The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Popcorn Bird
by Ron Smith

Have you ever seen the Popcorn Bird of the Rio Grande Valley?

Don't get up to get your bird book yet. You will find it in no field guide
under that name. If you could, it might be described this way: Ten inches in
length, large-headed with a strong bill made for catching insects, small fish
and amphibians, and it is fond of berries, mice and even baby birds. (Egad!)
Its back is a soft brown shade, and the wings are edged in russet tones.

There is a distinctive black mask bordered in white. Combined with a bright
yelow breast, these characteristics make this a distinctive species.
Vocalization is a ringing three-note call.

While many of this bird's family, the group known as the "tyrant"
flycatchers, are attractively plumaged, such as the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher,
there is one branch that is so dull and similar, you need a practiced eye to
separate one from another. Not this one. It is a creature with verve and

Have you identified it yet? It is a bird seen throughout the Rio Grande
Valley and a bit northward in Texas. I call it the Popcorn Bird, and for good

When the dawn cracks in Pharr, and at times in the winter even before that,
my wife Sharron totes a bag of popcorn out the sunroom door where we breakfast.
She spreads it across the lawn of our backyard.

We know what is lurking in the shadows of our privet hedge, or in the leafy
confines of what may be the world's largest Turk's Cap shrub. Immediately after
she shuts the door behind her, the Popcorn Bird swoops from his perch of
anticipation. In one swinging arc, it picks up a kernel in its beak and flees
to a branch or the wires. You have to observe closely because the attack is so
swift you can barely perceive the catch.

Ater this comes the Plain Chachalacas, the Great-tailed Grackles, House
Sparrows, and other birds. Sometimes the Popcorn Bird will stay on the ground
eating defiantly, daring the grackles to come near. (They prefer to pick up the
corn, fly to the birdbaths and soak it.) When the others come too close, the
Popcorn Bird will flare its crest, a yellow patch in the black top feathers of
its crown. This is quite a show. Wildllfe Photographer and veterinarian Dr.
Steve Bentsen has a most magnificent photograph of this performance. You will
never see the crest unless the bird is in a high state of alarm or excitement.

One such case would be when predators are near. We have a Sharp-shinned Hawk
or two which hunt our neighborhood, at times making strafing runs down the
corridor of our backyard.

Some days we have at least three Popcorn Birds on the wires from which they
make alternate swoops, quarreling over the food, of course.

This subject bird is a feisty, noisy and beautiful creature, one of the
target species for the birders that come to the Valley from all over the world.
Its range is very limited in the U.S, but it extends outside the country all the
way to Argentina. It has adapted well to the growing urbanism here, as long a
there is proper cover such as trees and shrubbery. As a matter of fact, it is
one species that actually benefits from the spoiling of the rainforest because
it prefers openings, edges and new growth. Don't tell anybody.

If you have not keyed in on the species, go out and buy a good field guide
such as the National Geographic, Kenn Kaufman's or David Sibley's, et al. Pick
up some popcorn, spread it and watch for one. I believe the bird will benefit
nutritionally, and so will you and your family from enjoying one of the Valley's
natural pleasures.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

White Angled-Sulphur was the Highlight of Victoria Butterfly Count
by Ro Wauer

On Sept. 15, from 9am to 4:30pm, six of us “combed” the county for whatever kinds of butterflies were present. We ended our day with a grand total of 50 species! Of those 50 species, none were as exciting as the white angled-sulphur that was recorded at the Master Gardeners Demonstration Garden near the airport; a small but neat garden well worth a visit. The angled-sulphur is an extremely large (wingspan to 3.5 inches) greenish butterfly with sharply angled wings and slightly falcate wingtips. The underside is leaf-green with bulging veins and a faint reddish spot on both wings. The upperside is white with a large orange-yellow patch on the leading edge of the forewing. The leaf-green color blends in so well with the surrounding vegetation that it can perch for long periods of time without being discovered.

White angled-sulphurs, a tropical species that rarely occurs in the United States north of the Rio Grande Valley, has been reported to the north of the Valley on several occasions this year, from Dallas to Houston and southward. I have seen it at least three times in my yard near Mission Valley, and the one at the airport garden had been hanging around for at least five days. The number of observations throughout the state this year makes one wonder how many of these tropical butterflies are actually present across Texas, and what has happened to make this unusual species this year leave its normal breeding grounds and fly northward. Plus, it undoubtedly is reported on only those very rare occasions when one just happens to find a larval food plant, limited to cassias, to its liking to stay put and be found. The airport garden has a large candlestick senna that apparently had attracted its attention.

Although our small group of six – Barbara Bruns, Bill Farnsworth, Paul Julian, Linda Valdez, and Betty and I – was most excited about the angled-sulphur, we found 49 additional butterflies during the day. Three other sulphurs were tallied in fairly large numbers: cloudless and large orange sulphurs and little yellow. The 70 little yellows, tiny yellow butterflies flying along roadsides and across grassy fields, represented the highest number of the 50 species. But gulf fritillaries, a large orange butterfly with black spots on the upperside and silvery blotches on the underside, were also found in good numbers. And a good number white peacocks were also recorded. This is a large mostly white species with a black-bordered blue-gray bar on the leading edge and one oblong median spot on the forewing. Another tropical species, the white peacock is a colonist along the Guadalupe River, and they emerge each year in late summer and fall to spread out along the riverway and adjacent lakes.

Three species of swallowtails were recorded: several pipevine and giant swallowtails and a lone eastern tiger swallowtail. And a few monarchs were found; the monarch fall migration has only just begun, and these large orange-brown butterflies should increase in numbers during the next few weeks. But they can be confused with the more common queen, a slightly smaller milkweed butterfly that we found in good numbers.

A complete list of what we recorded, to help those of you interested in identifying what might be present in your own yard, follows: pipevine, giant, and eastern tiger swallowtails; checkered white; orange, cloudless, large orange, and dainty sulphurs; white angled-sulphur; southern dogface; little yellow; sleepy orange; gray hairstreak; mallow scrub-hairstreak; ceraunus blue; gulf fritillary; bordered patch; silvery checkerspot; phaon and pearl crescents; painted lady; common buckeye; white peacock; viceroy; goatweed leafwing; tawny emperor; Carolina satyr; monarch, queen; white-striped longtail; long-tailed, sickle-winged, Julia’s, clouded, fiery, dun, eufala, and ocola skippers; coyote cloudywing; false and Horace’s duskywings; common, tropical, and desert checkered-skippers; laviana and Turk’s-cap white-skippers; whirlabout; southern broken-dash; sachem; and Celia’s roadside-skipper.

There undoubtedly were more species out there that we did not encounter. For instance, we did not find black swallowtail, dusky-blue groundstreak, American snout, Texan and vesta cresents, question mark, hackberry emperor, northern cloudywing, funereal duskywing, and southern skipperling, all species that I had seen very recently. But we will do a count again next year.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Infanticide: An Unfortunate Fact of Life Among Purple Martins
by Jace G. Stansbury

This will be my ninth year as a Purple Martin landlord and I can say that so far it has been an absolute wonderful experience. Being able to observe a species of bird from compartment selection, to nest building, egg laying and finally the rearing of their young is a blessed gift in itself.

Rather than just read about what occurs at an active colony site, I want to experience it. So I spend as much time as possible just sitting and observing. You can learn a great deal by doing this and become a better landlord as well. On Friday May 9, 2003 this paid off in a big way because I observed something that I will never forget.

After performing a nest check I sat in my backyard with binoculars to age all of the martins that were nesting at my colony as they would come and go from their respective gourds. I normally wait until I have active nests before I do this. During the last few days I had been noticing three SY (subadult or bachelor) males hanging around the colony site. While watching I saw what I thought was one of these enter a gourd that had an active nest belonging to an ASY male and female. What was he up to? Through my binoculars I watched the gourd entrance to be sure that I did indeed see a SY male enter it when the unthinkable happened. Not only did I confirm that it was in fact a SY male, but I also saw something that caused my jaw to drop. Firmly held in the beak of this male was a tiny pink 2-day old writhing nestling. I was witnessing infanticide in the making.

Infanticide by definition is basically the killing of young by adults. This behavior occurs in other bird species as well such as House Wrens, Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, Cliff Swallows, English Sparrows and European Starlings. It is believed that unmated SY male martins perform this act because of limited nesting sites, mates, and food, which then is intensified by the urge to mate. By removing and/or killing the young or destroying eggs it causes the mated pair to “divorce” so to speak due to reproductive failure. This gives the SY male the chance to take advantage of the situation and possibly mate with the now “free” female.

I shuddered as I watched the usurping male fly from the gourd out over the lot where my two racks reside and drop the nestling to the ground. I immediately ran to the area and began a hurried search in hopes that I would find the confiscated nestling. After a few minutes of frantic searching I saw a small pink spot in the deep green San Augustine grass and picked it up to find to my surprise that it was unharmed. I lowered the rack and placed it back into the nest alongside its four siblings. Not two minutes after I raised the gourd rack the same SY male returned possibly to remove the others. About the same time the ASY female that had laid the clutch arrived and knocked him from the gourd driving him to the ground where a fight ensued. He then flew back up and perched on the gourd rack. The ASY female then entered the gourd where the five nestlings were waiting. Again he landed at the entrance of the gourd and peered in. The ASY female burst from the gourd and once again fought him to the ground. This went on several more times as he tried to gain entrance to the gourd. Each and every time the ASY female defended before finally it appeared that the SY male had given up for the time being. This event lasted only ten minutes at best. Where was the ASY male during all of this? Out feeding I assume. He returned not long after the altercation ended. When I look back on this I realize that had I glanced away for one second I would have missed this event entirely. The next nest check would have shown a missing nestling and I more than likely would have attributed that to the workings of a starling or sparrow. By way of nest checks I have also come across missing eggs from several other nests. It makes we wonder if this SY male or one of the others is responsible for this also.

With House Sparrows and European Starlings we can install SREH’s, trap, and shoot. With predators we can install predator guards and baffles. With ectoparasites we can do nest change outs. With weather extremes we can perform housing modifications. With infanticidal SY males we can literally do nothing but watch. Unless you happen to be in the right place at the right time observing like I was that day and are able to intervene. But we can’t be there at all times. The sole responsibility lies with the parents to protect the eggs and nestlings from this unfortunate type of invasion.


Chek, Andrew A., Robertson, Raleigh J. 1991. "Infanticide in Female Tree Swallows: A Role For Sexual Selection". The Condor 93:454-457.

Hill, James R. 2001. "The PMCA Videotapes an Entire Nesting Season Inside a Natural
Gourd". Purple Martin Update 10(3):8-13.

Hill, James R. 1997. "Sex/AgeDifferences in the Breeding Success and Mate Choice of Purple Martins". Purple Martin Update 7(3):28-29.

Loftin, Robert W., Roberson, Don. 1995. "Infanticide by a Purple Martin". Purple Martin Update 6(3):7.

Lombardo, Michael P., Power, Harry, Romagnano, Linda, Stouffer, Philip, C. 1986.
"Suspected Infanticide in the Starling". The Condor 88:530-531.

Jace Stansbury is a 46 year old product tester at a local oil refinery. He is entering his ninth year as a martin landlord.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Raptor Migration Can Be Spectacular in South Texas
by Ro Wauer

As the mobs of hummingbirds passing through South Texas begin to subside, another group of migrants – the much larger hawks, kites, eagles, and falcons – is increasing. Their numbers should peak in late September. On select days, up to 100,000 hawks in continuous flights of over 40 miles long have been observed in South Texas. That truly is something to see!

It is estimated that 95 percent of North America’s broad-winged hawk population migrates southward along the Texas central Gulf Coast. Moderate numbers of Swainson’s, red-tailed, Cooper’s, and sharp-shinned hawks, Mississippi kites, American kestrels, peregrine falcons, and smaller populations of ferruginous, Harris’s, red-shouldered, and zone-tailed hawks, bald and golden eagles, merlins, and white-tailed and swallow-tailed kites move through our area as well. Mississippi kites have already been evident over the treetops in area towns, where they have been feeding principally on cicadas.

But the most outstanding spectacle of the raptor migration is a circling flock of broad-winged hawks – especially when several hundred of these hawks begin to leave a preferred overnight roosting site at one time, usually about 8:30 A. M., and slowly ascend by circling to a point where they are out of sight.

The broad-winged hawk is a fairly small hawk, built very much like our common red-tailed hawk but with a banded rather than an all-reddish tail. It is a common nester throughout the eastern deciduous forests of North America. Its breeding range begins just northeast of the central Gulf Coastal region. And like many of our raptors, it is a neotropical migrant that goes south for the winter. Broad-winged hawks spend their winter months from southern Mexico to Peru and Brazil.

Hawk migration occurs in many parts of the world, and organized hawk watchers at a few key sites have provided some amazing statistics. The best known historic North American sites include Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain and New Jersey’s Cape May Point. But in recent years, Texas sites have produced even greater numbers. The single most productive one is Hazel Bazemore County Park near Corpus Christi, where over one million hawks are known to cross over each year from late September to early October. In 2004, hawk watchers are Hazel Bazemore, a geographical chokepoint, recorded 1,030,762 individuals of 25 species. The broad-winged hawk grand total was 989,875!

Other organized Texas hawk watch sites occur at Smith’s Point, near Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge; Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park (best in spring); Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge; Padre Island, especially for peregrines; Dangerfield State Park near Longview; and Devil’s Backbone near Wimberly.

The very best hawk-watch site, however, is south of the border in Veracruz, Mexico. Hawk watchers consistently record over five million individuals each fall.

Any reader interested in watching the watchers is welcome. The nearest site for most of my readers is Hazel Bazemore County Park, located one mile west of US 77 at Calallen, via SH 624. Peak flights occur from September 22 to 25.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Horny Toads

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

Several years back as I drove through a pasture on a ranch east of town, something caught my eye as it scurried across the road in front of the truck. It wasn’t big and I’m not sure why I even stopped to get out and take a look, but there sitting in a spot of bare ground was a quarter-size baby horny toad. I’d seen lots of them over the years but never one so small. I caught it and held it in my hand for a few minutes to relish the once in a lifetime experience. After taking its photo, I let it go on its way, hoping somehow the little fellow might survive but knowing the odds were against it. The roadrunner I’d seen back down the road would make a meal out of him if he spotted it. It would also be easy pickings for any butcherbird, hawk, snake, fox or coyote in the area. This encounter brought back memories of playing with these fascinating reptiles as a kid growing up in the Blackland farming country down in central Texas.

You’d have to be from another planet or had your head buried in the sand these days not to know that horny toads or horned frogs, as they’re sometimes called (particularly over in Fort Worth at TCU), are neither toads nor frogs. They’re more correctly known by their common name as horned lizards. Of the three species of horned lizards found in Texas, the Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum) is the most widely distributed. They’re found throughout Texas except for areas in extreme East Texas. Their range extends from southern Kansas, southeastern Arizona into Mexico. The mountain short horned lizard (P. douglassii hernandesi) occurs only in the forested mountains of the Guadalupe and Davis Mountains of West Texas and northward into New Mexico, Colorado and northwestern Arizona. Round tailed horned lizards (P. modestum) are found in suitable habitat in the western half of Texas to southeastern Arizona and far southward into Mexico.

Texas horned lizards are three and one-half to six inches long: the record is seven and one-eighth inches. They have a broad flattened body, pointed snout, short legs and short tail. There is a prominent row of spines on their head with the two center ones elongated and resembling horns. Spines also protrude from either side of their throat and two rows are found along the side of their body. Coloration varies from light brown, tan to gray with dark brown spots rimmed in yellow or white. Beneath, the light gray or tan belly scales are keeled. A mid-dorsal white or beige line extends from the head to the base of the tail. Wide dark lines also radiate from their eye downward and across the top of the head.

Their horned lizard camo serves them well to elude predators by blending in with their surroundings, thus making detection by prying eyes more difficult. Their first reaction when agitated or threatened is to either run like heck or flatten out and remain motionless until danger passes. If that doesn’t work, they’ll inflate their body, thus making them appear larger than life and less appetizing to predators. Any snake that’s ever attempted to swallow a Texas horned lizards backwards soon learns it just doesn’t’ work. If worse comes to worse, they’ll rise up on their legs, hiss and squirt a stream of blood from the corner of their eye to thwart advances of a tormentor, including little boys bent on pestering them. Researchers have documented that Texas horned lizards can expel up to one-third of their body’s blood supply doing this.

Ants make up the bulk of their diet, particularly red harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex spp.), but they also eat spiders, grasshoppers, beetles, larvae and other small insects. Horned lizards will literally camp out around a red ant mound or trail and pick them off coming and going with a flick of their tongue. Finding little pellets of excreted ant exoskeletons around a red ant mound is a sure sign you’re in a horned lizard’s territory. Use of pesticides to kill crop pests and ants is thought to have contributed to the decline in horned lizard populations by diminishing their ant food supplies. Today, red harvester ants have to compete with fire ants for food and space on the landscape and guess who’s winning that battle. Combined with long-term alterations of their habitat, the future does not look too bright for Texas horned lizards. However, west of a line from Del Rio to Abilene and north, they’re still relatively abundant.

Like many other lizard species, Texas horned lizards thermoregulate their body temperature by basking in the sun or move underground or to shady areas to cool off if necessary during the heat of the day. When temperatures begin to cool during early fall, they go into hibernation in burrows or other underground cavities. Their metabolism slows down until April or May when they’ll emerge ready to breed. Females will carry eggs for a period of time and then deposit them in a nest she’ll dig at the end of a five to seven inch slanted tunnel. There, she’ll lay 13-45 eggs in two or three soil packed layers. In five to seven weeks, the one and one-quarter inch young emerge using their ‘egg tooth’ to help scratch their way to the surface.

Perhaps the most famous Texas horned lizard was O’l Rip over in Eastland County. In July of 1897, the citizens of Eastland County began constructed a new courthouse to replace their old one that had burned. In a dedication ceremony, several items were placed in the cornerstone of the new building including a Bible, various mementos and a Texas horned lizard brought to the festivities by the County Clerk’s son. When another courthouse was to be constructed on the site some 31 years later, a crowd of 3,000 turned out to witness the opening of the time capsule in old courthouse’s cornerstone. When O’l Rip was removed from his tomb, low and behold he began to wiggle and come alive. They say the crowd went wild. There were skeptics, but to this day, you don’t question the authenticity of this event when in Eastland. O’l Rip died a year later from complications of pneumonia and today is on display in the Eastland County Courthouse. When John Connolly was running for governor back in 1962, he posed with O’l Rip and in handling him, accidentally pulled his leg off, much to the chagrin of county officials. He’s been stolen a couple of other times since but today remains under lock and key at the courthouse.

The Texas horned lizard is classified as a threatened species and may not be collected or possessed, so just leave’um where you find’um and enjoy’um in the wild. Until next time, I’ll see you down the road and God Bless America!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Teal Pond -- North Border
by Ron Smith - 12/01

They arrive in the little cove.

Blues and Greens.

Along an icy rim like milky glass.

A-tilt they drop, spilling air that buoyed their wings.

They are warmer waterbound than the Watcher

Who stands in the freezing day beholding gems.

A line of larger, darker forms above;

This world of teal is too small for them.

They call their way to roomier bays.

Here, it is a sparkling glassblower's world -

After the work has cooled.

A slant of sun gilds and silvers the banks,

Yet the watcher is not warmed in his element

As the teal are warmed in theirs.

Sudden wind cracks the coated reeds.

At this the Watcher starts.

The teal lift away with wakes of water drops.

Prisms in winter light -

Refractions once - then lost.

But not to memory.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Are You Ready for the Annual Hummingbird Invasion?
By Ro Wauer

Already the number of hummingbirds utilizing my feeders has increased considerably, and that increase will undoubtedly continue during the next several weeks. It is that time of year when thousands of ruby-throated hummers are moving southward to their winter grounds in the tropics. Although a few of the ruby-throats may hang around throughout the winter months, especially if we experience a mild winter, the vast majority leave the United States for warmer climes to the south.

September is our hummingbird month when hoards of ruby-throats from throughout the eastern half of the Continent pour through our area like a huge hourglass. My yard near Mission Valley can literally be filled with these tiny, fast-flying gems. Four years ago, when I had 15 feeders hanging from tree limbs and under the poach overhang, I estimated that as many as 350 individual hummers were present at one time. Although that number was much higher than might normally be in my yard at once this time of year, it is not all that far-fetched.

In tune with the hummingbird migration, Rockport's Hummer/Bird Celebration has become an annual event. This year's festival is schedule for September 16-18. And for anyone interested in hummingbirds, you can hardly go wrong. Betty and I go every year just to check out the wide variety of vendors that sell everything from jewelry to binoculars to t-shirts to books. We usually come home with some marvelous Christmas presents. Other folks register and attend talks and banding demonstrations or go on field trips.

But back at home, are you ready for the hummingbird invasion? If you already are feeding hummingbirds with one or a few feeders, put out more and you will increase your numbers. Hummingbird feeding requires little more than a feeder, available at dozens of stores, filled with sugar water and placed in a shady spot in the yard. The hummingbirds will find it! Hummingbird water can be purchased or can easily be made at home at a much-reduced cost. I use plain old well water mixed with cane sugar at a ratio of one part sugar to six to ten parts water. I mix up a big batch and store the remaining in the refrigerator. Red food coloring is not recommended; it may be harmful to the tiny hummers.

What about ants and other insects that are attracted to the sugar water in the feeders? Ants can be a real nuisance, but these insects can be controlled by using an ant guard. I find the cheapest and most effective ant guard is a 35-mm film canister rimmed inside with Vaseline; I simply poke a tiny hole in the canister and thread the line used to hang the feeder through it. Wasps can also be a problem, but most feeders are built so those wasps cannot reach the liquid.

One warning: it is most important that your feeders be properly maintained. That is, although much depends on the weather, they must be cleaned each time they are refilled. It is a good idea to brush them each time with a weak Clorox-water solution. And never leave them out so long as the holes get rimmed with black. If a feeder is not emptied in four days, bring it in, empty the contents, clean it up, and start over again.

Hummingbird feeders are one of the easiest ways to attract migrating hummingbirds. Although ruby-throated hummingbirds will be most numerous, watch also for some of the other possible species. The larger hummingbird that you will find is the buff-breasted hummingbird; it is full-time resident in our area. Black-throated hummingbirds occur in summer, and they undoubtedly will visit your feeders. But also watch for some of the others such as rufous, broad-tailed, calliope, and Allen's. All are possible.

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Sunday, September 04, 2005

Bullfrogs Can Fool You
by Ro Wauer

I discovered a really odd frog a short time ago while cleaning out a tiny pond in my backyard. It was about the size of a leopard frog, but lacked the large black spots and dorsal stripes. It didn't match any of the frog species - green, gray, and squirrel treefrogs and leopard frog - that I had previously recorded in my yard. Nor was it a toad with warty skin, short legs, vertical pupils, and parotoid glands, a globular feature located just behind each eye. Yard toads have included eastern narrowmouth, Gulf Coast, and Texas toads. I caught my new amphibian, placed it in a jar, and tried to figure out what I had found. But it was not until I sent some digital images off to a couple colleagues that I learned that my new yard frog was little more than a young bullfrog.

In self-defense, both of my colleagues stated that my frog did have a very "weird" pattern, and that young bullfrogs can easily be confused with several other coastal species, although most of those never get to Texas or are much, much smaller. Once my frog had a name, I realized that I should have considered a bullfrog from the start. After all, bullfrogs are fairly common residents throughout all but the desert portion of Texas. And anyone spending much time in swampy areas would quickly recognize an adult bullfrog, and its very distinct "h-h-rrumph" call is unmistakable. But my young bullfrog had not yet begun to sing.

Bullfrogs, actually American bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana), are native to almost all of eastern North America and south to Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec. But they have also been introduced into swampy areas throughout much of North America, as far west as California and north to Canada. And it is likely that their range will continue to expand, as female bullfrogs can deposit huge egg-masses that can contain 20,000 eggs. Although those eggs and resultant tadpoles are subject to considerable predation, at least some of those baby bullfrogs are likely to survive. My bullfrog must have traveled overland as much as several miles to get into my pond. Yet bullfrogs can eat almost anything including other bullfrogs. Being cannibalistic, it is not unusual for a large adult to feed on its smaller companions. And when the adults grow up they also face the possibility of ending up as a human delicacy. Frog legs, fried to a golden brown and garnished with fried parsley and sliced lemon, can be superb!

Bullfrogs are, after all, our largest frogs. They can reach a length of eight inches. Adults can be really heavy. They are overall green with a netlike pattern of gray or brown, although youngsters, I discovered, can be blackish-green with an abundance of tiny darker bumps. Bullfrogs usually have a white belly, mottled legs, and yellowish armpits. And in the water they often rest mostly below the surface with only they're bulging eyes and nostrils above the surface.

My new yard herp, a term often used for amphibians and reptiles, now numbers 29. Besides the five frogs (leopard frog, bullfrog, and green, gray, and squirrel treefrogs) and three toads (Gulf Coast, Texas, and eastern narrowmouth toads), it also includes six lizards - green anole, Texas spiny lizard, six-lined racerunner, ground skink, and Mediterrean and banded geckos. My list also includes 15 species of snakes: broad-banded copperhead, Texas coral snake, rough green snake, Texas rat snake, Mexican and eastern yellowbelly racers, Schott's whipsnake, eastern garter snake, Texas brown snake, prairie kingsnake, eastern hognosed snake, Gulf Coast ribbon snake, flathead snake, rough earthsnake, and plains blind snake.

Now anyone seeing this list would naturally assume that my yard is full of herps that it is next to impossible to walk out into my yard without stepping on snakes, lizard, or amphibians. But that is not the case; most of these creatures only occasionally visit my yard and some of the others, such as the toads and frogs, as well as the geckos, hide out during the daylight hours. Only four of the lizards can be found with any certainty.

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Saturday, September 03, 2005

By Ruth Beasley

When I set out to investigate Kingfishers, I knew them to be striking birds, big-headed, crested, blue-and-white birds almost like top-heavy Blue Jays. They have raggedy crests, massive bills, short tails, and tiny legs and feet. What I didn’t know was that they’d turn out to be so interesting.

Belted Kingfishers are most widespread, found across the country near clear water. Males and females are bluish gray on the head, wings, and back — underneath they’re clean white with a blue-gray necklace. Females have some red on the sides and a smaller, lower necklace of red below the gray one.

You may well hear a Kingfisher before you see it, because they make an unmistakable agitated racket of a rattle. A Kingfisher rattle has the sound of metal in it, a tintinnabulation. It’s been compared to the clicking of a fishing reel. They use their rattle to complain about intrusions, or to announce that they’ve arrived on the scene.

The Kingfisher lives up to its name, ruling a watery kingdom and excelling at catching fish. They hunt by sight from an overhanging perch, diving headfirst into the water after prey. Or they’ll hover high above, and dive down when the moment is right. Sometimes they dive 50 feet, striking the water with tre-mendous force — those stout heads and necks absorb the shock.

A Kingfisher, like many a human fisher-man, prefers to fish alone and patrols its terri-tory with great enthusiasm. It will adopt a fa-vorite perch — some bare branch, or piling — and if the water below is clear enough, it will hunt there every day. A flickering fin sends it diving down to the water.

Returning to the perch, the Kingfisher bangs its catch against something solid a few times to stun it, before beginning the arduous business of swallowing it headfirst.

They’ve been accused of posing a danger to trout, but Kingfishers prefer fish like chub and sculpins, which are harmful to smaller trout. Other favorite fish include those called suckers that, if not caught and eaten by the Kingfishers, would be eating great quantities of trout spawn. To quote George Gladden, writ-ing in Birds of America in the 1930s, a King-fisher is “always good company on a trout brook and is never without his click-reel.”

To me the really fascinating thing about Kingfishers is how they raise their young. They don’t build nests, instead they dig burrows into the vertical face of a sandy bank, tunnels three or four inches in diameter and as long as fif-teen feet. Some burrows go straight in; others turn — there can be three or four right-angle turns in a Kingfisher burrow.

For a bird only 13 inches tall with itty bitty legs and feet, these elaborate burrows are am-bitious projects. Males and females work to-gether, digging with their bills, and pushing the dirt outside with their feet.

Burrows culminate in nesting chambers, slightly larger and deeper than the tunnels. Some say the pure white eggs are laid on bare ground, but others say a nest of soft grass or a cup of fish-bone flakes is set upon the floor. The young are born blind, naked, and helpless, and for awhile are fed regurgitated fish by their parents. They huddle together for warmth in the burrow while their parents are fishing.

In time, the adults teach the youngsters to fish by tossing dead fish or half-dead fish into the water for them to dive after. Once old enough, young Kingfishers depart and dis-perse, to someday rule over a clear water king-dom of their own.

[I learned quite a lot about Kingfishers at]

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Friday, September 02, 2005

by Ruth Beasley

You just never know what you might come across when you engage in a study of birds. One reason birds are so much fun is that the subject is more vast that most people ever imagine. A prime example of what I mean is the apparently common Bird World activity known as “anting” — something I’d never heard of until now.

But before we talk about anting, let’s first discuss formic acid, for that’s what birds use when they practice the act of anting.

Formic acid is secreted in small amounts by ants, wasps, millipedes, and bees as a form of self defense. It’s also a substance manufac-tured by the Celanese Corporation in Pampa, Texas — according to some, the only manu-facturer of formic acid in the United States.

In large enough doses, formic acid is a deadly poison that targets the skin, lungs, kidneys, liver, and eyes. It can kill a full-grown human in a hundred gruesome ways. But it’s also terribly useful, and is found in items as diverse as electroplate, potassium salt, latex, leather, perfume, and vinyl resin.

As far as human beings go, the use of for-mic acid is a carefully controlled and regulated activity, for the safety of all involved. The fact that birds have learned to benefit from the use of formic acid proves, at least to me, that birds are smarter than we think.

What do birds use formic acid for? For one thing, it’s an insecticide — specifically, a miticide, but it also kills lice, ticks, and a vari-ety of other pesky insects. It also serves as a fungicide, and will kill bacteria as well. Because anting is often observed when birds are molt-ing, it’s believed that the acid can supplement natural preening oils and soothe skin made itchy by emerging feathers.
But what is anting, I hear you ask. Well, there is active anting and passive anting. Active anting is when a bird picks up one or several ants (or wasps, bees, or millipedes) and either places them under the feathers, or holds them in the beak to rub up and down the feathers.

Passive anting is equally strange: a passive anter is a bird that stands, lies down, or rolls around on an ant-bed, causing the ants to swarm onto the bird of their own volition. Passively anting birds often stand with their wings outspread, letting the ants have at it with stoic resignation.

The object of all true anting is to rile the in-sect into releasing its store of formic acid by biting or stinging the bird, or simply exuding the acid out the stomach. The birds appear immune to the acid themselves, and while they some-times become quite agitated when anting, it seems to do more good than harm. ( Just imag-ine the agitation you would feel if you found yourself crawling with ants!) The risk is appar-ently worth it, though, for a stoical anting bird repeats the ritual again and again.

Not all birds do it, but more than 200 dif-ferent kinds of birds worldwide have been caught in the act of anting. Starlings and tana-gers actively ant; crows are passive anters. European birds known to ant include babblers, weavers, and the Eurasian Jay.

Birds engage in pseudo-anting with items such as apple peels, mothballs — even ciga-rette butts! Most commonly, though, they en-gage in true anting with authentic ants.

So, it cannot be said that birds don’t know how to use tools. In this case they utilize living tools to facilitate their own well-being — prov-ing once again that we should never, ever un-derestimate the birds.

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Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Mink and Its Texas Kin
by Ron Smith, The McAllen Monitor, 14 August 2005

There are many mink in the Rio Grande Valley. They can be spotted when the
temperature drops into the startling 60's. These are not lively specimens, and
no longer do they hunt the shorelines of waters anywhere. Instead, they adorn
the lovely shoulders of the South Texas ladies I like to call "Iron
Bluebonnets," closely related to the Steel Magnolias of the deep South, another
very complimentary nickname, I should add in defense.

I did see a living, breathing mink a few years ago when it streaked across
the deck of our home in the northeastern Michigan woods. This is very unusual
because they are mostly night creatures and prowl the river banks for prey such
as fish, turtles, crayfish, mussels, frogs, rodents, insects, birds, and
anything else they can get their partially webbed feet on. Comparatively few
people ever get to glimpse one because they do not care much for daylight
activity. This one, a dark and lovely animal, was no doubt after something that
was visiting our bird feeders.

The word mink comes from a Swedish word, maenk, meaning....mink. In Texas,
they range from the eastern half of the state to the Panhandle, wherever here is
water. They are widespread except in the arid Southwest. By the way, they are
also good indicators of the health of any wetland, declining in numbers when the
water quality plummets, especially from chemical pollution.

Although only the size of house cats and weighing a mere three pounds, they
are fearless, tireless hunters who kill with swift efficiency. They are driven
to this by their manic, nervous personality. These are the real perpetual
motion machines, burning calories like a marathon runner. To meet their needs,
they hunt territory that can cover as much as 2500 acres.

They make dens under roots along the waterways or in burrows. They may use
several in their hungry wanderings. Muskrats must especially beware. Mink will
attack them in their houses and then take over.

This is usually a solitary animal except for the practice of polygamy
during mating season. The young are born quite helpless, blind and vulnerable,
but in five months they reach adult size. This acceleration seems necessary ---
the average mink only lives one year or less! They are preyed upon in turn by
owls, cats and coyotes, and their own kind in fights. Severe winters and the
resultant scarcity of food can seriously affect the population.

Most animal stories portray them as odorous, vicious killers, bloodthirsty
in their intensity. They come from a family of mammals possessing musk glands,
the Mustelidae, which includes the fierce and powerful wolverine (except in the
2005 Rose Bowl), weasels, otters and skunks. Still you have to respect them for
their skill and determination. Actually, they rarely sneak into the chicken
coop, but when they do, it is Avian Armageddon.

Their value as a fur source has been astonishing. In Nebraska, to cite one
state, from 1980 to 1989, trappers took in $121,000 from 6400 skins. In Texas,
however, mink rank only 9th in fur-bearing animals, probably due to their lower

Recently, our local Michigan paper featured mink in a regular column titled
"Looking Back." Fifty years ago a local mink farmer sued the Air Force because
the nearby base sent planes so low over his place that the female mink killed
their "kits."

I treasure that image of the mink crossing our deck, a sinuous, almost
sable undulation against the man-made boards, its body in a posture emanating
deadly intent. I would never want to be a muskrat under attack in its reedy

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