The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Chimney Swifts are Back from the Amazon Basin
by Ro Wauer

Another of Mother Nature's amazing creatures has returned to its ancestral nesting grounds from its wintering grounds in South America. Chimney swifts are again flying about South Texas neighborhoods, consuming tons of insects and thrilling us with their amazing aerial gymnastics. Especially during courtship, they fly in twos and threes, circling and diving with utter abandonment. And then they soar with their wings held in a V-shape pattern, a behavior that occurs most often with their mates.

I was reminded of these fascinating "flying cigars" when I received two new books on chimney swifts, one titled "Chimney Swifts, America's Mysterious Birds above the Fireplace" ($16.95); the other "Chimney Swift Towers, New Habitat for America's Mysterious Birds, A Construction Guide" ($12.95). Both books, published by Texas A&M Press, were written by chimney swift specialists Paul and Georgean Kyle, directors of the Driftwood Wildlife Association's North American Chimney Swift Nest Site Research Project (P.O. Box 300369, Austin, TD 78703-0007). The first book discusses Kyle's introduction and studies of chimney swifts; the second include details about chimney swift towers, nesting sites that one can construct to encourage these birds that have been declining in numbers over the last few decades. These are well written and deserve to be on your bookshelf.

Chimney swifts are best known for their use of chimneys for their nesting sites. They once nested only in dark tree trunks and similar cavities, using their gelatinous saliva to cement the tiny twigs together and to the wall. A single chimney will be utilized by only one nesting pair, although other individuals that are helpers only - usually last year's young - may also be present. A clutch consists of three to five youngsters. Until they are 28 to 30 days old, they are unable to feed themselves, but soon afterward they accompany their parents on their feeding excursions. Then, several family groups may be seen feeding together. Sometimes those flying flocks may number in the hundreds.

While utilizing a chimney, their communications can be quite loud, and for the homeowner who is not familiar with these little birds, the sounds can be weird and unsettling. This part of their personality, the need for dark places, causes some people to fear their presence. But that is silly because chimney swifts are not only one of our most fascinating birds, but also one of our most beneficial species. The Kyles refer to chimney swifts as "opportunistic feeders," and state that their diet includes "mosquitoes, midges, flies, spittlebugs, aphids, winged ants, tiny bees and wasps, mayflies, stoneflies, and termites." How can any creature be vilified that reduces those kind of human pests?

Those of us that appreciate wild birds, playing host to a family of chimney swifts is an annual event we truly enjoy. Watching them flying about the house and diving headfirst into a chimney is well worthwhile. Chimney swift flight is quite different from other birds, consisting of quick flickering wing beats and then sailing with wings held out motionless. At first glance, swifts might be misidentified as swallows, but they are not swallows at all. They are members of the same order of birds as hummingbirds, Adodiformes, a Greek word meaning "without feet," which is a misnomer because they do possess. They are delicate yet strong enough in flight to break small twigs off trees for nesting material. But like swallows and bats, their food and water is obtained in flight. Their diet consists primarily of flying insects and spiders on silken threads, and they skim water surfaces to drink.

Chimney swift towers have become a big deal throughout the country, especially at nature preserves, but also for a few private landowners. Encouraging chimney swifts, either with homemade towers or hosting chimney swifts in your own open chimney is well worth the effort.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Huisache Trees are Blooming!
By Ro Wauer

The widespread blooming of the little huisache trees is one of our best indicators of spring. Its deep rich yellow flowers - spherical heads about 2/3-inch across on 1- to 1 1/2-inch stalks - are beautiful and aromatic spring heralds. They are especially noticeable because, rather than putting on a few scattered flowers that could easily be missed, hundreds of flowers usually bloom at once. An incredible show! And the bright yellow glow may last for several days or even weeks.

Huisache trees rarely occur alone but usually are found in numbers, all the better to brighten the landscape. They seem to prefer depressions, such as old stock tanks or resacas, places that hold water at least during parts of the year. They also appear on land that has been recently cleared, providing early vegetation that helps to limit erosion. But ranchers who want to clear areas for grazing or agriculture often dislike these early successional species.

The fast growing huisache trees can produce flowers in their second or third year. And if a patch of bright yellow trees isn't enough to attract one's attention, their strong scent may also help. This almost overwhelming aroma has given the huisache trees one of its common names of "sweet acacia." It is their aroma that has made them world-famous. In fact, it was highly prized in European gardens long before the first Texians reached their adopted country. As early as 1611, Cardinal Odoardo Farnese was cultivating huisache plants for their aroma. It was Farnese who arranged for publication of his botanical treasures in 1625, in which the little American tree was described as Acacia Farnesiana, after the cardinal. More recently most botanists have begun to use the scientific name of Acacia smallii.

Later in the seventeenth century the tree was introduced into France, where the flowers were utilized as a base for Grasse perfumes. Huisache plantations were established for "cassie," as it is known in France, and a local strain that produces two flower crops each year was developed. The odor is extracted from the flower oils and concocted into a pomade which goes into extracts of violet and aromatic vinegar to produce a very concentrated material known as "quintessence of cassie." It is one of the most costly of all scents.

Huisache, pronounced "we-sach" or "wee satch-eh," is a small tree or large shrub, rarely more than 25 feet tall, with a spreading rounded or flattened crown. However, the national champion huisache, near Rio Grande Village in Big Bend National Park, measures 48 feet tall with a 60-foot crown spread and a 6.1-foot girth. Like all the other legumes (members of the pea family), huisache trees sport sharp spines; they are paired, straight, 1-3 inches long, and appear at the base of each leaf. Also like most other peas or legumes, woody pods appear in summer or early fall.

The dark brown to black pods are 1-2 inches long and contain two rows of shiny, hard, gray seeds. Unlike mesquite pods, they are rarely utilized for food. However, according to Paul Cox and Patty Leslie in "Texas Trees: A Friendly Guide," the "pods were formerly made into ink, the juice was used as a glue for mending pottery, and the bark for drying skins." What's more, "decoctions from the green fruit serve as a astringent and the roots were crushed as a treatment for tuberculosis. Wound dressings were made from the crushed leaves, and the flowers were used as an infusion for ingestion and as an ointment for curing headaches."

Today our lovely huisache trees, rarely used at home for their assortment of benefits, but so well known elsewhere in the world, are among our best indicators of spring.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

El Cielo Festival was a Marvelous Success
by Ro Wauer

Three bus-loads of people (84 in all) left Brownsville on Sunday morning (Feb. 20), crossed the Mexican border in minimal time, and reached Monte, in southern Tamaulipas, by mid-afternoon. We stopped twice en route south, at the "Mezcal Museum," where free samples of mezcal were available, and at the Mango Shop in La Morita, where we all enjoyed mango juice and/or slices of mango pie; yummy! That evening we ate outdoors at the Campestre Restaurant; a few dozen locals, including the Mante mayor and several other dignitaries, welcomed us with talks, music, and dances. Our participation in the El Cielo Festival was a big deal; we were treated like long-lost amigos!

Our outdoor adventures began on Monday morning. Each bus traveled to a different destination each day. My group in "Bus C" went west across the hills into San Luis Potosi to El Salto, an isolated area with a beautiful waterfall and a great diversity of birds and butterflies. This is where we found all three Mexican kingfishers, four species of parrots, and a variety of other tropical birds: muscovy duck, elegant trogon, squirrel cuckoo, boat-billed flycatcher, masked tityra, and spot-breasted wren. About a dozen Mexican butterflies were also recorded, including fine-lined stripestreak, falcate metalmark, Isabella's heliconian, orange banner, and usitata and two-banded satyrs. We ended our day at the Campestre with more good food and companionship.

Day three for Bus C occupants was spent along the Ocompo highway at a small drainage in the lowlands and in the oak woodlands in the highlands. The bird of the day was a collared forest-falcon that we all saw extremely well, but we also found several other Mexican bird specialties: short-tailed hawk, ruddy ground-dove, mountain trogon, blue-crowned motmot, ivory-billed woodcreeper, yellow-faced grassquit, and black-headed saltator. Some of butterflies found on day three included polydamas swallowtail, Ardys crescent, and sharp banded-skipper. Later in the afternoon, I presented an illustrated talk at the university on the butterflies of the El Cielo area. My talk was the last of several presentations, including those on orchids, birdsongs, rock art, and bird photography, in the afternoons. And we ended the day with dinner at ? where most of the same dignitaries thanked us for our participation, and guides and presenters were given certificates of appreciation.

On day four we rode the big bus to Gomez Farias where we divided into three smaller vehicles that could negotiate the narrow steep roadway to Alta Cima, a tiny mountain village within the El Cielo Biosphere Reserve. Highlights include an Anna's eighty-eight butterfly; a good variety of birds, including a nesting azure-crowned hummingbird; and outdoor markets and tiny stores that sold various homemade goods. Needless to say, participants made numerous purchases, demonstrating the value of the El Cielo Festival to the local communities. En route back we stopped at La Florida, where we found a good diversity of Mexican butterflies, including tiger heliconian, band-celled sister, red rim, pavon emperor, zilpa longtail, Gilbert's flasher, and common and large spurwings.

Our bus then headed for Brownsville, with a short stop for more mango juice and pie, and arrived back in the U.S. by early evening. We had recorded about 150 kinds of birds and 77 species of butterflies during the field trips, and everyone agreed that it was an excellent adventure. For many of the participants, including Linda Valdez of Victoria, Jimmy Jackson of Beeville, and Bill Williams and wife of Bay City, it was their initial introduction to Mexican birds and butterflies. Many participants told me that now, after seeing how easy it is to visit Mexico, they can hardly wait to go again. And that was one purpose of the El Cielo Festival, to introduce folks to Mexico's significant natural resources, to encourage later visits to the Mante/El Cielo area. We all learned how welcome we were to share the amazing sights and sounds with Mexico's most friendly and kind people.

Sonia Ortiz, the well-organized and gracious festival coordinator, tells me that she plans on holding the second "annual El Cielo Festival" about the same time in 2006. And because of the marvelous butterflies that are so abundant in the El Cielo area, she hopes to also establish an annual butterfly festival there in November. There is no doubt that Sonia's festival impressed a host of participants, and the next series of festivals are likely to be even more successful. For additional details, check out www.elcielofestival.com.