The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Ticks Are Nasty Little Creatures
by Ro Wauer

Ticks can seriously effect a pleasant day in the outdoors. This was the case on a recent butterfly expedition to northeastern Mexico when Betty discovered hundreds of the barely visible seed ticks crawling about on her clothing. She apparently had brushed against a bush that had been harboring a huge congregation of these tiny creatures. In spite of finding the ticks early-on and picking off a hundred or more, a few dozen did manage to elude us pickers and eventually created a measles-like rash on her back-side.

I had experienced the same kind of ticks in Mexico several years earlier, but had not been unaware of their presence until the following day when thousands of red welts appeared all across my torso and back. I itched for more than a week, the consequences of not catching them early-on. Interestingly, Betty’s bites never did itch.

Seed ticks, or tick larvae, are extremely tiny, about the size of the head of a pin. Their life history begins when an adult female deposits 3,000 to 6,000 eggs on the ground, which hatch into larvae that climb onto nearby vegetation where they collect in large numbers while waiting for some warm-blooded creature to pass within reach. After a blood meal on the host, the engorged ticks drop to the ground, shed their skins (molt) and emerge as nymphs. The nymphs, tiny adults, also climb onto nearby vegetation to await a host on which to engorge themselves with blood. They then drop to the ground, molt, and become full adults. Once again, the tiny adults (about the size of a sesame seed) climb onto nearby vegetation, attach themselves to a passing warm-blooded animal, and after engorgement fall to the ground and mate; the female then lays eggs.

Although I do not know what kind of tick was encountered in Mexico, it was likely the lone star tick that occurs throughout the southern United States, including Texas. Texas, however, has three additional ticks: American dog, brown dog, and black legged ticks. The lone star tick, brown or tan in color and with one or several silvery-white spots on their backs that can transmit Lyme disease (a potentially serious bacterial infection) to humans in Texas. However, the deer tick that occurs in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions is the primary vector of Lyme disease.

Anyone spending time in the outdoors, especially in brushy areas where ticks are most likely to be encountered, should be aware of ticks and check their clothing often throughout the day. But ticks capable of transmitting Lyme disease must be attached to the body for at least 24 hours for infection to occur. Early symptoms usually include a gradually expanding circular or oval-shaped red rash. Eventually one can experience fatigue, headache, stiffness or pain in neck, muscles or joints, or swollen glands. If gone untreated it can create heart and neurological disorders and arthritis. It is a difficult disease to detect, but can be successfully treated in the early stages with antibiotics.

Almost everyone who has spent much time in the field has experienced ticks. Ticks are not insects, but are closely related to mites, spiders and scorpions. Adults possess eight legs, while adult insects have only six. And the tick’s body is fused instead of having a head, thoracic, and abdominal regions typical of insects. More than 15,000 species are known throughout the world.

Once an adult tick has attached itself to the skin, it is important to remove it as soon as possible, although disease organisms are not transferred until the tick has fed two to eight hours. The best way to remove the tick is to grasp it firmly with tweezers and remove it with a slow, steady pull. Pull it straight out with steady pressure so that the mouthparts are not broken off; leaving the head in can cause a secondary infection. Or one can touch it with a hot needle or a few drops of alcohol, turpentine, or kerosene.

I suffered no problems from seed tick experience several years ago, and Betty recovered with only one major problem. She missed a couple of butterfly species while picking ticks.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Dr. David Taylor, a University of North Texas Honor College Professor, and a contributor to our Texas Nature Writers Blog, has just published an anthology of Texas writers: Pride of Place: A Contemporary Anthology of Texas Nature Writing.

Here's an excerpt from the introduction (courtesy of Dr. Taylor and University of North Texas Press):

What’s stirred me to bring this writing together isn’t nostalgia or anti-development sentiments, though I hold both of those. Instead, it is that wonder I’d slip into as a child about the vast spaces of Texas landscapes as we traveled. The family vehicle was a 1967 Chevrolet pickup; after 100 miles or so, Mom and Dad would tire of listening to the three kids and banish us to the bed of the truck. My use of the word “bed” is literal, as dad had placed a mattress in the back with a camper top shielding us from the elements, excepting heat of course. Much of the time we vied for a breeze, placing our faces near the two slatted windows; I being the youngest waited on the largesse of my two older siblings to offer access to a window—that and if I got sick or whined too much they knew there’d be hell to pay when Dad stopped the truck. But in those times when we’d pass a few hundred miles at a time without too much discomfort, I could slip into a reverie about what was passing by—pines, swamps, bays, lakes, rivers, coast, oaks, bluebonnets, longhorns, mesquite, prairie, hills, prickly pear, mule ear, cholla, an ochre sunset on the Davis Mountains. Watching them was hypnotic, but these trances were interrupted by a coyote sighting, the searing color of wild-flower fields, antelope out west, or a whooping crane down by the coast. I knew there was something important in allowing myself to silently take all these things in, and as I have grown older, I see myself finding times to be that boy taking in not just scenery but place. It is that reverie that brought me to love these places, to worry for them, and to write and work for them as well.

Message from the Site Owner:

From Jan 1 through mid-March i have been dealing with job changes and weeks of dealing with what i call Adventures with Gangrene (long story). I want to apologize to all our writers and readers for the lapses during that time.

Everything is now current as of today, and i foresee no future difficulties.

tony gallucci

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Greening Mesquites Are Our Most Reliable Spring Herald
by Ro Wauer

Tomorrow, March 20, is the first day of spring, a time of fresh growth and renewing spirit. Spring is my favorite time of year. Spring birdsong is a marvelous experience that never grows old. A few years ago, just for the fun of it, I asked a number of friends all across Texas, what they considered their personal herald of spring. I latter wrote up a couple dozen of those responses in a book, "Heralds of Spring in Texas," that was published by Texas A&M University Press. Those spring heralds ranged from returning purple martins and scissor-tailed flycatchers along the central Gulf Coast, yellow-throated warblers in the Pineywoods, and black-capped vireos and golden-cheeked warblers in the Hill Country. Turkey vultures Big Bend bluebonnets were part of early spring in West Texas. Further north, spring heralds included flowering trout lilies and elbowbushes. In the Panhandle, the songs of western meadowlarks signified the arrival of spring.

When discussing this topic with Lorie Black of Abilene, she told me about a most pertinent poem that appeared in the Abilene Reporter-News on March 21, 1996. Then she sent me a copy. Apparently, each year since 1939, this poem, written by Frank Grimes (editor of that paper from 1919 to 1961) is republished. I have also used it in previous Nature Notes, but it is worth repeating once again.

Old Mesquites Ain't Out
We see some signs of returning spring,
The redbirds back and the fie,larks sing,
The grounds plowed up and the creeks run clear.
The onions sprout and the rosebuds near;
And yet they's a point worth thinkin' about -
We note that the old mesquite ain't out!

The fancier trees are in full bloom.
The grass is green and the willows bloom,
The colts kick up and the calves bend down,
And springs a-pear-ently come to town;
And yet they's a point worth thinking about -
We note that the old mesquites ain't out!

Well, it may be spring for all we know,
There ain't no ice and there ain't no snow.
It looks like spring and it smells so, too.
The calendar says it plenty true -
And still they's a point worth thinkin' about -
We note that the old mesquites ain't out!

And so it is! In spite of our returning scissor-tails and all the fresh growth, including flower Texas bluebonnets and huisache, spring in Texas really never happens until the mesquites produce green leaves.

Friday, March 17, 2006

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

Authors Note: Additional information concerning whether or not the caracara is the national bird of Mexico and bird depicted on its national flag has come to my attention . There has been a long standing misconception on my part and that of many others here in Texas concerning this issue, primarily since one of the common names of the crested caracara is also the Mexican eagle. Although I used references in preparing the article on the caracara that stated it was the national bird of Mexico, that is incorrect. The national bird of Mexico is the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). I apologize for this error.

Editors Note: It is not normally my practice to comment on authors' stories. This one however needed some further comment i felt. This very issue was dealt with on the Texas ornithologists' listserv last year, and no conclusive evidence was found to support a positive identification of the National Bird of Mexico as belonging to any species. Information presented was divided about whether the birds was a Golden Eagle or Caracara, or perhaps another species altogether. Nevertheless there is no government decree or document which declares identity. I have forwarded this discussion and links to Jim Dillard for his study. -- tg

The design and color of national flags usually depict cultural or historical events of the country and its people. Mexico’s flag is no exception. Its green, white and red banners represent hope, purity and the blood of their heroes. The coat of arms centered in the middle of the white section shows the left profile of a Mexican eagle standing on its left foot on a nopal cactus with a rattlesnake held it its right foot and mouth, ready to be devoured. The cactus is growing from a rock surrounded by water. It’s all based on an ancient Aztec legend.

The legend goes that Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war and of the sun, told a wandering band of Indians traveling from Aztlán, present-day Nayarit, to look for a place where an eagle lands on a nopal cactus eating a snake, with the cactus growing out of a rock that is surrounded by water. They finally found such a place on a swampy island in Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. There in 1325 they built their new home and called it Tenochtitlanon - “place of the prickly pear cactus.” Today, it’s downtown Mexico City.

Although the Mexican eagle or crested caracara (Polyborus plancus) is Mexico’s national bird, its range extends throughout South and Central America and northward to South and Central Texas, southern Arizona and an isolated population in central Florida. Populations in Florida have declined and they’re now listed as an endangered species there. In Texas, they’re classified as a protected species like all other raptors. You’re more likely to find them in South Texas, but occasionally they’re seen in the southern reaches of our Cross Timbers Country, particularly in open agricultural land, rangeland and prairie country with scattered trees. They’re nonmigratory. I’ve seen them on several occasions in Bosque, Hood, Johnson and Erath counties. Or a recent trip to South Texas, I observed a number of them along the highways between San Antonio and Edinburgh.

The translation of their scientific name is descriptive of their character: Poly means “many” and borus “gluttonous”; plancus means “flat-footed.” Considering the fact that they’re not really eagles, rather in the falcon Family Falconidae, we now have a bird that can best be described as a flat-footed falcon with a slight Spanish accent that just thinks it’s an eagle and likes to eat a lot. Other common names are Audubon’s caracara, caracara eagle, king buzzard and Mexican buzzard.

Crested caracaras are striking in appearance with their relatively long tail and neck, large head and black head cap with a shaggy crest on the back. Their neck and rump are white and the belly and black are dark brownish or black. The upper breast, wing panels and tail feathers have black barring on a white background. When observed in flight from below, white can be seen at four points: head, wing tips and tail. Bare red or orange skin surrounds their eyes and base (cere) of their big gray hooked beak that’s used to rip and tear flesh from carrion. Overall length is about 21 inches. Sexes look alike although females are a little bigger than males.

Their rounded wings span about four feet which they put to good use during slow early morning patrols along roads and highways looking for fresh or not-so-fresh road-kill cuisine. If soaring flight, their wings are held flat like an eagle. I once watched one over in Parker County feeding on a dead bullsnake that didn’t quite made it across a country road the night before. Other food items include fish, turtles, amphibians, bird eggs, nesting birds, crabs and worms.

Caracaras are opportunistic feeders and won’t pass up anything edible. They’re often seen feeding on carrion along with crows, hawks and vultures and may become aggressive around a carcass. If worse comes to worse, they’ll steal food from other birds or harass them until they upchuck their fill and then gobble it down. They’ll do the same thing to seagulls and pelicans down along the coast.

Mexican eagles spend a lot of time on the ground. They have long yellow legs and feet with blunt claws that enable them to go on foot pursuit of prey such as large insects, small mammals, snakes and lizards. They’ve been seen following tractors like seagulls hunting for critters stirred up by plows and will scratch the ground like a chicken in search of food items. Open-pit garbage dumps offer easy pick’ens. They’ll also hot foot around range fires looking for small mammals fleeing the smoke and flames.

The name caracara was derived from a native word in South America that is descriptive of their harsh grating, rattle call that sounds something like cara-cara-cara! Most of the time, they’re silent. During the breeding season, the call is a loud wick-wick-wick-wick-querrr and they’ll throw their head over their back on the last note. They’ll also give this call early in the morning or late in the evening throughout the year for no other reason than to just proclaim their presence.

Caracaras are the only member of the falcon family that builds a nest which is a collection of stick, vines and twigs with a center bowl lined with finer materials. The bulky and somewhat trashy nest is built by both members of the pair eight to 50 foot above the ground in the top of a shrub, tall yucca or tree. Nesting begins as early as mid-January. Usually two to three white or pinkish white eggs marked with brown are laid. Incubation is by both parents for 28 to 33 days but she does most of the sitting and waiting. Together they feed the young that will stay in the nest anywhere from six to eight weeks before they fly the coup to scavenge on their own. Adults will still offer their young tidbits for a while until they perfect their hunting skills.

Like our national bird the bald eagle, the crested caracara also has its own fair share of objectionable traits that make you wonder why it was ever chosen by Mexico. Maybe it’s because of their strong macho look, loud cry or reputation for tenacity and determination, living off the land no matter what it has to offer. Perhaps the Aztec gods knew the people of Mexico would always need a strong symbol of survival for their future trials and tribulations. I’m just glad this eagle look-alike calls parts of our Cross Timbers Country home. Until next time, I’ll see you down a Cross Timbers Country road and God Bless America!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Are You Ready for Migrating Songbirds?
by Ro Wauer

Already a few northbound songbirds have been seen in our area of South Texas. The majority of these Neotropical birds have spent the last several months south of the Mexican border, in Mexico, Central America, or some even in South America. And now as day lengths increase and warming temperatures occur throughout North America, they are heading back to their ancestral breeding grounds. Although a few species, such as purple martins, cliff swallows, black-and-white warblers, and such, may stop to nest in our area, the vast majority of the migrating birds only pass through South Texas and continue northward, spreading out all across the country. A few continue as far north as Alaska.

Finding spring migrants represent the very best in birding for those of us who appreciate these amazing creatures. A tiny hummingbird or warbler, only a few ounces in weight, can fly nonstop in the dark of night for 500 or more miles from the tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula to the Texas Coast. Such a feat cannot help but impress even the most non-outdoors person among us. Only birds possess the right combination of feathers, powerful wings, hollow bones, a remarkable respiratory system, and a large strong heart.

What kinds of migrating songbirds can we expect to see in South Texas during the next few months? The earliest species appear in March and the latest may still be passing through our area in early May. Some of the earliest often include those that over wintered in the northern portion of their wintering range, such as in deep South Texas or in northern Mexico. Examples of these early birds can include eastern wood-pewee; great crested flycatcher; Couch’s kingbird; yellow-throated and red-eyed vireos; Tennessee, Nashville, black-throated green, yellow-throated, worm-eating, and hooded warblers; northern parula; and northern and Louisiana waterthrushes; summer tanager; indigo bunting; and orchard and Baltimore orioles.

The largest number of spring migrants usually occurs in early to mid-April, and they often appear in waves, reaching the Texas coast in early to mid-morning. But those that experience a good tailwind during the cross-Gulf flight may continue inland for a considerable distance. The massive waves of Neotropical migrants are most evident when they experience strong headwinds or a Gulf storm. At times like those, they usually turn westward seeking the nearest land, and that means they can appear almost anywhere along the Texas Gulf Coast. And there are times when dozens of migrants can be found resting on oil platforms far out in the Gulf.

When conditions are right, the cross-Gulf migrants usually reach landfall along the upper Texas Coast. Places like High Island and Sabine Woods have a well deserved reputation as excellent places to see an abundance of migrants. Oftentimes the new arrivals are so exhausted from the all-night flight that they can do little more than rest and feed, trying to gather strength to continue their northward journey. At times one can find 100 or more species in a few hours. Some are so exhausted one can actually pick them up and examine them further.

Some of the most colorful of the migrating songbirds are the warblers. And to find two dozen or more warbler species within an acre or so can make a birder out of almost anyone. Favorite species at times like those include blue-winged, golden-winged, chestnut-sided, magnolia, blackburnian, prairie, bay-breasted, cerulean, Kentucky, and Canada warblers. All also are also possible along the Central Gulf Coast. Spring migrant songbirds are most likely among the oak mottes and shrubby areas where they can find an adequate supply of insects, the protein necessary for their continuing migration. Without an immediate food supply, that can be reduced or eliminated by indiscriminate insecticide spraying or habitat clearing, they simply die. It is up to those of us who care about the environment to save what little coastal habitats that still exist.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers Are Arriving in South Texas
by Ro Wauer

Of all the neotropical migrants that pass through South Texas, the lovely scissor-tailed flycatcher is probably the most welcome of all.

Few birds have the appeal of this charismatic flycatcher. Not only is it one of our most beautiful and gregarious birds, but it seems to prefer a relationship with humans, nesting on utility poles and in trees often surprisingly close to our various structures. Its amazing courtship flights and continuous singing tend to give it an additional appeal. It therefore is often called the "Texas bird of paradise." And its arrival in South Texas is a sure sign that the new season has begun.

The long-tailed, brighter males arrive first with the shorter-tailed females appearing a few days later. By then the males have already established territories and are chasing competitors away from preferred sites. When the ladies arrive, the males take on a very different persona, performing some wonderful courtship flights, ascending to more than 100 feet before sailing back, often with outstanding aerobatics. These dramatic flights include up and down flying, much zigzagging, and even reverse somersaults, usually at great speeds and with tail flowing and fluttering and wings out to display their salmon-colored armpits (axillaries) and underwing linings. All the while he is performing, a male flycatcher will be giving cackling-snapping calls. The female will usually join in the fun. Scissor-tails also give a unique dawn song on their breeding grounds that includes a series of loud stuttered "pup" notes that conclude with an emphatic "perlep" or "peroo."

Like all flycatchers, the scissor-tail's diet is principally insects, at least during the nesting season. Although most insects are captured in flight, scissor-tails will also take insects on the ground, perhaps more often than most flycatchers. Grasshoppers are a favorite food source. After nesting and while inhabiting their wintering grounds, however, they will also consume berries when available.

Although paired scissor-tails are generally loners, as soon as the youngsters are fledged, they usually join other family groups. In some cases these flocks can include up to 200 individuals. And unlike most other members of the flycatcher family, which usually are quiet after nesting, scissor-tails continue calling until they leave for their wintering grounds in September or October, as well as throughout their migration and in winter. These flocks often congregate at choice sites. And 100 or more scissor-tailed flycatchers can create quite a racket.

Many Texans think of this bird as the state bird instead of the northern mockingbird, which is the official state bird. That undoubtedly is because of the charisma of this long-tailed songbird, and also perhaps because the mockingbird is so commonplace. While mockingbirds are full-time residents throughout most of the state, leaving only the far northern portions of the state in colder than normal winters, scissor-tailed flycatchers normally are present only from March through October. But during that period, they can be found in all but far West Texas, where they occur only occasionally.

By November the vast majority of the summer residents and migrants passing through the state from Oklahoma, Kansas, and southeastern New Mexico have gone south. Recent records, however, suggest that a few birds remain in South Texas all winter. The rest migrate south to central Mexico and into Panama, where they occur in huge flocks, utilizing open grasslands, pastures, and fields.

But by March they are with us again. Few songbirds are as well loved and admired as our lovely scissor-tailed flycatcher.