The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Highway Cleanup Birds
by Ro Wauer

On a trip last week to the Big Bend Country, I was once again impressed with the common ravens that each morning patrol the highways searching for road kills from the previous night. Years ago when living in the Big Bend, I counted ravens along the highways when driving from the park to Alpine or Marathon during the early mornings. I eventually estimated that a pair of these large, all-black scavengers would occur every five to ten miles. They were well-spaced along the highways, apparently in distinct territories, to claim any available dead animals early each morning. They were flying at dawn before any of the other daytime predators, such as vultures, were up and around.

Turkey vultures clearly are the most numerous roadside scavengers in most of Texas, while black vultures are just as numerous in the southeastern half of the state. But vulture are lazy birds, usually not on the wing until after sunup, and they oftentimes fly over large areas, with little regard for the roadways, at least until they discover a two- to three-day old carcass. It is the early decaying process that most attracts vultures that are able to find food by its aroma. Fresh kills are often ignored. In fact, during my college years, I initiated a science project to test this theory. I placed different aged carcasses, each covered with newspaper so they could not be seen from the air, out in a field for several days in a row. Turkey vultures would fly to and feed on the two- to three-day carcasses only, leaving the less putrefied carcasses alone.

Although common ravens are clearly the most numerous highway birds in West Texas, crested caracaras perform the same cleanup duties in South Texas. In our part of Texas, it is not unusual to see a pair of caracaras searching the highways early each morning. They fly along the highway in what seems like daily routines, perhaps one of the reasons caracaras seem so numerous. And every now and then, another avian predator can be found taking advantage of what is left from the ravens and/or caracaras leftovers. Crows frequently take advantage of an easy meal.

Perhaps it is the drought conditions that currently exist throughout much of Texas this year, for I have noticed more other bird species feeding on the leftovers than usual. Wintering red-tailed hawks were seen feeding on carcasses on a couple occasions on my recent trip. And on one occasion I found a loggerhead shrike sitting on a dead cottontail taking out chunks of meat. In spite of their small size, at least in comparison with ravens, vultures, hawks, and even crows, shrikes are tough little birds, one of our few predatory songbirds.

Another hawk seen just north of Big Bend National Park this year was the Harris's hawk, a desert species that just barely reaches the Gulf Coast. A pair of these colorful hawks was perched on adjacent fenceposts, apparently feeding on a road kill that they had discovered or, perhaps, had taken away from a raven. Harris's hawks are fascinating birds for several reasons. They are gregarious birds that hunt in family groups, usually a pair of adults and several offspring, easier to wear down a jackrabbit or cottontail. And the previous year's young are "helpers," in that they often help the parents build or rebuild last year's nest and even help feed the new nestlings.

On one trip to the park a few years ago I encountered a Harris's hawk flying alongside of a badger. I stopped my vehicle some distance away and watched through binoculars as the badger wandered along, turning over cowpies in search of insects and whatever else might be hiding there. After each pass, as the badger proceeded on to the next cowpie, the Harris's hawk would fly down and examine the overturned cowpie, taking whatever the badger had left behind. This behavior continued across the field to where they disappeared behind some low shrubs. I couldn't help but wonder if that same kind of behavior was taking place this year when making a living is so difficult.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Robins, Robins Everywhere
by Ro Wauer

For the first time in many years, an abundance of robins have so far remained in our yards and pastures this winter. Usually, these large songbirds arrive in November or December, stay around until they have finished up all of the available berries, and then move to other locations where there is still plenty of food. This year, probably because there is an unusually large crop of yaupon berries, they have stayed put. And at this writing there still is a reasonably good crop of available berries.

Robins, best referred to as American robin because several other kinds of robins occur south of the Mexican Border, are one of best known and most loved songbirds. Although they reside in South Texas only during the winter months, their personality cannot help but endear them to any of us who enjoy birds. Perhaps it is their cheery songs, but it is more likely because they are easily identified, as well as possessing unique behavior. One of our larger songbirds, robins possess a brick-red breast, blackish head with incomplete white eye rings, white chin with black streaks, yellow bill with a barely noticeable black tip, white lower belly, and blackish tail.

Robin behavior is truly unique in the bird world, a bird of behavioral contradictions. For instance, what other bird is so shy in winter but so people-friendly during its nesting season? Winter birds fly off at the least threat, but nesting bird search for food on our lawns almost underfoot. While searching for earthworms, their classic robin behavior is to run here and there across the field or lawn, stop and cock its head sideways to better see prey. It will suddenly run forward and grab an insect, spider or earthworm.

Another rather unusual robin behavior is its roosting, when various flocks overnight at choice locations. Wintering robins congregate at special locations each evening, often by the thousands. These sites, which may be as large as one square mile, are extremely noisy places with much singing and calling. By late winter birds may be in full song. Feeding areas may be spread out over a 12-mile radius. Spring and summer roosts are dominated by male robins; females remain on the nests. By autumn, the roosts contain both males and females, as well as the young of the year and even occasional migrants. A flock of robins, scattered across the sky in an irregularly spaced pattern, demonstrates one more of this bird's unique behavioral traits. Like the V pattern of geese, the groupings of crows, or the tight flock of waxwings, a flock of robins is so distinct that it can be identified at a considerable distance.

In addition, few birds bathe so often as the American robin, and from all indications they thoroughly enjoy this activity. They will regularly bathe each morning and late afternoon before flying off to their roosting sites. They will gather around a birdbath, often waiting their turns while the first contingent splashes and chirps in pure contentment. Bathing behavior is not restricted to wintertime, as bathing occurs year-round. I have actually watched robins bathe in runoff from snow banks in the mountains.

Although robins never utilize seed feeders, which they tend to totally ignore, they can easily be attracted to a yard with a birdbath. This year, with so many robins still present in our area, robin-watching can be great fun and provide consider amusement. They apparently have attracted the attention of naturalists since day one. John Burroughs, one of our earliest nature writers, wrote in his 1913 book, "Wake-Robin," that "Robin is one of the most native and democratic of our birds; he is one of the family...Hardy, noisy, frolicsome, neighborly and domestic in his habits, strong of wings, and bold in spirit, he is the pioneer of the thrush family, and well worthy of the finer artists whose coming he heralds and in a measure prepares us for."

[Ro Wauer is the author of “The American Robin,” published in 1999 by the Univ. Texas Press.]

Sunday, January 15, 2006

More Green Jay Sightings
by Ro Wauer

When one of North America's most colorful and charismatic tropical birds begin to appear in numbers, while only a few lone sightings were found previously, it suggests the species is more than just a casual visitor. When two green jays appeared in my yard in mid-October 2004, I assumed that those birds were little more than strays. Birds often have a tendency to wander widely after the nesting season, and green jays are no exception. Green jay populations have become established throughout the South Texas Brushlands, from Del Rio to Live Oak and Bee counties, in recent years. But when Christmas Bird Count participants (Paul Julian’s team) discovered 10 individuals off Lower Mission Valley Road in Victoria County in late December, and six or more individuals visited my yard on January 7, those sightings suggest more than just wanderers.

My green jay yard birds were attracted to one on my birdbaths located along the edge of my yard. A few dozen robins, several cardinals, and a few other songbirds - catbird, white-eyed vireo, pine warbler, and chipping, field, and white-throated sparrows - had already converged on that birdbath when the jays were first discovered. Perhaps they had been there longer. They remained only for a couple hours and I was able to take a few distant photos. But all the while they were shy and reticent to spend much time in the open with me sitting about 60 feet away with camera in hand. Green jays, even in the Valley, seldom spend time in the open; they prefer thorn scrub woodland and thick brushy areas. And also in the Valley they seem to thrive very well in well-vegetated residential areas.

Green jays might be considered the epitome of a tropical bird that has become established north of the Rio Grande. It is one of the most sought after birds that birders come to Texas to see; a target species for thousands of birders who flock to South Texas annually. Yet, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley it is commonplace. But somehow, even after one has seen it dozens of times, it is one of those marvelous birds that one cannot help but look at time and time again. About the same size as our common blue jay, the green jay has a green back, yellow outer tail feathers, pale green underparts, black bib, and a blue and black head pattern. That description hardly does it justice; one needs to actually see one in person to truly appreciate its gorgeous plumage.

Because green jays are sulkers, spending much time out of sight, they often are first detected by their rather distinct calls, like "chi-chi-chi-chi-chih" or "shrink, shrink, shrink." They also have a dry rattle call and short low 'snore" note. And when disturbed by a predator or human observer, they can give a thin screech call.

In "Nesting Birds of a Tropical Frontier," Tim Brush’s recent and excellent book (Texas A&M Univ. Press, 2005) about birds in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, there is an optimistic comment about green jays' ability to survive in developed areas. He claims that it is able "to maintain high population densities in thorn forest and in places where Bronzed Cowbird parasitism is highest. Their ability to detect and avoid aflatoxin-tainted grain at feeders may be beneficial. Negative factors include rapid human population growth and the possible harmful effects if xerification continues in the Valley."

Although it is still too early to assume green jays will become a full-time resident in Victoria and adjacent counties, although they already are resident in Goliad and Bee counties. What with heavy development in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the fact of global warming, if forced to guess what will occur with green jays in the next few years, I suspect they will become more and more numerous and even nest in Victoria County. They surely would be welcome in my yard!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Jim Dillard, Wildlife Biologist, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Mineral Wells

The thing about fox terriers is they’re born to hunt and it doesn’t matter what. There’s not much that escapes their acute sense of smell and vision. Anything that moves is fare game. You can make a good squirrel hunting dog out of one or just a loyal yard dog. Ours is queen of her backyard domain and nothing passes through or lives there without her consent or approval. Slow moving squirrels, alley cats, ground snakes, grasshoppers, birds and lizards are at risk. Only old Whiskers the cat and hoptoads are tolerated.

Her first encounter with a hoptoad was one she never forgot. She just couldn’t figure out how such an easy catch could taste sooooo bad. After a bout of coughing, hacking and foaming at the mouth, she released the fiend and decided that maybe having a hoptoad or two in her backyard wasn’t all that bad. From then on, she only herded them around but kept her distance. Now, I can just say “toad” and she looks the other way. Old Whiskers just yawns and goes back to sleep. I imagine young coyotes and other predators have had similar experiences with hoptoads here in Cross Timbers Country.

True toads are in the Family Bufonidae and are characterized by their dry warty skin, short stout forelegs, longer hind legs and prominent parotoid glands. These toxin-secreting “shoulder glands” produce a bitter tasting substance that’s offensive to most predators that quickly learn toads are to be left alone. However, hog-nosed snakes are toad-proof. Their large adrenal glands provide resistance to the toxic digitaloid poisons produced by toads which are a large part of their diet. Toads also have acute hearing provided by well developed ears and a conspicuous tympanum (eardrum) on each side of their head.

Of the nine species of toads in Texas, four are found here in Cross Timbers Country. With a little close examination, it’s not too hard to figure out who’s who. Key identifying characteristics include the shape and prominence of cranial crests, presence or absence of a vertebral strip, shape of parotoid glands, skin coloration of the chest, and arrangement of body spots. In addition, each species has its own distinctive call to communicate toad to toad and is very useful in species identification. And remember, toads hop – frogs leap.

Woodhouse’s toad (Bufo woodhouesii woodhouseii) is perhaps the largest at four to five inches. It’s found throughout central and north-central Texas and into the Panhandle in both rural and urban settings. It was named for Samuel Washington Woodhouse, a surgeon and naturalist that made explorations into the Southwestern U.S. in the mid-19th century. I has a distinct light colored vertebral stripe that begins on the nose and extends down the middle of the back. Overall skin coloration on the back of this round toad is greenish-brown to yellowish-brown with black blotches surrounding brownish warts. The chest is usually unspotted and its dark cranial crests touch the parotoid glands behind the eyes. Parotoid glands are narrow and arched slightly downward. Its call is a loud, nasal waaaahing. This toad is dependant on standing water sources for survival and reproduction.

Texas toads (B. speciosus) are medium size at about three inches. They’re found in grasslands, meadows, pastures and open woodlands throughout most of the state except for East Texas and the northern Panhandle. This toad species prefers sandy soils it can burrow into during periods of heat or drought. They emerge at night to feed or during rainfall events. A mid-dorsal stripe is absent and its coloration is olive-gray to olive-brown. Texas toads lack a well defined dorsal pattern or well developed cranial crests. Their parotoid glands are widely spaced and about half as wide as long. On each hind foot there are two black tubercles.

The red spotted toad (B. punctatus) is one of the smallest toad species at around one and one half to two and one quarter inches. In Texas, it’s found in the western two-thirds of the state, preferring to live around permanent to semi-permanent water sources in otherwise arid country. It’s more likely to be found in rocky terrain where they live under rocks and in crevices. The round parotoid glands are about the same size as their eyes and no cranial crests are present. Body coloration may be brown, olive, tan, reddish or gray and usually there is a scattering of red spots. Small black spots dot their white belly. Overall body shape is somewhat flattened with the head being angular and pointed. The call of males is a high-pitch melodious trill that may last from four to 10 seconds. Red spotted toads are nocturnal and most active on humid or rainy nights.

The colorful little eastern green toad subspecies B. debilis debilis is found along persistent streams and ponds in arid to semiarid habitats throughout the central-western third of Texas from the eastern Panhandle south into northern Mexico. They’re our smallest toad species and measure from one and one quarter up to two inches. Their body and head is flattened. Coloration is bright grass green with unconnected dark green or black dots with warts on the back and legs. The parotoid glands are large and extend down onto the sides of their neck. Their call is a shrill cricket-like trill that sounds somewhat like an electronic alarm. Unless you hear one or go looking, you’re not likely to find them. Eastern green toads spend the day under vegetation or rocks in wet places and only come out to feed late in the evening, at night or early in the morning.

Handling toads will not give you warts – I repeat, handling toads will not give you warts. Warts are caused by viruses. Secretions from their parotoid glands may cause irritation to your mucous membranes, so do like your mama says and wash your hands after picking up hoptoads. When my daughter was little, she used to pick them up by the bucketsful from our yard and neighborhood. After we got our fox terrier, toad traffic slowed. I still occasionally hear one calling on damp, rainy spring or summer nights from somewhere off in the distance. Listening to hoptoad music is soothing to the soul. Until next time, I’ll see you down a Cross Timbers Country road and God Bless America!

Sunday, January 08, 2006

2006, A New Year and a Look Ahead
by Ro Wauer

What can be expected in the New Year? Although it is impossible to know for sure what we will experience in our human relations and how our politics and world events will shape up in 2006, Mother Nature is far more predictable. It is the one facet of our lives, at least for those of us who spend time outdoors enjoying nature, that we can depend upon. It is that solid anchor so many of us need for balance and harmony. It is something that many folks, especially those that live only to "keep up with the Joneses," never understand and are poorer for it.

In my book, "Naturally South Texas" (Univ. Texas, 2001), a series of Nature Notes from the Coastal Bend that were published in the Advocate during the 1990s, I included a natural history calendar. That calendar, in an attempt to guide us through the year, includes the following: JANUARY is our coldest month, cardinals begin to sing, bald eagles nest, wintering butterflies appear at early flowering shrubs, and live oak caterpillars appear in the oaks. In FEBRUARY, spring is in the air, first purple martins return, redbud trees flower, first neotropical migrants appear, Spanish daggers bloom, crane flies appear, and huisache trees flower in mass.

MARCH days usually are warm and sunny, ruby-throated hummingbirds appear, cliff swallows return to nest sites, scissor-tailed flycatchers return, spring solstice, robin and waxwing flocks pass through, striped skunks start hunting mates, neotropical migrants increase, bald eagles head north, and watch out for chiggers. In APRIL, wildflowers peak, whooping cranes leave Aransas, neotropical migrants continue to increase, chimney swifts return to our neighborhoods, first fireflies are active during evening hours, and mesquite leaves green up. In MAY, northbound migrants peak the first few days, retamas produce bright yellow flowers, barred owl youngsters are out and about, yellow-billed cuckoo calls are commonplace, and camel crickets can be abundant.

In JUNE, copperheads are again out and about, bald cypress trees are in full summer dress, painted buntings are commonplace, crested caracara young are in training, longest day of the year, and wood storks appear in our wetlands. JULY thunderstorms can be expected, July 4th butterfly counts, early southbound shorebirds appear, wild grapes ripen and are eaten by wildlife and humans, and daddy longlegs come out of hiding. AUGUST is our hottest month, garden spiders become numerous, praying mantises increase, Mississippi kites appear over our towns, fairy rings arise after each storm, southbound migrants increase, and tropical storms are possible.

SEPTEMBER is the wettest month, field crickets can be abundant, southbound ruby-throated hummingbird are everywhere, bald eagles return to their nesting grounds, last of the ruby-throated hummingbirds move south, eastern phoebes return for the winter months, and a significant hawk migration gets underway. In OCTOBER, peregrine falcons return, leafcutter ants are especially active, monarch butterflies are migrating south en masse, sandhill cranes begin to arrive, flocks of white pelicans appear in the skies, and red admiral butterflies appear.

In NOVEMBER, cooling trends are noticeable, numbers of snow and white-fronted geese appear, early whooping cranes arrive at Aransas, "butter-butts" return for the winter, fall color appears on a few oaks and other broadleaf trees, and red berries appear on several shrubs. In DECEMBER, the holiday spirit prevails, winter solstice, and Christmas bird counts dominate the last days of the month.

The outdoors is a fragile environment. We cannot continue to destroy the natural resources that have so far ensured our prosperity. We need to protect our resources, to understand their values. African conservationist Baba Dioum expressed that logic best: "For in the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Red-winged Blackbirds, A New Yardbird
by Ro Wauer

Redwings are abundant this time of year, usually in huge flocks, and often occurring in mixed flocks of blackbirds, including cowbirds and grackles. So, seeing one of these birds in my yard on Christmas morning was hardly a surprise. But when I checked my comprehensive yard bird list, lo and behold it was a new one, bringing the total list of yardbirds to 175 species.

The red-winged blackbird is sexually dimorphic, that is the plumage of males is different than that of females. Adult male redwings are all-black except for a bright red shoulder patch. Adult female redwings are dark brown and heavily streaked with whitish lines on the throat and chest and an eyeline. During the nesting season they frequent wetlands, especially areas of cattails, but in winter they can be found almost anywhere. Although they roost in cattail areas when available, oftentimes in huge flocks, they leave each morning for open fields and pastures where they feed on seeds and insects that might be available. One of the largest flocks recorded was one in Virginia that was estimated at 15 million birds. And they are known to fly miles from a roost to choice feeding grounds.

Redwings are members of the Icteridae Family that includes all the blackbirds as well as meadowlarks, bobolink, and the orioles. Redwings are most closely related to the tricolored blackbird, a very similar bird that is found only in the Central Valley of California. And the Brewer's blackbird, most like a common grackle, is also present in our area in winter. Brewer's usually occur in separate flocks, and most often are found along the edge of highways. The yellow-headed blackbird, another wintertime blackbird in Texas, can sometime be found in redwing flocks. And yet an additional blackbird - the rusty blackbird - that nests far to the north throughout most of Canada, is another wintertime blackbird, although it is rare in South Texas.

Although redwings flock in winter and are rarely territorial then, it is not uncommon to find separate flocks of males and females. But males become territorial on their breeding grounds. While several pairs may utilize the same wetland, males can be especially territorial. And they also are usually polygamous; one male mating with several females while one female will mate with only one male. Avian biologists tell us that it is the female that chooses its mate, selecting a superior male, probably one that defends a high-quality territory. When males are already mated, the female can choose either an inferior male or a male with a superior territory and is most likely to benefit the population. More often than not, in spite of the male being already mated, she will choose the best territory.

Another interesting facet of redwings is the male's very noticeable visual display, flashing its bright red shoulder patches. Courtship behavior often includes hovering while flashing his wings. Or from a perch, he will lean forward, droop his wings, spread his tail, fluff his body feathers, and raise his shoulder patches. That and his loud and distinct songs are sure to signal to all the available ladies that he is willing to take on as many members of a harem as possible. However, when researchers paint the red shoulder patches black so the red flashes are no longer are available, within minutes neighboring males invade and take over his territory.

My redwing yard bird was only a female that had come to one of my birdbaths. She did not possess the bright red shoulder patch, nor did she exhibit any territorial behavior. She sat very still, seemingly waiting her turn to drink amid a dozen robins that had gathered around the small water hole. She stayed only a few minutes before flying off, probably to join a nearby blackbird flock and head for the open fields nearby. She is welcome back whenever she wishes.