The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Hermit Thrush, Our Common but Secretive Winter Resident
by Ro Wauer

Very few of our wintering birds are so numerous yet so seldom seen as the hermit thrush. This thrush, somewhat smaller than a robin, is resident in almost every wooded area in South Texas in winter, but it is never conspicuous, almost always staying out of sight. When it does venture into the open, such as on a trail or roadway, it immediately seeks shelter when approached. The few times that it remains in the open, it freezes in place in a stately, upright position. Its natural colors help it to blend in perfectly with the environment.

The hermit thrush is a fine mixture of browns, tan upperparts with a pale reddish rump and tail, and whitish underparts with small brown spots. Its only movement may be quick wing flicking. If it is nervous, it may swiftly raise its tail and then lower it slowly. It also may raise and lower its crest. If undisturbed, it will often run a short distance to where it will search the ground for food, and then quickly grab some choice insect or other tiny invertebrate. During fall and winter, when berries are available, it may also feed on various fruits that it finds on the ground or on shrubs and trees. Like its cousin, the American robin, the hermit thrush diet can vary considerably.

During the winter months, the hermit thrush never sings, although partial songs are sometimes heard on sunny spring days. They do, however, make short, mellow call-notes that usually goes undetected. It has been described as a soft "chuck," usually a single note, but it also can scold, like a sharp "tuk-tuk-tuk." But these short call notes are a far cry from their marvelous songs that they produce on their breeding grounds. Then they sing a series of flutelike phases on different pitches with short pauses; the first notes are longest and lowest. The song may continue for many minutes, each phase on a different pitch. And unlike its shy behavior in winter, a territorial hermit thrush will often sing from the very top of the tallest conifer. The song of a hermit thrush on its breeding grounds is one of the most memorable of any of the abundant songbirds that can be heard in the northern forests.

But finding a hermit thrush in winter is not always easy. Since these denizens of shaded woodlands are usually quiet and elusive, in spite of their abundance, it may take patience and persistence. In the early morning, from dawn through the next hour or so, they seem to be rather vocal, make their mellow call notes. Afterwards, seeing one well may take a little inducement. I find that by making mellow but short whistle notes, you can often solicit a response. And once one responds with its single note, it is amazing how many others in the same woodlot will also respond. An acre-sized woodlot may harbor eight to twelve hermit thrushes.

To actually see one of these skulkers well, it may require additional work. One can either quietly walk deep into the woods or stay along the edge in the general area of where one has been calling. Once quietly stationed, and with moving about, it is then necessary to continue with the low chuck-calls. It may take several minutes, but unless your movement has not frightened it away, your target bird is likely to respond and begin moving closer. On numerous occasions, in such situations, I have had a hermit thrush approach to within a few feet of me. They are curious birds and, if not frightened off, will approach surprisingly close to the source of the call notes.

The hermit thrush, robin, and eastern bluebird are the only three members of the thrush (Turdidae) family that regularly occurs in winter in the Gulf Coastal area of South Texas. Two others - wood thrush and western bluebird - are found only rarely, and one additional thrush - clay-colored robin - is a year-round resident in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. All of these possess marvelous characteristics that, especially during the breeding season, argue that members of the thrush family are North America's finest songbirds.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Snow in South Texas!
By Ro Wauer

What a strange topic! Snow in South Texas. And what a beautiful scene this Christmas morning to look outside from a warm, cozy setting and see a sea of white. There is no better timing for me and others that might have grown up in snow-country, but are now safely tucked away in the warmer climes of South Texas. Until I was 14, I lived in southeast Idaho where winters were cold and icy. Even now, seeing snowy conditions on TV in various parts of the country still makes me shudder. But a snowstorm for Christmas is different; it is acceptable and even preferable. One of my earliest memories as a child is walking home from church on Christmas Eve with huge flakes of snow slowly descending onto the world around me. Over the years, I have missed snow on Christmas!

At my house near Mission Valley, snow began in the afternoon on Christmas Eve; larger flakes were evident after dark. By Christmas morning, I measured almost ten inches of fresh snow in my yard. Knowing that the sun would melt it fast, Betty and I spend an hour or so taking pictures. We might use them on next year's Christmas card, or if not they can be a handy topic with relatives and friends. We both put on boots to trudge through the snow, taking pictures from all angles and with a special interest in the backyard bird feeders. Then I dug out (literally) my ancient snow shovel and cleared off an area on the deck where I spread lots of birdseed. There was a very good reason not to have discarded that hateful tool. It took the cardinals, sparrows, and goldfinches less than ten minutes to find their new feedlot. The 30-plus cardinals that had been sitting around looking hungry and forlorn were soon chowing down.

The snow was surprisingly light weight, containing less water than much of the snow I had shoveled in such foreign places like Utah, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C. Snow is less dense than rain, 10 inches of snow normally equals one inch of rain. The larger snowflakes are filled with air, while the smaller flakes that we experienced early on yesterday afternoon were mostly crystallized rain. Most snowflakes are about 90 percent air, and this fact makes them excellent insulators and mufflers of sound. It is that muffling characteristic that often is so endearing. I can remember and appreciate how silent it was after a heavy snowfall. Even this year, with less than a foot of fresh snow, the entire neighborhood was quiet. Until, that is, we all started driving around gawking and photographing our changed environment.

What causes snow? Rainy conditions and cold temperatures, of course. But there is more to it than that. When temperatures in a cloud are sufficiently low enough, its moisture content may be released, not as rain, but as feather-light snowflakes. This happens because the water in clouds behaves in strange ways. At very low temperatures cloud droplets become super-cooled, which means that they remain liquid even though their temperature is below freezing. Under certain conditions the supercooled droplets evaporate and the vapor then freezes directly into minute ice crystals. As more vapor freezes on the tiny crystals, they grow into snowflakes.

Developing flakes take on different shapes, depending on the temperature and the amount of moisture in the air. All snow crystals possess a six-sided pattern, although they are noted for the infinite variety of their forms. The most beautiful are the delicately symmetrical starlike flakes. Others may take the form of flat, hexagonal plates, needles, columns, cups, spools, or even irregular masses that produce extra large flakes, perhaps like those I remember from that Christmas in Idaho.

It is doubtful that we will ever again be blessed with a white Christmas like that we enjoyed in 2004. But may that nature experience lead you to appreciate the entire outdoors throughout 2005.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Book Review
The Book of Texas Bays

by Ro Wauer

Jim Blackburn's new book - "The Book of Texas Bays" - is a marvelous read about an area that has a great deal of pertinence to all of us living along the Central Gulf Coast. The book is divided into 26 chapters, including those on Matagorda Bay, Mad Island, Palacios, Lavaca Bay and Formosa Plastics, Port O'Connor, San Antonio Bay and Sustainability, Rockport, Port Aransas and Lighthouse Lakes, and Nueces Bay. Each chapter begins with a personal on-site experience by the author, and is often oriented toward the wildlife that occurs within that particular region. In addition, and of special interest, each chapter contains several excellent photographs of scenery and wildlife by Jim Olive. This is a truly exceptional book!

The beginning of the introductory chapter, "Spirit of the Mud," states: "My place, the Texas coast, is a plain that gently emerges from the Gulf of Mexico, a mud platform ascending slowly from the ocean's grip. Rainwater joins with the mud and establishes the base of life on the coast. No rocks, no mountains - just mud and water." In further describing the area, he wrote: "The bays of the Texas coast represents ecological resources of the first order. Our coastal bays are water fingers, drowned river channels carved when the Gulf was several hundred feet lower in elevation. When the sea level rose over five thousand years ago, these river channels were filled with Gulf water, creating places where riverine inflow combined with salt water, creating areas of immense natural productivity called estuaries."

The Mad Island chapter includes various stories about how the region got its name. One of those stories tells about the local Indians who traveled with dogs. "One year, when they [Indians] departed, several of the dogs were left behind on the point in the marsh. After a while, the dogs went mad, hence Mad Island." Blackburn's favorite story was about mosquitoes that drove the cattle mad. He also includes the importance of the Mad Island area as a significant wintering bird area, and points out that the Christmas Bird Counts, started in 1992 by Brent Ortega (Texas Parks and Wildlife in Victoria) and Jim Bergen (Texas Nature Conservancy) has become North America's premier Christmas count.

The Port O'Connor chapter contains descriptions of fishing tournament preparations. "Port O'Connor is sport fishing territory, the motherland of the Gulf Coast Conservation Association (GCCA)." But, he points out, unless the entire ecosystem, particularly the phytoplankton, is protected, the Gulf fisheries will no longer thrive. Blackburn explains that "The stewardship concept of heroic men protecting microscopic plant life lacks a certain something in emotive force, unfortunately, but ecology is like that...the phytoplankton is what feeds the microscopic animals that feed the tiny shrimp and crabs as they float from the Gulf to nursery bays, eventually becoming food for the redfish fry...the reds feed and grow in the nursery bars, eating the small fare first before moving back out to the Gulf waters when they are ready to spawn."

The San Antonio Bay and Sustainability chapter contains the following comments: "We in Texas have a situation in our rivers where the base flow - the flows that are dependable year in and year out - are already allocated to water users. That is certainly true of the Guadalupe River, which was identified in 2002 by the nonprofit American Rivers [organization] as one of the most endangered rivers in the United States. There is simply no water left in the Guadalupe that is 100 percent dependable in dry years as well as wet. Now that the City of San Antonio is being forced off groundwater because of endangered species, people are looking across Texas for more water."

Backburn compares some of the negative impacts on our Gulf Coast resources to those that concerned early-day conservationist Aldo Leopold. He disagreed with those that claimed humans often kill the things they love, but "say we had to." "Leopold clearly thought that we were not predestined to destroy what we love, that we can save that which is important if we can develop an ethic of protection. Leopold called this the land ethic, but what he was referring to was an ethic of stewardship of the natural system, an ethic requiring that the full costs of a transaction or an alternative be developed and articulated, an ethic requiring that a transaction or alternative be rejected if it does not take into account all of the damage it does."

"The Book of Texas Bays" is filled with philosophy and good information about our Gulf coastal areas, including some insightful narrative about the resources, the people, and concerns about the future. Blackburn's final comments include a recommendation: "To save the Texas coast, we must value it and we must defend it. The first step is to get to know it."

"The Book of Texas Bays," published by Texas A&M University Press, is available at stores or direct from the publisher at 800-826-8911 or www.tamu.edu/press. It includes 304 pages and 116 color photos, 32 figures, 26 maps, notes, and an index. It is available only in cloth at $40.00.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Northeast Mexico in Early Spring
by Ro Wauer

An early January trip into northeastern Mexico was fascinating for several reasons. Although the days were mostly clear and warm, as usual, the late December cold front had reached almost 250 miles into Tamaulipas, especially along the eastern lowlands. Combined with the annual dry season, when most of the deciduous vegetation is devoid of leaves, flowering plants were only a shadow of what will occur later in spring. The habitats near the Rio Sabinas, expect where the riparian forest had provided protection, produced very few butterflies. Conversely, the birdlife was more obvious than usual.

The reason for my trip was to scout some of the sites that will be included on the February 20 to 22 El Cielo Festival, centered at Cuidad Mante. I will be leading three butterfly field trips and presenting an illustrated talk on the butterflies that occur in the adjacent El Cielo area. So, my party of four visited Mante's El Nacimiento, several locations along the Rio Sabinas, La Florida, and Gomez Farias. It was interesting that once we got into the Gomez Farias uplands there was less impact from the December cold front than at lower elevations. Apparently the cloud forest zone that begins just above Gomez Farias, with its insulating clouds, maintained warmer conditions.

Although the number of butterfly species was lower than it was a couple months earlier, when in 17 field hours four of us recorded 171 species, we still found about 100 species. Some of the Mexican specialties located included creamy white, dina yellow, fine-lined stripestreak, Huastecan crescent, tiger-striped leafwing, Andromeda satyr, and orange-spotted skipper. Some of the specialty birds found in the areas visited included jacana, red-crowned parrot, green parakeet, elegant trogon, squirrel cuckoo, lineated and pale-billed woodpeckers, olivaceous woodcreeper, social flycatcher, spot-breasted wren, golden-crowned and fan-tailed warblers, and blue bunting. All of these are full time residents.

The El Cielo Festival is designed to include daily birding the butterflying field trips to sites where all of the species mentioned above, as well as three to four times as many species, can be found. Additional programs at the festival will include talks on bird songs and calls, bird photography, butterflies, orchids, and sustainable development. This first annual El Cielo Festival will undoubtedly attract lots of folks from both Mexico and the United States. It especially will be appealing to individuals from the United States that have never before gone to Mexico. The major reason is that one can purchase an "all inclusive festival package" that includes bus transportation to and from Brownsville; I will be one of the tour leaders on board. There is no easier way to get acquainted with northeastern Mexico and its marvelous wildlife. Further details are available on the Internet at www.elcielofestival.com or by telephone: 011(5281)8378-5926.

First-time travelers to Mexico are always concerned about various things, such as safety, water and food, and their ability to communicate. Although I speak only enough Spanish to obtain food and a room, in almost 50 trips to Mexico during the last many years, I have never had reason for concern. I have constantly found the Mexican people kind and hospitable. And access is never a problem like it is to private properties in Texas. Plus, the highways, except for some of the secondary by-ways, are usually equal to those in Texas.

Why visit Mexico? It is a must for the nature-lover, as it is biological paradise of enormous diversity. Although Mexico is only one-fourth the size of the United States, it possess as many plant species - approximately 20,000 - and significantly more kinds of animals. The northeastern corner, including the states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and San Luis Potosi, in spite of being above the true tropical rainforest zone, contains more than twice the number of birds and butterflies than are known for Texas.

For anyone waiting to visit Mexico for the time, when they can be accompanied by a guide and made safe and secure, the El Cielo Festival offers such an opportunity.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Geese are Especially Abundant this Winter
by Ro Wauer

On a New Year's Eve trip to Baytown, as well as on various local Christmas Bird Counts in late December, I was reminded once again of how important the Gulf Coastal area is for wintering geese. Watching thousands of geese lifting off of their roosting sites during the dawn hours, or seeing numerous lines or geese stretched out across the sky, is truly exhilarating. On many of those occasions, the numbers visible at one time can be overpowering. Guessing their numbers is difficult at best. Our Gulf Coast geese populations arrive as early as mid-September but are mostly gone by May. But during their seven-month residency, they offer one of Mother Nature's most impressive sights.

Four kinds of geese overwinter in the Central Texas Coastal area - snow, Ross's, greater white-fronted, and Canada - although a couple others are possible. Snow geese are our most abundant species, and are easily identified by their overall white plumage, pinkish bill, and "grin patch," the strongly curved border at the base of the bill. In flight, however, their black wingtips, including their primaries and secondaries, are also obvious. Snow geese also possess a "bluish" phase that can be confusing when scooping a large congregation or observing a flock in flight. Juvenile blues can be overall dark gray-brown, but adults possess a white head. These blue morphs were once considered a separate species called a "blue goose." Snow geese breed on the high Arctic tundra.

One cannot help but wonder, since these two color phased birds are the same species, why they all do not become all white or all blue. Kent Rylander, in his excellent book, "The Behavior of Texas Birds," points out that geese normally select a mate of the same color. "One interesting hypothesis proposes that sexual imprinting biases a bird to select a mate of its own color. Thus juvenile geese, because they imprint on their parents at an earlier age, are biased toward selecting a mate of their parent's color."

Ross's geese are very similar to snow geese, and they occur together during the winter months. It can be difficult to pick out a Ross's goose among a huge flock of snows, but a Ross's goose is smaller and possesses a shorter bill and rounder head. It also lacks the snow goose's "grin patch." Ross's goose was once considered rare in Texas, but it has become reasonably common in recent years. Almost any large flock of snows contains several Ross's geese. Ross's, like snows, also breed in the high Arctic, but prefer lake islands rather than open tundra ponds.

White-fronted geese can also be abundant in our area in winter, although they often are not as dependable as snow geese. White-fronts are somewhat larger than snows, possess overall gray-brown neck and underparts with black barring, a white belly, pinkish bill, and a white face, hence its "white-fronted" name. White-fronted geese breed in northern Canada and northwest into Alaska.

Canada geese may be the best known of our wild geese all across North America, but this species usually is less abundant in winter in South Texas. It is more common further up the coast and inland. In appearance, it is similar to white-fronted geese, but Canadas have a distinct black neck and head with snow-white cheeks (chin-strap) and a pale breast. Size generally is similar to that of snow geese, although they vary considerably. And this is the only wild goose that is known to breed in Texas; it has recently become a summer resident in the Panhandle. According to "The Handbook of Texas Birds," "some recent breeding records involve pairs where one individual was known to be injured." This species breeds all across North America, and has become a nuisance on golf courses throughout. These are highly gregarious birds that readily habituate to humans, making themselves at home in many urban situations, especially if they are regularly fed.

One of our most enjoyable outdoor experiences this time of year is to drive our roadways, watching for flocks of geese. Our coastal fields and wetlands contain some of the highest populations of wintering geese anywhere in the world.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Protect Our Environment in 2005
by Ro Wauer

By now, almost everyone who makes New Year's resolutions has already done so. But I suspect that many of you have already lost your resolve. It happens every year. I suppose that is part of our culture. On the other hand, a few folks, for whatever reason, may not have decided on a really good resolution yet. Or, because they already have given up on the first one, they may need to start over again.

So, I have a suggestion: Why not make a resolution to do something positive for the environment? Something that would truly be worthwhile, and in a large sense, affect our outdoor environment. In the long term, such a resolution can lead to our own greater health and happiness.

How about starting with a resolution to keep our roadsides and fields cleaner? Not dumping garbage and unwanted things along the roads, in our streams, and under bridges and such, not only will save our tax dollars but also help control pests. I realize that only a few readers are such slobs who actually go so far as to dump garbage and larger unwanted stuff, but even smaller things like gum wrappers and empty cans and cups accumulate. And those small things attract pests such as cockroaches and mosquitoes that may be hazardous to our health.

For cat and dog lovers, how about a resolution to keep your pet indoors or controlled so that it does not run wild? Not only do dogs annoy your neighbors by barking and leaving scat on their lawns and gardens, but many dogs, especially those that roam in packs (even within neighborhoods), catch and kill native birds and small mammals, such as cottontails, that many of us enjoy. Cats are especially aggressive, and even a "house cat" that is let outdoors for brief periods during the daytime will undoubtedly revert back to its natural behavior and kill songbirds. No matter how "domesticated" your loving cat may be, your tabby is a marvelous creature that has evolved into a killing machine. Anyone who lets his or her house cat run free has little respect for the natural environment.

Another possible New Year's resolution, especially for retires, might be to give some of your time to a good cause. There are lots of those around. For those readers with special interests in nature and/or history, how about volunteering at an area park, refuge, or museum. It doesn't take an academic degree to help on maintenance or clerical projects. Most of our local organizations, including our own Texas Zoo, can use assistance. Call and ask: it's that simple.

You don't want to leave home, but you would like to help protect the environment? Than how about writing a letter each week or sending an email? It would take only a little of your time. Select an issue you care about, and let the president and congressional representatives know how you feel on national issues, and let your governor and state representatives know how you feel about state issues. If you think that your letters won't count, you are wrong. Contacts from the average citizen do make a difference. And you will learn in a hurry about which of your elected representative respond or not; those that ignore your position should not be supported in the future.

And finally, how about a resolution to do at least one simple, money-saving thing at home? Turn off your lights when they are not is use. It's such a simple idea but many folks just don't get to it. Turning off the lights that are not needed will not only save your own dollars but also lessen the demand for the energy production that requires coal-burning, water, or nuclear power.

See how easy it is to help protect the environment?