The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Friday, April 30, 2004

Book Review
Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica
Ro Wauer, April 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica, by Carrol L. Henderson, is a good reference for anyone planning on visiting this marvelous country in Central America. The book is filled with color photographs of wildlife and scenery and numerous maps. The diversity of wildlife photographs range from butterflies to mammals, most of which are first class images taken by photographer Steve Adams. Nearly 300 species are illustrated. And the 275 full-color shots of the country's great scenery and maps provide good insight into the biogeography of the country.

Henderson's Costa Rica book is most valuable as a pre-trip reference on the country and the key wildlife viewing sites. It includes excellent background on Costa Rican research, conservation, environmental education, and nature tourism. And it also provides the reader with a good perspective on Costa Rica's major biological zones. These include tropical dry forest, southern Pacific lowlands, central plateau (central valley), Caribbean lowlands, highlands, and coastal beaches and mangrove lagoons. This 559-page book, published by the University of Texas Press, sells for $39.95 paperback (ISBN 0-292-73459-X) or $95.00 library edition (ISBN 0-292-73128-0).

Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica is less a field guide than a grand picture book. Nearly two inches thick, it is not a book I would want to take into the field. And the abundant illustrations are of the more common species only, including several that are commonplace in the United States. To be most useful as a field guide would require illustrations of Costa Rica's more unique species, those that are not already illustrated in numerous other guide books. For instance, of 16 butterflies that are illustrated, only five are not also illustrated in various other butterfly field guides. Of 183 bird species illustrated (of a grand total of 878 possible species), only a few of Costa Rica's specialties are included. Instead, species also common in the United States, such as the brown pelican, turkey and black vultures, white ibis, roseate spoonbill, black-bellied whistling-duck, green heron, broad-winged hawk, acorn woodpecker, great-tailed grackle, and Baltimore oriole, are included. Only a handful of the specialty birds are illustrated. These include great shots of king vulture, double-toothed kite, white hawk, sunbittern, spectacled owl, purple-throated mountain-gem (hummingbird), bicolored antbird, spot-crowned euphonia, and speckled and silver-throated tanagers for example.

The selection of 32 mammals, of a possible total of 228 species, also contains a number of species that seldom are illustrated in books. Examples include prehensile-tailed porcupine, sac-wing and tent-making bats, red-backed squirrel monkey, tamandua or collared anteater, paca, tayra, kinkajou, and Baird's tapir. But also included are white-tailed deer, armadillo, collared peccary (javelina), and humpback whale.

Additional highpoints in this Costa Rica book include an excellent glossary of terms, good literature cited listing following each section, a section that briefly describes 52 wildlife-viewing sites (this may be one of the more worthwhile sections), and a good index. The author, Carrol Henderson, is a professional wildlife biologist living in Minnesota. He has made over 25 trips to Costa Rica since 1969, and has led over 35 birding and wildlife tours there and throughout Latin America. The value of this book is providing much worthwhile information for anyone planning a wildlife trip to Costa Rica.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Cuckoos are Back in Our Neighborhood
Ro Wauer, April 25, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

The arrival of our nesting yellow-billed cuckoos is a little earlier than usual this year. But a couple of these very vociferous birds have been calling in my neighborhood since before the middle of the April. They are one of our last breeding bird to arrive each spring, but their arrival is well marked by their distinct song, a strange guttural sound that starts fast and slows at the end, like "kalala-kow-kow-kowp-kowp-kowp." Not the sweetest song out there, but welcome nevertheless.

Yellow-billed cuckoos, unlike most of the spring arrivals, are not classified as a songbird, one of the perching birds like warblers, flycatchers, and thrushes. Cuckoos on the other hand are closely related to roadrunners and groove-billed anis in the avian family Cuclidae. Perhaps the most famous of all the cuckoos is the European cuckoo that sings the typical "coo-koo" song, after which the cuckoo clock was developed. That bird, along with several other European and African cuckoos, is a nest parasite, like our cowbirds. They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, and the foster parents raise the young cuckoos.

North America has only three true cuckoos, the yellow-billed cuckoo that nests throughout North America, expect for most of the northwestern quarter, and the black-billed cuckoo that nests throughout the northeastern portion of North America; there are no known nesting records in Texas. Black-billed cuckoos do migrate through Texas, however, although they never are commonplace. The third cuckoo, the mangrove cuckoo, occurs only in south Florida, although there have been a handful of records in Texas. The other North American cuckoo family member is the roadrunner, resident in all of Texas, except along some portions of the upper coast. They all have a somewhat similar song, a slow and guttural caw notes.

Yellow-billed cuckoos are secretive birds, usually remaining concealed in the foliage of the taller trees. They do on occasion fly from one tree to another, often crossing a roadway or trail. Then is when they are most likely to be observed. When landing, they usually remain still long enough to get a good look. They are so unlike the ground cuckoo or roadrunner. Yellow-bills are long, thin birds about 12 inches in length. They possess a cinnamon back and cap, orange eyerings, gray underparts, a long yellow and black bill, and a long black tail with large white spots on the underside. In flight, the upperside of the wings often show reddish flight feathers.

Many folks know our yellow-billed cuckoo best by the name "rain crow," due to its habit of calling frequently on cloudy days or just prior to rain. Its taxonomic name is Coccyzus americanus; Coccyzus is Latin for "to cry cuckoo," referring to the birds' strange song. It also is know for its habit of consuming large quantities of caterpillars, some of which are injurious insect pests. It isn't an exception to find a yellow-billed cuckoo tearing apart tent caterpillar webs to capture the caterpillars. It also feeds on a wide variety of beetles, grasshoppers, ants, wasps, flies, and crickets we well as various fruits such as wild grapes and mulberries. One can't help but wonder if it earlier than normal arrival this year might reflect the greater than normal caterpillar populations in our oak trees.

Although there are a few records of yellow-billed cuckoos practicing nest-parasitism, like they're European and African cousins, that behavior is extremely rare for this species. It appears that our cuckoo is beneficial not just to the nature-lover but to the farmer and rancher as well.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

The Oak Caterpillar - Songbird Connection
Ro Wauer, April 18, 2004 The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

There is a well-accepted ecological principle that states: "Everything living and nonliving is related to or connected to everything else." Also known as the "web of life" and generally defined as whatever man does in the natural world, it causes extensive reactions that usually extend beyond those that are expected and observed. There has been a fascinating example of these interrelationships played out in many of our yards this spring.

The recent example involves the much greater than normal emergence of caterpillars, actually oak leaf rollers and a few other species, in our live oak trees. Their abundance this year, probably due to a mild winter with abundant rainfall, has created an amazing response from land-owners that cannot put up with the abundant caterpillars hanging from silken threads. It is like something out of a horror movie, when creatures from outer space threaten our very existence. An amazing reaction to tiny creatures that are harmless to humans. Sure they are a nuisance, they practically defoliate some of our trees, and the frass (scat) makes a huge mess on our driveways and decks. But it only lasts a couple weeks.

Oak caterpillars, oak leaf rollers as well as inchworms and a few other species, occur in spring just when the migratory birds are passing through South Texas. They provide an enormously important food supply for those songbirds and other species that may have just flown 550 miles across the Gulf of Mexico from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula the previous night. Without such an immediate supply of nutrients many of our birds would not survive.

Most of my neighbors in response to the almost overwhelming number of oak caterpillars this year sprayed their trees. Most used pesticides that killed every kind of caterpillar, whether oak caterpillars or various butterfly caterpillars that the spray contacted in both the trees and in the fallout area. I did not spray my yard, although I admit I was tempted. Immediately after the spraying the number and species of butterflies in my yard declined dramatically from what they were just prior to the spraying. But, on the other hand, I discovered that the number of migratory songbirds that were present in my yard were considerably greater than in adjacent yards. Their food supply was far more abundant in my yard than in the yards that had been sprayed.

As for the butterflies, the only species found in my yard after the spraying were wanderers, such as giant swallowtails, cloudless and large orange sulphurs, and monarchs. These apparently flew in from elsewhere not subject to the spraying. The more local species that hatch out in and adjacent to my yard, such as gray hairstreak, dusky-blue groundstreak, rounded metalmark, and coyote duskywing, disappeared totally. I am not sure at this writing how long it will taken before my butterfly numbers build back up.

What about the oak trees? How will they do after such a severe outbreak of oak caterpillars? Because the defoliation process is early in the growing season and, although some trees may be weakened, the majority will adequately recover. A recent post on Tex-Butterflies, submitted by Parks and Wildlife Entomologist Mike Quinn, explained that the "defoliated trees are temporarily subjected to reduced productivity (less growth) but they usually experience increased productivity later as a result of a large percentage of their leaves having been converted to frass." Mike also mentioned a recently released fact sheet (No. E-206) on the subject, available at http://tcebookstore.org.

There is no doubt that our natural environment is one huge web, like that built by a spider, and subject to much damaging activity. Each strand effects all the others. In most cases the spider can rebuild its web, and we can continue to use pesticides to address what we perceive as negative impacts on our personal environment. But each year the incidents of cancer and other life-threatening problems increase. At what point will we accept and live with the natural processes? Another ecological fact is that nature always will win in the end!

Sunday, April 04, 2004

How Well do You Know the Mammals?
Ro Wauer, April 4, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

A few weeks ago (Sept. 28) this column included a bird quiz that lots of readers enjoyed (I was told). So, assuming that my spies were correct, here is a follow-up to that quiz, one on mammals. Answer by circling A, B, or C. The correct letters are included at the end.

1. The official Texas mammal is the (A) mountain lion, (B) armadillo, or (C) javelina.
2. The smallest of all the Texas mammals is a (A) mole, (B) shrew, or (C) mouse.
3. Which one of the following rabbits does not occur in Texas? (A) swamp rabbit, (B) black-tailed jackrabbit, or (C) antelope jackrabbit.
4. The most common bat in Texas is the (A) big brown, (B) Mexican free-tailed, or (C) hoary bat.
5. The largest of the Texas ground squirrels is the (A) Mexican ground-squirrel, (B) rock squirrel, or (C) spotted ground squirrel.
6. Which one of the following tree squirrels does not occur in Texas? (A) red, (B) gray, or (C) red-bellied squirrel.
7. Which one of the following rodents is not a native Texan? (A) lemming, (B) cotton rat, or (C) flying squirrel.
8. The gopher that does not occur in Texas is the (A) Botta's pocket-gopher, (B) Southeastern pocket-gopher, or (C) yellow-faced pocket-gopher.
9. Opossums occur throughout Texas; the exception is the (A) Pineywoods, (B) Far West Texas, or (C) Lower Rio Grande Valley.
10. Which one of the following skunks does not occur in the Coastal Bend? (A) spotted, (B) striped, or (C) hooded skunk.
11. Which one of the following deer in not native to Texas? (A) mule, (B) fallow, or (C) white-tailed deer.
12. Bighorn sheep are Texas natives, but are found only in the (A) Trans-Pecos, (B) Pineywoods, or (C) Edward's Plateau.
13. The only native Texas weasel is the (A) ermine, (B) ferret, or (C) long-tailed.
14. The river otter occurs in Texas only in the (A) Pineywoods, (B) Lower Rio Grande Valley, or (C) Upper Colorado River.
15. Raccoons are most closely related to (A) skunks, (B) cats, or (C) the ringtail.
16. The only bear found in Texas is the (A) brown, (B) polar, or (C) grizzly.
17. The only fox that is widespread in Texas is the (A) red, (B) gray, or (C) kit fox.
18. Which one of the following cats is not listed as an endangered species? (A) bobcat, (B) ocelot, or (C) jaguarundi.
19. The largest of the native Texas cats is the (A) ocelot, (B) mountain lion, or (C) jaguar.
20. Which group of mammals possess antlers instead of horns? (A) deer, (B) bison, or (C) pronghorn.
21. Which one of the following wetland species is not a native Texan? (A) beaver, (B) nutria, or (C) muskrat.
22. Which species of wolf was once native only to eastern Texas? (A) gray, (B) red, or (C) Mexican.
23. Which one of the following species in not a native Texan? (A) badger, (C) lynx, or (C) porcupine.
24. Javelinas occur throughout much of Texas. The are absent from the (A) Big Bend area, (B) Lower Rio Grande Valley, or (C) Pineywoods.
25. Which one of the following whales does not occur in the Gulf of Mexico: (A) blue, (B) humpback, or (C) sperm.

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

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Book Review
Handbook of Texas Birds
Ro Wauer, April 1, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Everyone interested in Texas birds must have this marvelous book. It is full of up to date information about Texas birds that cannot be found in one place anywhere else. And the 140 color photos of some common and especially rare species are excellent additions. Both authors - Mark Lockwood and Brush Freeman - know Texas birds and are privy to the most recent information about Texas bird records. They include a discussion of all 623 accepted (well-documented) species, 30 reported but non-accepted species, and even a few “exotics and birds of uncertain origin.”

The heart of this book is the annotations of the 623 accepted species. These are full of good information that anyone interested in birds will sooner or later refer to when trying to better understand their own yard birds or species seen in a various other locations throughout the state. For instance, the paragraph on our own buff-bellied hummingbird includes the following: “Uncommon to locally common summer resident in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and along the coast north to Victoria County. This species appears to be expanding its range northward up the coast and inland into south central Texas. In recent years, there have been numerous records, primarily during spring and summer, from as far east as the Louisiana border and inland to Bastrop and Washington Counties. Most Buff-bellied Hummingbirds retreat southward during the winter and are rare to uncommon and very local at feeders and ornamental plantings in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and along the coast as far north as Calhoun County. There are scatted winter records father north along the coast and inland to Austin and Travis Counties.” An excellent summary!

Another example of a local but less common favorite is the green kingfisher. Lockwood and Freeman wrote: “Uncommon resident from the Edwards Plateau south to the Lower Rio Grande valley. Green Kingfishers are found north along the Coastal Prairies to Victoria and Jackson Counties. They are rare along the Rio Grande to Brewster County and along the lower Pecos River drainage. Green Kingfishers are rare to locally uncommon east to Bastrop County where nesting records exist. They have occurred as vagrants during the summer north to Randall County in the Panhandle and east to Washington County. This species is very sensitive to cold weather. During colder than normal winters, northern populations retreat well to the south and often do not return for several years.”

I found equally worthwhile information in all of the annotations I read. Even those on several of the species found only in the Big Bend Country were well documented. I found current information about all the West Texas species that I was once involved with, such as Lucifer hummingbird, thick-billed kingbird, Colima warbler, and black-vented oriole. And I found additional and often fascinating data about several species that have been recorded only once or a few times only in the state. These examples include such rarities as jabiru; greater flamingo; snail kite; crane and roadside hawks; double-striped thick-knee; black-tailed, mew, Iceland, slaty-backed, yellow-footed, and kelp gulls; ruddy quail-dove; mottled and stygian owls; masked tityra; Aztec thrush; and so on. Handbook of Texas Birds truly provides a treasure chest of information about any Texas birds that the reader might want to better understand.

The photos are for the most part quite good, although a few are not as high a quality as others. However, there is a good reason for this because the authors selected some photos that represented the very first time a species was documented in Texas. The Eskimo curlew photo is a good example; the caption states that “these may be the only Eskimo Curlew ever photographed in the wild and are the last documented in Texas or anywhere else.” Photos of the crane hawk, gyrafalcon, ruddy quail-dove, snowy and stygian owls, greenish elaenia, piratic flycatcher, masked tityra, Yucatan vireo, gray silky-flycatcher, and slate-throated redstart are of equal interest.

Handbook of Texas Birds, prepared under the auspices of the Texas Ornithological Society, is by far the finest overview of the status and distribution of Texas birds ever produced. The 15-page “Selected References” and extensive index also are of value. Published by Texas A&M University Press, it is available from the publisher (979-845-1436) or upress@tamu.edu or from any good book outlet elsewhere. The paper edition sales for $24.95, while the cloth edition is available at $50.00. This book is a must buy for anyone interested in Texas birds!

Spring is a Good Time to Add Yard-Birds
Ro Wauer, April 1, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

March 2004 was a good month for yard-birds. I recorded far more warblers in my yard than usual. And one - a worm-eating warbler - represented a totally new yard species, making my yard bird list at 170 species. This warbler is a subtly beautiful little bird with a yellowish breast and head with black streaks running from the bill to the nape. It spent only a few minutes in my yard, drinking at a birdbath and hunting insects in my live oaks. I could not help but remember earlier sightings in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. It nests there along rhododendron dominated streams. And, although my yard-bird was silent, I could not help but remember its high-pitched trilling song, arising out of the Smoky Mountains thicket.

March was also a good month for several other warblers. Northern Parulas were especially numerous, and their songs were evident throughout much of the daylight hours. This is a tiny little warbler with a yellow breast, crossed with a blackish and reddish band, and yellow-green back. Its song is very distinct, a rising trill, ending with an abrupt zip.

Yellow-throated warblers were more numerous this year than usual; one or two individuals were present almost every day during the last half of the month. Several of those warblers sang partial songs, enough for me to recognize them even as they searched for insects in the upper canopy of my large live oaks. Other warblers found in March included orange-crowned, black-and-white, Nashville, and yellow-rumped. A few additional March migrating songbirds in my yard included numerous ruby-throated hummingbirds, lone blue-headed and red-eyed vireos, a couple summer tanagers, and an indigo bunting.

A day before finding the worm-eating warbler I recorded an additional new yard-bird, an adult bald eagle. That is, one flew directly over the house, giving a short scream as it flew northward to where it, assumedly, will spend the summer months. Since this large raptor nests in the Coastal Bend, it can be expected to return to our area in September or October.

And speaking of raptors, a friend (John Gee from Alpine), while camping at the Riverside RV Park, discovered a swallow-tailed kite along the Guadalupe River on March 20. I would love to have seen this large, graceful raptor, as it is a very rare migrant in coastal Texas. It nests in East Texas in the southern portion of the Pineywoods. Swallow-tailed kites are huge black-and-white birds with a four-foot wingspan and long swallow-like tails. Even the most ardent birder cannot help but be impressed with this wonderful creature.

But nevertheless, finding two new yard-birds so close together is extra special, especially since I did not find a single new yard-bird in all of 2003. Four species - pileolated woodpecker, black-throated blue and yellow warblers, and ovenbird - were added in 2002.

Although I no longer keep a "life list," a list of all birds identified everywhere, it is rather fun to maintain a yard-list, just to see how many species occurs in one tiny area over the years. My yard list was started in 1989. The first few dozen were little more than the resident and common migrant species that can be expected. But it is the unexpected species that are most exciting, like a bald eagle and worm-eating warbler. And March is only the start of the spring migration.