The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Spring Heralds Abound
Ro Wauer, February 29, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Fresh spring blooms, bird songs, and butterflies are everywhere these days. These wonderful indicators of the new season can hardly be missed. Richard Hovey wrote: "Spring in the world! And all things are made new." And Robert Herrich wrote: "Rise and put on your foliage, and be seen. To come forth, like the Springtime, fresh and green."

Anemones are already sprinkled across my yard. Their ten white petals contrast with the still brownish grasses. These little gems, sometimes known as "windflowers," are well known around the world, and are well known as early bloomers. A thousand years ago, the Saxons named their anemones "flaw-flowers" - flaw meaning gust - because they wave in every gust of spring winds. And Rainer Marie Rilke wrote: "Spring has returned. The earth is like a child that knows poems."

My personal spring bloom is that of the agarito. This thorny shrub produces bright yellow flowers as early as February that not only offers a sweet aroma, but also serves as a magnet to butterflies and bees. The buzzing of bees as they gather nectar from the flowers can usually be heard from a considerable distance. And examination of the flowers will usually result in finding several early butterflies: gray hairstreak, American snout, red admiral, and even the spring-only species: Henry's elfin.

Indian paintbrush is sprouting up along our roadsides, and it will soon be the time for Texas's own bluebonnets. Then is when the whole countryside can be alive with visual memories. Anne Morrow Lindberg wrote: "Today I went out. It smelled, it felt, it sensed spring. I had the first time faith - not intellectual belief, but a sudden feeling of turning tide. Yes, there will be spring." But Dorothy Parker observed: "Every year, back spring comes, with nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off, and the ground all mucked up with arbutus."

One of our birds "yapping" its fool head off is the northern cardinal. This "red bird" starts yapping even before sunup in spring, proclaiming to the world that it is spring and this is my territory and any invaders must be wary. Their song, like "what cheer-cheer-cheer," is loud, clear and rich. Henry Nehrling wrote: "The cardinal is one of the jewels of our bird fauna, being incomparable in the combination of proud bearing and gaudy coloring, and unexcelled in certain qualities of its song. Few birds impart their haunts with such life, beauty, and poetry as this brilliant songster."

But the cardinal is only one of several springtime songsters that are beginning to serenade our landscapes. Another favorite is the Carolina wren, another of our yardbirds that is active much of the year, but increases its verbosity in spring. Even the rather dull tufted titmice and northern mockingbird seem happier and more excited than they did a few weeks ago. And what about the red-shouldered hawks that cruise overhead in spring, calling and diving in courtship, impressing their mates and even us human beings willing to appreciate their ardor.

Purple martins are due at out martin houses any day; they already are being seen in the southern and coastal areas of Texas. We very soon will be enjoying their mellow songs and marvelous antics. Robert Lemon wrote: "Martin small talk is as varied as it is incessant. When a colon is in full activity around its apartment house, swooping, fluttering, constantly coming and going, the air is filled with an amazing mixture of chippurs, squeaks, whistles, and trills, all uttered with engaging heartiness."

"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven." Ecclesiastes 3:1. "The beauty of our land is a natural resource. Its preservation is linked to the inner prosperity of the human spirit." Lyndon Baines Johnson

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Book Review
Texas Gardening the Natural Way
Ro Wauer, February 25, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Texas Gardening the Natural Way is a huge book (81/2x11 in.) filled with useful information about almost every subject one needs to understand about gardening in Texas. This 396-page book includes 833 color photos. Written by the well known gardener Howard Garrett, often known as “the dirt doctor,” it is subtitled “The Complete Handbook.” It is advertised as the first complete, state-of-the art organic gardening handbook for Texas.

Garrett's new book includes a variety of sections to help the user. These include How to plan, plant, and maintain beautiful landscapes without using chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides; gardening fundamentals: soil, landscape design, planting techniques, and maintenance practices; descriptions of native and adaptable varieties of garden and landscape plants; trees, including 134 species of evergreens, berry- and fruit-bearing, flowering, and fall colors; shrubs and specialty plants; ground covers and vines; annuals and perennials; lawn grasses; fruit, nuts and vegetables; common green manure crops; herbs; bugs; plant diseases; organic methods for repelling mice and other critters; organic management practices; etc.

I immediately checked out a number of the more familiar plant species. Although the varieties of trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials included are impressive, some of the photos were not as good as their descriptions. Each narrative included the common and scientific plant names, general description, habit, culture, uses, problems, and notes. For instance, the redbud narrative mentions that it is “easy to grow in any soil, drought tolerant,” but susceptible to “borers, leaf rollers.” The notes for Chinese tallow states: “I used to mistakenly recommend this tree, but there are lots of better choices.” I fully agree!

In shrubs, although Texas sage or cenizo, various sumacs, and viburnums are included, my favorite butterfly attractant - crucita or Eupatorium odoratum - is missing. And I found another excellent butterfly attractant shrub, butterfly bush or Buddleia, in the annuals and perennials. Most of the better known garden flowers were found in that section and in a later section called “herbs.” Red lantana was included in the annuals and perennial section. Garrett points out that lantana is an easy plant to grow, it likes “any well-drained soil,” but the “berries are poisonous.” He neglected to mention that the Texas native lantana is almost useless for attracting butterflies. The gold lantana, although not native, is considerable better.

I was especially interested in ground cover plants, grouped with vines, and did find a couple favorites: frogfruit and the nonnative ajuga. Garrett included lots of vine species, including Carolina jasmine, coral vine, a couple honeysuckles, morning glory, passion flower, and trumpet vine. But he also included kudzu, a nonnative vine that can literally take over massive areas of landscape if introduced. He does state: “Spreads too aggressively; however, livestock will keep it under control.” Ranchers and farmers in Tennessee must spend considerable money to control this dangerous plant. Planting it in Texas should be outlawed.

The pest management section contains some fascinating information, and topics range from aphids to wood rot. He divides each narrative into feeding habits, economic importance, natural control, and organic control. My attention immediately focused on chiggers. Garrett's natural control states: “Increased soil moisture. Some researchers say chiggers nave no natural enemies. That may be true, but the imported fire ants will certainly eliminate them.” Wow! I'm not sure which one I hate most. His organic control includes “Sulfur dust is a good repellent. So is lemon mint, also called horsemint. Take a hot, soapy bath to remove larvae. Stop the itching with baking soda, vinegar, aloe vera, or comfrey juice.”

The appendices include additional information such as various formulas used for pest controls and an excellent list of “organic fertilizers and soil amendments.” And there also is a very useful index.

Howard Garrett's “Texas Gardening the Natural Way” was published by the University of Texas Press (ISBN-0-292-70542-5), and it is available only in hardcover at $34.95. It is well worth the value to Texas gardeners.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Northern Harriers are Unique
Ro Wauer, February 22, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Earlier known as "marsh hawk," due to their use of marshy habitats during the nesting season, their current name fits them much better on their wintering grounds. Then they are more likely to be found over weedy fields and croplands during their residency in South Texas. Their method of hunting is very different from all other hawks. Instead of flying high above the ground or perching on a tree or pole and watching for prey, then diving on the subject, harriers slowly fly low to the ground. They essentially search their feeding areas, flying back-and-forth in a deliberate process. Once they discover a prey species, they suddenly drop onto their subject, often times doubling back. But what is truly unique about this species is its use of both visual and audio clues. Unlike other hunting hawks that hunt only by sight, harriers are also able to zero in on sounds, such as rodent squeaks. This hunting method has been described as a search-pause-pounce strategy.

The audio-location ability of northern harriers is performed by an amazing system of triangulation, similar to that used by owls. A close look at a northern harrier will reveal sound-reflecting disks, special facial characteristics that are missing from other hawks. This feature has prompted some ornithologists to consider placing harriers into a new and special family or subfamily.

In addition to those unique features, studies of nesting harriers have revealed that 25 percent of nesting females, usually subadults, are involved with polygamy, several females mating with one male. And male harrier's courtship can be an amazing display of "sky dancing," tumbling, rolling, and looping to impress their ladies. However, once incubation begins, the male harrier rarely visits the nest. He does, however, provide his fair share of food for the female and nestlings. He transfers prey in flight to the female, who then sneaks back to the next after several false landings to confuse any watching predators.

Northern harriers are long-winged hawks that occur in South Texas only during migration and in winter. Adult males look considerably different from females and young birds. They are sexually dimorphic. Males possess contrasting black-and-white plumage, while females are buff-colored with striped underparts. Both are slender, possess a white rump that usually is obvious even at a distance, and have a long tail. Flight is distinct as they course low over the ground with a few but quick wingbeats, tilting constantly from side to side. At night they roost on the ground, usually in groups of other northern harriers, and sometimes with short-eared owls.

Our northern harrier is North America's only representative of 10 harriers found worldwide. All are of the genus "Circus," a Greek name referring to their circling flight. The species name is "cyaneus," Latin for blue, referring to the adult male's slaty blue color. They all look very much alike and practice the same hunting technique.

Wintering northern harriers leave us in spring to return to their nesting grounds from the Texas Panhandle northward across the northern half of the U.S. Some are already beginning to move northward, and so as they pass through our area, they are worth watching. They are one of our most unique raptors.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Skunk Activity is Early this Year
Ro Wauer, February 15, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Driving the county roads, I have noticed that road-killed skunks have suddenly increased, far beyond the numbers expected during most of the year. The reason is simple: male skunks are out and about seeking a mate, and may wander considerable distances while searching for a lady skunk. Like so many other critters, including humans, when skunks turn their attention to mating, they are more prone to ignore dangers that they might otherwise heed.

Skunks normally live a solitary existence, only pairing up during their spring breeding season, starting in February and lasting sometimes until late March. It is then when the males go courting. But once mating is complete, both sexes go their own way, although he continues to seek out additional girlfriends. Three to six young are born in May or June. The young are blind and helpless, they can walk and play in about a month, and are as large as adults in three months.

The majority of the skunks found in South Texas are the striped skunks, easily identified by the white double-stripe down their black back. The also have a white spot on their nose. But they otherwise are all black. They can weigh up to 14 pounds, according to age and the amount of fat. Females are about 15 percent smaller than males.

All skunks possess scent glands with an obnoxious odor that they can spray at an antagonist when disturbed. Although it may seem that the typical skunk odor is commonplace, they spray only as a last resort. Of course, road-kills smell whenever their scent glands are crushed. The glands, located near the base of the tail, are normally activated only after the animal warns the intruder first. It first will audibly strike the ground with its forefeet and even make short rushes at its enemy before actually using its potent spray. It finally will bring its rear around toward its enemy, with its tail erect, and then discharge fine yellow droplets through small ducts that open inside the anus. These glands are encased in muscles that can be voluntarily controlled by the animal when the situation demands it. The powerful scent may be detected miles away during favorable weather.

Although skunks are usually considered bad neighbors, due to their odor and an occasional invasion of chicken coops, they normally are good friends of farmers and ranchers. Typical skunk food includes grasshoppers, grubs, beetles, snakes, frogs, rodents, crabs, and an occasional bird and egg. The skunk's few enemies consist of humans, large dogs, and great horned owls, the only nighttime predators large enough and aggressive enough to kill a skunk. Even the larger coyotes and foxes normally shy away from an encounter with a skunk. The skunk's powerful defense immunizes them effectively from most potential enemies.

The two additional skunks found in South Texas include the smaller and less common Eastern spotted skunk and larger Eastern hog-nosed skunk. Spotted skunks possess numerous white markings and are far more secretive. The hog-nosed skunk has a longer snout and an all-white back and tail; it is more numerous in the south and only rarely reported in the Coastal Bend.

Skunks are mammals, giving birth to live young and possessing mammary glands. They belong to the family Mustilidae, as are badgers and weasels. Although some folks make pets of very young animals, and they often are loving pets that get along just fine, older skunks, unless they are descented, can pose a problem. It is best to leave wild animals in the wild.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Purple Martins are Due
Ro Wauer, February 8, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

It is once again time to get the martin houses ready for their arrival. Some of the first males can arrive in South Texas the first week of February. And the females and the slower individuals may not be far behind. So, if you have been postponing your preparations, get with it!

Although many of the purple martins that utilize sites throughout our part of Texas may not arrive until early March, males may already be scouting their ancestral home sites. Not finding a readied house can mean that they may shift their homing interests elsewhere. Preparing for their homecoming often requires little more than reinstalling an already clean house. But it may also mean cleaning out the spiderwebs and insects that may have laid claims since the rightful tenants vacated in midsummer of last year. If you have not taken last year's martin house out of the weather, you may have the additional chore of cleaning out nesting materials that were deposited there by invading competitors such as house sparrows and starlings.

For those of you new to attracting martins, here are some easy rules to follow:
* Houses must contain apartments with at least a 6x6-inch floor space and an entrance hole 1 3/4-inch in diameter and 1 inch above the floor.
* Houses must be placed on poles 12 to 20 feet above the ground and should be 40 feet away from taller trees, poles, and other structures.
* Poles must be free of vines and shrubs that might allow access to the house by predators.
* Houses must be free of nesting materials and other debris that accumulated in the off-season.
Purple martins often are rather finicky at the start but seem to put up with shorter poles and poorly maintained structures once the colony is established. Most birds are repeats, but the majority of the first-year birds (usually last year's youngsters) seek out new sites, usually in the generally area of their natal homesite. This means that a new martin house, especially if it is in the proximity of an active martin house, is likely to be used early on. Distance houses are not as likely to be selected.

An established purple martin colony is likely to return year after year so long as you maintain the house and environment. They will consume millions of flying insects during the short time they are with us. And they will also provide us with their marvelous songs from long before dawn to throughout the day and evening. But by mid- to late July they will leave our neighborhoods and begin their 5,000-mile southward journey to their wintering grounds in South America.

For those of you wanting to know more about these marvelous creatures, you might consider joining the Purple Martin Conservation Association at www.purplemartin. org or by telephone: 814-734-4420. This organization has everything you may ever want to know about purple martins. You can check the martin's fairly status as they move northward into the United States and all across the Continent, martin events, links to other purple martin activities and programs, a forum for questions, and supplies.

Purple martins are fascinating birds, and one of the few that is so highly dependent upon human beings. That places them into a rather unique relationship with us, and also one that offers a fascinating window into the natural world.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Barred Owls are Out and About
Ro Wauer, February 1, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

A few morning ago I was awakened at about 3am by a barred owl calling right outside my bedroom window. It called several times, and then, as I lay there listening to their wonderful songs, I detected one or two additional wail-like sounds that I recognized as youngsters. A family of barred owls were visiting my yard, probably in search of prey species that might be attracted to the abundant seed that I feed the wild birds. They remained for about 12 to 15 minutes before moving off to another site within their territory.

Barred owl calls are wonderfully deep hooting notes, ending in oo-aw, with a downward pitch at the end. Their calls usually include eight notes, giving them the name of "eight-hooter" in some areas. Phonetically, their call sounds like "who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?" Young barred owl may communicate with a wide range of sounds that can include waits and moans to cackles, hisses, and laughs. To me and lots of other nature-lovers, the calls of barred owls, especially when emanating from dank swamps and riparian habitats are truly memorable.

I remember my first ever barred owl vocalizations in the Big Thicket of East Texas. At the time I was working for the National Park Service, and I was part of a team of folks sent to examine the Big Thicket area for possible National Park status. I was with a guide in a small boat, polling along one of the shallow streams, when he spotted a barred owl sitting in the trees high overhead. After showing us the owl, he began to call just like the owl. After only about three or four hoots, the owl responded. And I remember sitting there watching that singing owl; I literally had goose-bumps. It was one of those outdoors experiences that I will never forget. And that initial experience came back to me while laying there in bed the other morning listening to the owls in my yard.

Barred owls are mid-sized owls, somewhat smaller than the great horned owl that is common in our fields and pastures, and larger than the Eastern screech-owl that resides in various woodlots in our area. The overall range of Barred owls extends from British Columbia east to Quebec and south to the Texas Gulf Coast. Their name is derived from the dark bars on their upper chest.

It is a chunky owl with all-brown eyes, a rounded face that is outlined with a dark bar, no eye tufts like great horned owls, and a streaked breast. Their ear openings are offset to help in locating prey by triangulation. They are able to locate even faint sounds with amazing accuracy. They prey on a wide assortment of creatures, from rodents and other small mammals, to frogs and toads, snakes and lizards, and a variety of invertebrates.

Owls also possess specially adapted wing-feathers that are serrated rather than smooth; this adaptation disrupts the flow of air over the wings in flight, eliminating the vortex noise created by airflow over a smooth surface. Owls also have the ability to see amazingly well at night, even on the darkest night. Their eyes are dominated by rods, rather than cones, that are receptors and able to function in very dim light.

Owls are truly exception creations! Here is an animal of the nighttime that hides out during the daylight hours, usually among the foliage of high trees growing over or near water areas. It is usually pure serendipity to find one during the daylight hours. But it is not so difficult to detect them at any time of day or night when there are calling. Their rhythmic, emphatically delivered "howWho-haWHOO!....howWHO-haWHOOAaahh" calls can hardly be ignored.