The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Some Songbirds are Irregular Winter Rarities
by Ro Wauer

Every few years a truly rare bird species, for our area, appears at our feeders. It may remain for a couple hours or a few days, but very seldom stays for long before it disappears. Many of these rarities are northern birds that come south due to extra cold weather or a depleted food supply in their more normal wintering grounds. This year apparently is one of those years when conditions are not as comfortable up north, and so a few northern songbirds are appearing here and there in our area.

The most exciting of these "accidentals" is the purple finch, a house finch-like species that can be identified by the male's rose-red head and chest and unstreaked belly, and the female's brown ear patch, broadly edged with white, and heavily streaks underparts; no red. The purple finch is a tough-looking bird, considered "uncommon to rare and irregular winter visitor to the northern portion of the state," according to "Handbook of Texas Birds." It is extremely rare in South Texas, but it was a somewhat "regular" winter visitor to Texas prior to the 1980s; since then observations have declined sharply.

So, when a female purple finch appeared at my feeders on December 5, it was a rather exciting event, although friend Paul Julian had called early to tell me that the species had been seen in my area the previous day. My female purple finch remained for only about two hours, and on December 14, a male purple finch suddenly appeared, checked out my feeders, and was gone just as suddenly. The December 5 purple finch was the 173rd yard bird recorded since I have been keeping track of what species have appeared in my yard or what I have seen in flight over my yard since 1989. It also marked my fifth yard bird for 2004. The other new 2004 birds included a bald eagle on March 16, worm-eating warbler on March 29, blue-winged warbler on April 17, and green jay on October 16.

Pine siskins also appeared at my feeders about the same day as the purple finch. Although pine siskins occur most winters, they do represent northern species that are somewhat irregular in their occurrence. These little streaked finches are pugnacious birds that are able to intimidate several of the larger seedeaters such as goldfinches and sparrows, and they are sloppy feeders, throwing aside all but favorite seeds.

There are a few other northern songbirds that appear irregularly some winters; their appearance can never be expected. These include brown creeper, a tiny, all-brown bird that creeps along a tree trunk in search of insects; golden-crowned kinglet, a little highly vocal bird with a golden crown that usually stays in the high canopy; rusty blackbird is similar in appearance to the more common Brewer's blackbird female, but its back is blotched with rust. Rusty blackbirds are of special interest because this species has declined precipitously throughout its range in recent years.

Some of the more commonly expected wintertime songbirds that we do not find in our area during the breeding season include ruby-crowned kinglet; hermit thrush; brown thrasher; American pipit; cedar waxwing; orange-crowned and yellow-rumped warblers; chipping, Lincoln's, swamp, white-throated sparrows; and American goldfinch.

Christmas Bird Counts, in which all of the wintering birds in an area are recorded annually, are one of the better ways that biologists are able to record population changes over the years. With more than 100 years of continuous records in some areas, these data provide important population trends all across the continent. Like canaries once taken into mines to help miners recognize dangerous levels of gasses or loss of oxygen, Christmas Bird Count data provide significant clues into the condition of our wildlife as well as our own well-being.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Nature of Christmas
by Ro Wauer

Everywhere we look this time of year is indicators of Christmas. Decorated stores and homes with Christmas trees with all kinds of spangles and lights dominate our existence. Most businesses now begin their Christmas salesmanship before Thanksgiving. Christmas has become so commercial that its real meaning is all but forgotten. It may take a visit into the outdoor world to understand our real natural heritage.

My backyard, for example, is full of Christmas. The bright red cardinal is one of our very best examples. The male cardinal, sometimes called "redbird," cannot help but remind us of the Christmas season. It is so bright and cheery, and its presence at our feeders reminds us that we humans must be good stewards of our resources if we are to continue to enjoy our wildlife. Cardinals usually appear in flocks in winter, taking advantage of handouts when available. Yet, our American robins, another yard bird this time of year, are far more independent and never utilizing feeders. This will, however, come to birdbaths. Robins, in fact, spend an inordinate amount of time at water, bathing and drinking. A birdbath in winter and throughout the year attracts a greater variety of birds than feeders.

Robins may occur in huge flocks in winter, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. Christmas Bird Count in the Victoria area regularly tally 2,000 to 6,000 individuals. They arrive in late fall, depending on the weather conditions to the north of South Texas, reach peak numbers about Christmastime, and move on soon afterwards. During their stay they, along with cedar waxwings and a number of other songbirds, consume most of the available berries of yaupon, winterberry, beautyberry, and various other species.

Mother Nature apparently provides the many red berries not just to feed our wild birds, but also to please our human aesthetics at Christmastime. Besides the common red berries mentioned above, there are a number of other red berries in our fields and gardens. American, English, and Japanese hollies, cottoneaster, sacred bamboo, tartar honeysuckle, and pyracantha all ripen by Christmas. Combining these red fruits with the abundant evergreen leaves of many of our common plants, along with the occasional red to yellow "fall-color" leaves, and the outdoors offers us a marvelous mosaic of colors.

Mornings can be especially festival for those of us that are up early when the dew glistens off the various spiderwebs. It is like the spiders are providing their share of Christmas decorations by weaving their own tinsel. A close look at many of those spider webs reveals an intricate pattern that is even more beautiful than any of our commercial decorations.

There is still another feature of Christmas in the outdoors that, because it is now part of our plastic culture, we tend to forget. Mistletoe, a fascinating plant that grows on our trees and shrubs, is full of life in winter when it seems that life for many plants is at its lowest ebb. Once gathered as a symbol of life and purity by the Druids of ancient Gail, mistletoe figures in legends of Germany and Scandinavia, and today is hung at Christmas as a promise of life and fertility. Although mistletoe was once though to be tainted with heathenism, it is now a symbol of life and brought into households at Christmastime as a decoration and also to perpetuate the pleasant custom of kissing.

Our natural world is truly remarkable. And as we give thanks for the true meaning of Christmas, let's not forget the significance of the world outdoors.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Sapsuckers are "Keystone" Species
by Ro Wauer

One of our most interesting wintertime birds is the yellow-bellied sapsucker, a member of the woodpecker family that occurs in Texas only from about October to March. Most of the year it resides on its nesting ground in the far northern portion of North America, in a broad belt from Alaska eastward across Canada to the Maritime Provinces and barely reaching the northeastern corner of the United States. Breeding birds utilize the northern deciduous forests.

Although sapsuckers are only a middle-sized bird, about 8.5 inches in length, they are far more influential than their size might suggest. It is their interrelationship with other birds and additional animal species that gives them a centerpiece or "keystone" status within the wildlife communities. While woodpeckers also have considerable influence on other birds, because so many other cavity nesting birds are able to use their deserted nest cavities when they move on to another cavity, sapsucker activity affects a much wider range of wildlife.

All members of the woodpecker family "drill" into woody plants to extract food. In the cases of woodpeckers, they extract insects, such as beetle larvae and ants. Sapsuckers make only shallow holes, known as sap wells, in woody plants that allow the sap to flow. They then lick up the sap, their principal source of nutrients. Flowing sap in turn attracts other birds as well as numerous insects. The numerous insects then attract several other birds that feed on the insects, although they never utilize the sap per se. Some wildlife communities become dependent upon the sap wells that are maintained by the sapsuckers. This situation occurs on both their breeding grounds as well as on their wintering grounds, such as those in South Texas.

Sapsucker activity is reasonable easy to locate. They usually drill a series of tiny holes in parallel rows, eight to twenty feet above the ground, when searching for a good sap well. Once they locate a good well, they will return time and again, and year after year, to keep it flowing. And it isn't long before adjacent wildlife begins to take advantage of the fresh source of food. Warblers, kinglets, and wrens are some of the South Texas birds that take advantage of the flowing sap wells by licking sap, while warblers, flycatchers, and hummingbirds are most attracted by the insects that are attracted to the wells. Numerous butterflies, including some of our larger species, including question mark, red admiral, and the hackberry butterflies, frequent sap wells. Some species, both birds and butterflies, develop a trap-line and fly from one well to the next as part of their daily routine. In a sense, sapsucker sap wells become the center of an active community.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker, a name that may sound like it was invented by a cartoonist, is therefore most appropriate. Our wintering yellow-bellied sapsuckers can readily be distinguished from other woodpeckers by their medium size, red forehead and throat, black-and-white face, black chest, and yellow belly. The somewhat smaller downy woodpecker, a year-round resident of riparian areas, is black-and-white, except for the male's red nape. The slightly larger ladder-backed woodpecker, also a year-round resident with a black-and-white streaked, ladderlike back, has a black chest; males possess a red cap. The larger red-bellied woodpecker is fairly common in the northern half of the South Texas region, while the similar golden-fronted woodpecker occurs only in the southern portion of our region. Both of these larger woodpeckers have a barred back and grayish underparts. In addition, the northern flicker is also fairly common in winter; it is easily identified by its yellow flight feathers and spotted breast. The much larger pileolated woodpecker is a bird primarily limited to riparian areas, and the red-headed woodpecker, with an all-red head, is only rarely found in South Texas. In addition, there are three additional North American sapsuckers: red-breasted, found only on the West Coast; red-naped, found throughout most of Western North America; and Williamson's sapsucker that occurs only in the mountainous West.

Woodpeckers include a variety of fascinating birds that have significant influence in our natural habitats. But none are as important to our South Texas wintertime communities as our little yellow-bellied sapsucker.