The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Late Summer Texas Field
David Taylor

The power lines are taut

and hum

through the afternoon heat.

They crackle

above me and drone

in the wind

as I rest in the prairie below them,

lie next to the

late summer, fall flowers,

bunches of bitterweed by my left hand.

The scissortails tread wind

hunting grasshoppers,

and above Clear Creek

five buzzards circle over their rookery.

There’s not much water;

the carp moved downriver days ago.

It’s what

this place can offer;

sparse, I guess, for some.

Less than what we call wilderness,

more than

these words

can describe.

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“Leaving Lawson's Fork”

Saturday, May 10, 2003 From Glendale Shoals to Goldmine Rd.:

"The process of reconstructing and immersing ourselves in our own specific
places at times resembles the effort to recreate the memory of a victim of
amnesia." (Freeman House, Totem Salmon)

I left the hotel in Columbia at 6:15 AM and drove I-26 much the way I had some five years ago when I lived in South Carolina, half-asleep and with abandon. I was here for my niece’s graduation and wanted to take advantage of my proximity to my old home and take in a river trip.

I had made arrangements to meet John and Betsy at Broadway Bagel at 8 and loathe being late. We needed an hour or so to gather the boats, catch up on friends and books, and talk about their very involved and active lives in Spartanburg. I wanted to paddle Lawson’s Fork again, as I had so often when I lived in Sparkle City. I didn’t really care to see my old home, school, or haunts—just the river. John and Betsy had arranged the kayaks and trucks in which to haul them. We put in at Glendale Shoals to take in the last few miles of Lawson’s Fork before it meets with the Pacolet.

Three years before I had finished a book about Lawson’s Fork. In fact, the book was a collaborative effort with a co-author Gary Henderson, an artist Helen Correll, photographers, and poets (children and adults). It was community project and was released during a four-day environmental arts festival along the Lawson’s Fork during which 1200 people came out to its banks. The festival was success and spawned a community river watch group Friends of the Lawson’s Fork and helped raise awareness of the river’s place in the history and culture of Spartanburg. All involved hope it will be a preservation success too.

When I was writing the book I had imagined I would always live in the watershed of Lawson’s Fork. I had settled into a tenured job, had a nice home, and was beginning to teach my four-year-old how to paddle. For over a year, I lived with some thought of the river every day, whether by going to it, reading about it, or imagining and musing on it in my writing.

I came to recognize where the dividing grounds were for this watershed from the others and how they had shaped our community. I knew where the centuries-old grist mills had been and why they had been there. I knew its aquatic health and problems. I had found where former recreational parks had been, were abandoned, and now were lost in a privet thicket. I knew the secret places where long-time locals still came to fish and swim. Over that year, I inhabited Lawson’s Fork, the way we can live in a place—aware, knowledgeable, and vocal. Then, I moved.
I moved to Texas to be nearer my daughter. I had stayed in Spartanburg another year after the divorce but knew my obligations as a father and love for my daughter pulled me westward. The last thing I did in Spartanburg before I left was go to the river, sink my feet in, and apologize for leaving.

On the drive to Texas, I had thought about this, moving, leaving, arriving. Statistically, most of us move every four or five years. We pack our things, grab the kids, leave a house or apartment we had “belonged” in, say goodbye to neighbors, friends, and co-workers and make a home anew. Did we have the chance to make a place a home?

Among environmentalists, it is a common question—do you know your place? The bioregion, the watershed, the trees, the animals? How things get by here? How it might differ from other places? The assumption is that in knowing it we will live on it more wisely. This idea has led in part to a relative groundswell of environmental education initiatives across the nation. Ecology, environmental science, or some kind of earth science has become a significant portion of the curriculum of virtually every elementary, middle and high school. Students are taught the basics of how to approach a place scientifically, how to test its waters, soils, and wildlife numbers. They are given tasks on how to quantify, recognize, and note. While scientific knowledge is a transferable skill, it does not teach them how to make a place a home.

In other words, emphasis is placed on the skills necessary to understand a place, not be in a place. I’m not underestimating the value of empirical study; it is a part of human understanding. What I am saying is that it isn’t the only way we make a home, maybe not even the most essential.

When we make home, we make a story. We fit various forms of knowledge into a whole, give them voice by placing them next to and in context with each other—I know this river by its name, where it comes from, how it would flow naturally, how it flows now, what lives here, who has lived on it, how have we shaped it, and last, when these parts have been told and heard, how it shapes us. This notion of story making too is a transferable skill, but one rarely taught.

Now, though, as often as most of us move, being able to integrate these knowledges about a place and our selves is more important than ever. We are in part the places we’ve been and we can no more ignore that past as a part of the story of where we live, than we can immediately integrate ourselves into a new one. Of course, these are individual stories, but the science, the shared names, and the community histories are shared forms of knowing. In making and sharing story, we corroborate it with others in a place, have the verifiable parts verified or rejected, and the individual parts acknowledged.

After one moves memories of that previous life are pared down to the few that matter—the artifacts of pictures, a few friendships deeper than distances, and place-things that became a part of self. I can ruminate on the photos and call or write old friends, but the sensory connections with a place—a place that has hard-wired itself into one’s being—that’s the something you miss without fully knowing what it is you’re missing. The individual roar of Glendale shoals, the rosy flashes of mountain laurel in the pale greens of late spring, the scent of carcasses, the singular feel of riding over Little Five Falls, rock shaping its personality into the pull of water—these are the things that once you feel, hear, see, taste, and smell them again you realize what you missed. As place does if you’ve been close to it, it gives you bearings outside and in. You knew where you were, having named it or knowing its names (personal and scientific); and in a way I cannot fully describe here, it named you no less. The trip passed with John and Betsy jostling and joking with place names, reminding me the names I had forgotten, teaching me the new ones.

John says I wanted “to make contact with the stream and see how it’s doing.” He’s absolutely right. My old place is doing OK for now; I’d like to see more done to protect it, especially on these lower parts we paddled. For now, though, it just needs more folk spending time with it. As for the “contact” part, some portion of my self indelibly flows from Lawson’s Fork, recognizing that and physically interacting with the river again is not so different than waking.

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Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Mountain Boomers

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

My first experience with a mountain boomer was during a trip I made many years ago to Lipan in northwestern Hood County with my Texas A&M roommate Rippetoe. We’d been assigned a project in our herpetology class to collect and catalog specimens of all the reptile and amphibian species we could find in that area. Rip grew up around there and knew all the back roads and likely snake, lizard and toad-frog hangouts. He told me about seeing a mountain boomer last summer while he was hunting arrowheads down along a rocky creek just north of town. Rip only told me what he thought I needed to know at the time about things and then let me find out the rest later on my own. I didn’t know a mountain boomer from a boomerang, but off we went anyway to catch one.

It wasn’t long before a flash of green caught my eye as a long-tailed lizard bailed off the top of a big rock to the shadowy confines of a nearby rock ledge. “Mountain boomer,” Rip yelled, and the race was on. We soon discovered that not only were mountain boomers fleet afoot, they’d even get up on their hind legs and shift into high gear when you got close, sorta like a miniature T-Rex. Rip, being built closer to the ground than me and quicker than greased lightning, outmaneuvered the speedster and gracefully scooped him up with an old fish dip net. He then handed him over to me to put in one his mom’s pillowcases we’d borrowed from her linen closet to hold our catch.

That experience made a lasting impression on me, including the one left in the loose skin between my thumb and forefinger on my right hand where the mountain boomer latched onto me. It held on for dear life until Rip slowly and with considerable giggling pried him loose. “No, I didn’t know they’d bite – why didn’t you tell me?” “Well, I thought everybody knew mountain boomers bite and won’t let go until it thunders. Maybe next time you’ll be more careful when you pick one up (tee-hee-hee).”

Collared Lizards (Crotaphytus collaris) or “mountain boomers” are found throughout the western two-thirds of Texas. There are three subspecies with the Eastern Collared Lizard (C. c. collaris) calling the Cross Timbers home. In the Trans Pecos Region of far west Texas, you’ll find the Western (C. c. baileyi) and Chihuahuan (C. c. fuscus) subspecies. The Reticulated Collared Lizard (C. reticulatus) can only be found in far south Texas. Crotaphytus from the Greek word krotaphos means “temple”, phton means “creature” or “animal” and collaris collar or loosely translated, a collared creature with temples.

Folks up in Okla-bygosh-homa were so enamored with mountain boomers that in 1969 they named them their state lizard (“Mountain Boomer, Boomer Sooner” – isn’t that some school song?). The mountain boomer moniker is also associated with “hillbilly folks”, red squirrels and in the Pacific Northwest, a beaver-like rodent. Contrary to folklore, they’re not poisonous and don’t boom in the mountains (or valleys for that matter).

The ground color of male Eastern Collared Lizards is typically green or it may be bathed with various shades of yellow, tan or pale brown. White spots adorn their back and long tail and six yellowish or reddish bands run across their back. There are two distinct black stripes on their neck that may be interrupted at the nape. During the breeding season, skin coloration may be much brighter. Males have a tan to brown head with a yellowish throat. Their long tails are usually the same color as the body with brown spots or bars. Female boomers are less colorful but may have orange or pink spots on her sides and neck when carrying eggs. Body scales are granular. Unlike many other species of lizards, collared lizards don’t regenerate their tail if it is chomped off by a predator.

At up to 14 inches in length, they’re our largest lizard species. Males are larger than females. Their broad head and stocky build makes them formidable predators for their preferred insect prey. They’ll eat just about anything smaller than they are that moves. Larger insects make up the bulk of their diet which they crush with a powerful bite at the head. Grasshoppers, spiders, moths and beetles are no match for a hungry mountain boomer. They’re also known to eat small lizards and snakes and chew on fingers of unsuspecting wildlife biologists. Snakes, hawks and roadrunners eat them.

They’re heliothermic and prefer rocky country where they can hunt for food, watch for and escape predators and bask on warm rocks to thermoregulate their body temperature. When rock temperatures get too hot, they’ll hot-foot into the shade to cool off. When pressed or pursued, they may run bipedal on their hind legs for short distances, even lifting their tail off the ground to reduce drag. Although not well adapted for climbing, they’re good jumpers. If you can get one to open wide and say “ahhh”, you’ll see the inside of their mouth is black. During winter months, mountain boomers move underground and overwinter in burrows.

Male mountain boomers are very territorial and detest intrusion by other boomers in the vicinity. They’ll go through a series of head-bobbing and push-up displays to intimidate interlopers and hopefully win the admiration of a passing lucky lady lizard. Collared lizards are oviparous, so about 20 days after mating, females lay 4-8 eggs in loose sand or in tunnels under rocks or boulders. Eggs hatch in two to three months during midsummer. More than one clutch a year is possible. “Baby-boomers” (I just couldn’t resist) are about three inches long when born and scurry off soon after hatching to find their own sunny rock and fend for themselves.

To me, the mountain boomer is a fitting icon for this hard scrabble land called the Cross Timbers where only the toughest plants and most indomitable animals endure through good years and bad. I just hope the rock-haulers don’t carry off all the mountain boomer sunning rocks from this land to build mansions to the sky in the metroplex. Until next time, I’ll see you down the road and God Bless America!

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Big Bend Festivals, Good Fun in Cooler Weather
by Ro Wauer

More than 150 people enjoyed the dual Big Bend festivals this year! The four-day Big Bend Nature Festival (2nd annual) was centered in the Basin in Big Bend National Park, while the Davis Mountains Hummingbird Festival (9th annual) included three key areas: the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, Davis Mountains Preserve of the The Nature Conservancy, and the private home of Marc and Mayann Eastman in the Davis Mountains Resort. The Eastmans maintain several dozen hummingbird feeders this time of year; as many as 14 species of dazzling hummers have been recorded there.

At the Big Bend Festival, keynote speaker Alan Tennant, author of "On the Wing," about his adventures following peregrines from Padre Island to northern Alaska in spring and from Padre Island to Central America in fall, presented a super illustrated talk on Saturday evening. Daytime activities included a wealth of options, from Chisos Mountain hikes to butterfly walks to geology jeep tours. The birding hike into the higher mountains produced some really good birds, including several Big Bend specialties such as the Colima warbler, painted redstart, and Lucifer hummingbird, and also some surprises, like red-faced warbler and white-eared hummingbird. I led butterfly walks on two days; a total of 50 species were found.

All of the Big Bend festival attendees received a t-shit with a Colima warbler on the front and an ad on the back reading, "Second Thursday of Every Year, Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park." This festival, well organized and with a diversity of activities, is held at a time of year when the West Texas temperatures are mild in the mountains. Jackets were necessary some mornings and evening. The rainy monsoon conditions in late summer produce an abundance of greenery and wildflowers. The park's highlands were in bloom!

The Davis Mountains also had experienced recent rains, and the gentle slopes of the mid-elevations looked like green mantles with a scattering of deeper green conifers. The highlands, topped by 8,382-foot Mount Livermore, contained running streams and an abundance of fall wildflowers. The Davis Mountain festival offered one of the few opportunities to visit the uplands that are owned and managed by the Texas Nature Conservancy (TNC). Festival participation, therefore, was greater than that for the Big Bend festival. And although rainy conditions prevailed on two afternoons, all of the activities were well attended.

Hummingbirds were, of course, the highlight of this festival. The Eastmans showed off their hummingbird numbers that included such fall specialties as blue-throated, magnificent, Lucifer, Anna's, and Allen's hummingbirds. And Sumita Prasad and her two helpers presented a hummingbird banded exhibition just outside TNC's new lodge. And in spite of the festival's name, butterflies were also a significant part of the activities. I presented morning and afternoon walks at the Preserve, and Joann Karges presented daily walks at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center. Although the rainy afternoons limited butterfly numbers, we still managed to find 42 species, including a lone russet skipperling, a species that had been found only once before in the Davis Mountains. One on one rainy afternoon, I presented a PowerPoint program on the butterflies of Mexico's Maderas del Carmen, a high mountain area just southeast of Big Bend National Park.

The Davis Mountains festival also included a number of community activities, including a "Hummingbird Street Fair" in downtown Fort Davis. Merchants and vendors offered regional arts and crafts, as well as special demonstrations of cowboy hatmaking, candymaking, and world-famous pecan processing. Whether participants came just for the hummingbirds and/or the opportunity to see the Davis Mountain highlands, or just to enjoy the street fair, everyone had a great time.

Both festivals are scheduled for repeats in August 2006.

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Sunday, August 21, 2005

Millipedes are Gruesome but Harmless
by Ro Wauer

Summer rainstorms often produce more than just wildflowers and mosquitoes. Millipedes, also known as "thousand-legs" or "thousand-legged worms," also appear after these rains. They can be abundant, and in some areas they are so numerous that it is impossible not to run over many while driving down the highway. In the Texas Big Bend area, one researcher reported finding 1,302 millipedes per hectare. And after a drying period it is possible to find thousands of dried bodies, sometimes bleached white by the sun, on the roadways.

When crossing the roadway or crawling across any bare surface, they are much slower than they appear. They seem to be working furiously, their many legs going at an amazing speed. They actually "glide" over the ground, with successive waves of movement passing along the rows of legs, which alternately contract in groups and then spreads out. Although millipedes have a reputation for possessing hundreds, if not thousands, of legs, they lack that number by far. Two pairs of legs are attached to each segment that can number from 30 to 70 in adults, depending upon the species. One wonders how they can travel without stepping on their own toes. And when disturbed they curl up into a tight circle, leaving their hard upper surface exposed and keeping their soft underside protected.

Millipede sexes are separate. The reproductive organs are located at the anterior end of the body, between the second and third pair of legs; one or both pairs of legs on the seventh segment of the male are usually modified into copulatory organs. Females construct a dome-shaped nest of earth mixed with saliva, and she lays her eggs through a hole in the top, then sealing the nest with the same material. She may make several nests. The eggs hatch into larvae which usually have three pairs of legs, but segments and legs increase with each molt as the larvae grows. Millipede life span is only one or two years, once it reaches maturity.

Except in summer when the rains begin and they begin to wander, they mostly live in dark, damp places, well supplied with decaying vegetable matter on which they feed. They may even utilize living plant material, and some tropical species can feed on decaying animals. Although millipedes have very few predators, they are able to defend themselves by giving off an ill-smelling, yellowish fluid through openings along the sides of the body. Even the smallest individual is able to produce this strange odor. The fluid, similar to cyanide, is sometimes strong enough to kill insects placed in a jar with the millipede. And although the odor serves as a protection against predators, it does not hurt humans. Plus, millipedes cannot bite.

More than 150 species of millipedes have been identified in North America, but there are many more species that occur in the tropics. More than 6,500 are known worldwide; the largest is 30 millimeters (about one foot) while the smallest is only two millimeters in length. The long, reddish-brown species that occurs in southeastern North America, including the Texas Gulf Coast, is the banded millipede, known to scientists as Narceus americanus. Their closest relative is the centipede. Both are arthropods of the class Diplopoda, but neither is an insect.

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

Chimney Swifts, a Real-Life Drama
by Ro Wauer

Each year when chimney swifts return to their ancestral nesting sites from their wintering homes in the Amazon Basin, I take the metal top off my chimney so they can reclaim their old nesting site. This year was no exception. A pair and their helpers, usually two or three of last year's young, begin building a nest, a bunch of little sticks glued together with their saliva and pasted on the inside of the brick chimney. All went well until about four weeks ago when a heavier than normal rain apparently loosened the nest from the wall. The nest, along with four tiny nestlings, fell onto the floor of the fireplace. I was alerted to their predicament by the louder than normal calls and strong wingbeats of the adults who flew about their helpless chicks, so small they could barely keep their heads up.

Looking closely through the glass fire screen, I discovered the fallen nest, broken into two parts, the larger of the two contained the four nestlings. Three were on top of what appeared to be a less mobile individual, but it seemed that all four were in a high state of excitement. One of the adults flew away up the chimney, but the other landed on the wall a few inches away from the babies. All continued their squeaking cacophony. I decided to leave them alone and let nature take its own course. In retrospect, that was a smart decision.

The adults continued feeding their babies, apparently just as they had done when the nest was still affixed to the chimney wall. Within a couple of days the three "stronger" (more vocal at least) young had crawled up onto a small log that I had left on the chimney floor; the nest had fallen almost on top of the log. But the fourth youngster remained in the broken nest; I considered removing it, as I thought it was too weak to survive. But after another couple days, it too crawled onto the log. It was obvious that all four babies continued to be fed by their parents.

The calling was considerably louder each time the parents brought food to the downed youngsters than when the nest and begging youngsters had been far up the chimney; all the action was now within ten feet of where Betty and I sat each evening while watching television. We literally had to turn up the volume with each feeding. If asked to describe the baby swift calls, a good description might be extremely agitating "chuh-chuh-chuh," sometimes like a freight train in the chimney. And after a few days, we detected different call notes, like rasping "raah-raah-raah," each time we looked in to see how they were doing. We wondered if it was a defensive call, even at their young age; it also resembled a hissing snake.

It took more than two weeks - it seemed twice that long - before the loudest of the begging declined. That was not because the feeding was over, but because the four youngsters had moved higher up in the chimney. We could still hear their loud chattering with each feeding, but the sound was at a greater distance, and the heavy adult wingbeats were not just inside the screen.

Almost a month later, when I climbed onto the roof and looked into the chimney, a single individual remained. I assumed it was the last of the four youngsters, the last of the individuals that had hatched. All the others were out flying with their parents, learning chimney swift secrets of survival. The fourth youngster will join them in a day or so.

How strange it is to be so closely associated with a growing family of wild birds, to be a witness to a disaster, but to see it through and to be part of an intimate success story.

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Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Extremely Vocal Mockingbird
by Ro Wauer

Is there any other bird still singing so constantly this time of year as our northern mockingbird? Even when the majority of our songbirds have stopped singing, or maybe only during early morning, the mockingbird continues its diverse vocalizations throughout most of the day. On a recent morning walk in my Mission Oaks subdivision, only a few half-hearted songs were evident. Doves, chickadees, wrens, and titmice barely made themselves known. But the mockingbirds were just as obvious as they had been since late winter.

The mockingbird, of course, is one of our better known songsters. During the nesting season it usually sings throughout most of the nighttime hours, only to increase its renditions after sunup. And there is much variation to its songs. Typically, mockingbirds possess a musical medley interspersed with harsh notes and imitations.

A birder in South Carolina once reported that a mocker was heard to imitate thirty-two different species of birdsongs in the same locality. They often sing continuously for an hour or more.

As a member of the Mimidae family of birds, that also includes thrashers and catbirds, it is famous for it's singing ability. However, recent studies have shown that the brown thrasher sings a greater variety of phrases than mockingbirds. But it is its assumed mimicking behavior that has attracted so much attention over the years. There are numerous cases when notes from some distant songbird are recognized. Mockingbirds may sing songs of species in which they may never come in contact.

Editor Edgar Kincaid, in "The Bird Life of Texas," explained this phenomena thusly: (1) mockingbirds are not really mocking, but are only singing highly variable phrases that coincidentally sound like those of other birds; (2) a particular mockingbird may be more migratory than most and had spent the winter in other locations where it had learned other songs; or (3) it was mimicking one or more mockingbirds that had learned other songs elsewhere. My guess would be either one or three, as few of the mockingbirds that occur in our area are migratory. And maybe number three is most likely, as it is not unusual for a mockingbird to pick out a particular phrase or sound that it hears time again and include it in its repertoire of sounds.

Whatever the case, there is little doubt that our mockers are fascinating creatures that have a personality all their own. Although all can be quarrelsome at times, driving intruders out of their territory, others seem very content to just sing and survey their territory. When nesting, however, few intruders are ignored. Whether it is a house cat or dog wandering by, or a hawk or crow flying past, they can suddenly be a fierce and persistent defender of all they survey. On numerous occasions I have had a territorial mockingbird dive at me, coming so close I could feel the breeze.

Even this late in the breeding season, mockingbirds can be just as aggressive. Probably their aggressive behavior is a result of a second nesting, but I can't help but wonder how often such action is only the result of a particularly obnoxious individual.

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