The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Global Warming Is Real
by Ro Wauer

With a New Year just around the corner, I need to get something off my chest that’s been festering for a long time! That is the truth that so many folks, particularly those ultra conservatives and the many politicians that are controlled by big business, have totally ignored. And what is even more unbelievable is that those some folks have put every conceivable excuse in the way of doing something that will turn around a problem that will very likely destroy life as we know it. Of course, those of us of the age that we probably will not be about 10 to 20 years from now, don’t need to worry so much. But those of us with children and grandkids need to!

Is Global Warming only a myth, as some conservative talk show hosts claim? Or can we believe the National Academy of Sciences report that stated "that the last few decades of the 20th century were warmer than any comparable period in the last 400 years." Why do we ignore some very real facts that the ice pack in both the Arctic and Antarctic is shrinking, that the glaciers in the Himalayas and the Alps and Greenland are retreating, and that the glaciers in our own Glacier National Park in Montana are expected to be gone by 2030? All this melting is expected to raise sea levels that will not only swallow whole islands in the South Pacific but also create extensive flooding along our own coastlines, including portions of Florida, Louisiana, and New York City. And what about the biological changes in our oceans, such as our loss of coral reefs and much of our fisheries? And why are we finding more birds and butterflies further north than anytime in the past? Why are birds migrating sooner, pests are spreading to new areas, drought conditions are more extensive than in the past, and deserts are expanding? Purple martins are now arriving in Texas several weeks earlier than ever before. Why?

Why is it that we have recently experienced the highest temperatures and the worst storms on record? Think Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne in 2004 and Dennis, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma in 2006! Some argue that everything is cyclic and things will eventually get back to normal. It certainly is true that everything in nature is cyclic, but that relates more to our native plants and animals. Population fluctuations in wildlife are proven ecological principles. But when entire habitats in which our wildlife depends on their very survival change, those changes can be catastrophic to those creatures that cannot move elsewhere. Here are some examples:

Polar bear numbers are rapidly declining due to sea ice meltdown. Spring melts are coming two weeks sooner, before the bears have built up necessary fat reserves, resulting in drowned and starving bears and lower cub-survival. To the south, drought conditions throughout much of the American Southwest have seriously affected numerous plants and animals. Many wetlands on which our wildlife have long depended upon, are going dry. Even some of our amidland wildlife species, such as the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep, are in sharp decline. The little brown moth, an invasive species first found in the Florida Keys that can totally wipe out pricklypear cacti, has been moving north and west at a rate of about 100 miles per year. Major areas of our woodlands are being lost because of the lack of rainfall or to invading pests that take advantage of stressful conditions.

Global warming is a difficult concept to understand. You can't see it or taste it or touch it. Unlike smog, it doesn't burn your throat, and it doesn't directly kill birds and fish like an oil spill. It is easy to ignore or deny! But it is real! It is when carbon dioxide and other gases that occur naturally in the atmosphere trap warmth from the sun. These same "greenhouse gases," in lower amounts, help sustain our planet by keeping it warm. But human beings have spewed so much greenhouse gas into the air since the Industrial Revolution that today's carbon dioxide levels are nearly 100 parts per million higher than they were in 1750. That, according to the International Panel on Climate Change, is a 650,000-year high. And it's warming the planet!

The very first step in addressing a problem, whatever it might be, is to believe there is a problem, and the next step is to understand the problem. There is a pertinent quote from African environmentalist Baba Dioum who said: "In the end, we will save only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Mistletoe, A Symbol of Christmas
by Ro Wauer

While the Christmas tree and associated decorations, along with figures of Santa and his sleigh and reindeer, are undoubtedly the most recognized symbols of Christmas, the sometimes forgotten mistletoe is also a well-known symbol of the Holidays. Mistletoe, one of the true native symbols of the season, is full of life in winter, just when many of our plants are at their lowest ebb.
Mistletoe has a long standing wintertime tradition. It was once gathered as a symbol of life and purity by the Druids of ancient Gaul, and it figures in legends of Germany and Scandinavia. But today it is hung at Christmas as a promise of life and fertility. In many countries, a person standing beneath mistletoe must forfeit a kiss.

The plant belongs to the mistletoe family, Viscaceae, which contains about 500 species that occur on a wide variety of woody plants throughout the tropical and neotropical regions of the world. Texas, according to "The Checklist of The Vascular Plants of Texas" (Texas Agricultural Experiment Station), has but seven species. The one that is commonplace in South Texas is actually known as Christmas mistletoe, or scientifically as Phoradendron tomentosum.

Mistletoe is partly parasitic, deriving part of its nourishment from its host plant. The rest of its food is manufactured from the chlorophyll of its greenish yellow, leathery leaves. Tropical species may flower and fruit year-round, but more northern mistletoe plants flower in spring and produce semitransparent berries in the fall and winter; many are at their peak at about Christmastime. The fruits are eaten by birds that often spread the plant by wiping the sticky glutinous seeds on branches of trees and shrubs. In addition, the phainopepla, a bird of the American Southwest, builds its nests almost exclusively among mistletoe, and there also are a few butterflies, like the great purple hairstreak, and moths in which mistletoe serves as their larval foodplant.

For years people regarded the waxen mistletoe berry as a charm against epilepsy, nightmares, and witchcraft. It has been considered a good luck piece in many parts of the world, worn in the lapel or around the neck to keep diseases away, placed under the pillow to induce dreams or omens, laid upon the threshold to prevent nightmares, carried by women to cure infertility, and placed in fields to stimulate crop fertility.

Mistletoe was once forbidden in Christian churches because it was thought tainted with heathenism, but now it is a symbol of life, along with wintergreens. And it is brought into households at Christmastime as a decoration and also to perpetuate the pleasant custom of kissing.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Bird Song is Already Heard on Sunny Days
by Ro Wauer

In spite of our recent cold snap, several of our resident birds have begun their springtime singing. Walking about the neighborhood, one of the loudest and more vigorous songster is the northern cardinal or redbird. Males perch up high, like a king of all they survey, and loudly proclaim their territory. Cardinal songs have been described as a loud, clear, throaty whistle. Although both the males and females sing, it is the male that is loudest and most strident. Female cardinal songs are softer and less frequent. Cardinal songs possess a variation of notes, like "wheer wheer wheer whoit whoit whoit whoit," the first three notes descending in pitch, the whoit notes rising sharply and delivered more rapidly; "hew hew hew hew hew," each note descending.

Carolina wren songs are similar to those of cardinals, a clear, loud, ringing song. It usually is three-syllables and usually is repeated three to five times. It is often described as "tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea" or "wheedle, wheedle, wheedle, wheedle." Carolina wrens also are early spring songsters, and they have a habit of dueting, when a male may start a song that is finished by a female. And oftentimes, a nearby male, hearing the first songster, will answer.

Another of our resident songbird that already is singing about the neighborhood is the tufted titmouse. The titmouse song is less musical than that of the cardinal, but is equally loud and constant. It can easily be described as a series of "peter" notes. At times in spring, titmice will call over and over again for an extended period of time. Like cardinals, male titmice seem to prefer a high perch, although they rarely sit at the very tip top.

The smallest of our resident songster is the Carolina chickadee. I have heard it, too, of late, but not as frequent as the cardinal and titmouse. Chickadee songs are a clear "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" or "dee-dee-dee." Sometimes their song can be run together so it is almost an extended scratchy call. And like the previous two species, chickadee males often sing from on high, although they spend most of their time hidden among the foliage.

The most varied songs come from northern mockingbirds, another of our common resident birds. Mockingbird songs can sound like almost any other birdsong or even like some constant noise in the neighborhood. But their typical song is a rich, varied, musical medley interspersed with imitations and harsh notes. It usually repeats each note three to six times or more before shifting to another imitation or phrase.

Even some of our wintering birds have begun to react by singing bits of their songs that may not be fully expressed until they return to their ancestral nesting grounds later in spring or early summer. But it is not unusual to hear even those birds, such as ruby-crowned kinglets, orange-crowned and yellow-rumped warblers, and chipping and white-throated sparrows, lend their voices to the early spring chorus.

Birdsong is a truly fascinating behavior that is practiced by all birds. It is especially commonplace in spring, when males begin to claim breeding territories. Although some birds defend a territory year-round, most of our yard birds only become active in spring. Their territorial defense, primarily that of singing but also chasing other birds away, lasts throughout the nesting season but diminishes significantly once the young are fledged.

Ornithologists have studied singing birds for decades, recording their songs and also examining their internal organs. All agree that the stimulus for breeding, including territoriality, courtship, and nesting, is the increasing hours of daylight. Since our day lengths already are increasing, birds are reacting by singing during sunny and warming days. Birdsong is a marvelous indicator that warmer days will bring springtime flowers, butterflies, and general contentment.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Cardinals, Our Christmas Yard Birds
by Ro Wauer

If there would be a requirement to pick one bird to represent the Christmas season, it would undoubtedly be our bright red cardinal. No other bird so well reminds us of the bright red decorations that are so widespread during the period of Christmas. And during the colder days of winter, any yard that contains bird feeders are sure to attract a few of these marvelous songbirds.

However, only the male cardinal is so well marked with brilliant red plumage and a coal-black face. Female cardinals are not nearly as bright as the males, although many of us think the lady cardinals are just as beautiful. They sport grayish-olive upperparts, reddish wings, and only a slightly black face. Both possess a crest that is bright red on males and only slightly reddish on females. And male bills are bright red but pinkish on females. The very similar pyrrhuloxia, a more arid land species found just south of Victoria, has a noticeably yellow bill.

Cardinals are members of the Family Fringillidae, a large family that includes a wide diversity of seed-eaters, including grosbeaks, buntings, sparrows, juncos, and finches. All feed on seeds year-round, although all also take insects, especially when feeding young during their nesting season. This time of year they are most likely to be found in weedy areas and in yards containing seed-feeders. Although all will utilize the smaller seeds, most of the larger species, especially the large-billed birds such as cardinals, seem to prefer larger seeds. Black oil sunflower seeds are a favorite. But goldfinches are most attracted to the tiny thistle seeds.

Of all the Fringillids, cardinals are far and away the best known and most beloved. As a result perhaps, cardinals have acquired a variety of names. Although best known to birders is northern cardinal, they also are known as redbird, big red, cardinal bird, topknot redbird, cardinal grosbeak, and, in Virginia, even Virginia nightingale. The cardinal name comes from the Latin word cardo, meaning "the hinge of a door," referring I suppose to its song, according to June Osborne, in her lovely little book, The Cardinal, published as a gift book by the University of Texas Press. June continues that, "Carollus Linnaeus, the famous eighteenth century Swedish botanist known as the Father of Taxonomy, chose to ascribe the name 'cardinal' to the bird whose plumage matches the radiant color of the papal robes of the church's cardinal. Through the centuries the name has stuck."

Throughout its very extension range, South Texas seems to contain as many or more cardinals than practically anywhere else. June points out that, according to Christmas Bird Counts that are undertaken annually throughout North America, "the densest concentrations of cardinals in winter occur on the Mississippi River, both in the South and further north, and also along the Colorado and Guadalupe rivers in southern Texas. Less dense cardinal populations are found in winter along the Ohio, Arkansas, Brazos, and Red rivers."

But wherever they occur, they seem to be most evident around Christmastime. Perhaps that is when natural foods are most scarce, and they are spending more time at our feeders. But maybe it is because we are spending more time at home enjoying the holidays and are able to appreciate the coming and goings in our yards. The bright red male cardinal will certainly attract our attention!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Christmas Tree Is a Rich Tradition
by Ro Wauer

Christmas in many parts of the country is a snowtime-and-skiiing time of year. But for those us living in South Texas, where snow is almost a once in a lifetime occurrence, the Christmas tree is our most obvious and cherished symbol of the season.

It is that time of year filled with greeting cards, Santa, goodwill to man, and Christ. But whatever our religious preference, the Christmas tree seems to stand apart as being something special. A bright tree, covered with tinsel and bulbs, has a priority place in all our homes year after year.

No one knows for sure where the Christmas tree symbol began. Scandinavians once worshipped trees, and when they became Christians, evergreen trees became part of their Christian festivals. Others argue that it originated with Martin Luther, who, about 1500, tried to reproduce an outdoor scene of snow-covered pines, complete with the Star of Bethlehem, within his home. By 1561, an ordinance in Strasbourg, France, limited residents from cutting bushes for yuletide "more than the length of eight shoes."

Ornaments may have begun with pre-civilized humans who hung meat and other food on trees to keep it safe from wild animals. Those goods may have evolved into cookies and candies, and eventually tinsel was added. Do you remember the story of how tinsel was invented? It was after spiders made a mess of things, spinning webs over a poor woman's tree for her children, that a fairy godmother turned the trick to treat.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, nurserymen could not sell their cultivated evergreens for landscaping and began to cut trees for Christmas trees. Now, more than two-thirds of all Christmas trees sold in America are plantation-grown trees. Of the more than 40 million trees grown and cut annually, 27% are Scotch pine, 22% are Douglas fir, 12% are balsam fir, and the remainder includes a wide variety of pine and fir. Balsam fir is normally the most expensive because it usually possesses the perfect “Christmas tree shape” and retains its needles longest. And today, for various reasons including allergies and loss of plantation space, the popularity of artificial Christmas trees is on the increase.

Elizabeth Silverthorne, in her lovely book, Christmas in Texas, points out that during the 1800s, after President Franklin Pierce brought a Christmas tree into the White House, "Texans decorated their trees with whatever was handy: red berries, moss, mistletoe, cotton, pecans wrapped in colored cloth or paper, strings of popcorn, red peppers made into garlands, and homemade cookies and candies." She adds that "by the late 1800s Christmas trees were all the rage. The Austin Statesman advised its readers that if you can’t pay two dollars for one, take a hatchet, go out into the woods and poach on somebody's forest. You must have a Christmas tree or there will be no Christmas."

Attempting to explain the Christmas tree custom only fogs the fun. Trees will be part of the Christmas scene as long as kids from two to ninety get starlight in their eyes when they focus on the star atop the tree that, after all, symbolizes the real spirit of Christmas.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, The Search Continues
by Ro Wauer

As the winter season approaches in the southern swamps, teams of birders are again preparing to head out to search for the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker. While some recent evidence from Arkansas suggests that this bird truly does still exist, some ornithologists remain skeptical. Recent evidence of its existence, that includes a few seconds of video tape and sound recordings, are not enough for some skeptics. The search for proof positive will continue.

It was February 2005 when birders, floating the Cache River in eastern Arkansas, saw what they reported as an ivory-billed woodpecker. They were so certain of what they had seen, in spite of the bird not being recorded in more than 60 years, that they convinced biologists from Cornell University and The Nature Conservancy to institute a widespread search. There followed a 13-month survey by approximately 50 people that centered on Arkansas' Mississippi Delta. That effort produced seven reported sightings, a snippet of blurred videotape, and reported hearings of the ivory-bill's nasal "kent-kent" calls and trademark double-rap drumming. But still no positive photographs.

Some skeptics suggest that all of the reports relate to smaller pileated woodpeckers rather than ivory-bills. Although these two large woodpeckers are very similar in appearance, besides the size difference that is difficult to determine at a distance, there are three principal plumage differences. First, pileated wings when perched are all black above while half the tip of ivory-bill wings are white; in flight, pileated wings are mostly all-black while those of the ivory-bill are half white. Also, pileated's facial pattern is white with a black band that runs through the eye, while the ivory-bill's facial pattern is black except for a white neck band, and bill colors are blackish-gray on pileated and ivory color on ivory-bill.

Ivory-bill’s range once extended throughout the southeastern portion of the United States, from the Texas Big Thicket area eastward to northern Florida and South Carolina. Also, there is/was a closely related ivory-bill in Cuba. Most of our knowledge of the North American bird comes from studies in the Singer Tract of northeastern Louisiana during the 1930s and 1940s. Since then, the numerous sightings have been undocumented. The exception is from the Texas Big Thicket area along Village Creek in Hardin County in 1968; tape recordings were reanalyzed following the Arkansas reports that now are considered valid. That one sure Texas record, along with a number of undocumented sightings, prompted John Arvin, ornithologist with the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, to propose further Texas surveys of bottomland forests of the lower Trinity, Neches, and Sabine watersheds in southeastern Texas.

These and follow-up surveys in Arkansas and Mississippi over the next several months will include both aerial and ground/water searches. The 2007 season generally will extend from early January through most of April. Such a large, well-marked woodpecker can be identified from slow-flying aircraft. On the ground, teams will be combing the waterways along with viewers at lookout points that provide long stretches of streams or forest openings. Each search area contains a bewildering maze of waterways through swamp forests. Searchers must also put up with hoards of mosquitoes and an occasional cottonmouth.

The effects of Hurricane Rita for finding ivory-bills are mixed. The storm changed much of the stream flow and increased the number of logjams and tangles, making access more difficult. On the other hand, the tremendous amount of downed trees, ranging from 20% to as high as 75% in the hardest hit areas, have greatly increased the bird's food availability. Ivory-bill's principal food includes boring grubs of beetles that infest trees in their early stages of decay. And these woodpeckers create large noticeable cavities when digging for grubs.

Birders world-wide, including those who have long considered the ivory-bill extinct, are looking forward to the results of the 2007 surveys. It would be especially exciting for Texans to know that the fragments of wilderness remaining in East Texas contain some of the last strongholds of this amazing creature.