The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Book Review
Mammals of North America
Ro Wauer, September 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

"Mammals of North America," a new Princeton Field Guide by Roland Kays and Don Wilson, is a most welcome reference book for anyone interested in wildlife. All of North America's 442 mammal species that occur north of Mexico, along with an abundance of good to excellent illustrations, are included in this 5x8-inch field guide. It contains all of the common and scientific mammal names, many that have been changed by the scientific community since the last comparable field guide hit the market many years ago. Because of its currency, this book is a must for layman and scientists alike. It is a marvelous addition to our field guides that undoubtedly will become well used both at home and on the road.

When traveling, one of the most appealing of all small mammals is the chipmunk. But did you know that there are 22 species in all? Seven occur in the Southwest, three in the East, three in the Rocky Mountains, five in Southern California, six in the Northwest Inland area, and five in the Northwest Coastal area (some overlap). There are no chipmunks in South Texas. All are well illustrated and described in this new field guide that uses the most recent taxonomy and common names.

The authors begin "Mammals of North America" with some worthwhile introductory materials, including an extensive "Quick Mammal ID Chart." The 108 color and five black-and-white plates of illustrations start with opossums and armadillos and are followed by several plates of shrews, rodents, and then all the higher mammals such as the carnivores, coyotes, cats and skunks; ungulates, such as deer and elk; and eventually the bats and the marine mammals, such as seals and whales. Plate 96 includes exotic ungulates such as fallow deer and Barbary sheep. The whale plates are divided into the large whales without dorsal fins and those without dorsal fins. Plates 105 and 106 include bow-riding dolphins and whales illustrated as one might see them from the bow of a boat. And Plates 109 and 110 illustrate whale and dolphin dive sequences. Really good stuff for anyone spending time offshore. And as might be expected, there are several that include a variety of scats, ranging from carnivores to cottontails and even bats. Mammal tracks are included on the backsides of the front and ending pages. An excellent index and a glossary are included, as well.

The book is well organized. Descriptive narratives and range maps are included directly across from each illustration, providing an excellent overall perspective of each species. For example, Plate 78 includes the larger foxes: red, gray, and island gray. The maps for both the red and gray foxes show that both of these species occur in east Texas, with the range of the gray fox extending into all of South Texas, while the range of the red fox reaches only the northeastern half of the state, but not too far away for the Central Gulf Coast. The treatment for the bats is also excellent. The authors illustrate all the species on ten plates, with an additional plate including heads only of the confusing cave bats. A fascinating touch that can be very helpful. There are numerous other worthwhile hints. For instance, a pen and ink sketch of a skull shows how to separate the look-alike eastern and New England cottontails.

"Mammals of North America" is available from Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, NJ 08540, for $19.95 paper or $49.50 cloth. I ordered mine online by going to www.google.com and pulling up Princeton University Press. I have not found the book as yet in bookstores. The 240 pages are well worthwhile. It is a must-buy for sportsman, hikers, naturalists, and other outdoor people.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Loggerhead Shrikes are Fascinating Songbirds
by Ro Wauer

This black-and-white songbird is unique in several ways. It is one of the few true songbirds that acts more like a raptor than a songbird. That is because it captures its prey with its strong, hooked bill, and instead of eating it on site, it will often impale its prey on a sharp point and eat it there. As a songbird, a shrike does not possess the strong feet of a raptor to tear apart its prey, so it impales its catch instead. In fact, loggerheads are know for impaling several individual catches on barbed wire, yucca leaves, or other sharp objects, like decorating a Christmas tree. Researchers claim that female shrikes are more attracted to males that have numerous "scalps," proof of their hunting ability. During the breeding season, male shrikes with the greater number of impaled prey are the most successful breeders.

Small prey is often swallowed whole, and their feathers and bones are later regurgitated, but larger prey are carried to favorite sites and impaled where they can be eaten at their leisure. Shrikes actually store food for later use in this way. But lots of other birds store food, whether it is an acorn woodpecker that stores acorns in crevices or acorn-sized holes drilling in snags or utility poles, jays that hide their extra food in crevices, or various other birds that hide food in grass or bury it in the ground. The American kestrel is a good example of one that caches food in grass clumps. The Clark's nutcracker stores its extra food supply in the ground. Researchers tell us that approximately 75 percent of a kestrel's cache are found later and utilized. The Clark's nutcracker, a large bird of the Western mountains, hides its extra food in the ground, often in several locations. How do they remember where that food is hidden? When researchers move adjacent rocks and shrubs around, the birds become confused and cannot find their cache.

As many as 72 species of shrikes are known worldwide, but only two occur in North America, the northern shrike of the boreal forests and the loggerhead shrike of the central and southern states. All are small to medium-sized birds, 7 to 10 inches long, with large, broad heads and stout bills that are strongly hooked and notched at the tip. The notched bill is very similar to that of falcons, unlike other songbirds. It includes a toothlike structure on the cutting edge of the upper mandible that corresponds to a notch on the lower mandible. These "teeth" are important in the shrike's killing ability. It is able to kill prey with a series of sharp bites with its strong hooked bill, which can sever neck vertebrates of its prey.

Prey can range from tiny insects to birds larger that a shrike, such a mockingbirds and jays. Small mammals, lizards, and small snakes, as well as a wide variety of invertebrates are also taken. Prey not swallowed immediately are impaled on favorite perches. Most are impaled with the head up and body hanging down. This method of impaling has given the loggerhead shrike the name "butcher bird."

Although a few loggerheads are full time residents in South Texas, many more are present during the winter months when more northern birds move into our area. Already the "winter Texan" shrikes are arriving. And their harsh trill or rattle call can be heard at almost any open area, even in vacant lots inside the city. They are easily identified by their stocky, short-necked appearance, short wings, and black-and-white colors: black wings, tail, and mask; gray back; and white underparts and wing patch evident in flight. Its black mask makes it look like a little avian bandit. And it flies in a straight line with fast on-and-off wing beats.

For those readers interesting in watching one of our most fascinating songbirds, you can easily locate one by visiting an open field. If you spent time observing their behavior, knowing where a favorite perch might be, you also are likely to find impaled prey.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Anhingas are Fascinating Water Birds
by Ro Wauer

A recent trip with friends to one of the side-streams for Colleto Creek Reservoir reminded me once again about the oddity of anhingas. We watched one individual swimming about, barely below the surface, while another individual, finished fishing for the time being, perching on a snag over the water, sat spread-winged to dry its feathers. The anhinga is one of only a few water birds that must air-dry its feathers after a swim. It lacks adequate oil glands to keep its feathers dry. So rather than preening before and after a swim, an anhinga must sit with its wings spread, like vultures do to warm their body on a sunny morning, to dry its plumage. It even alternately turns its wings to expose both upper and lower surfaces.

Anhingas possess an extremely long neck and bill. Their posture when sitting is very snake-like, a profile that has provided them with the "snakebird" name. Even when swimming, they often extend their neck high above the water, very snake-like. Its posture and behavior has also provided the name "darter." And they also are sometimes known as "water turkey." This name was derived from the unique structure of tiny ridges that cross their tails, turkey-like, that is most evident when perched.

The perched Colleto Creek anhinga was uttering strange grunting sounds, like deep clicking. It was obviously nervous, probably from being examined by three humanoids, even from a distance. It actually waved its neck about, and eventually dropped into the water and immediately dove out of sight. But it didn't swim far before breaking the surface and taking off with what seemed like considerable effort before it became air-borne. But once in flight it was fast and graceful.

We found several anhingas when we began to scope the area; a couple in the water and another half-dozen individuals perched on adjacent vegetation. The perched birds apparently had already dried their plumage, as they sat still with wings folded, but with their long snake-like neck sticking up high in the air. None of the perched birds appeared to be youngsters, although anhingas undoubtedly do nest in the area. They normally construct stick-nests at mid-height on woody vegetation surrounding ponds or bays. They much prefer fresh-water areas. A colonial nester, they may congregate at choice nesting sites by a dozen or more. Males choose the nest site and do most of the nest building. Although the nest is little more than a bulky platform of sticks, twigs, and dead leaves, it is lined with green leaves and finer materials. Anhingas will occasionally appropriate a heron or egret nest. Courting males perform spiral aerial displays for their ladies, and perched males also perform wing-waving displays and reverse bows by raising their tail and bringing their long neck back to touch their back.

The anhinga diet is predominately fish that is captured just below the surface of the water. They also will feed on various other aquatic prey. They have been known to take goldfish in outdoor ponds, and will prey on various insects as well as crayfish, frogs, snakes, and even young alligators. Unlike their closely related cormorant cousins that swims down their prey, anhingas typically wait for a passing fish. They are then able to spear their prey with amazing speed and dexterity with their long, pointed bill. The impaled prey is then brought to the surface where it usually is tossed into the air and swallowed head first. When feeding young, the adults will regurgitate their food into the wide-open mouth of the nestling.

There is no doubt those anhingas, whether they are known as anhingas, snakebirds, darters, or water turkeys, are fascinating bird. A visit to one of our local freshwater ponds will likely provide a look at this marvelous creature.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Hateful Love Bugs are Flying
Ro Wauer, September 12, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Are any bugs more despised than love bugs? Even mosquitoes, cockroaches, and biting gnats are ranked lower than love bugs. It is at least true at this time of year, when billions of the little flies are flying during the daylight hours. Mosquitoes and cockroaches generally are more secretive and they are more active at night when they are not so obvious. But love bugs fly in our face as if they are trying to ruin our day. And they can come pretty close to doing just that. The front of my vehicles was literally covered with their carcasses after a recent trip to town and back. And when parked in town, they gathered around my vehicle, waiting for me, preparing to smash their little bodies into my windshield as soon as I took off. As soon as got home, I was forced to wash my vehicle, something I hate to do. The darn bugs can actually stain the paint, and they can even clog a radiator after longer drives, causing the vehicle to overheat.

However, because of my tendency to love nature in all its glory, I tried to understand the value of love bugs to the environment. Except for providing food for birds and other creatures that feed on such critters, and the fact that car wash businesses must also appreciate their existence, it was difficult. In fact, I and most of our natural world could very well get along without their existence.

Love bugs are not true bugs (order Hemiptera) at all, but are flies of the order Diptera, in the family Bobionidea. These flies are known to scientists as Pelicia neartica. They are also known as "March flies," because in most parts of the country they fly in spring and sometimes also in late summer. This year, undoubtedly because of the amount of rain we have experienced, they are flying for a second time and in much, much greater numbers than usual. These mating flights last for only four to five days, as each individual lives only two or three days. A close look at an individual will reveal a shiny black to brown creature with clear or whitish wings with yellow-brown veins and short antennae. The body measures only about a quarter of inch in length. The reason they are best known as love bugs is because the male and female are usually found hooked together, even in flight, in the act of copulation. After dark, they rest on vegetation.

Although such huge swarms of other kinds of insects often lead to damage of crops or other human products, swarms of love bugs have little negative effect other than clogging our windshields and being a terrible nuisance. They do not sting or bite. They do feed on nectar of flowers, and they can congregate in such large numbers at flowers that bees and butterflies shy away. Females lay as many as 100 to 300 eggs in loose soil. The eggs can overwinter in the soil, but hatch in spring. The larvae, that live only a week or so, feed on decaying matter and on the roots of plants. They eventually pupate and emerge as winged adults early in springtime, although not necessarily in March.

In the "Texas Bug Book," by C. Malcolm Beck and John Howard Garrett, the authors mention one benefit of love bugs. They point out that "mating love bugs actually do you a favor by smashing into the windshield... They make you stop, clean the windshield, and get a cup of coffee." Personally, I could readily give up the coffee and the opportunity to clean my windshield.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

West Texas Nature Festivals
Ro Wauer, September 5, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

I recently participated in two West Texas nature festivals, the new Big Bend Nature Festival in Big Bend National Park and the Hummingbird Festival in the Davis Mountains. I presented evening programs at both, and I gave two butterfly field trips in Big Bend. I had a great time and was impressed with both festivals. Participants seemed to have had a great time, as well.

Next year promises to be even better, as the coordinators hope to blend the two into one so that the two can run together as a seven-day affair, three days in Big Bend, one in Marathon, and three in the Davis Mountains. This year there were five days between the two, so most of the participants in Big Bend's Nature Festival went home. Only a few return to join others for the Hummingbird Festival.

Participants in Big Bend's Nature Festival were offered a diversity of activities. These ranged from birding for beginners to those individuals willing to hike into the Chisos Mountain highlands to see Colima warblers, painted redstarts, and a number of hummingbirds, butterfly field trips that chalked up almost 50 species, and geology jeep trips. Talks also covered a range of interests from wildlife to reptiles and Big Bend's diverse plant life. A highly successful star party, under a clear star-filled sky, was held one night.

The Hummingbird Festival included several field trips that were able to show participants a grand total of nine hummigbird species, including some true rarities such as Anna's, Allen's, Broad-billed, Lucifer, and Magnificient. My keynote program was on the environmental diversity of the Davis Mountains using butterflies as examples.

Like most nature festivals, part of the fun was seeing friends that only seem to appear at such events. I also was able to spend a few "free" days just roaming around the two areas, some of my most favorite places in the World. I found a total of 64 butterfly species in Big Bend and 58 in the Davis Mountains. One day was spent wandering about the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute property just south of Ft. Davis. This is a fascinating place with good trails and a visitor center/gift shop well worth visiting. The cactus garden at the Institute is exceptional and includes all the species known for the Trans-Pecos as well as many rare Mexican species.

I also visited the Texas Nature Conservancy property in the Davis Mountains uplands, where a new visitor center is under construction. Rainy weather had produced swollen creeks that did not permit a visit to the higher Mt. Livermore area. I had visited that magnificient area several times in the past, so I was not too upset. And I also visited the new visitor center at McDonald Observatory; it even has an excellent luncheon suite.

In 2005, the joint nature festival is scheduled for August 11 to 17. Although folks hearing about a summer festival in West Texas often comment that at that time of year it is too hot. Actually, once the rainy season begins in July, the mountains, where the majority of the activities are planned, are very pleasant. In fact, participants wore jackets several mornings this year. Weather conditions in the Chisos and Davis mountains are wonderful by then; April and May are the hottest months.
I have every intention of participating in the West Texas Nature Festival in 2005, and I know that many other folks interested in nature will join me. For more information you can check the Big Bend web page at www.visitbigbend.com.