The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Rain Crows and Roadrunners

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

If there ever was a time here in the Cross Timbers for “rain crows” to do their thing, it’s now. April has left most of us high and dry and the dog days of summer will soon be nipping at our heals. Rain crows will have little to crow about if the weather patterns don’t change soon. Anybody or anything that thinks they can predict rain in north Texas with any degree of certainty must be a cuckoo.

Cuckoo clocks were initially built using cuckoos to proclaim the hour because of the repetitive nature of their songs. Worldwide there are about 120 species of them in the family Cuculidae and two are found here in north Texas - the yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) or rain crow, and the roadrunner (Geoocccyx californianus), also called chaparral cock or paisano (Spanish for companion.) Although most cuckoo species have the reputation for being nest parasites (laying their eggs in the nest of another bird species), our Texas species do not.

The yellow-billed cuckoo’s moniker as “rain crow” doesn’t hold water. Although they often sing, if you can call it that, when storm clouds are building, they’re not good forecasters of rain. They’re also not crows. Their song is a loud kow-kow-kow-kow that gradually slows to a descending kowp-kowp-kowp. I think it sounds a whole lot like someone striking two rocks together. You hear them more often than you see them since they like to sit motionless in trees or dense foliage, scooping out their surroundings for food. Just hearing an old rain crow on a hot summer day announcing to the world that he’s around just makes my day.

Rain crows are about twelve inches long and slender and have a long tail with white spots on the underside. Feather coloration on their body is grayish brown above and white below and their primaries are rufous. The bill is slightly curved downward with the upper mandible being dark and the lower yellow.

They have a distinct liking for hairy caterpillars but also feed on larvae, fruits, berries and other insects including cicidas. Their nest is a crude platform of twigs in a tree or bush where 1-5 pale bluish-green eggs are laid. Incubation by both parents takes 9-11 days who then feed the young regurgitated insects for another 14 days.

Yellow-billed cuckoos spend the winter in South America but breed from Mexico to Canada and throughout Texas. They’re another Neotropical migrant we share with Central and South America and I hope there will always be a home away from home (habitat) for them here in the Cross Timbers of north Texas.

The other Cross Timbers cuckoo goes by several names but most commonly is referred to as the roadrunner. That is what they had rather do, given the option over flight - run. It’s been estimated that they can sprint up to 15 miles per hour; however, they are also very capable flyers. If you ever try to follow their tracts in the sand, you will immediately become perplexed whether to go left or right. As with all other cuckoos, they have two toes pointing forward and two pointing backwards (zygodactyle.) Maybe that’s to confuse “wily coyote”.

Roadrunners are year round residents and found throughout the Southwest from California to East Texas and Louisiana and north to Kansas. Their call is a distinctive series of low coos but also may be in the form of clucks, crows, dog-like whines or hoarse guttural notes – beep-beep is not in their repertoire. On more than one occasion I’ve heard strange sounds coming from the brush that quickened my step only to realize a roadrunner was just proclaiming his presence to some other roadrunner.

They eat just about anything that moves including insects, fruits, seeds, lizards, spiders, scorpions, rodents, small birds and snakes. And no, the decline in the bobwhite population is not attributed to roadrunners eating all the baby quail. I once called a roadrunner to me by making a squeaking mouse-like sound which told me that bird had eaten a mouse before and was looking for dinner. Even small rattlesnakes are no match for the agility of these expert hunters who can quickly kill them and then repeatedly thrash them on the ground until satisfied they’re dead.

Although roadrunners do a lot of running around, they don’t do it on each other as they are believed to mate for life. They build their stick nests low in small trees or cactus where 3-6 white eggs are laid. Chicks are altricial (remain in nest and fed by parents) and leave their nest in about 18 days to hit the road and fend for themselves. Adults are long legged with gray-brown feathers and a long tail. They erect feathers on top of their head and elevate their white-edged tail feathers when alarmed or curious. These fleet-footed cuckoos don’t just run up and down roads but also can navigate even the most dense cactus patches with ease and are most at home in open brush country. They’re territorial and stake out a homestead to their liking that will provide them food and cover throughout the year.

Whether standing beside a road or zig-zagging at break-neck speed through our oak, juniper and mesquite covered hills, the roadrunner is at home on the range in the Cross Timbers. Until next time - I’ll see you down the road and God Bless America.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Watch Out for Copperheads
by Ro Wauer

It is again that time of year, with its hot and humid conditions, when we can expect copperheads in moist, brushy areas. These habitats include gardens and landscaped sites surrounding the house and other buildings. Although very few people ever die from copperhead bites, anyone who might be somewhat allergic to their poison could have serious problems. A friend in Virginia, an avid gardener, tells me she has been bittten three times with little affect. And Alan Tennant, in his book "Field Guide to Texas Snakes," mentions that "not a single death resulted from 308 copperhead bites over a 10-year period" in Texas. But nevertheless, I am extremely careful when working in my garden plots this time of year. Copperheads also favor streamsides and moist rocky places, and the Trans-Pecos copperhead, a different species than the broad-banded copperhead, occurs almost exclusively in cane patches along the Rio Grande.

The local broad-banded copperhead, known to scientists as Agkistrodon contortrix, is a rather stout snake that usually is 22 to 30 inches long; the largest one recorded was 37.25 inches. They are easily identified by their rich coppery brown color and thirteen to twenty darker crossbands over the back. Their heads are also rather distinct. The head, where its recurved, movable fangs are located, is wider than the neck, a characteristic typical of all pit vipers. It also sports an elongated pinkish brown patch along and above each jaw, and it has vertically elliptical pupils.

A heat-sensor is located on each side of the head a little below and behind the snake's nostrils. This sensory organ acts as a heat receptor to detect prey and to help the snake aim when striking at warm-blooded prey. A warm-blooded human hand is also detected in this same manner. And herpetologist Roger Conant, in his classic "A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America," warns that for freshly killed specimens, "Reflex action may last a long time, and supposedly dead pit vipers have been known to bite."

During summer, copperheads normally spend their days hidden from view in heavy vegetation and are active only at night. During cooler weather they may be more active during the daylight hours. They generally are very docile, lying in dead leaves where their colors help with concealment. If provoked it will usually crawl away to safety, and only when severely threatened will it actually strike out. A strike will seldom reach more than five to six inches. Prey species include a wide range of small mammals, lizards, frogs, and insects. Tennant points out that white-footed and harvest mice, native species in our fields and woodlands, are probably their principal food species. John Werler, in "Texas Snakes," claims that they love cicadas in the nymphal stage and that they may actually "gorge" on these soft-bodied insects. Anoles and geckos are also readily available and are additional prey species commonly taken.

Mating occurs in early spring, soon after the snakes emerge from hibernation. The female carries developing eggs inside her body all summer, and young are born (5-6 per litter) alive in late summer or early fall (August and September). However, the young copperheads, roughly nine inches long, are born in sacs, the last relicts of egghood. In half an hour, already poisonous to kill small prey, they will break free from their sheaths and strike out on their own.

I have found that copperheads are far more evident around my property during dry periods. Since I water my yard and garden, it tends to attract copperhead prey and the predators. During wetter period the snakes are more widely distributed and seldom seen. But always keep in mind that, whether it is dry or wet, copperheads can be present in our area much of the year. They are fascinating creatures and worthy of our respect!

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Ringtail, A Surprise Visitor or a Resident
by Ro Wauer

Few mammals are so distinct as ringtails, with their long, low-to-the-ground body and extremely long black-and-white striped tail. So, when Betty saw one of these gorgeous mammals in our backyard, I wasn't skeptical at all. But since I didn't see it, and since a ringtail had not been seen in our area before, I wasn't totally ready to write a nature note until I too had a chance to see it. But then, a couple days later, and in the middle of the day, one casually wandered across our yard. I immediately grabbed my camera and quietly worked my way into position to document this unusual animal. I did manage to take a couple digital images before it ran into the brush and climbed into a tree where I took a few more shots.

Now, all of my past experiences with ringtails, at Death Valley, Pinnacles, Zion, and Big Bend national parks, had involved individuals in rocky habitats. But here was an individual a considerable distance from what I considered typical habitat. It wasn't until I read Dave Schmidly's "The Mammals of Texas," a super book by the way, that I learned that in east Texas "they live in wooded areas, usually close to water, and they den in hollow trees and logs." Dave's Texas range map shows that they occur throughout the state except in the upper and western edge of the Panhandle.

Our yard ringtail seemed unafraid when I got close enough to take images while it was perched in the tree. And because it was out in mid-day, totally out of character for this nocturnal mammal, I couldn't help but wonder if it was either very old or had been injured. And when I examined some scat, it was full of tiny insect parts, no mammal hair that should have been present. Ringtails are primarily carnivorous. They feed on smaller mammals and a few birds and reptiles, although fruit also comprising a good part on their diet. One of our planted areas, just outside the back deck, had recently been "plowed up" by some nocturnal creature searching for grubs and insects. I had first suspected a skunk or armadillo, but after seeing the scat, the culprit most likely was the ringtail.

Ringtails typically are active predators, patrolling their territory several times nightly; their silent progress often enables them to catch some rodents on the second or third trips that evaded them earlier. They also take to the trees in search of roosting birds and nestlings, as well as various lizards such as anoles. And when I worked at Zion, one individual spent time climbing about the rafters inside the lodge dining room, to the amusement of everyone. Their ability to climb is due to their hind feet that can be rotated outward at least 180 degrees; they can actually run rabidly down a tree truck or steep rock headfirst instead of having to back down like a domestic cat. A must dexterous and fascinating creature!

Schmidly wrote that ringtails "have rather sizable home ranges," especially the males that may range over more than a thousand acres. Breeding occurs during March and April, kittens are born in May and June and are totally helpless. The small, pink, and fuzzy newborn open their eyes in 31 to 34 days, eat meat when seven weeks old, and are weaned in August at about eight weeks old. By their 19th month they look just like their parents.

Ringtails, known to scientists as Bassariscus astutus, are most closely related to raccoons and coatis, all three in the unique family Procyonidae, within the mammal order Carnivora. Carnivora includes several other carnivores, including canids (dogs), bears, mustelids (weasels, minks, and badgers), mephitids (skunks), and cats.

I put out some watermelon, hoping that our ringtail would stay closeby. Although feeding any wild animal is generally against my principles, the Wauer ringtail I suppose is the exception. Maybe it will bring its family to visit, too.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Beetles, the Most Numerous Kind of Wildlife in the World
by Ro Wauer

On a recent to the Big Thicket to photograph butterflies, I was amazed at the number and diversity of beetles. Although I wasn't particularly interested in photographing these creatures, I succumbed when I found some truly outstanding beetle species, such as armored beetles, click beetles, and tiger beetles. And since the variety of butterflies wasn't what I had hoped for, I spent more time than I might otherwise watching and photographing beetles. Having recently "gone digital," after taking slides for more years that I will admit to, I shot lots of critters without worry of wasting expensive film. The digital camera is one amazing piece of equipment!
Even as a novice I was able to take much better images that I ever was able to do with slide film.

Probably the most colorful beetles found during my trip, and similar species also occur in all of South Texas, were the tiger beetles. Many were iridescent green with long legs and bulging eyes. It took several tries before one stayed still long enough for me to get a few photographs. These bright green beetles, barely half an inch in length, must have great eyesight, as most moved off as soon as I approached even within five to six feet. They were able to both run away as well as fly off, a real challenge. Tiger beetles get their name from their ferocious behavior; they are predacious. They usually occur in open, sandy locations where they either wait for passing insects or they lurk at the top of burrows awaiting prey to appear. They capture their prey their sickle-shaped jaws.

Another of the really outstanding beetles were the eyed click beetles, a two-inch, hard-shelled creature with two large eyespots on the head. These features give one the impression that they are staring at you, but the eyespots have evolved as a method of defense to fool a predator that might well think again before attacking such a watchful insect. Click beetles are named for their ability to make surprisingly loud clicking sounds. When threatened, they normally drop to the ground and play dead. If they happen to land upside down, they eventually arch their back, then snap it straight, an action that launches their body into the air with an audible click and, with luck, lands them on their feet again.

Maybe the best known beetle is the ladybird beetle, or ladybug, not a bug but a true beetle. Late spring is good time for ladybugs, when they can appear almost anywhere. These small, round, and colorful beetles are among the most beneficial and popular insects. Most are red with red or yellow spots. In spite of their small size, they are formidable predators; both adults and larvae devour huge numbers of aphids and other harmful insects. More than 150 species of ladybird beetles are found in North America, and almost all are helpful to farmers and gardeners. Some species are raised commercially and sold as natural pest controls.

Beetles total about 300,000 kinds worldwide, outnumbering all the known mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish combined. Their success has been due to their amazing adaptability, as they have been found in nearly every habitat, including freshwater ponds and streams, but not the oceans. They all live in the soil, but burrow in wood and other plant tissues. One species is even capable of tunneling into the lead sheathing of telephone cables. Although almost all are able to fly, they often are more awkward than flies and many other insects.

Most beetles are vegetarians, but some, like the tiger beetles, are predators. All adults have stiff, shieldlike front wings that protect the abdomen and the delicate hind wings that do the flying. Thus armored, they can borrow into the ground or force their way under logs and stones without injuring their bodies or tearing their wings. Nature has developed a perfect "bug" in beetles.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Orioles are Colorful Birds In Spite of their Family Relations
by Ro Wauer

It has always seemed strange to me why orioles, some of our most colorful and fascinating birds, are members of the Icteridae Family. That is the same family, usually known as "blackbirds," that include such drab colored birds as blackbirds, cowbirds, and grackles Yet, a few Icterids, such as meadowlarks, bobolinks, and yellow-headed blackbirds, seem to possess a little more color and personality. And the red-winged blackbird, found throughout non-Arctic North America, is one of our best known songbirds.

But of all the Icterids, none are as personable as the orioles, all lumped into the genus Icterus. Only two oriole species - Baltimore and orchard orioles - can be expected with any regularity in the Coastal Bend area, and then only as spring and fall migrants. The Baltimore oriole is the best known, especially in the eastern half of the United States, and is often depicted on murals, plates, cups, etc. And it is the logo of the Baltimore, Maryland baseball team. It is a fairly large oriole with bright orange underparts, black back and head, and two white wingbars. The closely related Bullock's oriole, found in the western United States, lacks the all black head and the male has broad white wingbars. These two species were lumped together as "northern oriole" for several years because they are known to interbreed where their ranges overlap.

Orchard orioles are one of the smallest of orioles, and the males are easy to identify by their unique color pattern: chestnut underparts, black head, breast, and back, and a single white wingbar. Females of all the orioles are far more subtly colored with a yellowish chest, whitish belly, and gray-green back. The exceptions include the Scott's oriole of the western yucca grasslands, the Altamira oriole of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and the very rare black-vented oriole that has been recorded in Texas only in Big Bend National Park and near Kingsville.

Two additional orioles occur in South Texas. The hooded oriole, that ranges from Kennedy County west to Brewster County, is a trim little oriole with yellow underparts, nape and head, black throat, brownish back and wings, and two white wingbars. The Audubon's oriole is a true South Texas specialty, known only within the South Texas Brushlands, barely reaching Goliad County. It was earlier known as "black-headed oriole" due to the male's all black head and throat. Its underparts are bright yellow and its wings and tail are black; it also has a single white wingbar and white streaks on the wings.

Orioles are unique birds for several reasons. They all built pendent nests, sometimes quite large hanging baskets, woven from grasses, plant fibers, and even hair and feathers, and lined with plant down, into a tight waterproof basket. Some species, such as the Altamira oriole, often builds its nest hanging from an amazingly high wire, an exceptional location to keep it safe from predators, such as squirrels, skunks, and other four-legged creatures.

In addition, all the orioles possess wonderful songs. Most are like mellow whistles, oftentimes three or more note warbles. Some sing slurred notes that may upturn or downturn at the end. The song of the Altamira oriole has been described as a fairly rapid series of short whistles interspersed with low, harsh notes. That of the Audubon's oriole has been described as a hesitant series of mellow whistles with human quality. It often reminds me of a young boy learning to whistle.

Besides the varied and melodic songs, each oriole also has a series of call notes that, in themselves, are rather distinct. That of the Baltimore oriole is a one- or two-syllable flutelike whistle, along with a grating chatter. That of the orchard oriole is more often a soft chatter.

Each in its own way is unique and well worth your attention.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Spectacular Songbirds
by Ro Wauer

A scarlet tanager is one of our most striking birds. Adult males are scarlet red with contrasting coal black wings and tail. A truly spectacular songbird! When a friend recently found one of these birds in downtown Victoria, he was understandably impressed. But there currently are numerous other outstanding songbirds in our neighborhoods, either passing through as northbound migrants or as full-time or summer residents preparing to nest and raise families. While scarlet tanagers are migrants only in our area, the closely related summer tanager often nests. Males are overall rosy red with only faint black streaks on the wings. This songbird prefers tall trees, especially along rivers and in park-like areas. They often are detected first by their robin-like songs and very distinct chips that are loud staccato "ki-ti-tuck."

One of the most colorful of our breeding birds is the little painted bunting, a songster that is surprisingly common in brushy areas from April through most of the summer. Male painted buntings are rather gaudy with their purple-blue head, red breast and rump, chartreuse back, and blackish wings and tail. Females are a subtle grass green color. And they are extremely vocal on the breeding grounds, singing during most of the day, a rapid series of sweet phrases. Almost as colorful is the indigo bunting, with the male's overall indigo blue coloration, although the wings have hints of brown. This songbird is a migrant only in South Texas, but nesting not far to the north. Migrants often appear in small flocks, when both the brilliant males and brownish females can often be found together. First year males often show a weird combination of indigo and brown colors. But that juvenal plumage stage is not unusual in a variety of birds, including tanagers.

This time of year is when we can expect lots of colorful warblers, tiny songbirds that seldom stay with us for long, but often make themselves known by singing full or partial songs. As many as two dozen species of warblers are possible in our neighborhoods, but most sightings are limited to eight or ten species. At least in my yard, Nashville and black-and-white warblers are most likely. While black-and-whites are just that, Nashville warblers possess yellow underparts, a dark brown back, and a gray face with a noticeably white eyering. And they are one of most vocal migrating songbirds, singing a series of thin rapid notes often ending with lower notes.

Some of the other regular migrant warblers to be expected include: The northern parula has a yellow breast that is crossed by a reddish band and two white wingbars against dark gray wings. The black-throated green warbler has a black throat, yellow face, and two white wingbars. The yellow-throated warbler has a yellow breast, black and white facial pattern, blue-gray back and wings with two white wingbars. The yellow warbler is mostly yellow with obvious black eyes, and males possess reddish breast streaks. The yellow-breasted chat also has a bright yellow breast, dark brown upperparts, and a white spectacle; the chat is larger than any of our other warblers. The ovenbird is also larger than most of the other warblers, but easily identified by its streaked breast, brownish upperparts, distinct white eyering, russet crown, and long pinkish legs.

Other warblers that are possible this time of year include blue-winged, golden-winged, Tennessee, chestnut-sided, magnolia, blackburnian, bay-breasted, blackpoll, cerulean, Kentucky, mourning, hooded, and Wilson's. Orange-crowned and yellow-rumped warblers, two species that have overwintered in our area, are probably already moved northward. The Louisiana waterthrush has already passed through. And two additional warblers nest in our area, and already are on their breeding grounds. Prothonotary warblers nest in swampy areas, and Swainson's warblers utilize thickets at a few isolated locations such as Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.