The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Ruby-crowed Kinglets are Plentiful This Winter
by Ro Wauer

Of all our wintering songbirds, the smallest is the ruby-crowned kinglet. Because of its diminutive size, less likely to spend much time in the open and never utilizing seed feeders, it is far less obvious than most other wintertime birds. Yet it is one of our most numerous wintering birds, spending most of its time among the foliage of trees and shrubs. And it also associates with many other birds, joining bird parties that wander about our wooded yards and woodlands in search of food. It never lands on the ground, although it occasionally will feed on small berries in winter.

Ruby-crowns are one of our most nervous birds, constantly on the go and constantly flicking its wings. In fact, it can usually be picked out in a flock of birds by its distinct behavior. It also will hover with beating wings when feeding. But it is not the most colorful of our wintertime birds, being rather drab greenish-brown with two white wing bars. On closer inspection, its white eyering is evident, and when excited, perhaps in the presence of a predator or being agitated for some other reason, its ruby crown flares up. In those cases, it will elevate its tiny reddish crown, and it is then very obvious why it is known as "ruby-crowned." But that observation is not the norm in winter.

The erect ruby crown is most prominent during the nesting season, especially for males trying to impress a lady ruby-crown. The ruby-crowned kinglet's breeding grounds is far different from the habitats that it utilizes in winter. In fact, it couldn't be any different. Ruby-crowns utilize the highland conifers, spruce and fir habitats, in the northern portion of the continent, all across Canada and through much of Alaska. In those areas during the nesting season, its high-pitched songs often dominate the forest. Nesting birds construct a tiny nest of moss, lichens, down, twigs and dead leaves, usually hung from a high

Ruby-crowned songs are amazing loud for such a tiny bird. Yet the song is so high-pitched that some folks are unable to detect it. The song has been described as a "reedy warbler" or a "variable tee tee tee, tew tew tew, teedadee teedadee teedadee." And its call note is a husky "ji dit." We in South Texas never hear its full song in winter, although it will sometimes sing partial songs on a sunny spring morning. But its ji dit notes, oftentimes running together for a considerable passage, is commonplace.

Kinglets are so unique that they have earned their own family in the bird world: Regulidae. The other kinglet, one that seldom is present in South Texas in winter, usually staying to the north, is the golden-crowned kinglet. Both kinglets possess the same genus name, Regulus; the ruby-crowned is known to science as Regulus calendula, while the golden-crowned is Regulus satrapa.

For those readers that have not yet seen our little ruby-crowned kinglet, it will take only a few minutes of your time to see one in almost any wooded areas this time of year. If you do not see it soon, just listen for its ji dit call notes, and you are sure to locate it. Use a pair of binoculars to admire it from a distance. You are sure to appreciate one of nature's most appealing creatures.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Welcome to The Nature Writers of Texas

This actually started as a static website for archiving the works of various nature writers who publish in Texas newspapers and magazines. The idea was first broached by Burr Williams on the Texas Birding listserv TexBirds. A major server crash left the site stranded in cyberspace, and the situation languished for a few months.

I have decided to replace the old site with this blog, which will henceforth publish these writings as they are forwarded by the writers. The articles are then automatically archived, and links will be posted in the sidebar to various authors' bios and works.

So, we hope you enjoy the best of Texas Nature Writers. And if you are a publishing writer we strongly urge you to give us a shout -- we'd be happy to archive your stories here for all to see. Contact Tony Gallucci at milkriver for more information.

Please note that all copyrights are held by the individual authors -- they should be contacted directly for permission to reprint.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Several Nature Writers of Texas writers have recently been featured in web anthologies featuring bird, invertebrate and science writing. Congrats to Burr Williams, writing on Roadrunners and Millipedes, Ro Wauer, writing on Chimney Swifts, Ron Smith, writing on The Popcorn Bird, Ruth Beasley, writing about Kingfishers, Jim Dillard, writing about Great Egrets, and Tony Gallucci, writing about Kites and Albinism in Birds.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Angel of Death
by Ronald Smith, McAllen Monitor

The Angel of Death haunts our backyard. She comes silently and swiftly on broad wings between the houses or dropping over the hedge. Sometimes, she courses the length of the corridor past our sunroom and living room windows. We have been amazed by her plunges into the foliage, twisting through the tangled branches without a pause.

We are aware of her strikes even when we cannot see her. The Plain Chachalacas signal them with raucous outbursts.

Our "angel" is a female Cooper's Hawk, one of the accipiter genus, that clan of short-winged, long-tailed raptors that usually prey on smaller birds and rodents.

They will actually chase prey on foot into the bushes. I saw a program once in which an accipiter was filmed slashing through a maze of branches and leaves which had been fiendishly constructed by scientists. Slow motion film showed the bird's remarkable contortions and skillful moves to avoid an accident such a predator cannot afford to have. The short wings and the long tail rudder are perfect adaptations in this kind of chase.

Appropriately, today the hawk struck at the House Sparrows in our very large Turk's Cap shrub. All avian protests exploded. My wife opened the sunroom door and yelled. The hawk burst out of the cover and fled. Not ten minutes later she returned, shooting into the shrub oblivious to any interference. Another human protest, and she left.

Ours is probably a young bird, mostly brown with streaked breast and glaring yellow-eyes. There is a male about, too. He is slate-gray and rusty-barred, red-eyed and somewhat smaller, as are most male hawks. (A very similar species is the Sharp-shinned Hawk, famous for the biggest reverse sexual dimorphism in North American birds! Don't be alarmed: this is not a Dr. Phil show title. RSD just means that contrary to most creatures, the males are smaller, about eleven inches, than the females, sometimes weighing 3.5 ounces to the ladies' 6 ounces.)

Our yard raptors are both dramatic and beautiful but also a threat to the creatures in our microcosm here. They live to kill. Hence, we have a dilemma. Their presence is due to the bird feeders and bird baths we scatter about the yard in order to enjoy our love of nature and its feathered beauties.

True, they do not always take their target. Studies have shown that the rate of success of an attack may be way less than 50 percent, and they might go a day or so without a kill. One could say that a House Sparrow here or there or a Great-tailed Grackle a day would not be missed in the scheme of life, but would we like it if they picked off a Great Kiskadee or a Northern Cardinal? We humans are such discriminators. We have good birds and bad birds!

Then there is the argument that this is merely the balance of nature: those who prey are preyed upon. You know the old cartoon of the fish sequence in which larger ones continue to devour the smaller ones in a chain of survival.

Because of our desire to observe nature and hold it closely, we have created a convenient killing field. However, think about this: millions of birds are killed every year by house cats that are allowed to roam, high rise glass buildings, cell, radio and TV towers, and in Europe and Asia, people still slaughter hawks and owls on their migratory routes. Perhaps it is better to turn our attention to all of these rather than worry about our backyard Angel of Death. Humans interfere with the natural world in so many ways --- we like to think our way is mostly a benefit. Did I hear the word "rationalize"?

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Spring Isn’t Far Away
by Ro Wauer

There are several reasons to be joyous during late December. Most importantly, of course, is the Christmas Season, the time when Christians everywhere prepare to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. And even though that holiday in America has become more monetary than religious, it still has major significance for many of us. But another reason for joy is that spring, the season of new growth and fresh starts, is not far off, when wildflowers and northbound birds and monarch butterflies can appear. Those of us who enjoy nature relish springtime.

The turning point from fall to winter and the takeoff for spring is the winter solstice, December 21, the shortest day of the year. Thereafter, the days will gradually lengthen until June 21, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Increasing day lengths are so gradual that we hardly notice, at least until the days are warmer and the earliest spring wildflowers appear.

For much of the Earth there are four seasons. For those of living in South Texas the four seasons are less distinct than they are to the north. The beginnings of spring and fall are the equinoxes, a term derived from the Latin meaning equal night. The vernal or spring equinox falls on March 21, and the autumnal equinox occurs on September 21 or 22. On these dates, the dividing line between light and darkness on the globe cuts across both the North and the South poles, and throughout the world day and night are of nearly equal length.

It has always seemed strange to me that some of our coldest and most winter-like days often occur after the winter solstice, when the Earth is already heading toward spring. But that makes good sense when one understands that it take our Earth time to cool off after the warmer days of summer and fall. That is especially true for those of us living near the Gulf of Mexico, a huge body of water that retains warmth longer than the land. Cooling is a result of the Earth's position in the heavens so that our days are shorter and the winter sun does not climb so high in the sky, and its low slanting rays are spread out over much larger areas. In summer, the days are longer and the midday sun is high in the sky and the rays beam directly down on the Earth.

I suppose its human nature to wish for warmer days in winter and cooler days in mid-summer. It would especially be nice, when on Christmas Bird Counts for example, if the winter winds were a little warmer. And the cold rain could be a little less biting. Yet, for all of those unpleasant times, for those us who enjoy our time in the field, some of those experiences are most enduring.

In recent years, living near Victoria and participating in several of the Christmas Counts, I have had some marvelous wildlife experiences. Watching and hearing thousands of geese lift off their nighttime resting grounds at dawn, is something that can never be forgotten. Watching streams of ducks and wading birds and huge flocks of blackbirds move across the dawn skies can be magical. And finding some unusual bird tucked among the reeds or resting among a flock of other species can be invigorating. But just being outdoors, being part of the wintery conditions and winter birdlife, are for me the turning point from one good year to the next.

For all of my readers, especially those of you who have read each Nature Note over the years, may your year end with many blessings and may this Christmas Day be filled with love and good cheer! Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Snout Butterflies Are on the Increase
by Ro Wauer

During the last couple weeks, American snouts have increased dramatically in my garden and the surrounding area. But that is nothing like the masses that were recorded further south in Texas a few weeks ago. An estimated 7.5 million snouts were reported in the Alamo area of the Lower Rio Grande Valley on September 5. And there is a chance that our numbers will continue to build over the next few weeks, at least until the really cold weather sets in.

Mass movements of snouts occur every few years, and some of those can be truly amazing. One of the most spectacular swarms was recorded in September 1921 when an estimated six billion (6,000,000,000) individuals were involved. Approximately 25 million snouts per minute were recorded moving southeasterly over a 250 mile front from San Marcos to the Rio Grande Valley. That flight lasted 18 days.

Snout behavior of this kind was first recognized in 1983, according to Mike Quinn in a fascinating article (http://www.texasento.net/snout.htm), as being most closely related to "the intensity and duration of dry periods immediately preceding drought-terminating rains." A 1985 study by Larry Gilbert, University of Texas, revealed that snout population explosions were related to leafing out of the snout's primary host plants, spiny hackberry, as well as diminished numbers of parasites that would normally keep snout populations in check. Female snouts take advantage of new spiny hackberry growth to lay eggs which soon hatch into caterpillars that feed on the tender leaves, often defoliating their hosts. Following emergence from the chrysalis, all within the same timeframe, the adult snouts begin moving southward, producing some of the greatest known insect immigrations.

Snout butterflies are considered dead leaf mimics, because they possess a snout, actually the butterfly's labial palps that extends for several millimeters beyond the eyes. This feature is extremely unusual in butterflies and so snouts are classified within the unique Subfamily Libytheinae. They are rather small butterflies, only half again larger than most hairstreaks and blues, with a fascinating wing pattern. Their underside, most often seen as they usually perch with closed wings, is mottled gray, brown and blackish, while their upperside is brown and orange with white forewing spots; the wingtips are square. The open wing pattern is most likely to be observed during mornings and afternoons when perched with spread wings to absorb warmth from the sun. But it is the butterfly's long snout that is most distinct.

The snout's overall range corresponds to that of the spiny hackberry, that occurs only from South Texas west through southern New Mexico and Arizona. However, snouts also occur throughout much of Texas because they can utilize other hackberry species. But it very rarely ever occurs in numbers as it does in South Texas where spiny hackberry, also known as desert hackberry or granjeno, occurs in abundance.

The relationship between snouts and its larval foodplants is not unique. The same can be said for the majority of insects. A butterfly's breeding range is limited to that of its larval foodplants. However, because butterflies are such marvelous fliers, the monarch that can migrate several thousand miles is our best example, they can appear at locations many miles from where they emerged. And many southern butterfly species wander northward, especially in fall. Currently, my garden hosts a number of more tropical species, including Julia heliconian, white peacock, and common mestra.

Of course, American snouts are there in numbers, nectaring alongside the two dozen other butterfly species that are taking advantage of the flowering shrubs that I have planted for just such an occasion.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Racerunners and Whiptails

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

Lizards must be tasty. There’s not many snake, mammal or avian predators here in Cross Timbers Country that will pass up the opportunity to catch and eat one. Maybe we’re missing out on something. A few eons back, lizards and their ken were the dominant predators and atop the food chain. Today, a lizard is more likely to be what’s for dinner.

Most species of lizards have adapted to living with bigger critters that like to eat them by using their camouflage coloration to hide or blend in with their surroundings. By remaining motionless, they sometimes elude predators that are always on the lookout for their movement. Others climb trees, dive into holes or crawl into crevices to escape the jaws of death. Being fleet afoot can be the difference between getting a meal and being one. There are a couple of speedster lizard species found here in Cross Timbers Country that will give most predators a run for their money.

It was great sport when I was a kid to catch a racerunner, put it in a little wire cage and feed it grasshoppers. Trouble was, catching one wasn’t all that easy. They were quicker than greased lightning. My cousin and I finally figured out the best way to catch one was to pop it with a big old rubber band to knock it off its feet and then scoop it up before it knew what happened. Sometimes all we’d wind up with was a wiggling tail and no lizard.
Of the eleven species of whiptail and racerunner lizards of the Family Teiidae found in Texas, only the prairie-lined racerunner (a six-lined racerunner subspecies) and the Texas spotted whiptail call Cross Timbers Country home. Most other species in this group live in arid regions of West and Southwest Texas.

The prairie-lined racerunner subspecies Cnemidophorus sexlineatus viridis ranges throughout the central part of Texas from the Rio Grande northward and up to southern South Dakota. They live in a wide variety of habitats including sandy fields, banks and floodplains of rivers, open grassy areas and rocky outcrops. This racerunner is six to ten and one-half inches from snout to tip of tail. Its tail is two and one-third times the length of their head and body. Six yellow lines extend from just behind their eyes down the side of their body. A pale dorsal stripe goes all the way down their tail. Overall dorsal and later coloration of breeding males is bright green except for the brown tail. Underneath, their belly is pale blue. Females may be a little larger than males and have white bellies. Both sexes have eight rows of large, smooth rectangular scales on their belly.

Prairie-lined racerunners mate from April to June and lay one to six eggs in a burrow. A second clutch is laid three weeks later and eggs hatch on their own in 48 days from June to September. Young measure two and three-quarters inches including their slender blue tail.

The Texas spotted whiptail subspecies C. gularis gularis is widely distributed in Texas except in far East Texas, the northern Panhandle and parts of the Trans-Pecos. Semiarid prairies, dry canyon bottoms, heavily pebbled expanses of sandy soil with sparse vegetation, rocky hillsides near floodplains and rocky washes are the preferred habitat. Texas spotted whiptails average seven to nine and one-half inches but some males may reach 12 inches. Their tail measures about twice the length of the head and body. Females are slightly smaller than males. They have seven or eight pale green, white or yellow vertebral stripes (the dorsal strip may or may not be split). Overall coloration varies from warm to dark brown. Yellowish or white spots adorn their sides and the tail is pinkish or orange-brown. Males have a reddish throat with some black or dark blue on their chest. Their belly is uniformly dark blue. The female’s throat is pale pink and belly white. This species is not as wary as other whiptails.

Texas spotted whiptails mate in April and May and lay one to five eggs from May to June. A second clutch may be laid in late July. Young are about four inches long with bright light stripes and faint spotting on their sides. Their tail is pink or reddish.

Racerunners and whiptails move about with short burst of speed and seldom stay still for very long. Their nervous disposition keeps them active, particularly during the hottest part of the day. Try to catch one and they’ll stay just out of reach. It’s been estimated that they can run in burst at 18 mph. Their extremely long tail provides balance while running, and if it becomes detached, it will regrow but be shorter than the original.

Being terrestrial, these lizards forage and scratch through leaf litter or loose soil for food items. They also use their pointed snout to probe loose soil and debris to sniff out their victims. Grasshoppers, crickets, ants, flies, termites, snails, caterpillars, spiders and other arthropods make up the bulk of their diet. Spotted whiptails may eat leave and blossoms of flowering plants.

When not hunting, they spend considerable time basking in the sun to thermoregulate their body temperature. When the temperature heats up, they retire to their underground burrows or the shade of vegetation or buildings. They dig burrows with two openings for easy access for entry but plug one hole when they’re inside. Burrows are used for retreats during the night or on cool days and are also used for egg laying. Both species go into hibernation during the fall as temperatures begin to drop and emerge in mid to late April ready to race.

To whiptails and racerunners, winning the race is everything. Those that come in second may be lunch with a crunch. Until next time, I’ll see you down the road and God Bless America!