The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Friday, January 30, 2004

Book Review
The Purple Martin
Ro Wauer, January 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

The Purple Martin, by Robin Doughty and Rob Fergus, arrives at a must appropriate time, when these large purple swallows are again taking up residence in our yards. This lovely little book can answer every question you ever had about purple martins. Chapters cover purple martin taxonomy, migration and range, the history of people's interest in martins, conservation, life history, and even purple martin landlords.

The authors present a concise natural history of the bird and its centuries-long companionship with people. They relate stories of how Native Americans and European colonists attracted purple martins, and also how Americans throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries helped martins survive the loss of natural nesting sites by providing houses for them. There are as many as 6 million martins living in more than a million colonies in North America.

Did you know that there are seven species of martins in the Americas? But only the purple martin (Progne subis) occurs in the United States. The authors point out that the common name - martin - is derived "from the Latin "Mars," the Roman God of War. The diminutive "ten" or "tin" is a pet name, leading to speculation that "little mars" refers to the first moth of the yearly calendar - the warring season, when the first so-called scouts arrive in the United States."

Although principally a bird of the eastern half of the U.S., it also breeds in central Canada, a portion of the Sonoran Desert, where it nests in saguaro cacti, and along the West Coast. In winter, all the North American birds occur in South America. The authors discuss records of birds banded in Duncanville, Denton, and Spearman, Texas that have been recovered in Sao Paulo, Brazil. One bird banded in Oregon was recovered some 6,700 miles away in southeast Brazil.

They also include a map that illustrates the various roost sites, places where martins gather before their southward migration. Several of these staging areas can be found in Texas, such as the well-known site at Lake Livingston. The largest know roost site of 700,000 martins is located on a small island in Lake Murray, South Carolina. Another site is situated on the south side of the Causeway Bridge across Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans, where numbers have been estimated on excess of 200,000 birds. Although many of the eastern birds migrate over the Gulf of Mexico, either from the tip of Florida or from Louisiana, the majority passes through Texas.

In the life history section of this informative book, the authors list an amazing variety of "Martin Foods" that include every kind of insect imaginable. They include a photo of a photo of a sign near Griggsville, Illinois that reads "America's Most Wanted Bird - Can eat 2,000 mosquitoes a day." They also list nest competitors: European starling, house sparrow, house wren, and tree swallow. And the most frequent predators include raccoon, great horned owl, barred owl, eastern screech-owl, and four snakes species: black and yellow rat snakes, corn snake, and fox snake.

Another fascinating section of the book is on martin vocalizations. The authors list and describe eleven vocalizations, ranging from their well-known dawn song to a subsong, croak and chortle songs, cheer and choo calls, to a juvenile call. Their dawn song is thought to attract other martins to a nest site in order to enhance colony formation.

This is a great book, and anyone even slightly interested in purple martins cannot help but thoroughly enjoy this comprehensive publication. It includes 128 pages, 16 color and 4 black-and-white illustrations, and four maps. And with a moderate price of $19.95, it is sure to be another success for the University of Texas Press. The ISBN is 0-292-71615-X.

Book Review
Texas Mountains & Herbs for Texas
Ro Wauer, January 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Two truly outstanding books appeared last year that received little attention at the time. But both of these marvelous books - Texas Mountains and Herbs for Texas - deserve considerable praise. Texas Mountains contains 120 color photographs of mountain scenery and subjects by one of the country's really superb photographers, Laurence Parent. His photography, accompanied with a text by Joe Nick Patoski, offers breathtaking views of Texas mountains, including the well-known Guadalupe, Davis and Chisos Mountains, as well as lesser-known ranges such as the Sierra Diablo, Eagle, Chinati, Beach, and Christmas Mountains.

We have all seen Parent's photographs in almost every issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife, Texas Highways, and Texas Monthly, as well as numerous national magazines, but Texas Mountains provides a marvelous showcase for his talent. I am especially impressed with the many shots of the Big Bend Country. Having spent a good part of my life in this wild West Texas setting, I can truly appreciate the beauty of Parent's photography. Each individual picture offers insight into the place and into Parent's obvious patience to capture just the right mood. For anyone who loves West Texas, this book is a must buy. It is almost as good being there at all the right times.

Herbs for Texas is a very different kind of book. Written by well-known botanist Howard Garrett, with veteran herbalist Odena Brannam, instead of containing great scenery, this book contains almost anything anyone would want to know about 150 Texas herbs. Each entry includes a photograph and a narrative that offers ideas for using each herb in gardening and cooking (with occasional recipes) as well as its medicinal uses and instructions for making teas. In addition, Garrett sets forth the basics of organic gardening, including pest control, and discusses how to design an herb garden. He also discusses how to raise roses, pecans, and fruit trees without chemicals.

This herb book contains an amazing amount of information that is not available in any other single source. It is a great book for homeowners, gardeners, landscapers, chefs, herbalists, and health care providers. I found it to be a marvelous reference for any Texas herb. Alfalfa, allspice, aloe vera, basil, blackberry, chives, clover, coriander, dill, fennel, garlic, ginger, horehound, lavender, lemongrass, licorice, Mexican oregano, mint, mustard, parsley, peppergrass, rose, sage, St. John's wort, thyme, and yarrow are only a few of the herbs discussed in this book.

Both these books are products of the University of Texas Press, P.O. Box 7819, Austin, TX 78713-7819. Texas Mountains contains 156 pages and sells for $39.95, hardcover (ISBN 0-292-76592-4); it is a wonderful coffee table book. Herbs for Texas contains 258 and sells for $29.95, paperback (ISBN 0-292-72830-1), or $60.00, hardcover (ISBN 0-292-78173-3); it is an excellent reference book.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Animal Cliches Usually are only Cliches
Ro Wauer, January 25, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Ever wonder about the validity of some of the widespread clichés about animals? For instance, how about "blind as a bat," "eyes like a hawk," "eats like a bird," or "busy as a bee"? Although their origins may never be known, the vast majority of these phases are "crazy as a coot."

A few of the animal clichés, however, make some sense. For instance, bees are extremely busy little insects, constantly involved with their various assigned duties. Each type of individual has a different responsibility, all combined to benefit the whole. The queen bee lays eggs, producing more bees, while the varied workers, actually undeveloped females, gather nectar to make honey, build the wax combs in which the larvae are raised, and feed the queen and larvae. Other workers actually flap their wings, up to 11,000 times per minute, to cool down an overheated hive that may include up to 60,000 individuals, and also defend the hive against raiders and intruders.

Another factual cliché is "eyes of a hawk." A red-tailed hawk, for instance, can see a rabbit from two miles away or a dime from 1,200 feet. The smallest object most humans can see at 1,200 feet in one the size of a grapefruit. And maybe big as a moose is also factual, as this member of the deer family is huge. Some of the Alaskan moose can weigh up to 1,800 pounds and stand more than 7.5 feet at the shoulder. And how about "hungry as a bear?" Especially in fall before hibernation, bears beef up on food to last through the winter months. An Alaskan grizzly can eat up to 90 pounds of fish in a single day, and a hungry polar bear that encounters a whale carcass can eat more than 100 pounds of meat and blubber in a day.

Most of our animal clichés are baseless. "Blind as a bat" is one that is most often accepted by unknowing folks. All bats have tiny eyes and can see, and some species, such as the flying foxes of Africa and Asia, have large eyes and see well enough to locate fruit in trees by sight even at night. Most bats augment their eyesight by echolocation, emitting high frequency sounds that bounce back from an object that can be as broad as a building or as tiny as a piano wire.

As for the birds, anyone who "eats like a bird" would have a huge appetite, as most birds eat 25 to 50 percent of their body weight daily. Their high metabolism burns up calories faster than long-distance runners. Hummingbirds may be the metabolic champs, eating almost continuous during the daylight hours. They normally eat twice their body weight daily, the equivalent of a 150-pound man daily consuming 1,000 quarter-pound burgers. And is the cliché "wise as an owl" fact or fancy? Owls are not any wiser than most other predators. The cliché probably was derived from the owl's apparent calm demeanor and its ability to swivel its head to look in all direction.

"Crazy as a coot" is another untruth, although anyone spending much time watching these aggressive waterbirds cannot help but wonder. They fight among themselves, even running across the water and on land in a demented way, and make all sorts of weird sounds, to both scare off a competitor and to warn their neighbors about intruders.

How about the cliché "quite as a mouse?" Most mice are rather quiet, although nestlings constantly squeak for attention or food, much like human babies. And the grasshopper mouse of the Southwestern deserts, that weighs less than half an ounce, marks its territory by unleashing long, high-pitched squeals, just like tiny dogs.

There undoubtedly are lots of other animal clichés around, most of which have little validity. On the other hand, with our society getting fatter and fatter, maybe more and more folks are "lazy as a sloth," a tropical mammal that rarely moves about very much, moving only about 125 feet per day, a real couch (tree) potato.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Gophers are Coming
Ro Wauer, January 18, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Although I have lived in the same house near Mission Valley for more than a dozen years, without once finding any evidence of gophers, this underground rodent has suddenly put in an appearance. At least I am starting to see evidence of its activities. Piles of freshly dug dirt are present in several nearby lawns. These piles are the result of a gopher leaving its underground tunnel to surface, pushing excavated soil out ahead. Then it promptly plugs up the hole for its own safety.

Gophers, more properly called pocket gophers, due to fur-lined cheek pouches for carrying food, not dirt, are fascinating mammals, even though they can be a real pain to anyone trying to keep a maintained yard. The cheek pouches are reversible, and open on the outside and inside the mouth. They live almost their entire life below ground, where they dig extensive tunnels. They are spectacular diggers, able to excavate a tunnel two to three hundred feet long in a single night. This digging machine is well designed with a heavy-set body with no appreciable neck, ears, or eyes. The eyes are minute and almost sightless. Their short legs are armed with strong, curved claws for digging, but when they encounter excessively hard ground, it is able to use its strong chisel-like front teeth. The large, yellowish incisor (gnawing) teeth are always exposed in front of the mouth opening.

The gopher is one of the few animals that can run backward as fast and as easily as it can move forward. Its short, fleshy tail, endowed with tactile organs, allows the gopher to feel its way around underground when it moves in reverse. A quick retreat serves it well when it needs to escape a fast-digging predator. Its above ground activity is mostly spent foraging for green vegetation, although the majority of its food - roots, tubers, and stems - is secured from below the surface.

A gopher's underground quarters consists of a nest, a toilet room, and eight or nine storage rooms, all connected with a network of tunnels. The gopher's nest, maintained only by the female, is a round ball of finely shredded leaves and grass eight to nine inches through and located close to the storage rooms. Males court the females, often fight with rival males, sometimes to the death, but return to their own series of tunnels after mating. The toilet room is periodically closed off and a new one is dug. The storage rooms, usually packed with roots and tubers, are situated at an appropriate depth so that they remain dry yet deep enough so that surface temperatures do not unduly effect the food supply.

Texas has six of the 18 North American pocket gophers. Two species (genus Geomys) occur in South Texas: Attwater's and Texas pocket-gophers. Attwater's pocket-gopher, located only in the Coastal Bend area, is one of the smallest, less than ten inches nose to tail. Texas pocket-gopher, resident in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and northward along the coast to Refugio and Goliad, is 15 inches in length. Both are pale brown in color with an even paler hairless tail.

Pocket-gophers belong to a unique family of mammals, Geomyidae, closely related to squirrels and mice. But they often are confused with moles, a smaller and more primitive family of underground dwellers. A mole's presence can be detected by low ridges of dirt that they push up as they move just beneath the surface; they also push up smaller mounds.

Pocket-gophers are not the most welcome new yard mammal, but since Mother Nature has more influence than I do, the best thing is to appreciate them for their fascinating characteristics.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

The Odd and Quarrelsome American Coot
Ro Wauer, January 11, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

This winter has been strange in a number of ways, but the almost complete absence of American coots is one of the most unexpected. Christmas bird counters found only a handful of these black duck-like birds this year. Normally, they are found in the hundreds or thousands during the winter months. They often gather together in huge numbers, like rafts, and counters can have a difficult time obtaining a good count. Their absence this year suggests that the bulk of the populations that usually overwinter in South Texas have remained to the north. That does not mean that they cannot suddenly arrive; a good cold snap to the north could very likely bring the tardy coots into our area.

Many people know this bird as "mudhen," because of its apparent affinity for muddy areas. It is a plump all-black bird, about the size of a small duck, with a white bill and rump. The bill also includes a shield that runs onto the forehead between a pair of ruby-red eyes. Although some folks lump coots with ducks, it is not a duck at all, but a member of the rail family. It is more closely related to the moorhen, sora, and clapper rail than to a mallard or pintail. And although it is less secretive than other rails, spending considerable time in open water, it is a marsh bird with short, rounded wings and long legs with flattened (lobed) toes that act like paddles for swimming and allows it to walk on mud and water plants.
Coots are one of the most adaptable of all water birds. They are able to feed on shore, grazing on grasses and small plants like an ungulate, and also able to feed on bottom plants such as underwater algae. Golf courses near ponds are often troubled with grazing coots. They feed on a wide variety of materials, from a huge assortment of plant pieces, to insects, worms, crayfish, and other invertebrates, as well as an occasional fish, frog or tadpole.

During their search for food, they often end up quarreling with neighbors. Like a little kid, they argue about almost any food supply, and their argument can reach such a heated battle that one can severely injure the other. They often fight with their feet that possess large and very sharp toes. During courtship, males will sometimes fight to the death.

Coot behavior has interested a number of ornithologists who have classified their display behavior into an amazing variety of types, including patrolling, bowing, arching, nibbling, swanning, splattering, warning, and charging. And their vocal repertoire includes an even more amazing variety of clucks and grunts. There even are records of individuals diving below the surface to escape a particular aggressing foe or predator, grabbing unto bottom vegetation to keep it down, and remaining so long that they actually drown.

Normally, coots can be found year-round in South Texas, but their numbers are relatively low during the spring and summer. Like their rail relatives, they construct floating nests of dead plant stems and grasses, anchored to vegetation. They also build adjacent floating platform for the males. They usually have two broods of 8 to 12 eggs, a second one even before the all the first chicks are fledged. Youngsters may leave the nest within four days but usually return overnight. During they daytime they often ride on the back of an adult.

Most folks consider the coot as little more than a pest, but when they are absent they are missed.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Wrens are Vocal Even in Winter
Ro Wauer, January 4, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Of all the songbirds that are present in South Texas in winter, none are as vocal as the wrens. This group of seven birds includes four that are with us year-round and three that are visitors only, arriving in September or October and heading back to their nesting grounds at least by May. All are skulkers, searching everywhere for insects; crawling about various structures, on tree bark, and all sorts of other closed and dark places. But more than any of our other songbirds, they seem the most content, singing all or partial songs each morning and at times later in the day, as well.

The four full-time resident wrens include our well known and almost everyone's favorite, Carolina wren. It is the heavy-set, reddish bird with a white eyebrow and short tail. We know it best because it lives in our yard, building nests is a variety of sites, from flowerpots to laundry on the line. And its song is a penetrating and joyous, often repeated "tea-kettle."

Bewick's wrens (pronounced like the car, Buicks) are almost as numerous, but utilize a very different habitat, so they are less obvious. This long-tailed brownish-gray wren also has a white eyebrow, is about half the size of the Carolina wren, and lives in our oak woodlands. It almost never lives in towns, but does frequent wooded neighborhoods with oaks. Even in winter, Bewick's wrens sing a spirited and extremely complex and musical song, often from the higher foliage. Yet their search pattern include every place possible, both high and low.

Marsh wrens are also year-round residents, but are almost never found away from wetland habitats, especially those with an extensive stand of cattails. This is one of the short-tailed wrens, usually brown to rusty colored and with a short white eyebrow. A careful look will also reveal white stripes on its back. It is extremely secretive, rarely coming into the open. But its non-musical songs, a rapid and rasping trill that sometimes goes on for extended periods, emanate from among the cattails.

The largest of our full-time wrens is the cactus wren, a resident of the drier, cactus dominated landscapes in the southern portions of our area. This is the heavily streaked wren that builds football-sized, grass and twig nests among the protective spines of cholla cacti and other thorny plants. It, too, has a white eyebrow, rust-brown crown, and a heavily barred, black-and-white tail. And its song is a distinct "choo-choo-choo" that is rarely heard in winter, but will be repeated dozens of times in spring.

The three wintertime-only wrens include house, sedge, and winter, in order of abundance. The one feature the three have in common is a very short tail. The smallest of the three is the reddish winter wren. Christmas bird counters may miss it some years, as it is one of the most secretive of the secretive wrens. It is little more than a tiny, plump reddish ball of feathers with a very short whitish eyebrow and a barred belly and flanks.

The sedge wren is only slight larger, is pale in comparison, with a pale eyebrow and buffy underparts, and a streaked crown. This little wren spends its winter in sedge fields or moist grassy areas and is most often detected by a sharp "tick" note. Its song, though rarely uttered on its wintering grounds, is a rapid, chattering trill that often descends at the end.

Finally, the most abundant of the wintering wrens is the little house wren. This is an extremely plain, long-tailed brownish bird, with much barring on the back and tail. It is the epitome of a wren, residing in weedy, cluttered fields, and actively searching high and low, in every conceivable nook and cranny possible, for insects. Watching a house wren during its hourly routine can tire even the most avid bird watcher. It will be in view one second and then disappear, only to resurface several feet away to search another hidden place with great deliberation. Then suddenly, without previous warning, it will sing a ditty that is rapid and bubbling, rising in pitch and then descending. And on a particular sunny morning, it may sing almost constantly for several minutes before it returns to its search pattern.

No other birds seem so happy as the wrens. Who's to ignore their curious antics and rich and joyous vocalizations?