The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Bullbats and other Goatsuckers

Jim Dillard, Wildlife Biologist, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Mineral Wells

I can remember as a kid having endless fun chunking small rocks high into the air late in the evenings at bullbats. At least that’s what grandma called them, and as far as I was concerned, grandma pretty well knew everything. They sorta looked like big bats and only came out around sundown. They’d fly high over the treetops in our neighborhood just at sundown catching flying insects and sometimes dive at my small rocks just in case they might be supper. I never did hit one nor did one ever swallow one of the rocks. Even today, when I hear the nasal peent sound of a bullbat flying high overhead, it brings back those memories and I can’t help but look up. Since my rock chunking days are past, bullbats are in no danger.

I’ve learned since they certainly are not bats but go by that moniker for their crepuscular (late evening and early morning) feeding habits, erratic flight and size. They belong to a group of birds called goatsuckers or also known as nightjars for their nighttime singing. The name “goat-suckers” goes way back to ancient times when these birds were thought to suck the udders of goats. In Latin, the family name for this group of birds is Caprimulgidae which means “sucker-of-goats.” People probably saw them flying low around their goats chasing flies and insects and thought they were responsible if any of them didn’t produce milk.

There are several species of goatsuckers found in Texas and three call the Cross Timbers home for at least part of the year. The common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) (a.k.a bullbat) is our most common summer resident species. After spending the winter in South America, they return to Texas each year to nest and raise their young. Nests are built on bare ground or rooftops of buildings where they lay two eggs that hatch in 19 days. Nestlings must reach inside their parent’s large mouth to reach regurgitated insects. They fly at three weeks of age.

Common nighthawks feed on insects which they catch in erratic flight with their wide gaping mouth. Stiff bristles located at the corner of their mouth also help them catch and hold their prey. They feed primarily at dawn and dusk but it’s not uncommon to see them at night feeding on insects drawn to bright lights in urban areas. There’s probably not a WalMart parking lot in Texas where you can’t see common nighthawks around sundown “hawking” their prey. During the day they roost on the ground, tree limbs or fence posts. On many occasions I’ve seen one sitting silently snoozing on the top of a fence post or bare tree limb during the heat of the day, blending in perfectly with their surroundings with their mottled black-gray-white feather pattern.

Their aerial courtship display is a real delight to see and hear. Males will rise high in the air and then dive toward the ground, pulling up just at the last instant. Air rushing over their primary wing feathers causes them to vibrate, creating a loud hollow booming sound. A lady up in Denton County called me the other day complaining that there was some kind of bird dive-bombing her kids and making loud booming sounds and wondered if she should be concerned for their safety. I started to suggest chunking rocks at them but had second thoughts.

Another common goatsucker species found here in the Cross Timbers and western parts of the state is the poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttalli). They’re unique in the bird world for their ability to hibernate for long periods of time, but most migrate to warmer areas to the south for the winter. They’re smaller than the common nighthawk and flutter about at night on short flights to catch insects. They’ll also catch beetles and other insects on the ground. I’ve seen them often while conducting deer spotlight surveys at night when their bright red-reflecting eyes catch the light. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to stop for a second look to make sure I wasn’t seeing a deer’s eye. Usually, when that red eye begins to fly off I know it’s p-r-o-b-a-b-l-y not a deer. They prefer open hillsides, canyons and deserts. Eggs are laid on open ground or a flat rock. Disturb a poorwill on its nest and it will open its mouth wide and hiss at you like a snake. Their distinctive poor-Will, poor-Will call is beautiful to hear on a cool summer night and if you’re up close, you can hear more clearly poor-Will-low, poor-Will-low.

The Chuck-Will’s-Widow (Caprimulgus carolinensis) with its distinctive chuck-Will’s wi-DOW call leaves nothing to the imagination about how it got its four-syllable common name. Males are quite proud of it as they repeat their moon music over and over and over and over, to the point that if you’re camped nearby, you will become less and less enchanted with it as the night wears on. The warmer the night the more they call. They’re the largest member of this family of birds at about a foot long and nest on the ground in woodlands and on cedar hills of central and east Texas. Two eggs are laid on leaf-covered ground and hatch in about 20 days. The female incubates the eggs and feeds the young and may move them if her nest is disturbed. Males have little to do with raising the young which takes around 17 days. Chuck’s mouth is over two inches wide when open and is surrounded by stiff bristles which help funnel in food items including large insects and rarely small birds. They winter in Central and South America and the West Indies.

Cousin whip-poor-will (Caprimulgus vociferus) is more commonly found in east Texas and is not as likely to be heard out our way. The pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis) is a goatsucker species found in the lower Rio Grande Valley and deep south Texas and the lesser nighthawk (Chordeilies acutipennis) inhabits the desert scrub, arroyos and arid grasslands of west Texas.

Call them bullbats, goat-suckers, nightjars, whip-poor-will pea pickers or whatever you want but they WILL serenade you if you’re out and about on a warm Cross Timbers summer night. Until next time - I’ll see you down the road and God Bless America!

Sunday, June 26, 2005

The Beautiful but Gaudy Painted Bunting
By Ro Wauer

No other bird can be confused with the male painted bunting. This colorful little bird is almost unreal. To me, it is gaudy, but my wife thinks it is the most beautiful of all birds. Males possess a deep blue head; green (almost chartreuse) back; bright red underparts, rump, and lower back; brownish wings and tail; and red eye rings. Whether it is considered beautiful or gaudy, when seen up close, it can hardly be ignored.

The sparrow-sized painted bunting is one of our neotropical migrants that arrives in South Texas in early spring. It immediately establishes its territory and nests, and its young usually are fledged and on their own by July. The female, a plain, greenish yellow bird, does most of the household chores, while the colorful male is defending its territory. Most of this involves singing from various posts; it will vigorously chase away other painted bunting males when necessary. Its song is a surprisingly loud (for such a small bird) and clear, musical warble, like "pew-eata, pew-eata, j-eaty-you-too." There are times in South Texas when two or even three signing males can be heard at an especially choice nesting area. They prefer mesquite grasslands and open thicket areas.

Males seldom remain all summer and usually head south to their wintering grounds (Mexico to Panama) by late July. Females and the youngsters often remain until September, and some females and young birds may overwinter in choice feeding areas, such as along the Rio Grande floodplain, all winter. During the nesting season, males and females will readily visit seed-feeders. I have two or three males and six to eight females at my feeders almost daily. And the males will often sing their sweet songs while perched in the tree just above the feeders.

There is a very good reason why we often see more females than males at our feeders, especially after the young are fledged. Painted buntings, like many other birds, are polygamous; a single male mates with several females. Although humans tend to question this practice, it is a very practical one for many birds, particularly for neotropical migrants that must select a territory, court, mate, and raise a family in a relatively short period of time. The females simply choose a male that is best able to claim and hold the most superior territory. A resource-rich territory, with plenty of seeds and insects to feed the nestlings, will most likely provide a better chance of producing offspring than an inferior one.

With this better understanding of the painted bunting lifestyle, you probably will never again look at one of these amazing creatures with the same perspective.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

What can be Learned from Local Breeding Bird Counts?
by Ro Wauer

I completed two breeding bird counts last week, recording a grand total of 59 species, 47 species on each. The two surveys - the "Fanin Count" runs from near Schroeder, through Mission Valley, and north to Upper Mission Valley Road; the "Yoakum Count" runs from SH 3010 south of Yoakum, west toward Cuero, and northwest across the Guadalupe River toward Cheapside - provided a good prospective on the area's birdlife this time of year. Such counts when conducted for several consecutive years offer information about what species occur now and what changes have occurred with our breeding bird populations. Such counts, undertaken annually all across North America, including 132 in Texas in 2004, are extremely worthwhile in understanding our birdlife. Each count must start at dawn and run 25 miles with three-minute stops every one-half mile. The results are reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Breeding bird counts are our very best method of determining what species are currently present and their abundance. What are the most abundant species in our area? This year, northern cardinals led with 142 on the Fanin Count and 128 on the Yoakum Count. Other abundant (50 or more combined) species included, in descending order, cliff swallows (157), painted buntings (92), mourning doves (78), northern mockingbirds (63), Carolina wrens (61), white-eyed vireos (60), cattle egrets (59), and American crows (55). Surprisingly low numbers of purple martins, blue jays, eastern bluebirds, eastern meadowlarks, and common grackles were detected. If such trends continue it will suggest a problem of some sort.

At least two species were found on my two counts for the first time: Mississippi kite and Eurasian collared-dove. Although Mississippi kite, a small streamline raptor, nests in the area, such as along the Guadalupe River in Victoria County and at Lake Texana, the area is on the southern edge of its known breeding grounds. But Mississippi kites can be common throughout South Texas during migration, when several flocks of a dozen to a hundred or more birds are possible. Then they spiral down to resting sites in the evenings, and spiral up again to continue their migration the next morning. And post-nesting birds usually spend considerable time flying over Victoria and other towns, catching cicadas that fly out of the high foliage.

The Eurasian collared-dove has literally invaded most of Texas during the last 15 years. I wrote about one of the earliest sightings in our area at Six Mile, near Port Lavaca, in this column on July 12, 1998. On the Yoakum Count this year, I found a significant population of these birds in the Memory Garden area of DeWitt County. The Eurasian collared-dove is a large bird, even larger than the white-winged dove, and it has a rather distinct three-syllable call, like "kuk-kooooo-kook," with emphasis on the second syllable. And it seems less nervous than white-winged and mourning doves, often sitting for long periods on wires along the roadways, sometimes allowing a surprisingly close approach.

Also, with any count of this type, there usually are some surprises. Perhaps the most exciting for me was the 62 Franklin's gulls found wheeling over a field just south of Cheapside. This Count date of May 31 seemed a little late for these Laughing gull look-alikes. Both species possess a black hood, red bill, and dark gray back during the breeding season, but Franklin's possess underparts tinged with pink; Laughing gull underparts are all white. While Laughing gulls are the single most abundant gull along the entire Gulf of Mexico and are present year-round, Franklin's gull are migrants only. They pass through Texas in spring en route to their breeding grounds in the northern prairies. I just happen to catch them on there way north.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Bewick's Wren, Our Second Breeding Wren
by Ro Wauer

Because the Carolina wren is so common around our neighborhoods and is vocal much of the time, our second breeding wren gets very little attention. However, it too is a songster, and with a repertoire equal to that of the Carolina wren. Bewick's wrens, pronounced Buick's like the car, is somewhat smaller and less colorful. The Carolina wren sports deep rusty-brown upperparts, with white spots and streaks on the wings and a broad white eyeline, and buffy underparts. The smaller Bewick's wren is comparatively drab with a longer, barred tail and narrower white eyeline. Two races of Bewick's wrens occur in the Coastal Bend, the reddish eastern form and the browner western form. Those in my yard and adjacent woodlands represent the western birds. There are two additional breeding wrens that can be found in the Coastal Bend, but occur only in select habitats. The marsh wren utilizes cattail marsh areas, while the cactus wren frequents more arid areas in the western and southern portion of the Coastal Bend. And three additional wrens only winter in our area: house, winter, and sedge wrens.

There are a number of similarities between the Carolina and Bewick's wrens. Both are great songsters, often singing loudly much of the day, especially during their nesting season. Carolina wren songs usually are exceptionally melodious, often written as a clear "teakettle tea-kettle teakeetle" or "cherry cherry cheery." Even in winter, Carolina wrens seem to enjoy starting each day with a spirited chorus. Bewick's wrens are equally vocal during the breeding season, although they usually vocalize less in winter. Their songs have been described as "a high, thin buzz and warble, similar to that of a song sparrow." The song of a Bewick's wren includes a highly complex series of phrases, and often is extremely musical.

The behavior of the Carolina and Bewick's wrens is also similar in many ways. Both spend much of their time prowling about crevices and crannies in search of insects, spiders, and such. They both seem to "crawl" about tree trunks and large branches, live and dead foliage, and will occasionally fly out after a flying insect. Since both possess a rather long, sturdy bill, they will often gather up numerous insects and other invertebrates in their bill before flying back to a nest to feed their youngsters. Their long bill also allows them to capture and dispose of scorpions and bees without being stung.

There are a few differences between the two wrens, however. The Carolina wren, as most homeowners are well aware of, will build its nest in an amazing variety of open areas, ranging from flowerpots to various items left on a clothesline. I find it necessary to clean out my outdoor flower pots constantly if I don't want a Carolina wren nest to overcome the pot and its contents. The Bewick's wren, on the other hand, is a cavity nester that utilizes various cavities in trees, shrubs, fence posts, and the like. They will take advantage of bluebird houses on occasions, and they will even utilize dense brush piles as well as deserted shoes and drainpipes. Also, while Carolina wrens are well known for producing two, three, or more broods annually, Bewick's wrens usually produce a single brood each year.

Another difference between these two wrens it their habitat preferences. Carolina wrens seem to get along extremely well in our backyards and being close to human occupation, although they do equally well is brushy, overgrown areas far away from our homes. Bewick's wrens, at least those that occur within the Coastal Bend region, are seldom far from areas dominated live oaks, probably because these oaks often possess cavities for nesting.

Bewick's wrens have only recently begun to nest in my neighborhood near Mission Valley, although they have been present in adjacent oak woodlands for many years. They both are fascinating birds, and you might want to check your wrens to see if you too have Bewick's wrens.