The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Mountain Lions in Texas and Michigan
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, July 2003, © 2004

A Mountain Lion crouches not far from the shores of Thunder Bay in northeastern Michigan. Its golden eyes spark with menace. The black-tipped ears and tail signal alertness. This is a creature of lethal power and beauty, but no deer need bolt in terror, because it is a work of skillful taxidermy displayed at the Besser Museum in the Lake Huron port of Alpena. Why is this remarkable? The reality is that the last verified wild member of this species was seen in Michigan in 1906!

The big feline, which weighs up to 150 or more pounds and can measure eight feet from nose to tail, was once the most widely distributed of any American mammal, spread across the continent from sea to sea and from south of the tundra to the ends of Latin America. This is the puma, cougar, panther or painter of folk tales which frightened the pioneers with its screams in the night and preyed on livestock and the occasional human. Suffering the same fate as the wolf, it has been shot, poisoned and trapped under a bounty system that reduced its range to parts of the West and Florida.

Oh, but are we so sure it has become a ghost species? In recent years, sightings have come from both the Lower and Upper Peninsulas of Michigan, the woods of Minnesota, a few eastern states...and even Ottawa, Ontario! Some claim that in Michigan specimens have been shot and that photos exist...one of a mother and her two cubs. Rumors prevail that there are ten to twenty in the Upper Peninsula, and not 40 miles from our property in the northeastern Lower Peninsula, people have reported seeing lions lope across the road at night in front of their cars.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is skeptical, questionng the validity of observations and attributing them to escaped pets or misidentification of other mammals such as big dogs like Golden Retrievers, bobcats or even large house cats, very, very, large housecats. Glimpses in the night are always unreliable, especially when people want to see something rare, a common human desire. Also, the disgraceful but growing trade in wild and exotic pets lends some credence to the sightings.

The MDNR cautions that these would be protected animals, and trapping or shooting is illegal. In Texas, as of the end of 2002, there is no such protection. Mountain Lions can be taken by any means without penalties, presumably because they are more common, especially in the Trans-Pecos, the Hill Country and the brushlands of South Texas. Another reason is that lions compete with deer hunters.

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife's Website, a Mountain Lion Project of the mid-l990's studied the species in a 1182-square mile area in Duval, LaSalle, Webb and McMullen Counties. Cats were trapped live on ranches to determine their diet and genetic health. One result was that biologists learned the deer herd was under no threat from overkill; the lions apparently are not really rivals of their human counterparts. They share the wealth. The pumas have even been known to space themselves when other cats come into an area to avoid depleting the food bank, perhaps driven in part by their solitary nature. They do live alone until the time of their polygamous mating practices. By the way, several states such as California, Texas and Michigan have Mountain Lion preservation groups to study and educate the public about the species.

Here in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, there are still sporadic sightings, even from people-friendly places like Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. This is hard to believe because of the growth in the Valley. Ranchers to the north are far more likely to spot lions in the brush country, but they are usually reluctant to make public their observations. They have their reasons.

A recent book, "Cougar Attacks: Encounters of the Worst Kind," by Kathy Etling, takes a somewhat balanced view of the problem. The hunting technique of this creature is efficient, gruesome but typical of the big felines like Cheetah, Jaguar, Leopard and African Lion. It stalks its prey to within at least 50 yards, closing in a lightning rush and then leaping onto the target's back, biting at the base of the skull to crush the neck. Ms. Etling describes over 200 attacks on humans, almost 50 of them fatal, but she presents a case for the value of the cat as a wonder of the natural world. Mountain hikers in California might disagree. However, she relates ways to avoid being panther prey. To paraprase:
1. Do not hike alone.
2. Do not approach the cute kitty.
3. Do not flee.
4. Throw stuff

Unfortunately, I have never seen a Mountain Lion in the wild either in Michigan or Texas. Although stuffed animals are fine teaching devices to impart an appreciation of nature, they fall short of experiencing a breathing, moving creature. If given the choice, I would rather see one in the woods and not behind glass, unless it is a windshield. You hope you could distinguish between a tawny lion and a yellow Labrador Retriever, but in that one dark, fleeting moment, it might be harder than you think.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

July Brings Changes to our Yard Birds
Ro Wauer, July 27, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

It seems that only yesterday our Neotropical migrants were arriving and beginning to court their mates. But now, here it is only half way through summer, and many of those same species already are beginning their southward migration. In fact, the purple martins that nested in my martin house from April to June are gone. Those large swallows left my yard a couple weeks ago, but others are gathering together at various sites, preparing for their long journeys back to their wintering grounds in South America.

Many of the other Neotropical species are still present. Two of the more obvious ones are cliff swallows and chimney swifts. The cliff swallow colonies present at our highway overpasses are still on-site, and their numbers have, in most cases, more than doubled since the youngsters are out and about. Chimney swift young are also out of the nests, learning hunting techniques from their parents. Their presence in chimneys are far less obvious now that they are no longer being fed by their parents. The ruckus created at feeding time by a nest-full of baby chimney swifts can be suprisingly loud for such small small birds.

Most of our full-time resident birds have also completed their nesting, and yards are filled with strange looking birds. Examples include the northern cardinal youngsters that, although they are the same size as their parents, can be difficult to tell if one is a male or female. And they seem so unsure of themselves, not yet able to balance well, and constantly begging for food. And many of the adults, being long-suffering parents, continue to shove food into their wide-open bills. Even an occasional brown-headed cowbird, probably raised by cardinal foster parents, have not yet learned the truth about its real parents.

Several other summertime birds, finished with their nesting activities, are utilizing our yards, coming to handouts or searching for food among the vegetation. Full-time residents include Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, Carolina and Bewick's wrens, northern mockingbirds, blue jays, white-winged and Inca doves, and buff-bellied hummingbirds. Summertime only yard birds include ruby-throated and black-chinned hummingbirds, yellow-billed cuckoos, great crested flycatchers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and painted buntings. These latter species should be heading south before too long.

July also brings a few southbound migrants into our area. Although it may seem unlikely, a few northern hummingbirds occasionally pass through our area, and some may even stay for a few days. One of the earliest of these is the little rufous hummingbird. Males are easily identified by their bright rufous color, so different from the three summer hummers, the ruby-throated, black-chinned and buff-bellied. Three other Western hummers - calliope, broad-tailed and Anna's - are not totally unexpected in the fall.

The major fall migration period doesn't really get underway until mid- to late August. But so many of the northern birds, such as some of the hummingbirds as well as some shorebirds, begin to pass through our area much earlier. Most of these early southbound migrants are males. For many bird species, males spend much of their post-breeding periods with other males in bachelor parties. Those species leave the majority of the rearing of young strictly to the female. And so those particular males begin their migration long before the female and young are ready.

Birds truly have a varied lifestyle. But that diversity is what watching birds so fascinating. Which of our abundant southbound migrants will make their first appearance?

Sunday, July 20, 2003

The Fascinating Black-and-Yellow Garden Spider
Ro Wauer, July 20, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

There is hardly a yard in South Texas in summer that does not possess one or several garden spiders, often called the "black-and-yellow garden spider." Scientists have named it Argiope aurantia.

Among the largest and showiest of spiders, the adult black-and-yellow garden spider possesses an inch-long black abdomen with yellow or orange markings. The front part of the body is generally gray above and yellow below, and its eight legs are long and velvety. But this spider is most notable because of the huge web the female spins between all types of structures, from trees and branches to sheds and barbecue pits.

Garden spider webs, usually 3 or 4 feet in diameter but occasionally up to 8 feet across, are surprisingly strong and flexible. It is said that spider silk is the strongest natural fiber known, that even steel drawn out to the same diameter is not as strong. The strong silk threads from garden spiders were once used as crosshairs in telescopes and other fine optical instruments. I can attest to its strength; mowing or watering the lawn, I will occasionally crash into one of these webs, and it takes several tries to remove the webbing from my arms and face. A damaged web will usually be reconstructed during the evening hours.

Each garden spider web has a distinct zigzag band of white, sticky silk running vertically through the center. This white band may also help birds see the net so they do not fly into it. The garden spider, unlike many other spiders, does not have a nest but remains either in the center of the web, hanging head down, or hiding nearby. The movement of key strands of the web signal whenever prey becomes trapped and attempts to escape. The strength of the webbing suggests that it can capture and eat rather large prey, from a wide variety of insects to lizards and even hummingbirds. From observing the various webs in my yard, flies, small and large, are the spider's number one prey items, but I have also found wasps, grasshoppers, a dragonfly, and even a gecko lizard entangled.

Female garden spiders are considerably larger than the males and generally command the web; males construct smaller, less noticeable webs in less obvious locations. By fall, the females lay eggs in large pear-shaped cocoons with a brown paperlike surface, hung by threads among the trees and shrubs. The young hatch during the winter months but remain in the cocoon until spring. The adults usually die during the cooler winter months.

So goes the life and times of our lovely garden spider.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Young Red-shouldered Hawks are Yardbirds
Ro Wauer, July 13, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

During the last couple weeks two young red-shouldered hawks have claimed my yard, and also a few of my neighbor's yards, as their own private hunting grounds. They seem to almost ignore my activities in the yard, at least until I get within 100 feet or so. Then, they give a great screech and fly off "muttering" their annoyance that I am disturbing their territory.

I have watched them from inside the house on several occasions, when they were unaware, and it is very obvious that they are youngsters just learning their trade. They are still very awkward, not only when perching on a tree limb but also on the ground. Their balance is not yet stable, and they seem to tip this way and that each time they land. They do adjust, however, usually with wings out to help stabilize themselves. On one occasion, when one landed at the top of a utility pole, it actually missed the top and had to drop off and try a second time.

The adults are still around the neighborhood, as I see them now and again. But a few weeks ago, when they were busy feeding nestlings, they too were yardbirds, catching almost everything that moved. Small mammals, lizards and snakes were the most wanted prey, but when those creatures were not readily available, they took much smaller prey such as various insects, including crickets, katydids and cicadas. More often than not, the male will capture the food and take it to the female; she will then feed it to the nestlings. A growing baby demands food no matter what it might be. And baby hawks grow extremely fast. Within about three weeks they go from tiny white balls of fuzz to adult size, and in another week they are able to leave the nest.

Upon leaving the nest they look different than the adults, lacking the clean-cut patterns and red shoulders that they will develop before winter. Juvenal birds are mottled on their breast and back, but do have a banded tail, although that too is not as sharp as it will be as an adult. And their vocalizations are different, too. Their calls are not as distinct as the adults are, and they do a lot of squealing and cheeping. At times they will sit together on a limb and beg to be fed, or maybe they are simply complaining to one another. After all, mom and dad have deserted us, and our survival is totally up to us. True teenagers!

Adult red-shouldered hawks, probably the large raptor most often called "chicken-hawk" by locals, because of their constant presence in wooded neighborhoods where people live, are really magnificent birds. Although not as large as red-tailed hawks, the common field hawk, red-shouldereds are even more numerous in South Texas. But because of their habitat preference, that of woodlots, riparian areas along rivers and streaks, and wooded neighborhoods, they are less obvious. But in spring, when they are defending a nesting territory and courting, they are most obvious. Then they are extremely vocal, constantly calling "kee yeer" notes as they circle overhead.

An adult red-shouldered hawk is a most attractive bird! They possess a barred chest, usually reddish bars, and red shoulders. In flight they reveal their underwings that are reddish in front and black with fine white streaks behind. They also possess a whitish "window" near each wingtip. Their legs are yellow. And the adult's tail is banded black and white.

The red-shouldered hawk rarely is found away from wooded areas, and its abundance in swampy areas of the Southeast has given it the name "swamp hawk." In our part of Texas, perhaps its name should be "neighborhood hawk."

Monday, July 07, 2003

Armadillos, Our Little Armored Tanks
Ro Wauer, July 7, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

This strange creature is commonplace through South Texas, but I only occasionally find one in my yard. But last week one spent a good part of a day "bull-dozing" about the shrubbery. And it seemed oblivious to my presence, letting me get within eight or ten feet without seeming to even notice me. Because of its apparent ignorance of my presence I was able to study its appearance and behavior for an hour or more.

What a strange mammal it is! There is nothing at all even casually like the armadillo in Texas. It is a wonder how nature created such as well armored creature. Its entire upper body, as well as its head and tail, are covered with rows of leathery plates that are able to slide on one another. Hard and stiff, the plates are jointed across the back so that it can curl itself into a hard tough ball with the shell of the outside and the head and feet tucked in out of harm's way.

Its feet and claws are powerful looking. And it has degenerate teeth, no incisors or canines but seven small peglike teeth of each side of each jaw. As a nonaggressive creature, it depends more upon scent than sight for finding food. But maybe its tough snout is most impressive. That is what it uses to search for food, pushing into the soil like a plow. My armadillo wandered about with its snout seldom above ground level. And when it found something at a deeper level, it was able to swiftly dig into the rocky soil for whatever it had found.

Armadillo diet consists mostly of ants, termites, and other insects, but they will eat a variety of small animals as well as carrion, some fruit, fungus, and a few plants. William Davis, in The Mammals of Texas, reports that a study of 800 armadillo stomachs revealed 488 different food items, 93 percent of which were animal matter: 28 percent was larval and adult beetles, 14 percent termites and ants, 8 percent caterpillars, and the remaining included earthworms, millipedes, centipedes, and crayfish. Bird eggs were found in only 5 of 281 stomachs.

When not searching for food, armadillos utilize dens 2 to 15 feet long in rocky or soft terrain. Nest chambers, constructed at the end of burrows, are 18 inches or more in diameter and stuffed with dried grasses, leaves, and other plant materials. They simply push themselves in and out each time they use the chamber. Four youngsters are born from February to April, following a gestation period of about 150 days. The babies are identical to the adults without their hardened shells; the shell doesn't harden until they are almost full-grown. They very soon are able to follow mother like a flock of little piglets. She nurses them for nearly two months; she has four teats, so nobody goes hungry.

Armadillos regularly visit water areas to drink and also to take mud baths. They can swim very well, although they ride low in the water due to their specific gravity. However, when necessary they can ingest air to inflate themselves to increase their buoyancy. But when small streams are encountered, they may simply walk across the bottom, emerging on the opposite side.

Texans usually take armadillos for granted due to their abundance, but visitors to Texas are often anxious to see one of these odd creatures. When the Spaniards first saw our armadillo they called it "little armored one," or armadillo. Locally it is sometimes known as "poverty pig" or "poor man's pig," as it is sometimes used for food. Its flesh is delicate light, and tender, and when cooked properly, somewhat like pork in texture and taste.

The Maya Indians believed that the black vulture turned into an armadillo in old age. The Mayans claimed that aging vultures gradually lost their wings and feathers. They would then enter a hole and start life anew as an armadillo. For proof of this belief, they pointed out the similarity between the bald head of the vulture and that of the armadillo. It makes a good story, but we know better!