The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, August 31, 2003

Hummingbird Time in South Texas
Ro Wauer, August 31, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

September is synonymous with hummingbirds. That is when thousands of ruby-throated hummingbirds pass through South Texas en route to their wintering grounds south of the Mexican Border. These tiny flying jewels file through the Coastal Bend like an hourglass, coming from an incredibly wide swath of North America, from the shores of the Atlantic to the western edge of the Great Plains. Some south bound male hummingbirds may appear as early as July, and a few late migrants can be found through November, but the great bulk of migrating ruby-throats appear in September.

To commemorate this passing hoard, Rockport will hold its 15th annual "Hummer/Bird Celebration" this year from September 11 to 14. For anyone that has not attended one of these affairs, it is well worth the effort. The Celebration includes a wide range of activities from garden tours, banding demonstrations, a variety of pertinent talks, and a great assortment vending booths. I attend every year just to find early Christmas presents. More information is available at visitor@1rockport.org or the old fashion way: 1-800-826-6441.

What can be done at home to encourage passing hummingbirds to stay awhile? Since many of the thousands of migrating ruby-throats will pass right through our neighborhoods, we have a wonderful opportunity to get better acquainted. And the very best way is to offer them a treat, plain old sugar water, that they will readily take advantage of. The sugar water provides substitute nectar that will help them maintain their fat reserves for migration. Hummingbirds take considerable amounts of flower nectar, but they also feed on tiny insects, often taken from spider webs. In migration, as they hurry southward, handouts in the form of sugar water can be important.

I utilize as many as 30 feeders in my yard during the fall migration, but use only a half-dozen the remainder of the year. In September, there are occasions when eight or ten hungry hummingbirds will congregate around a single feeder, with dozens more sitting in the adjacent trees resting or waiting their turns. That is a lot of hummingbirds! Yet it happens every year.

Feeding hummingbirds is extremely easy. It takes only a store bought feeder filled with sugar water at a ratio of 1 part sugar to 10 parts water. I mix up a large jug (stored in the refrigerator) and use a small funnel to fill the feeders. There are times in September that I can go through a gallon of sugar water daily. My favorite hummingbird feeders are the "Best" hummingbird feeders made in Poteet, Texas. They come in two sizes and are easy to clean. Locations for hanging a feeder can vary from a tree limb to an overhanging porch, but place it where you can easily see it from inside the house.

Many times a hummingbird feeder will attract ants that can crawl into the water and drown, limiting use of the feeder by hummingbirds. The best method of discouraging ants is to place a 35mm film canister, smeared inside with Vaseline or other grease, on the wire; use an ice pick to force a small hole in the bottom. Another suggestion is to keep your feeder clean at all times. Although in September when the feeder must be filled and cleaned once or more times daily, at other times fill the feeder with only as much sugar water to last four or five days. Of course, temperatures determine how long a sugar solution will last before it begins to sour.

A question that always arises during a discussion about feeding hummingbirds is when to take feeders down. Will feeding hummingbirds in winter keep them from migrating and possibly dying? Absolutely not! Hummingbirds that are going to migrate will when they are readily, whether or not they are using a feeder. I feed hummers year-round. Although ruby-throats rarely remain for the winter, the larger buff-bellied hummingbird is a full-time resident in my yard. Plus, a few other migrants, such as the regular black-chinned, rufous, and broad-tailed hummingbirds and the rare calliope or Anna's hummingbirds just might appear and take advantage of your handouts for a few days.

If you haven't tried feeding hummingbirds, try it. You'll like it!

Saturday, August 30, 2003

Big and Blue
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, August 2003, © 2004

The vast and storied state of Texas is a veritable ZOO! In this particular case, I do not mean its occasional political follies but instead the number of exotic animals that inhabit ranches and farms. Among these you can find Scimitar-horned Oryx, Blackbuck, Sika and Axis Deer, Impala, Eland, Sable Antelope, Bushbuck and Ostrich.. Some are on immense game ranches where they are hunted, and others are simply enjoyed for their beauty as tourist magnets. Landowners can profit greatly in both cases.

One of the exotics is the Nilgai from India and Pakistan. It is the largest of Asian antelopes and considered sacred by the native people. I have heard that now there are more of them in Texas than in Asia. Once at El Canelo, the famous ranch and inn near Raymondville, we were roaming the brush country when a Nilgai trotted out from behind the screen of trees. He glared at us briefly and then moved away swiftly to seek better cover. but only after we had enjoyed good looks. His dense coat was a blue-gray, hence the name which means "blue bull" in Hindi. His legs were black as was a mane that rose from high withers. He carried short sharp horns that were curved inward, and he WAS big. My first reaction was that he was as large as a horse.

This was only a bit of an overstatement. The males do reach about 500 to 600 pounds and the females somewhat less. Despite their bulk they can cover the ground at a maximum speed of almost 30 miles per hour. This is a true asset if their superior eyesight does not protect them at first. They do need these qualities because in their homeland, the main natural predator is the tiger. Humans have been more detrimental. The British hunted them extensively in the 1880's, and today, the numbers of both Nilgai and the tiger are sadly reduced due to overhunting and development.

How did they get to Texas? According to the Website of the Texas State Historical Society and the University of Texas (TSHA Online), the King Ranch released several different groups in Kenedy County between 1930 and 1941. Their population boomed in the area between Baffin Bay and Harlingen. There continued to be a proliferation of brood stock, and as of 2002 at least 15,000 Nilgai are at home on our range. Unfortunately, they can succumb to severe cold. Veterinarian Dr. Steve Bentsen of McAllen relates that in the early '70s, a very cold, wet spell resulted in a large die-off. Practicing in Kingsville at the time, he was called upon to perform necropsies on 25 Nilgai in Kenedy County. However, they usually thrive in the mild climate of South Texas. Hunting is encouraged to keep the population in control.

Generally, these are relatively hardy animals, and down here they can subsist on a variety of foods, mainly grass and farm crops. They will also browse on delicacies like flowers, (Remember Ferdinand the Bull?), leaves, fruits and seeds. Another advantage they have for survival is an apparent resistance to parasites such as worms and ticks. Moreover, prevalent cattle diseases such as foot-and-mouth have not been found in Texas Nilgai. To endure the intensity of the sun, they have developed what is called a "dermal shield" on their necks and backs; here the skin actually grows thicker for protection. And, yes, we have no tigers!

During the November-to-March breeding season, the sexes separate, and the bulls clash like gladiators, sometimes fatally. Each bull's small harem can produce after about eight months, often giving birth to twins and triplets.

This Blue Bull of Asia does have commercial and aesthetic value and fortunately does not compete with native wildlife to any damaging degree. However, there are those who feel that we should ban exotics from our landscape. This is sometimes a valid point of view. And yet, where else can you see a spectacular 600-pound antelope in a natural environment without traveling to the Asian deserts or the foothills of the Himalayas? I think the species adds to the already teeming variety and mystique of the Toe of Texas.

Cardinals
Bill Lindemann, Fredericksburg Standard/Radio Post, Kerrville Daily Times, August 2003, © 2003

Northern Cardinal While picnicking at Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park today, someone pointed out a Northern Cardinal, a.k.a. "redbird," or just "cardinal," working over a parked car's side-view mirror. Unhappy with the fact that a "competitor male" had apparently entered into his territory, he felt compelled to run this intruder off. Every year I receive telephone calls from readers asking advice on stopping cardinals from pecking at one or more windows at their house. The callers want to know what is wrong with the bird and also how to solve the problem.

The bird's behavior is not much different from human reactions when some little thing begins as an irritation and becomes an obsession. After seeing his (sometimes her) own image in the car mirror or window and not being able to make it go away, the bird, too, becomes totally determined to chase the other "bird" away. Once the obsession sets in, there is nothing you can do to convince the cardinal that the mirror or windows are playing tricks on him. In time the bird gives up, probably conceding to the tireless challenger. However, the cardinal may move on from one mirror or window to another. The birds have been known to persist at a window for a week.

Despite this little quirk, cardinals are among the most admired and recognized wildlife in our country. Except for those people who live in the northwestern part of our country where the cardinal is not found, the rest of us more or less take this bird for granted. I have had friends from the Pacific Northwest comment on how stunning this bird is and how they can't watch it enough. We see it and think, "Oh, its just a redbird," or not pay any attention at all. Sometimes when I see a particularly vivid bird, I catch myself admiring it and its beauty, realizing then, how easy it is to ignore it on a daily basis.

I always thought that the general color of cardinals was more or less the same, but while birding a few years ago in southeast Arizona, I noticed the birds there were a more intense red. A few locals reminded me that their cardinals were redder than all other cardinals in the country. I tended to agree with them, making the stipulation that I had not conducted any color studies of our country's cardinals.

Not only are these red birds with black faces colorful, but they also have very pleasant songs with which to serenade us in the mornings and evenings. Their songs that include, "Cheer, cheer, cheer," or "purty, purty, purty" have a peaceful sound. They afford a wonderful combination of sight and sound.

The bird is so admired and loved that seven of our states have named it their state bird. If you are a St. Louis baseball fan, or live in a town whose school mascot is the cardinal, love of the bird takes on an added dimension. Considering the love and affection around for this bird, I think we can afford some sympathy for its obsessive, misguided challenges to its own image-even when they occur for days at our windows or car mirrors.

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers
Bill Lindemann, Fredericksburg Standard/Radio Post, Kerrville Daily Times, August 2003, © 2003

The arrival of the sleek and beautiful Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in April is a sure sign that spring has "sprung." The appearance of additional large numbers of these flycatchers in August and September is a sign that the fall migration season is beginning. After spending the summer raising their young throughout Texas and Oklahoma, these birds are beginning to respond to the instincts that tell them to prepare for the trip to Mexico and beyond.

One of the factors birds apparently use to gauge the right time to move south is the decreasing hours of daylight. Migration south is not based on the general cooling of the days. Here in Texas, August and September can be very hot months. Scissor-tails tend to migrate in small groups rather than large flocks and migrate over land rather than the Gulf of Mexico, so they can feed as they travel.

For the next month a trip into the country and even along the edges of cities and towns there will be increasing numbers of scissor-tails appearing. One interesting aspect of their migration is that they tend to group up at roosting time. One can imagine that this communal roosting gives the participants an opportunity to "discuss" the summers events, and maybe even brag on the success of their families; however, the real reason lies in an apparent feeling of safety in numbers.

One of the differences between fall and spring is that many of the fall birds have shorter tails and may not appear as sleek as in their spring breeding plumage. The shorter tails reflect the large number of youngsters who won't grow their long black and white tail feathers until their late winter molt. Females generally have shorter tail feathers and some of the males may be molting or showing signs of territory battles when they may have lost a few feathers.

One way to locate a fall roosting tree is to find a large number of the long tail feathers on the ground. You will likely hear and see the commotion that goes on in the roost trees before you spot the dropped feathers. Noisy birds during their breeding season, this noise doesn't wane in the fall. Remember that it is against the law to collect feathers of birds other than game birds. Once in a while there is a story about someone in trouble with the law over using wild bird feathers in hats, or jewelry, or other accessories.
Using common sense in your judgment about this matter should keep you out of trouble.

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about birds with "attitudes." Scissor-tailed Flycatchers belong to a family called "tyrant flycatchers." They might be small, but they are very feisty, particularly when the time comes to defend their territories from intruders. They along with their cousins, the kingbirds, lead the charge against hawks and larger birds who cross their territories.

Over the next month watch the telephone, powerline, and fence wires for small groups of scissor-tails. They might hang around for a couple of days before moving a few miles closer to their winter grounds in southern Mexico and Central America. A few stragglers may stay around until November. After they have all gone south, we can spend the winter anticipating their return
in the spring.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Black Witches and Other Migratory Insects
Ro Wauer, August 24, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

The recent abundance of black witches, probably due to their arrival with Hurricane Claudette, has attracted lots of attention. This huge, mostly all-black moth that hides in dark places during the daylight hours, cannot help but startle anyone confronted with its sudden departure from it's hiding place. At my house, the relatively dark front porch or open garage are favorite perching sites. Its great wingspan, as much as five to six inches, is more bat-like than moth-like. But if you approach one slowly without frightening it off, its very dark appearance features large eyespots on both the forewings and hindwings. It is a remarkable insect up-close.

These tropical moths tend to be crepuscular, flying primarily at dawn and dusk, but they also fly during the daytime in strongly shaded forest areas. They feed on rotting fruits, such as mangos and bananas. These fruits also provide excellent bait for anyone wanting to study them in the open. And as was mentioned in a nature note a couple weeks ago, Brush Freeman found that they also feed on beer.

The question, of course, is from where did these great moths come? Although Claudette more than likely carried them across the Gulf from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, that doesn't mean that the storm picked up a few hundred individuals and carried them to the Texas Coast. More than likely the storm encountered a mass of migrants somewhere along the way. And Claudette may also have carried numerous other insects along to deposit them in Texas.

There are many insects known for their migrations. One of the best known of these is the monarch, a large orange-brown butterfly with black veins. This butterfly passes through Texas in spring on its way north and again in fall, en route to its wintering ground in Mexico. But several additional butterflies also migrate, although they do not get the same kind of recognition. A few of the better known butterfly migrants include cloudless and lyside sulphurs, little yellow, sleepy orange, American snout, gulf fritillary, common buckeye, red admiral, painted lady, and queen. Three skippers - long-tailed and ocola skippers and Dorantes longtail - also migrate.

Other migrant moths include the pink-spotted hawkmoth, mournful and tersa sphinx, and several species that can cause considerable crop damage: black cutworm, cotton leafworm, velvetbean caterpillar, corn earworm, armyworm, beet and fall armyworm, and soybean and cabbage loopers. Most of these moths are known from their caterpillar stage, rather than the adult.

There also are a number of dragonflies that migrate. The common green darner is our best example, but the twelve-spotted and wandering gliders, variegated meadowhawk, and Carolina, black, and red saddlebags also migrate. All of these insects have been found far out in the Gulf, and at times they can appear at oil rigs in great numbers.

Grasshoppers comprise another group of insects known to migrate. Although a few species, such as migratory grasshopper and Rocky Mountain locust, are recognized as true migrants, most grasshoppers that suddenly appear en mass are not migrants. These bugs, that can suddenly appear in the thousands and commence to destroy crops, are most often the result of mass hatchings, following perfect weather conditions. They then fly up en masse and seek food, but they do not make annual north-south migrations.

Moths, butterflies, dragonflies, and grasshoppers are not the only Texas insects that migrate. It may be surprising to learn that numerous other species have also been documented as migrants. Some of the more obscure migrants include the large milkweed bug, three leafhoppers, greenbug, and the convergent ladybird beetle.

Fall is rapidly approaching, and we should begin to detect southbound monarchs any day. For many of us, migrating monarchs are not just migrating butterflies, but they seem like mystical creatures.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

One More Hurricane Claudette Tale
Ro Wauer, August 10, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

There are hundreds of stories about Hurricane Claudette's passage across the Golden Crescent. Most relate to her unusual behavior and resultant damages. She was only a "tropical storm" while moving westward across the Gulf, but changed to a Class 1 Hurricane about when she made landfall, and her wind speed apparently increased. Most hurricane winds decline once over land.

Claudette passed directly across the coastal area near Port O'Connor, where she raised havoc by knocking out the power, tearing up considerable vegetation, and damaging numerous buildings. Port O'Connor residents mostly stayed put, yet there have been no deaths or serious injuries reported. But for some residents, such as friends Ladd and Petra Hockey and Brush Freeman, the storm provided what may have been a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience Mother Nature up close and personal.

Brush posted a note to Tex-Birds (www.texbirds.org) a day afterwards, explaining that when "the eye of the storm passed directly over us, the winds went from 100 mph to near 0 mph within just a few minutes. The sun broke out with clear, very blue skies and became very hot with tons of mosquitoes." For the next 45 to 60 minutes the three birders scanned the bay for birds. Although the bay waters were still in turmoil, the area was "full of flying birds and oddly hundred of black witches (a huge moth)."

They recorded numerous bird species that normally never come close to shore. These included a large shearwater, either a Cory's or greater at a distance, a positive Cory's shearwater; 2 Audubon's shearwaters; several unidentified storm-petrels; 2 black-backed terns (bridled or sooty); and 2 or 3 unidentified jaegers, one probable a pomarine. All of these are pelagics, seabirds that very, very rarely ever are seen from shore. They spend their lives at sea, except when nesting on small isolated islands off the Continents. The remainder of their time is spent on the oceans where they feed principally on fish and squid.

The next day they recorded numerous frigatebirds or man-o-war birds, perhaps as many of 50 of these huge seabirds. Also pelagic, frigatebirds do occur somewhat regularly along the Texas coast in summer. They nest in mangrove areas in coastal Mexico and come north afterwards. A few may remain off the Central Texas Coast until early winter. The names were derived from their habit of piracy, chasing down smaller birds carrying prey to make them drop their catch, which they then scoop up off the surface. Frigatebirds also are known as "hurricane birds" because of their habit of appearing over land just prior to storms at sea. Frigatebirds are huge, with a wingspan of 90 or more inches, an extremely long bill with a dangerous-looking hook, and a long deeply forked tail.

Brush reported hundreds or black witches (Ascalapha odorata) flying in the eye of the storm. Scanning the bay with a spotting scope, they noted several in every scope view. On land, they found black witches in "the remaining trees and bushes, under the houses; they were literally everywhere." Dozens of landbirds, such as nighthawks and scissor-tailed flycatchers, were chasing down and feeding on these moths. Brush mentioned that some of the nighthawks were flying far out over the bay, behavior not normally expected. The black witches apparently were providing marvelous food for the stressed birds. What a surprise, because the abundance of black witches on a normal year amounts only to three or four black witches found at Port O'Connor.

Later in the evening, Brush experienced black witches on a more personal basis. He wrote that they had several of these moths flying close around them. "We discovered that pouring a bit of beer into our palms had them come in like small dogs, land of our hands and lap up the beer with their long tongues [proboscis]. We don't know whether these moths came in with the storm or what...It was most curious."

Strange occurrences are the norm during hurricane episodes. It is very possible that the multitude of black witches, a true migratory moth, were picked up by the storm in Mexico's Yucatan and carried across the Gulf to Texas.

It is Mississippi Kite Time Again
Ro Wauer, August 17, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Once again Mississippi kites can be found over our towns and woodlots, soaring, diving, and tumbling in true acrobatic style. Although a few of these mid-sized raptors actually nest in suitable sites in the Golden Crescent, such as at Victoria's Riverside Park, many found this time of year are southbound migrants that loaf at choice feeding sites en route to their wintering homes in Argentina and Paraguay, South America.

Their principal food supply includes the readily available flying insects, such as cicadas, that frequent the upper foliage of our abundant trees. Towns like Victoria, Beeville, Cuero, Goliad, Edna, Refugio, and others with lots of tall trees offer excellent hunting grounds and also overnight roosting sites. Hunting Mississippi kites provide us with marvelous opportunities to watch one of nature's most exciting raptors at work. Often it will dive with breathtaking speed, swoop, and tumble, sometimes somersault in its aerial maneuvers. An observer can actually watch it capture prey in midair or off the foliage, and then consume its catch in flight, unlike most other raptors that feed on a post or on the ground. It will hold its prey with one talon and eat its soft body parts, usually discarding the wings and head. It is like attending a circus performance, free of charge and often without even leaving our yards.

Cicadas are usually common in late summer and fall, and, because they often fly out in the open, they are one of the easiest of prey. The kite will take numerous other prey species as well. Other large flying insects, such as grasshoppers and various beetles, as well as bats, lizards, amphibians, and small snakes are all included in the Mississippi kite diet. They often hawk over fields where cattle are grazing. The cattle scare up insects that are then taken in flight by the faster kites.

Mississippi kites are smaller than our red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, but larger than our wintering American kestrel. They can easily be identified by their buoyant flight as well as their slate gray plumage, black slightly forked tail, and pointed wings. In a way, they look a lot like a giant swallow. And with binoculars, you can usually see their ruby red eyes against a black eye ring and gray head. Juveniles are mottled brown and gray with a barred tail. Their voice, seldom heard away from their nesting grounds, is a high, thin, descending "shi chiew."

Mississippi kites reside in Texas only during the spring and summer months, arriving in the United States in early to mid-March. Migrants often are found in great flocks that sometime number in the hundreds. Breeding birds occur west to east from New Mexico to the Carolinas. They may reside as far north as Oklahoma and Kansas and along the Mississippi River to southern Illinois, but south only to our area. Nesting occurs in woodland areas, in riparian habitats as well as grooves in prairie situations. In some cases, several pairs may nest near one another in loose colonies. After nesting they usually congregate at choice feeding sites, and then they will usually roost together on tall tree with open branches.

Although spring migrants pass quickly by, post-nesting birds seem to be in less of a hurry and will linger at choice feeding sites for several days or weeks. Peak numbers occur in mid-August to early September, then decline until mid-October when all have moved south.

Right now is that time of year. So enjoy our aerial acrobats!

Sunday, August 03, 2003

Green Anoles are Area's Chameleons
Ro Wauer, August 3, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

One of our most abundant lizards, the anole, is again abundant in my yard. It is almost as abundant now as it was four or five years ago. But after then my anole population began to decline, and within a couple years it was only a shadow of what it had been. And the population of scaly lizards, a species that was only seen occasionally, began to increase. By the next season they were the dominant lizard species in my yard. This of course does not include the ground skinks that seem always to be in good numbers among the leaves and debris in the yard.

Although scaly lizards are rather interesting lizards in there own right, my favorite is the anole. Scaly lizards are really shy and seldom permit a close inspection, but anoles often seem oblivious to a close approach. They often seem more curious than afraid at a close approach. I have even been able to get close enough to reach out and almost touch it before it moves away just far enough to feel safe. Then it will watch you as if wondering what you are really up to.

Our anole, more properly know as green anole, or Anolis carolinensis to scientists, is the only native anole found in our area. But there are 300 kinds worldwide. Except for the Key West anole of South Florida, all the rest occur in Mexico, Central and South America, and the West Indies. The green anole is a slender, long-tailed lizard, often as much as 7 inches in length. It has a long, pointed head and long legs and toes. The toes expand to form an adhesive pad for walking on slick surfaces. It can even walk up the surface of a glass window.

Territorial males often spread their conspicuous dewlap, or throat fan, as a territorial defense to warn an intruder or in courtship. This behavior is usually accompanied by a few bobs of the head or push-ups. If a rival male continues to trespass, a heated battle, with much biting, is possible. The resident male almost always is the victor and the intruder flees. The anole's dewlap contains a flexible rod or cartridge that is attached near the middle of the throat in such a way that it can be thrust forward by the attached muscles. When the fan is extended, the scales become widely separated, and a bright pink to orange color flashes into view.

The most fascinating feature of our green anole, however, is its ability to change color. For that reason it is often called "chameleon," after the Old World chameleon. This color change, resulting from changes in temperature, humidity, emotion, or exercise, can easily be seen as the anole moves from the shade into direct sunlight or from a dark to light object. Color changes can be striking and range from deep green to dark brown to light tan to blackish.

The color change is due to the arrangement of pigment cells in the anole's skin. When the cells expand, they partly cover other cells and produce the brown coloration, but when the black cells constrict to tiny dots, light is reflected from the other cells, giving it a green color. Cell movement is triggered by a tiny gland at the base of the brain that produces a hormone that controls the movements of the black cells. If the gland is removed, the animal remains pale green.

But no matter, the anole's neighborliness and curiosity, along with its abundance, are the characteristics that make it one of the most fascinating members of our native wildlife community.