The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Peak of the Butterfly Season
by Ro Wauer

October into November is the height of the butterfly season in South Texas. That is when many of the resident species are active and, also important, many more southern species put in their appearance. The best butterfly day in my yard near Mission Valley during the last ten years since I have been keeping records occurred on November 10 when I recorded 43 species. But on most days from mid-October to December, depending upon the weather of course, 35 to 40 species are usual.

Using that November 10 date as a sort of baseline, common species (5 or more individuals) included pipevine swallowtail, cloudless and large orange sulphurs, dusky-blue groundstreak, gulf fritillary, goatweed leafwing, monarch, queen, coyote clouduwing, sickle-winged skipper, common and tropical checkered-skippers, southern broken-dash, sachem, and dun, eufala, and ocola skippers. A few less common species of special interest, because they were rare that year, included orange-barred sulphur, great purple hairstreak, rounded metalmark, zebra heliconian, common mestra, and dorantes longtail.

This year has been very different because zebra heliconians have been numerous all during September and October, rounded metalmarks have found regularly, but gulf fritillaries are less numerous. And this year I am regularly finding white-striped longtails and long-tailed skippers, species that were found only rarely in previous years. But that is one of the fascinating characteristics of butterflies. Comparing butterflies with birds, for instance, once you know what birds to expect in a certain locations, that population and number doesn't change much; exceptions occur during migration. In the case for butterflies, one can visit one's yard several times during a single day and find something new every time.

The secret of finding yard butterflies is providing them an excuse to stay around. This time of year it is most important to provide them with food of some kind. That usually includes flowering plants where they can feed on nectar. A few butterfly species prefer overripe fruit or mash. The single best nectaring plant in fall is crucita (Eupatorium odoratum), but several other flowering plants also work very well. Other good ones (alphabetically) include butterfly plant (Buddleia davidii), crossvine, firebush, Gregg's eupatorium, goldeneye (Vigieria stenoloba), lantanas (especially gold and weeping lantanas), Mexican heather, pentas, and sky-flower (Duranta erecta).

The best overripe fruit include bananas, mangoes, and watermelon. I also make a mash from bananas that works extremely well. That recipe includes 6-8 overripe bananas, one-half pound of brown sugar, and two cans of beer. I mix it up well in a blender and then pour the mixture into a jug and let that ferment a couple days (leave the lid loose). That mash can then be poured onto a feeding tray of some sort or on a tree trunk or elsewhere. Question marks, goatweed leafwings, tawny emperors, and even Carolina satyrs love the stuff. But so do bees and ants; I hang one feeder log, with a scooped out section, from a wire with a film cassette fixed to black exploring ants. I still haven't figured how to keep bees from helping themselves.

The fun of butterflies, like hummingbirds, is that it is easy to attract them to a location where they can easily be observed. Even a tub with a few flowering plants in a small yard or porch does well. Plus, providing butterflies with nectaring plants enhances their numbers and survival.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Are Green Jays Moving North?
By Ro Wauer

Two green jays suddenly appeared in my yard last week. Although I wasn't home, wife Betty and son, Brent Nichols, were present, and they watched the two birds come to one of my birdbaths to drink. These new "yard-birds" were in the company of at least one blue jay, probably part of a group that visits my yard on a regular basis. And then several days later, Brent observed two green jays in Victoria, 15 miles to the east of my Mission Oaks residence.

The first question that comes to mind is why green jays would come this far north at all. It is a common bird in the United States throughout most of deep South Texas, from the Lower Rio Grande Valley to Loredo and northward into Bee County. And wandering birds occasionally have been reported northward as far as Victoria and Calhoun counties. So maybe my green jays are little more than strays that will eventually find their way back to their southern home. But finding two sets of birds suggests a small resident population. If any of my readers are finding additional green jays in Victoria and surrounding counties, please let me know at rwauer@viptx.net. Thanks.

For those of you who do not know a green jay, it is one of the easiest birds to identify. Slightly smaller than a blue jay, but without a crest, green jays possess a green back, yellowish underparts, and blue-and-black head with a black throat. A spectacular bird.

It is not unusual for many kinds of birds to wander after nesting, behavior know as post-nesting dispersal. That apparently is a way in which species discover new niches where they are able to breed and expand their range. This also is the case, to a lesser degree, for butterflies. While most birds that find suitable new environments, containing essential food, mates, and nesting sites, are often able to stay year-round, that is not often the case for butterflies. Birds are warm-blooded creatures that are able to survive north of their "normal" range even during cold winters. Butterflies, on the other hand, persist only so long as conditions remain favorable. But when one or more very cold winters occur, the temporary colonies often disappear.

Wanderings of birds and butterflies are different. Post-nesting dispersal of birds seems to be a purposeful behavior in that they, especially males, simply strike out in various directions. While most post-nesting males head south toward their wintering grounds, others can appear hundreds of miles north, east, or west of their breeding grounds. Scissor-tailed flycatchers, a typical bird of the Southwest, have appeared in Maine, and our South Texas buff-bellied hummingbird regularly is recorded in Louisiana in the fall and early winter.

Some butterflies also wander after breeding, usually mating immediately after emergence near their larval foodplant, and can fly in any direction. Some species also are able to find proper foodplants out of their normal range for females to lay her eggs, and colonies can occur far from their breeding grounds. The majority of far-wandering butterflies usually are aided by wind. The vast majority of these northward wanderers die before being detected, so their presence is never recorded. But occasionally, especially with so many people getting involved with butterfly-watching, species known only in Mexico or South Texas are reported far away in north Texas, the Great Plains, or even beyond. Some of the more exciting discoveries in recent years probably are related to global warming.

Many recent northern recordings of more tropical bird species, such as green jays, kiskadees, and ringed kingfishers, may also be the result of global warming. But habitat loss and strong storms may be involved with their northward dispersal as well. Cave swallows, groove-billed anis, Couch's kingbirds, and buff-bellied hummingbirds were unknown along the Coastal Bend 50 years ago. Their presence today can hardly be the result of wind and stormy weather. The residency of white-tipped doves, brown-crested flycatchers, and Audubon's orioles in the Coastal Bend may only be a matter of time.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Mexico's Maderas del Carmen
by Ro Wauer

I recently visited an area in Mexico, just south of Big Bend National Park, that I had not seen for more than 25 years. Instead of camping, as I had in the past, I was one of 18 guests of CEMEX, staying in well-constructed houses at Campo Dos. The houses even contained toilets and showers; bathing in a cold mountain stream was no longer necessary. And two cooks prepared our meals. Wow! What a change!

Campo Dos is located at about 8000 feet elevation among pines and firs in a deep canyon with towering rhyolitic cliffs rising another 1500 feet. Once the site of a major logging operation, the canyon and surrounding forest has recovered almost to the point that the deep scars where logs were dragged down the steep slopes are barely evident. Scattered cans and truck parts can be found only with some effort, and Carmen Mountain white-tailed deer and bear have returned to the open meadows and forest. Peregrines nest on the 9600-foot high Loomis Peak, Montezuma quail haunt the grassy meadows, and olive warblers and painted redstarts sing in the deep forest. Nature is dominant once again.
But the important story of the Maderas del Carmen is not its magnificent scenery and marvelous wildlife. Instead, the big story here is the active project by the world's second largest cement conglomerate - CEMEX - to protect and restore the Maderas and surrounding landscapes. The total area eventually will include about 500,000 acres of rugged landscape located just south of the Rio Grande in the Mexican state of Coahuila. And unlike other large protected areas, such as national and state parks in Mexico and the United States, the "El Carmen" project, at least in the short-term, limits visits to scientists and resource specialists. General public use and commercial interests are not permitted. The intend is to establish a completely natural system where nature will be allowed to function with minimum interference from man. As CEMEX Vice President Armando J. Garcia stated in the El Carmen pamphlet, "Our mission will be valued by future generations as long as we leave no trace but the pristine beauty of El Carmen."

Much is already underway. Besides the removal of huge sawdust piles, that leaked into the pristine streams, and numerous other "eyesores," hunting and grazing are no longer permitted. The intent is to allow the deer population to build back to a level where wolves might eventually be reintroduced. Pronghorn have already been released within the lowlands, and a significant bighorn sheep restoration project is underway; the currently fenced population has more than doubled since its inception in 2000.

The El Carmen project is managed by Billy Pat McKinney, an experienced and highly respected wildlife manager CEMEX hired from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's Black Gap Wildlife Management Area. Billy and his wife, Bonnie, who manages the scientific studies portion of the project, work out of the Pilares headquarters area, located at the western base of the high escarpment. Pilares is two to three hours south of Musquiz, a total of six to seven hours from Del Rio, the route we took from Texas. Prior to September 11, access was possible through Big Bend National Park and south from Boquillas.

I am extremely optimistic about the El Carmen project! This is an effort to do right for the resources, to establish a baseline and understanding to properly restore an environment with a long history of overuse. It is not as if there are no other nearby preserves. After all, several very large adjacent areas offer other public opportunities: 801,000-acre Big Bend National Park and adjacent Big Bend Ranch State Park, Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, and the Rio Grande Wildlife and Scenic River in the U.S. and Mexico's Canon de Santa Elena Flora and Fauna Protected Area. Maybe because I have visited the del Carmens on several previous occasions, and actually included it in a chapter - Maderas del Carmens - in my book, "Birder's Mexico," and I watched as the area's resources were so abused, that I have a very special interest in the project today.

The Maderas del Carmen is an incredible resource that deserves special protection. Eventually, once the area has recovered to the condition that existed prior to human abuse, limited public access is likely.