The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

GIVING UP on LANGUAGE:
Or Why I Quit Reading Thoreau
David Taylor, September 2003

I do not know where to find in any literature, ancient or modern, any account which contents me of that Nature with which even I am acquainted.
(“Walking,” Thoreau)


I am watching purple martins sky-write dinner poems in the pinks and gold of evening clouds; however, I am trying to leave them to their work of eating and make nothing more of it. Just watching is difficult for someone like me who works with words for joy and employment. I am drawn to keep a journal nearby and sketch in my stick-figure style, but always first or last, pictures become words. Perhaps it's some zen fancy or just one of those concluding moments of external silence and internal discussion, but I am forcibly putting down the pen as it concerns any meaning I find in these birds.

I've given up on the swerves and swoops of language for a while. Not for long though, as I love abstraction -- metaphor and simile -- and the play of sounds and syllables on the tongue and ear. Deep down, too, I can't help feeling all our discourse about nature is abstraction, whether it be science or animism, poetry or essay, incantation, article, or experiment. Maybe our senses alone, without a need for contextualizing them for another, is the least artificial effort we may attempt:

cardinal chirp,
pecan branch,
compost scent,
sharp edge of yucca,
dandelion flowers on the tongue.

But such description makes for poor poetry, for what is poetry without inference or implication? Or science without hypothesis?

Sometimes, I tire of the linguistic gymnastics of nature writing, and critics and scholars of it -- the nature writer looking at himself looking, and the second remove of those who tumble and somersault among the works of the former (even though I have made most of my living this way!). I am not an anti-intellectual; I read as voluminously as the next PhD. I teach classes in environmental literature and philosophy and believe they matter. Now, though, this yang of contrarianism at hand, I wonder what service this impulse for leaving language could provide.

I am reminded of backpacking trips with a dear friend Ian Marshall, another wordsmith by career and vocation. Our first few days of hiking are chock-full of wit and repartee. “Rarified-eco-phenomenological-anthropo-biocentered-feminist hegemony,” I swear I have heard something like that. Not to mention the literary theory thrown in for spice. We love these talks, and they have made for some of our best academic presentations. Always on the third day, our talk slows; physical exhaustion and repeated philosophies and counter arguments stem the freshet of words and our conversation becomes the sound of footsteps, deep breathing, and of course, that stuff around us, nature. Even our rest times are less conversational as we take off and adjust our packs, get a snack, and Ian checks his maps. We take to singing in the evenings rather than talking, playing a child's guitar we bring along, Ian always with his penny whistles. Somehow at the end of our trip, we have little to say to each other because we are conversing in other ways -- gestures, smiles, silence, adjusting a shoulder strap. However, it takes a few days for us to come to these other stories and languages. We like others of our species are better equipped to fill up our meetings with our usual ways of conversing.

By now, the gentle listener has surely considered the paradox and silliness of my task -- my giving up on language. Most likely she has noted that I have to this point* added 494 words to the discussion of my dis-ease with describing the natural world and offered nothing, either homeopathic or pharmaceutical, as a therapy or cure. Too, she has most likely surmised this mood is in part a product of my impishness -- if the percentages of approval lean to one side, I inevitably weigh in on the other. Friends and family members say, “He loves to debate.” Foes and formers say, “He's a pain in the ass.” Fair criticisms it seems to me, but today's musing feels more lasting than just orneriness -- more like trying to describe something I've mostly seen in passing or new environmental storylines I have a sense are being written now. My desire to give up on language isn't giving up on it at all, of course. I guess I'm just giving up on some of the narratives we've inherited -- and for me now, in the free time and joy of this warm evening, the martins still going about their lives, my wife sitting next to me, I am trying to push back the urge for metaphor, the comfort of solitude, and the desire for some spiritual resonance.

This seems a likely place to begin a brief discussion of Thoreau, being a bit of a crank himself. I'll tell you up front there are few things I dislike as much as one more interpretation of Thoreau as it has anything to do with the natural world. Perhaps no other figure in the environmental movement has suffered as much from a blind, cult-like allegiance to some idealized notion of the role of the natural world in individualism. As Lawrence Buell says in The Environmental Imagination: "[Thoreau] is one of the few American writers to have become canonized as both a popular hero and a hero of high culture." These prostrations at Thoreau's feet have led much of 150 years of nature writing along a trajectory of romantic self-discovery -- need to find myself; live alone by myself in nature; find myself; tell everybody else how I found myself. The list of authors and thinkers who have followed this recipe in cookie-cutter fashion with rainbow sprinkles of Thoreau quotes is, kindly said, long! But those who have read the whole of Thoreau's work know what I have described here isn't Thoreau, especially his work and efforts after having left the pond (1849-1862). What I am critiquing here is Walden and the two predominant narratives drawn from it: the hero quest and transcendentalist spirituality.

Joseph Campbell has suggested that the hero quest is an archetypal storyline -- the individual decides to leave his civilization in order to go through a series of trials and discoveries, comes to a new understanding by these experiences and returns to his civilization with a new understanding, yet somehow separated from them by his experiences.

In American environmental narratives the hero quest is an adolescent rite of passage, though, where the natural world serves as a vehicle for one's self-examination and trial; where others, human and non-human, are less important than the idealized “I”; and where community in any form restricts the self or is distinctly separated from the self. Not surprisingly, the narrative voice of this archetype looks not so deeply at the natural world as having intrinsic value, but how it may inspire, encourage, or challenge the speaker. Individuals (people, plants and critters) play a less vital part of the story and function more as caricatures and plot devices, and community, whether it be our current, forsaken “dominant paradigm” or familial history, must be shunned for individual authenticity. For novice readers, check the last chapters of a nature book and see how often the author uses “I”; at least Thoreau uses it more sparingly near the end of Walden.

Too, people are left out of these kinds of searches and texts. I am reminded of the Emerson line in “Self-Reliance” about leaving one's spouse, children, parents and siblings if one must in order to find his self-reliance, and of course Emerson was thinking only of men leaving the family. His conversations are to himself and us only as an imagined audience as he digs deeper through supposed bonds of society, as though obligation and commitment are not a kind of human ecology. The farther he finds himself from any human responsibility, the freer he is to find himself or what too many in this tradition would call his “true self.”

Inspiration and spirituality are dangerous topics for the nature writer, for they presuppose the author order what he sees to fit some ideal of what the sensory experiences should mean: enlightenment, connection, longing, ecstasy, The tradition is so steeped in transcendentalism that authors feel almost compelled to make something more of the non-human world, or maybe better stated, authors feel the need to make something meaningful for humans out of the non-human world-self-realization, cosmic understanding, even the “darkness” of a Darwinian world. For example, must things always mean something? Not surprisingly, these stories often read like self-help books written with a “natural setting.” Surely, there are times that one might truly be inspired by an observation, but can we as authors leave such things behind the words and let such a life-change affect the word choice and not the story?

I am being reminded now about my negativity. My wife is finishing a good cabernet; she looks at the setting sun through the purplish-red of the wine, and swirls the sediment in the bottom of her glass, as she says, “Offer more than what you don't like.” Our puppy is chewing on a small piece of firewood, mulberry from my father's house. So I stop the musing for a while look back to the birds appearing and disappearing behind the bamboo.

Maybe she's right, and after a little grumbling, I'll agree. I have wondered what such a work would be like because there really isn't a tradition for it in American literature. We have natural histories, transcendentalist testimony, and advocacy, but we don't have much in the way of place-making as most citizens go about it. The majority of our nature writing celebrates wilderness areas more often than margins, observes the extraordinary over the commonplace, and embraces the misanthrope over a gregarious sort. These preferences suggest a critique of modern society-cities stifle the soul, everyday existence is lacking, and the individual is more important than the community. However, much has been written, performed and taught about place-based writing in the last few decades. Most of these works treat their home with reverence and love -- deep, passionate love. Some have a good naturalist's understanding of the local place, using geology, botany, etc. They explore the emotions of their relationship to a place -- ancestry, family, partner, child, spirit, etc. Maybe even god, or a god. I can't help feeling many of these works are the legacy of Walden -- the Pond his world and his world an avenue to universal patterns, doves, hounds and bays, the eye of the universe. Perhaps this is the significant danger in our American wilderness legacy--that wildness must be not only a pristine condition but also a spiritual state for the author.

I'm told, though, that long-term ecological restoration needs public participation, and any sense of a long-term public needs restoration, too. As a writer I believe in this connection, not because I concern myself with environmental issues, but because it is at the core of why I write -- close observation deepens relationships -- non-human and human alike, and relationships that deepen benefit all involved and narrative has the ability to express the voices of multiple characters in a storyline.

Holmes Ralston III says:
The logic of the home, the ecology, is finally narrative, and human life will not be a disembodied reason but a person organic in history. Character always takes narrative form; history is required to form character. The theory can provide a skeleton but not the flesh. This is true, perhaps more evident in culture, but it is not less true in the human relations with nature.

Restoration asks us to rethink all this and work relationally with our home -- a home most likely degraded by human interaction. A sense of place is created in the process of restoring, and in restoring, a deeper home than field guides and pretty views might ever offer. A home created in the working with and learning in the working.

Such a work it seems to me would reject that legacy of romanticism, for the natural world, in most places, is damaged at the ecosystemic level, and seeking solace from something we have injured without acknowledging that injury seems ignorant at best and abusive at worst. Our daily lives would be a part of the story not the exception. And the stereotyping of those in white hats and those in black hats would be replaced with deeper characterizations. “American places are but a moment's bright flash, followed by long, confused memories,” writes Howard Mansfield in The Same Axe, Twice. So many of our narratives are about the moment, the unique, the wondrous. Always shifting, changing, moving. Maybe rethinking our environmental stories offers us a chance to quit moving and settling, to begin living and working with our neighbors, to start a local dialogue about what's local, and how to live within the local, and most importantly, to learn how to listen.

In “Walking” Thoreau seems to focus most of his attention on “wildness” being as the frontier spirit and from this he says we might derive a gammatica parda, a mother wit derived from the vast, howling mother of ours, Nature. Most often, his grammatica parda is translated/interpreted as a visceral and physical language of the earth, a soiled (in the best sense) grammar. However, Thoreau follows these comments here with a discussion of what he calls the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance. “What we call knowledge is often positive ignorance; ignorance our positive knowledge,” he writes. He continues by claiming: “Which is the best man to deal with -- he who knows nothing about a subject and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks he knows it all.” My own sense of his notion of a grammatica parda is one where the speaker is not so sure of nature's meaning for himself or the universe --one where the wise speaker or writer listens to the language of others from multiple backgrounds and experiences and gathers them as compassionately as possible. There is an egotism to language embedded in its existence as deeply as our own species' ego; it wants to be the thing it represents. Maybe too it is our own desire to find something in language that redeems us or connects us spiritually. A certain humility on the author's part might in part free her language from such desires.

Maybe an unassuming nature is what I am most interested in -- when a writer lets go, to the best of one's ability, of his desires for the product and lets things be in words by what he doesn't know and sees, by what he has heard, read, overheard, and laughed with others about. A strength of ignorance that provides her the courage to approach scientists, philosophers or linguists with her research and learn.

All this seems to be at the heart of restoration aesthetics. As artists, scientists, philosophers, janitors, etc., we must think through the language of our profession, believe in the relevancy of our background to others and the importance of their involvement in community, and practice incredible patience and attention in listening and learning. Our communication must broaden and detail, use analogies and comparisons readily intelligible, find commonalities and disagreements, and be open to improvement and editing. Finding local audiences outside our discipline needn't lessen the quality of the art or science. American environmental writing has a long history of advocacy: the nationalism of the 18th and 19th centuries (our species are bigger than your species!), the first cries about loss in the late 19th century, the jeremiads of the 20th century, and the downright pissed off of the western writers. The author's voices vary between wise and placid to passionate and shrill. Some of these works have brought about profound change -- Muir, Carson, and Abbey for example. Others not. The tradition survives, though, on an us vs. them tone that pleases many involved in environmentalist works. It's easier to rally folk against something or somebody than to create a dialogue between lots of people.

My wife is wise. She tells me when I am being a jackass, distant, obsessive, etc. This list could certainly go on. It hurts when she tells me these things. Yet she also tells me when I am loving, being a good listener, involved and working with her in the marriage. I am a better person for that dynamic, and I do my very best to be an equal partner and offer her the tough and loving lessons she offers me.

Restoration is about relationship, and at its best mutual and attentive. Our partner in this physical and spiritual relationship is as flawed and perfect as our own understandings of it. And how we work within this relationship has everything to do with how healthy all things will be in the future.

An art and science is arising that sees in stories, and looking with deep humility at how to build a mutual and sustaining dependence. This is, after all, the deepest home -- listening, learning, and giving to everything and everybody else, and in turning from self, growing in self, whether as an individual or a species.

The martins have stopped. Or I can't see them for the dark now, so I can only presume they have stopped and begun roosting for the night. The screech owls have started their calls to each other across the open spaces of the backyards. The bamboo rattles in an imperceptibly soft wind; the smell of a barbeque drifts in from somewhere down the street. The beer is cool: tangy and bitter at first taste, and then sweet. It is always light enough to write in the journal about pleasantness and something deep, but I'll hold off for a little while more.

Current Work
by David Taylor


Medium

“There is no separate life.” (Freeman House, Totem Salmon)


The stars don't seem that far away.
I,
reclining in the grass in the backyard,
watching the starlings pass in liquid waves,
the lush wind through the pecans,
Venus shining first over a crescent moon in the west,
want to hold this idea as long as I can.

It isn't a new notion I'm sure,
crossing millennia in the dazzle of upturned eyes,
the cool night air on skin,
bird calls, flecks of light,
plants dowsing,
even the garden in front of me speaking to that,
the seed of thought and plant not so different.

Sometimes,
I forget the way I know things-
never as pieces.
We are all milieu,
as much the medium as the organism,
and each of our senses something else's language.
The light I see speaking in histories older than the earth itself.




Ethics at the Urinal

Gentle reader do not blush,
at this meditation on a flush
For where else should application begin
of philosophy except from our ends?

At one to two gallons per pull,
clean water fills the alabaster pool
and dilutes our waste to gray
that washes crude odor away

Yet too often before we begin,
we flush by mere habit again--
thus lay waste to perfectly clean water
and are profligate when we ought not to.

Thus as your business is at hand,
I ask you to hold your water, young man.
for the value of water, inherent or intrinsic,
should never be thought of as merely anthropocentric.

Nighthawks
Bill Lindemann, Fredericksburg Standard/Radio Post, Kerrville Daily Times, September 2003, © 2003

Recently while walking on my place west of Fredericksburg just before dusk, I heard a sound from overhead that stopped me in my tracks. Above me was a Common Nighthawk patrolling the evening skies for flying insects. I wish the word "common" in this bird's name was still appropriate for those of us who live in the Hill Country. About 25 years or so, I believe that this bird's call could be heard most evenings just before darkness.

When I was a young boy growing up east of San Antonio, Common Nighthawks were out every evening. I knew them by another name, "bullbats." The bird got this name from the sounds it makes while courting females during the late spring to early summer period. The nighthawk has the ability to make a "booming" sound as air passes over its wings during a dive. The booming sound climaxes just as the bird pulls out of its dive. It is a memorable sound that I would imagine many of you have heard and remember.

The Common Nighthawk also makes a "pee-uit, pee-uit" call as it wafts on the evening breezes in search for mosquitoes and other night-flying insects. Members of the nighthawk family have wide gaping mouths that are used to corral insects in flight. Bristles on the sides of their mouths help guide the insects into their gaping "traps."

Their wide mouths have also given these nocturnal birds another interesting family name, "goatsuckers." Someone got the idea that these birds with wide mouths would rob goat nannies of their milk at night. I have no idea where the term originated, but the goatsucker label is a worldwide term for the bird family. The family name Caprimulgidae in Latin translates "to suck goat's milk." Folklore among birds, or groups of birds, is quite common around the world and often results in lasting names.

Another nighthawk of the Hill Country is the Chuck-Will's-Widow, a common summertime bird that is heard, but seldom seen. Like its nighthawk cousin, the bird hides during the day and comes out at dusk to patrol for insects. This bird gets its name from the four-syllable call it makes "chuck-will's-wi-dow." The call is repeated for hours, and if you sleep with your windows open on warm summer evenings, the sound can wear on your nerves.

Chuck-Will's-Widows do not fly the evening skies, but remain in the safety of surrounding brush to hunt for insects and make their calls. Chuck-Will's-Widows, are brown and larger than the gray nighthawks. Their brown colors give them great camouflage when roosting on the ground among dried leaves. Nighthawks, too, are masters of disguise while roosting - sitting longways on a tree limb (often mesquite), appearing to be part of the limb.

The Chuck-Will's-Widows become silent after their breeding season, becoming very difficult to find and observe before they leave for Central and South America. I hope that times will change so that the Common Nighthawk will return to our evening skies. Both of these birds have important ecological niches to fill and we need both them to be on the job.

Sunday, September 28, 2003

How Much do You Know about our Local Birds?
Ro Wauer, September 28, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Just for the fun of it, here is a short quiz about birds. For avid birders, this quiz should be a piece of cake. And for anyone who has read my Nature Notes over the years, you should be able answer more than half of the following questions. Answer by circling A, B or C. The correct letters are included at the end.

1. America's official national bird is: (A) wild turkey, (B) bald eagle, or (C) sandhill crane.
2. Texas' official bird is: (A) northern cardinal, (B) scissor-tailed flycatcher, or (C) northern mockingbird.
3. Turkey vultures are most closely related to (A) storks or (B) eagles.
4. The local bird with the greatest wingspan is: (A) bald eagle, (B) magnificient frigatebird, or (C) turkey vulture.
5. The fastest known North American bird is: (A) chimney swift, (B) hummingbird, or (C) peregrine falcon.
6. Which one of the following hawks does not nest in South Texas: (A) ferruginous, (B) red-tailed, or (C) white-tailed.
7. The raptor known to mimic turkey vultures is: (A) zone-tailed hawk, (B) Mississippi kite, or (C) Swainson's hawk.
8. The raptor included on Mexican flags is: (A) crested caracara, (B) prairie falcon, or (C) golden eagle.
9. What waterbird must dry its feather by wing-spreading after fishing? (A) clapper rail, (B) anhinga, or (C) mallard.
10. The wading bird that spends much time searching for food in pastures is: (A) green heron, (B) snowy egret, or (C) cattle egret.
11. What rail does not nest in South Texas? (A) yellow, (B) black, or (C) clapper.
12. What bird constructs a 5-8 foot tunnel into a river bank? (A) kingfisher, (B) dipper, or (C) woodpecker.
13. The woodpecker that spends considerable time on the ground eating ants is: (A) ladder-backed, (B) northern flicker, or (C) pileolated.
14. Found in South Texas only in winter, it is considered a "keystone" species: (A) northern harrier, (B) white-throated sparrow, or (C) yellow-bellied sapsucker.
15. The largest South Texas owl is: (A) barn, (B) great horned, or (C) barred.
16. The smallest South Texas songbird is: (A) house sparrow, (B) white-eyed vireo, or (C) blue-gray gnatcatcher.
17. The songbird that hangs its prey on thorns is: (A) oriole, (B) shrike, or (C) wren.
18. The largest Texas warbler is: (A) golden-cheeked, (B) Swainson's, or (C) yellow-breasted chat.
19. Chimney swifts are most closely related to (A) swallows or (B) hummingbirds.
20. The bird that builds a floating nest is: (A) red-winged blackbird, (B) mottled duck, or (C) pied-billed grebe.
21. What bird deposits its eggs in the nests of other birds? (A) grackle, (B) cowbird, or (C) shrike.
22. The bird that builds grassy nests in flowerpots is: (A) northern cardinal, (B) ruby-throated hummingbird, or (C) Carolina wren.
23. Which of the following birds in not a cavity nester? (A) bluebird, (B) titmouse, or (C) vireo.
24. Only one of the following sparrows nests in South Texas: (A) Lincoln's, (B) white-throated, or (C) lark.
25. The principal food of the endangered whooping crane is: (A) blue crab, (B) snails, or (C) roots.

Answers: 1 (B), 2 (C), 3 (A), 4 (B), 5 (C), 6 (A), 7 (A), 8 (C), 9 (B), 10 (C), 11 (A), 12 (A), 13 (B), 14 (C), 15 (B), 16 (C), 17 (B), 18 (C), 19 (B), 20 (B), 21 (B), 22 (C), 23 (C), 24 (C), 25 (A).

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Crickets Often are Unwelcome Neighbors
Ro Wauer, September 21, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Field crickets have recently invaded many of our towns, homesites, and businesses. Usually, these insects are found only in our fields and woodlots, but recent rains have apparently contributed to their movement into conflict with people. There are places in our towns where their dead bodies become smelly and obnoxious.

Field crickets usually are welcome neighbors, so long as they stay away from our shops and homes. Many people consider crickets symbols of good luck. Jiminy Cricket, of Pinocchio fame, helped establish a positive image. And crickets are sometimes prized for their "singing" and sometimes kept in cages in people's homes. In China, crickets were also kept for their fighting ability; cricket fights were as popular as horse races. The Chinese fed their crickets special diets, including mosquitoes fed on trainer's arms, and even weighed them to classify them for fighting.

Many of us enjoy their cheerful evening songs, and as the nights grow longer and cooler, their nocturnal serenades increase in intensity. Before winter they must mate to perpetuate the species. But only the males sing. They have three basic sound signals: a call note, an aggressive chirp, and a courtship song to attract a female. Singing is done with the edge of one wing rubbing against the opposite wing, creating a chirping noise. Filelike ridges, called "scrapers," near the base of the wing produce the sound. We can produce a similar sound by running a file along the edge of a tun can.

Wing covers provide an excellent sounding board, quivering when notes are made and setting the surrounding air to vibrating, thus giving rise to sound waves that can be heard for a considerable distance. The cricket's auditory organ or "ear," a small white, disklike spot, is located on the tibia of each front leg. The chirps become much higher in pitch in the presence of a female. Some of these ultrasonic sounds can reach 17,000 vibrations per second, higher than most people can distinguish. Females are easily identified by a long, spearlike ovipositor (egg-laying device) protruding from their abdomen. Eggs are laid in the ground and hatch is the spring.

Our local field cricket, sometimes known as black field cricket, is almost an inch in length. Members of the Gryllidae Family of insects, they are related to grasshoppers and mantises. They feed on a wide variety of materials, including vegetable matter, and when they get into our buildings, they can consume everything from clothing to paper. However, they will not remain there and breed but will return to their preferred outdoor environment when given a chance. Outdoors they are an integral part of our South Texas wildlife.

A recent posting by Mike Quinn, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, cited a control method for crickets, suggested by Michael Merchant, Texas Agricultural Extension Service. "Outdoor lighting is the most important single cause of severe cricket infestation around homes and commercial buildings. Buildings that are brightly lit at night are most likely to attract the largest numbers of crickets during the fall mating season. Reducing outdoor lights is the first, and most important, step in a cricket control program"

For additional information about cricket as pests go to http://citybugs.tamu.edu/FastSheets/Ent-1008.html

Monday, September 15, 2003

Blue Jays are Especially Abundant in Fall
Ro Wauer, September 15, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

One of our most common avian residents, blue jays becomes even more numerous in late summer and fall. There are two or three very good reasons for this increase in populations. First and foremost is the fact that young of the year are out and about, foraging with their parents and adding to the overall jay noises. Second, some of our neighborhoods are recipients of visiting birds from nesting sites that do not support an adequate food base in fall. And thirdly, oak and pecan trees are producing new crops of acorns and pecans that attract blue jays and lot of other birds from considerable distances.

Young birds are difficult to separate from the adults by fall, because they are the same size (almost before they leave the nest) and are fully developed. Even their tail, that often is stubby for several weeks after fledging, is fully-grown. The only hint of their age that can still be detected is the bill, somewhat yellowish and soft at the lower edge. And as for the familiar jay calls, there is so little difference that it is next to impossible to separate the adults from the young that way. They all have the very distinct "jay" call, as well as numerous other calls that can range from loud screeches to grunts and whistles. One common call is an emphatic "eeef eeef" or "thief thief." Jays also have the ability to mimic lots of other birds.

A blue jay is best described as omnivorous, able to eat almost anything from fruits and nuts to carrion, small vertebrates such as lizards and snakes, as well as other birds and their eggs. Their multivaried diet is one reason for their abundance and their widespread distribution. But they, like other members of the Corvidae Family (includes crows, ravens and magpies), are able store food for periods of the year when the supply is are not so abundant. Blue jay caches are hidden in tree crevices and in shrubbery. Watch a jay scarf down numerous seeds or other foods, completely filling their esophagus, and then fly off to cache it for later. In more northern climates, these food caches allow jays to nest very early in the season, before most of their natural foods become available.

The blue jay is the only jay that occurs in our area along the Central Gulf Coast. Its range extends throughout the eastern half of North America, west into central Canada, but south only to about the San Antonio River, a biogeographic boundary for many of our Eastern forest species. However, the more tropical green jays do occur north to southern Goliad County, and there is some hint that this lovely bird may be moving northward. And the western scrub-jay is common in the Hill Country. Of the three species, the blue jay is the only one with a crest. It is marked with a blue back, crest, and tail, all white underparts, white wing spots, and white cheeks. It also possesses a black necklace.

Blue jay behavior is fascinating. A blue jay watcher sooner or later will see some remarkable activities. Mobbing of other birds and predators is one of the most typical. When one individual discovers a predator, such as a house cat or owl, it will immediately begin to call its neighbors, and within a very few minutes other jays suddenly appear and join the mob. At such times, their raucous calls can be heard a considerable distance. More often than not, the recipient of their attention will eventually flee.

Jays also love to sun-bathe, sprawling out in a sunny and usually sandy place, wings out and back fluffed out to absorb the sun's warmth. They may use the exact same position in an ant bed to "ant," letting the ants walk over their plumage. This activity allows the ants to take tiny parasites, helping the jays stay clean and healthy. They may also take an ant in its bill, crush it, and rub the ant over its own plumage; apparently the ant's acid gives it protection from some parasites. And one of the strangest behaviors for birds is that blue jays have been known to guard and feed old or disabled jays, a trait almost human.

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Wandering Butterflies Sometimes Go North in Late Summer
Ro Wauer, September 7, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Those of us living in South Texas expect to see monarchs on their southern migration during late summer and fall, and we seldom are disappointed. From late August through November, monarchs from all across North America pass through our area en route to their wintering grounds in the mountains of northern Mexico. Their story is well documented, one of nature's most fascinating wildlife adventures.

But those of us in South Texas also are privileged to experience very different butterfly phenomena, that of wandering butterflies heading north. Some of these strays are Mexican species that are very rarely found in the United States. Although they can be somewhat expected in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, those that come so far north as Victoria, Goliad, Dewitt, and surrounding counties are exciting for those of us that pay attention to such unusual occurrences. For instance, during the last few days, I recorded a white angled-sulphur in my yard near Mission Valley, and Derek Muschalek discovered a ruddy daggerwing in his yard west of Yorktown.

The white angled-white is a huge butterfly, almost the size of a monarch, with leaf-green underwings and white upperwings with a large yellow spot. I discovered my angled-sulphur nectaring on a firebush, but when I approached it swiftly flew up, circled and landed on a nearby hackberry leaf. I could easily see it from where I was standing, but when I approached to get a photography, it blended into the vegetation so perfectly that I had to return to the earlier spot five times to zero in on the location before I located it up close. Then I was able to approach to within four feet; it remained still, I suppose believing that its color and leaf-shape when perched would keep it protected.

Derek's ruddy daggerwing is an even larger butterfly, with a wingspan of about three inches. Its underside is reddish brown with dark streaks that provide it wonderful camouflage when perched. The upper side is brilliant orange-red with narrow black streaks and long tails. Its color and shape are so out of ordinary that almost anyone seeing this butterfly could not help but be impressed. It is one gorgeous creature!

The concept of butterflies and other animals moving north instead of south in late summer and fall is one that has been recognized by biologists for many years, but not fully understood. This dispersal from their breeding grounds occurs with a large number of animals. Most often it is the male of the species that moves on after breeding. This wandering behavior may serve as a way to disperse species over a wider area to conserve a food supply for the young, to take advantage of feeding sites elsewhere, or it may function as a way to colonize new territory. Buff-bellied hummingbirds, the large species that is a full-time resident in many of our yards, often wanders along the Gulf Coast to Louisiana in fall. And western hummingbirds, such as Anna's and Allen's, wander east to the Gulf Coast on occasion.

There are several butterflies that we can expect only during the late summer and fall months. Already a few of the more common, regular fall species have put in their appearance, at least in my garden. The early species include zebra heliconian, orange-barred sulphur, common mestra, and ocola skipper. Based on previous years, I know that I can also expect Julia heliconian, white peacock, soldier, and Laviana white-skipper any day.

My "Checklist of Central Gulf Coast Butterflies" includes 149 species that have been recorded within the12 county area. I have recorded 96 of those within my own yard. Any of my readers interested in receiving a copy of this 4-page checklist, send me a stamped self-addressed envelope and will I send you a copy. My address is 315 Padre Lane, Victoria, TX 77905. Enjoy the butterflies!