer, May 18, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

This common summertime bird is known by a number of names, including "booming nighthawk," due to its loud calls; and also "bullbat," because it flies at night and often is mistaken for a huge bat. One can usually hear this bird in the evening and early morning hours over its breeding grounds, where it makes deep dives, giving loud booming noises at the bottom of each dive. The calls also have been described as nasal "peents" or "beerp" sounds. The bullbat term is derived from its habit of flying at night and its bat-like flight. And during the nesting season, when feeding young, it also can be expected during the daylight hours.

Nighthawks are often improperly associated with hawks, probably because of their name, but belong to a completely different family of birds, the Caprimulgids or nightjars. Other North American nightjars include the lesser nighthawk of the arid Southwest; chuck-will's-widow, of the Southeast; whip-poor-will, of the northeast and West Texas mountains; common poorwill, found throughout much of the western United States; and common pauraque, the largest of the family and found only in extreme South Texas. A couple other family members, such as Antillian nighthawk and buff-collared nightjar, occur in the U.S. only in South Florida and extreme southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, respectively. All are characterized by huge mouths, used for capturing insects, and their nighttime activities.

The two most similar species are the common and lesser nighthawks that may actually overlap in some South Texas counties. The common nighthawk is the larger of the two, but size alone can be difficult to discern. Lesser nighthawks never dive or call like their larger cousins, but call is a low growling sound and they usually fly close to the ground. In flight, the smaller lesser nighthawk shows a white band across the wings very near the tip, while the white band of the common nighthawk is halfway between the wingtip and bend of the wing.

Both nighthawks are ground nesters, using a scrape on the ground or other flat surface, where they place two olive-white eggs. White the lesser nighthawk usually is found in wild areas, the common nighthawk has adapted very well to civilization. It even nests on flat roofs of various buildings, including malls. It is not unusual, therefore, to find these birds flying about mall parking lots in their search for insect prey. They typically fly high overhead where they chase down flying insects and capture them in their extremely wide mouth. They can be extremely acrobatic in their pursuit. They may even come to the ground when insect populations are more common there, especially when they are required to obtain addition prey to feed hungry young. Nighthawks are proven insect eaters, consuming mosquitoes and numerous other kinds of pests. One study revealed that one nighthawk stomach contained 2,175 flying ants. The adults will feed the nestlings by regurgitation.

Common nighthawks normally are present in the Central Gulf Coast region only from April into October. They then migrate southward to the Tropics, as far south as South America. They often travel in great numbers; there are records of flocks numbering almost 1000 individuals, "flying at high altitudes instead of flying in their typical erratic manner," according to Kent Rylander's book, "The Behavior of Texas Birds." We can often find numerous nighthawks resting on fence posts and wires during migration time.

Although nighthawks are most properly known as nightjars of the family Caprimuligidae, the term goatsucker comes from a legend that claims that these insect eaters suck milk from goats at night. Of the 67 known kinds of nightjars, worldwide, all are insect eaters only.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Sounds of Spring and Summer
Bill Lindemann, Fredericksburg Standard/Radio Post, Kerrville Daily Times, May 2003, © 2003

Every day more and more of the summer bird residents are taking their places among the permanent residents as this is a busy time of the year for all birds. The males are trying to establish their territories, defend the territory from intruders and seek a mate while the females are looking for nest sites, adjusting their diets to produce healthy eggs and, like the males, looking for attractive mates. We as birders do not see much of what is going on in the daily lives of our bird neighbors, but we can hear them as they tune up for the summer chorus.

When I was out in the garden a few days ago I heard a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, my first indication that these summer birds have arrived. As this bird is also known as the "rainbird," its appearance is very timely because we need rain again. This cuckoo gets its nickname because it often calls just prior to the arrival of summer thunderstorms. I hope to hear soon the rapid staccato of "kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk" followed by a "kakakowlp-kwolp," a series which sounds as if the cuckoo it tried to swallow all of those "kuks" at one time.

Another spring and summer sound is Northern Mockingbird's seemingly never ending assortment of phrases, hash calls, imitated calls of other birds and general sounds the bird recently heard. When this bird does not have a mate, it might carry on this singing binge for days, not stopping even at night. It is fun to watch him add a little choreography to his concert as he rises from his perch and descends back to his perch with a few wing flutters and aerobatics.

The beautiful and sleek Scissor-tailed Flycatcher adds cackling sounds from a lofty perch in the area. As he gets excited in doing his song, he, like the mockingbird will take to the air and perform aerobatic maneuvers during which he opens and closes his long black and white tail feathers. It is during these flights that he displays the bright peach red colors generally hidden under his wings. The sights and sounds of this flycatcher is one of the better displays of the spring and summer.

As the sun sets after a long day, the Chuck-wills-widow tunes up for his all night calling sessions. A member of the nighthawk family, the Chuck-wills-widow makes a four note call which sounds like its name. I sometimes wonder when they take a break to catch a bug or two for dinner, as they can call for long periods. If the birds sets up his station near an open bedroom window, it can be a little nerve racking. Several times I have had to go out and "encourage them" to move further away so that I could get a good night's sleep.

Having grown up in Central Texas, I have fond memories of the summer calls of another nighthawk, the Common Nighthawk, or "bullbat." Unfortunately they are not as common in our area as they were twenty years ago, but it is always fun to hear them make their whirring and booming sounds during a dive in their flight. They seem to be more common further north than here in Central Texas.

I have not heard from some members of the summer chorus yet, like the Painted Bunting, but in time they will all be at their stations chiming in with songs and calls. I have mentioned only a few of the songsters, but they make for summer fun.

Monday, May 05, 2003

Conservation and Preservation: Land Stewardship
Bill Lindemann, Fredericksburg Standard/Radio Post, Kerrville Daily Times, May 2003, © 2003

As a naturalist I am concerned about the long term vitality of the Texas Hill Country. We enjoy a wonderful natural heritage and it is important to me to do what I can to insure that our future generations have that privilege as well. Our birds and other wildlife depend on us to conserve and preserve their habitats for their future generations.

Last week I expressed some of my concerns about the status of the once incredible ecological diversity found in our state and mentioned a recent meeting in Blanco of organizations interested in conserving and preserving our land for future generations. Today I want to look briefly at a couple of options that we as landowners and residents can do to be better land stewards.

Birds and other animals need three elements to survive: food, water and cover (shelter). Two hundred years ago our state was covered with vast grassland prairies and savannahs. Today, many bird species dependant on grassland habitats are threatened. From a conservation point of view I believe that we have to take steps to return our land to conditions where the three ingredients of survival exist and flourish. Restoring our grasses provides the basic building block of good land stewardship for the future.

Besides being an essential part of the food chain for animals, grasses anchor the soil, allow rainwater to permeate to aquifers, restore carbon to the soils and provide cover to both plants and animals. Many years of overgrazing, conversion of grassland to farmland, and industrial and urban development have all but decimated our once thriving grasslands. Soil loss, water runoff, and the invasion of water consuming plants like juniper, have taken a toll of our Hill Country land, but hope is not lost. Restoration can be achieved as exemplified by the work done on the Bamberger Ranch Preserve near Johnson City.

Over 35 years ago J. David Bamberger began applying good land stewardship practices. Bamberger converted 5,000 acres of what he called the worst land in Blanco County into a thriving grassland which rejuvenated aquifers, stabilized the soil and provided food and cover not only to wildlife but domestic animals as well. Over a 30-year census survey on the ranch, the number of bird species has increased every year from less than 50 species to 169 species. The key is habitat restoration. What works on the Bamberger Ranch Preserve will work on any parcel of land of any size in the Hill Country.

What can we do as landowners to preserve our good native habitats? In the limited space I have, I want to introduce an option landowners might want to consider to preserve their land. Private landowners who elect to preserve the natural character of their property can work in partnership with a non-profit land trust, such as the Hill Country Land Trust, to donate a conservation easement on their property. A conservation easement is a deed restriction placed on the land to protect such resources as productive agricultural land, water, wildlife habitat, historic sites and scenic views. Over time the property may change owners, but each successive owner will be bound by the terms of the easement.

The Hill Country Land Trust's primary activity is to accept and hold conservation easements on appropriate properties, with an emphasis on land in a 14 county area of the Texas Hill Country. For more information on conservation easements, or alternative programs to protect land, please call 830-997-0027. Please remember that better habitats translate to a higher diversity of birds and all wildlife.

Saturday, May 03, 2003

Some Lessons Gleaned from Nature
Susan M. Sander, May 3, 2003, American Association of University Women lecture, © 2003


Twenty years ago I uprooted myself from a small island in Lake Michigan and moved to the Texas Hill Country. For the past two decades I've been reading the landscape -to learn its secrets, its underlying themes, and to understand the role of its players, both wild and human. As a curious naturalist I've learned a few things.


Lesson 1: “It all depends,”

This may seem ambiguous, but it's full of truth. All is not what it seems at first impression, or on the surface. There are many sides to each story. It depends on your perspective, whether you are human or a bird, whether you manage your land for economics or nature. Whether your view is long or short.


Lesson 2: If you don't like the weather, wait 10 minutes.


This is especially true during the shift of seasons, such as spring and fall. For many years I had the sneaky suspicion that the reason it flooded during the last weekend of May had to do with tempting Fate by holding two major public events outdoors. Actually this is the start of the hurricane season, and storms in the Gulf of Mexico can play havoc 200-plus miles inland.


During winter we can go from a balmy 60° even 80° then plummet to 30° in short time if a Blue Norther blows in. During my third winter 13 inches of snow fell and the pipes froze. One winter the Guadalupe River froze over in downtown Kerrville. Of course, all was back to Normal (whatever that is) within a couple of days.


Which brings us to RAIN: If we want spring wildflowers “It depends” on whether we had rain in the preceding fall and winter months. Plant life depends on rain. Blooms are sparked by rain. Our drinking water, ultimately, depends on rain.


Lesson 3: God willing and the creeks don't rise.


It depends on where the rain falls if we'll get a rise in a creek or the river. The Edwards Plateau is a land of canyons and the birthplace of seven river systems. Therefore, rain falling on the Divide might drain into one river basin but not the next. In the past 20 years I've experienced three 100-year floods. (But then again, we've only been watching the weather in this area since the mid-1800s.) Nonetheless, I've learned that it's wise to heed flood gauges at low-water crossings. And that one can hydroplane even on a county road due to run-off.


Lesson 4: Weather averages don't mean a thing.


The Chamber of Commerce proclaims our average annual rainfall is 32 inches. But we can get 10 inches in one day and nothing for months on end. After months of drought, during the final week of June 2002, 43 inches fell in my yard yielding an acre-foot of water (325,851 gallons). However, the weather data is recorded 10 miles away where only 8 inches fell, so it won't go down in the record books.


Someone once said that Texas weather is really “year round droughts punctuated by rain events.” Our plants tell us so. Hidden in the green blanket of wildflowers and native grasses are cactus and yucca, desert plants that do just fine during droughts.


Lesson 5: One inch can mean a world of difference.


It can take 500 years to make one inch of topsoil in this region. The hillsides are blanketed by a veneer of green vegetation rooted in very thin soil, in many areas only an inch deep or even less. Consequently, there is little organic matter to act as a sponge when it rains for below is hundreds of feet of limestone. Which means that even a 1-inch rain can result in a river rise if it comes in a downpour and just runs off (think concrete -with no ability to soak in). A one-inch rain over a day can soak in and revive the plant world as if overnight.


Lesson 6: We're not on the level.


All of us live in some part of a watershed (think of it as a bowl where the water drains to a common low spot, such as a creek or river). The Hill County is dissected by numerous steep canyons, when rain falls it travels down the slope, rapidly. Across Kerr County where I live the elevation drops from 2,200 feet in the west to 1,400' in the east. Kerrville (in the middle) is 1,000 feet higher in elevation than San Antonio which is only 60 miles away.


Lesson 7: The Hill Country it is just that, one big hill.


The hills may look isolated but the horizon is a flat line. This landscape was laid down during the Cretaceous Period when Texas was under an ancient inland sea; limestone is the result of marine creatures precipitating out in flat layers. Rain (being more acidic than the alkaline limestone) wiggled through vertical cracks in the horizontal layers of limestone, and dissolved it away bit by bit, until over time, a long time, the water's pathway become a cave, and sometimes the cave collapsed creating a sinkhole. Surface water took over the erosion process and creeks began to carve through the landscape. So basically I live on the side of a sinkhole in the land of canyons.


Lesson 8: Variety is the spice of life.


Our local native vegetation includes more than 100 -plus species of trees & shrubs, 300 species of wildflowers, 70 grasses, plus cacti (13 species within the city limits of Kerrville), ferns (many dry-land species), mushrooms, lichen and algae. These plants have evolved with the droughts and the limestone.


Lesson 9: We are not alone:


Besides the almost 40,000 human residents, Kerr County is also home to more than:
300 species of birds,
300 species of butterflies and moths,
30 species of mammals (besides livestock and pets),
36 snakes
17 lizards,
10 turtles
18 amphibians
35 fish
plus numerous insects, spiders and their kin.
All have a role to play in the ecosystem if we could only understand it.


Lesson 10: Nature doesn't happen somewhere else.

Too often we think that the wild things are at the coast or in the mountains, but even in downtown Kerrville I have spied upon bald eagle, zone-tailed hawk, fox, turkey, deer, rabbits, 200 hawks in migration, 150 white pelicans and hundreds of bats. The point is: if we don't expect Nature to be in the city we won't look for it; and if we don't look, we will never see it when it quietly shows its face.



Lesson 11: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Our first embrace with Nature tends to be in response to her pretty face - a glorious sunset, a spectacular field of bluebonnets.


There is beauty in the grand scale - the wide-open vistas; the gradual seasonal shift of spring wildflowers along roadways and in open fields to the tans of summer and the last blaze of fall color.


There is the sudden beauty such as the profusion of rainlilies or the explosion of purple blossoms on cenzio triggered by rain.


There is ephemeral beauty that lasts only moments; such as the 3 o'clock blooming of celestials.


ORDER is another form of beauty: It can be the microscopic level of designs - the star patterns found in flowers, the precision of a spider's web, the spirals coiling in fossils and today's snail shells or a vine's tendrils.

Some order is visible but not readily apparent to us. It takes more practice and often a heavy dose of patience, and sometimes a suspension of our own expectations.

Seasonal change follows an order of Life: a seed sprouts and a plant starts to grow, bloom, gets pollinated, produces seeds then dies. A bird lays an egg, it hatches and grows, and so on.

There is the rhythmic order of courting great horned owls in January, returning hummingbirds and purple martins in February and March, the arrival of robins in the late fall. It's as if the birds are following the calendar.

There are other orderly changes, longer sequences that are harder to perceive and follow: the progression of plants reestablishing themselves in disturbed ground. The transformation of riparian areas scoured cleaned by a flood that is slowly greened by a steady progression of plants. After a fire or a plowed field, a similar process goes through the stages of pioneer weeds to wildflowers and grasses on to shrubs and trees.



Lesson 13: Time is relative.


We are not patient creatures. We move around and so too often never develop a relationship with a particular landscape. Hence, our view is so short especially when faced with geologic time. I live on a land that was shaped over long periods of time from the laying of hundreds of feet of sedimentary rock to the slow carving of canyons by water. A bulldozer can rearrange the order in a day.


Time is a factor of water availability. Groundwater and surface water depend upon rain, (when it falls and where it falls)-and it takes time to move through the limestone to reach aquifers hundreds of feet below surface. It takes time for the rain to resurface as springs that cry a river. It doesn't take much time to use it however.


There is seasonal time as the sun shifts in its path ever so slightly across the sky, and the days lengthen into summer and fade into winter.


Time is also ephemeral, fleeting moments when lightning zig-zags across the night sky; a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis; a flower opens at twilight to be pollinated by a moth.


The hard part is seeing changes over time and gleaning the patterns from the changes. What do the patterns tell us about the health of the landscape? That depends on our view point.


Lesson 12: Nature has value.


In 20 years I've come to appreciate the role of natural resources and the value of ecological functions: that floodplains accommodate the heavy downpours that just run-off the land, where trees and big rocks help dissipate the velocity of the raging floods.


I've become aware of the connections of plants and wildlife, the intricate dance of pollinators. When I gaze upon the wooded hillsides or wildflower blanketed roadways - I must acknowledge that I did not have a hand in planting that which I enjoy. For the most part, no man did. We have the birds and wildlife even wind and water to thank for dispersing seeds. Nature keeps our landscape looking natural, not us.


Some of the connections are hard to see because of our deeply held prejudices. Fear of certain wildlife or perhaps their seeming unimportance in our scheme of things can result in their demise.


Lesson 13: LIFE goes on.


Despite our inept management of natural resources Nature doesn't judge our actions. Nature just goes about the business of Life. Sometimes the only plants that can grow in soil that had been abused beyond the tolerance of most natives are weeds, such as thistles or horehound (nothing eats it). For the most part, Nature operates on basic common sense if we can only learn to read the signs.


It's this ability to continue on that fills me with wonder. That despite the profound sorrow I often feel at the loss of habitats, the paving over of the last wild lands within the city limits - I hold on to Nature's ability to fill in with life, be it a plant in the crack of the sidewalk or cedar in a barren field. It may not be the species of my choice, but it's probably the only species that can handle the new conditions. If I was only patient enough I would be able to learn more.