The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Our Good Old Widespread Mesquite
by Ro Wauer

Now we learn that mesquite wood could possible be utilized in producing ethanol to run our vehicles. According to an October 12, 2006, Advocate editorial, the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Lockett is exploring whether mesquite can be utilized in producing cellulosic ethanol. Supposedly, it burns cleaner than ethanol made from corn. Wow! Such an occurrence could add just one more use of a natural resource that is so very abundant throughout much of the Southwestern United States, and is especially commonplace in Texas.

For many, many years, mesquite wood and beans have been used for an enormous variety of purposes, from furniture, fencing, barbeques, and food. Flowering trees produce fragrant yellow flowers that honeybees utilize for producing a distinct, clear, amber-colored, and sought-after honey. And mesquite beans, that ripen by September or October, provide choice foods for lots of wildlife, including deer, javelina, woodrats, and even some of our predators like coyotes and foxes. Although not many people take advantage of these beans anymore, there was a time when Native Americans and settlers in the Southwest considered them an extremely valuable natural resource. The U.S. Cavalry, while chasing Indians in West Texas and New Mexico, paid three cents a pound for mesquite beans.

Both the mesquite leaves and pods contain up to 13 percent protein and 36 percent sucrose, twice as much sugar as beets and sugarcane. The green pods actually were chewed for their sugar content, they can be cooked into a mesquite sugar that is great on pancakes, and a highly intoxicating beverage can be made from the fresh sugary pods. Once matured, the beans can be ground into flour that is good for cornbread, pan bread, and cookies.

Getting to the beans inside the pods is no easy task, however. Step one is to toast the pods for a couple of hours at 150 to 200 degrees until they are brittle. Then break them up and run them through a grinder two or more times before sifting the material through a sieve, keeping the fine material as meal. Native Americans did the same thing with a grinding stone, called a metate, and by sifting the material through basketry made from reeds and willows. The resultant pan bread could be eaten then or stored for later use.

Indians and early settlers also used the mesquite's brown gum for dyes and paint and for mending pots. Medicinally, a tea made from the leaves and gum has been used as eyewash and for sore throats; tea made from the leaves and inner bark has been used as an emetic; and a boiled gum drink served as a purgative. Cradle boards were made from the roots, sharpened snags were used as plows, and the hard wood was used for hubs and spokes of wagon wheels.

We take so much for granted today, buying whatever foods and hardware we desire at the local stores, but early Texans could not run down to the store every time something caught their fancy. Not only did they have to plan ahead, but they had to spend every waking minute searching for or preparing for their next meal. They learned a great deal about what could and could not be eaten from the local Native Americans. They also learned a great deal about other uses of native plants and animals. But few native plants were as valuable as mesquite.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Sapsuckers are Keystone Species
by Ro Wauer

Sapsuckers, with a name that sounds like it was invented by cartoonists, are one of our most interesting wintertime residents. They are referred to as "keystone species" because of their importance in the wildlife community. Wherever they occur, other birds take advantage of the sapsucker's habit of maintaining sap wells. These are tiny holes drilled in various trees and large shrubs from which the sapsucker obtains much of its nutrients. The flowing sap is licked up by sapsuckers, and numerous other birds, mammals, lizards, and insects also feed on the sap or prey on the various creatures that are attracted to the site. Sapsuckers, therefore, often are the center of an active community.

The widespread sapsucker that occurs in South Texas during the winter months is the yellow-bellied sapsucker; Williamson’s, red-naped and red-breasted sapsuckers are rare or uncommon species found only in the Trans-Pecos mountains. Although a member of the woodpecker family, sapsuckers differ from typical woodpeckers in several ways. Most importantly, their diet consists primarily of sap, although insects, fruit and berries are also part of their diet. Insects are vitally important when feeding young. Sapsucker tongues have evolved with featherlike projections, enhancing their ability to lap the gooey sap. Woodpecker tongues possess barb-like projections that allow them to probe into holes drilled into trees and shrubs and retrieve insects.

Our wintering yellow-bellied sapsucker can readily be distinguished from other woodpeckers by their medium size, red forehead and throat, black-and-white face, black chest, and yellow belly. The slightly smaller ladder-backed woodpecker, a year-round resident, lacks the red throat and black chest, although males possess a red cap; they possess a black-and-white barred back, ladder like markings. The larger red-bellied woodpecker is fairly common in the northern half of the South Texas region, while the similar golden-fronted woodpecker occurs only in the southern portion of our region. Their ranges overlap in Victoria County. Both of these larger woodpeckers have a barred back and grayish underparts. In addition, the northern flicker is also fairly common in winter; it is easily identified by its yellow flight feathers and spotted breast. The much larger pileated woodpecker, the woody-woodpecker look-alike, is usually limited to riparian areas. And the red-headed woodpecker of the eastern forests is only rarely found in South Texas.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers only winter in South Texas, usually arriving in mid-October and departing in April. Evidence of their activities is easily found by the lines of small test holes on the trunks of various trees and shrubs; cedar elm, sugarberry and live oak seem to be preferred. They maintain only the most productive holes. Their nesting grounds lie far to the north of Texas, across the northern tier of states and northward into Alaska and east to Newfoundland. They overwinter throughout the southeastern states and most of Texas eastward to the southern Atlantic states, and a few occasionally reach the Caribbean Islands.

Their presence in our neighbor is worth noting. It is a fascinating species and truly an important member of the wildlife community.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Sandhill Cranes Are Due in October
by Ro Wauer

October marks that time of year when Sandhill Cranes are starting to move into their wintering grounds throughout South Texas. It is marvelous to have these large, graceful birds back in our fields and pastures. They will remain all winter, leaving for their northern nesting grounds in late April and early May. But from now until May, one can find hundreds of these birds by driving the roads throughout the region.

Unlike the more famous Whooping Cranes that also winter in South Texas at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and on adjacent coastal flats, Sandhill Cranes prefer drier sites. Their needs are very different. While the Whoopers overwinter only in wet coastal marshes, feeding on marine life and fish, as well as marsh plants, acorns, and grains, Sandhills prefer newly planted or harvested corn, sorghum, and grains. They even range into semiarid areas west to the Big Bend country, southern New Mexico, and south of the border in northern Mexico.

Our returning Sandhill Cranes often possess an odd color pattern, especially when they first arrive: their feathers are rust colored from the iron-rich feeding grounds where they spend their summer months. Normal Sandhill Crane plumage is overall gray with a whitish throat and cheeks, a bare reddish cap in adults, and dark gray legs. Whooping Crane adults are all white except for a black facial pattern and reddish cap. In flight, Whoopers display obvious black-and-white wings, while flying Sandhills are all gray, except for their whitish throat. Both fly with their heads stretched far out and legs trailing behind; Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets, also large birds that are sometimes confused with cranes, normally fly with their necks bent so that their head does not extend.

Sandhill Cranes may be one of our most expressive birds. They often can be heard at a considerable distance, talking to one another in their unique calls, a long, rolling, hollow rattle, like “garoooooo.” Whether in flight or feeding in a field, they seem to spend a great deal of their time communicating.

Normally Sandhill Cranes mate for life, and as their mating season draws close, they often can be seen dancing before their mates. Although their mating displays in Texas are less elaborate that the dancing that occurs on their breeding grounds, it is still worthy of our appreciation. Courtship involves loud calling and marvelous dances with head bobbing, bowing and leaping, grass tossing, and running with wings extended.

Sandhills nest far north of South Texas from the Rocky Mountain and northern Great Lakes states to Canada and Alaska. They utilize marshes, grasslands and tundra areas where they construct a bulky nest of sticks, grasses and mosses. Female Sandhills usually two eggs and it is another ten weeks before the youngsters can fly. Families soon congregate in feeding areas, and those same flocks travel together to their wintering grounds in fall.

It is good to see Sandhill Cranes returning to their ancestral wintering grounds in South Texas.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

American Crows Are Too Often Taken for Granted
by Ro Wauer

American Crows are one of our most common native birds, and they are one of our most obvious species. And yet, in spite of that, they are usually ignored and forgotten. The exceptions include farmers that must chase them away from plantings and birders who count them along with all of the other wintertime birds during the annual Christmas Bird Counts. But American crows, known to ornithologists as Corvus brachyrhynchos, are abundant throughout our area of Texas and throughout the eastern half of the state.

Their range does not, however, extend very far south of the San Antonio River or westward into West Texas. They are replaced to the south and in much of the western portion of the state by the Chihuahaun raven, and by the fish crow along the eastern edge of the state, both crow look-alikes. And the common raven, a similar but larger version of the crow, occurs throughout the mountainous portion of West Texas and the western portion of the Hill Country. Plus, a fifth crow-like bird, the Tamaulipas crow, occurs only in a small area near Brownsville. This species is abundant throughout much of Mexico, only reaching the United States in deep southern Texas.

All five of these birds are closely related according to taxonomists, who have lumped them all into the genus Corvus. They do differ somewhat in size, with the common raven being the largest, and the fish and Tamaulipas crows being the smallest. In places where their ranges overlap, they can best be identified by their rather unique voices. But all have the basic "caw" calls, although the common raven has a deeper call, the fish crow's call is higher and more nasal in quality, the Chihuahuan raven's call is a drawn out croak, and the Tamaulipas crow's call is like a low, froglike croak. Only the American crow, our local Corvus, has the typical caw call that is often given in a series.

American crows are a wary and suspicious bird that spends much of its time in fields and pastures, only rarely spending much time in urban areas. However, these adaptable and resourceful birds, that almost always occur in flocks, can appear wherever food is available. They will then post a lookout to warn the group of any danger, while the remainder of the flock feeds on whatever food they have found. Their diet can vary considerably. Harry Oberholser wrote in his book, The Bird Life of Texas, that "the omnivorous Common [crows] eats what the season and locality provide, its diet including insects, crustaceans, snails, reptiles, small mammals, carrion, grain, and edible trash discarded by humans; also eggs and young of wild birds." When feeding on mollusks, they will drop the shells onto rocks from a considerably height to break the shells so they can reach the soft body parts.

The entire crow/raven group of birds is considered one of the smartest of all North American birds. They have not only survived in great numbers over the years, when so many other species have declined from pesticides and habitat loss, but some pet crows have even learned to mimic human vocalizations.

During the breeding season, that in the south can extend from early spring into the fall, and may include two broods, American crow courtship can be rather vigorous. Males pursue females in flight and among the trees or on the ground where they often fluff their body feathers, spread their tail, and bows several times to their lady while uttering rattling call notes. They will then perch together, preen one another and touch bills.

Nests are constructed on trees, usually well hidden among the higher foliage, although there are records of ground nests. Nests are constructed of branches, twigs, and bark, and are lined with shredded bark, leaves, grass, and hair. Four to six bluish-green eggs are then laid, and young leave the nests in 28 to 35 days. These same youngsters will often serve as helpers to their parents, in nest construction and feeding the nestlings of a second brood.

The native American crow is truly a fascinating member of our avian community!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Winter Songbirds Are Starting to Appear
by Ro Wauer

Most of the migrating hummingbirds and many of the other fall migrants have passed our area by late September. The millions of fall migrants are moving southward toward their wintering grounds in Mexico, Central America, and some even into South America. And the majority of the Neotropical birds that nested in South Texas have also moved on, joining the hoards of other southbound migrants. Their departure leaves a vacancy that soon will be filled with a variety of other songbirds. Within a very few days we can look forward to the arrival of our winter residents.

One of our very earliest arrivals will be the fly-catching eastern phoebe, a little perky flycatcher that over winters in our yards and pastures. Loners will spend their winter days perched on post and branches from where they will chase down whatever flying insect passes their way. Then they will return to the same perch, swallow their prey, jerk their tail, and wait for the next passing tidbit. Eastern phoebes are one of our hardiest flycatchers, able to survive the South Texas winters, while the vast majority of the other members of the flycatcher family have gone further south.

Brown thrashers also return in early fall. Their presence is often detected by their distinct call, a sharp spuck and low churr notes. This larger, reddish-backed bird is usually shy, staying in brushy areas and only coming into the open to feed and drink. And they love to bath; most of the sightings in my yard have been at one of my birdbaths. Brown thrashers are long, skinny birds, about robin-length, but with a reddish-brown back and streaked underparts.

Loggerhead shrikes also return to their wintering grounds fairly early. This short-tailed, black-and-white bird with a black mask, has a harsh "shack-shack" call. It prefers open areas where it can perch on a low snag to see prey. Unlike most songbirds, shrikes prey on other birds, as well as various insects and even lizards. They have a habit of impaling their prey, usually hanging them head-down, on a thorn or barb. Their method of storing food allows them to feed at their leisure, a unique feature among songbirds.

Two of the smallest of our winter residents can also appear in September, the house wren and the ruby-crowned kinglet. House wrens love thickets, and often their presence is only detected by their almost constant chatter, like rapid scolding notes. When seen in the open, it is a little, long-tailed, brownish bird, with a buff throat and eyebrows. Its wings and tail are barred with black lines.

Ruby-crowned kinglets are even smaller, and they usually are found in the upper foliage and shrubs, rather than in brush. And it is one of most nervous of songbirds, jittery-like and always moving about. Its small size and nervous behavior often is enough for identification. It has greenish-olive upperparts, paler underparts, and a broken whitish eyering. And when it is excited, it may show a bright red crown patch. It, too, calls constantly, emitting husky "did-it" notes.

Chipping sparrows can also appear in September. Another very little songbird, it is best identified by the adult's reddish crown and grayish underparts and collar. Usually seen in small flocks on the ground, it spends most of its daylight hours searching for seeds. It readily comes to birdseed feeders.

Some of the other early (by mid-October) songbirds to be expected in our neighborhoods include gray catbirds; yellow-rumped and orange-crowned warblers; field, vesper, savannah, Lincoln's, swamp, and white-throated sparrows; Brewer's blackbirds; and American goldfinches. Some of our other wintering songbirds arrive somewhat later, although so much depends upon winter conditions further north as well as the availability of food locally. But birds we usually can expect by November include American robins, cedar waxwings, pine warbler, eastern towhee, LeConte’s sparrows, and pine siskins.

For now, be on the lookout for our very earliest wintering songbirds.