The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Even Butterflies Are Affected by Our Dry Weather
by Ro Wauer

Butterfly numbers in South Texas this year are only a small percentage of what they are during years of normal rainfall. I am finding fewer species as well as fewer individuals. Watering and maintaining a good variety of flowering plants helps to attract whatever species might be passing by, but the dry conditions have affected even the most common species.

One can still expect a few species with fair certainty. The largest of these are two swallowtails: the pipevine swallowtail is blackish with shiny blue on the trailing half of the hindwing, and the giant swallowtail is black with broad diagonal and marginal yellow bands. Another large and fairly common species still found in numbers is the gulf fritillary. It is bright orange with long wings with scattered black dots above, and the underside has numerous black-rimmed silvery blotches. All three of these can hardly be missed or misidentified.

There are at least three sulphurs to be found in gardens and along our roadways, orange and large orange sulphurs and little yellow. All three usually perch with wings folded. Orange sulphur is dollar-size, yellow with a small, round, red-rimmed silver central spot and small black marginal spots on the hindwing. The somewhat larger large orange sulphur is all orange-yellow with a blackish band that runs from the tip to the center of the hindwing. And little yellow is just that, a very small, all-yellow butterfly that shows scattered black dots, including a pair of black dots at the base of the hindwing. The lemon yellow little yellow, oftentimes quite numerous, is an active butterfly that rarely stops to feed on flower nectar.

And then there are the two widespread checkered-skippers, common and tropical checkered-skippers. These two active, black-and-white little spread-winged skippers spend much of their time flying here and there, but they do stop often to sip nectar from various flowers. And two additional butterflies can be commonplace in shady areas: dusky-blue groundstreak and Carolina satyr. The little groundstreak is one of the hairstreaks with a black tail spot with an orange cap, and it spends much of its time on the ground. Carolina satyr also remains low to the ground, and can easily be identified by its large and small eyespots on the underside, and its flits about near the ground, seemingly bouncing from one spot to the next.

Although a careful observer is likely to find an additional 15 to 20 species at this time this year by visited a number of natural sites, gardens and yards designed to attract butterflies are by far the most productive sites. A variety of flowering plants and moist conditions is usually the key. I find that some of the old standbys, such as lantanas, pentas, and Mexican heather, are some of the better butterfly attractants. And as the season progresses, several of the other nursery plants will begin to flower. Of those, I find that duranta, butterfly bushes, Mexican bush sage, firebush, and verbena are the best. And later in the fall, crucita is the very best of the butterfly magnets.

Of course, not all butterflies utilize flowering plants. Tree sap attracts several butterfly species, such as question mark, leafwings, some satyrs, and emperors. Many of these also utilize overripe fruit. Overripe bananas, watermelon, cantaloupes, and mangoes are some of the best attractants. And there is a beer-based mixture that can be made that does a marvelous job. I have had great success with the following recipe: 2 cans of beer, 10 to 12 over-ripe bananas, and one-half pound of brown sugar. I blend all of these together in a blender, and then pour the mixture into a bottle and place in the sun (with the lid loose) for several hours to give it a nice odor. The resultant goop can be dripped onto a feeding tray or painted (with a paintbrush) on any surface. Butterflies often respond within minutes.

It is best to add a little bit of the goop to the same feeding site daily, preferable each morning. Surrounding butterflies usually will come to the feeding site with regularity. Some will stay for some time while others come and go. And a variety of species, especially admirals, leafwings and emperors, can be expected. A couple years ago, I recorded a gray cracker on my feeder, sipping goop. It was the first record of that tropical species north of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Some folks find that this mess works very well for both butterflies and moths. With so few flowering plants outside of our yards this year, it will take additional means to attract butterflies. Good luck!

Friday, April 28, 2006

Dr. David Taylor, whose new book on Texas nature writing, Pride of Place, we announced here, was interviewed on All Things Considered.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Why So Few Wildflowers This Year?
by Ro Wauer

The obvious answer to the paucity of wildflowers his year is the drought conditions that the Central Gulf Coastal Region has experienced for the last several months. During the period that would have made a huge difference, the Victoria Advocate reported less than five inches for November 2005 through March 2006, the average rainfall during that same period is almost twelve inches. What a difference!

The lack of wildflowers this spring has not only impacted on our visual enjoyment of our surrounding landscapes, but has caused considerable stress in DeWitt County. The DeWitt County Wildflower Association in Cuero has had to cancel their guided wildflower tours this year. Considered the Wildflower Capital of Texas, the annual festival has practically had to shut down. Visitors are still given maps of the county roadways where some wildflowers can still be found, although the numbers are only a tiny fraction of normal, so one can go on their own.

In addition, Wildflower Association members still daily travel the roadways and collect a few specimens to keep their wildflower display up to date. On a visit to the DeWitt County Historical Museum in Cuero last week, I found a total of 90 wildflower species on display. That is a remarkable number considering this year. The Historical Museum, at 312 E. Broadway in Cuero, is also the headquarters for the annual Wildflower Festival. The display did provide an exceptional opportunity to see in one place the variety of wildflowers available along the DeWitt County roadways. A super way to help identify wildflowers one is unsure about. Additional information about this really classy festival can be found at www.dewittwildflowers.org.

Also while in Cuero, Betty and I visited Cuero’s Municipal Park, located across the highway from Wal-Mart, where we checked out the Native Plant Enhancement Area at the Gazebo. The flowering shrubs were limited, although some were in full bloom, but we did see a few butterfly species, including a Dorantes longtail, one of the skippers that are only uncommon in our part of the state. But DeWitt County claims almost 120 butterfly species, according to Derek Muschalek, who surveys the county somewhat regularly for species he can find. And my new book, "Finding Butterflies in Texas, A Guide to the Best Sites," will include DeWitt County as one of 76 sites in Texas, and it will include a list of all the DeWitt County butterflies and where they can best to found. Publication of that book is expected by mid-May 2006.

Although this year's butterfly numbers are far below average, due principally to the lack of nectar and larval foodplants, a few can still be found along the roadways. For instance, pipevine and giant swallowtails; checkered white; orange, cloudless, large orange, and dainty sulphurs; southern dogface; little yellow; sleepy orange; gray hairstreak; gulf and variegated fritillaries; bordered patch; vesta, phaon, pearl, and Texan crescents; tawny emperor; Carolina satyr; Horace's and funereal duskywings; common and tropical checkered-skippers; clouded and fiery skippers; and sachem are likely.

In addition, DeWitt County also can produce a few truly special butterflies, those more southern species that barely reach the northern edge of their range in DeWitt County. Five of these include rounded metalmark, coyote cloudywing, Mazan's scallopwing, and laviana and Turk's-cap white-skippers. And a few others, such as Julia, zebra, and white peacock, are tropical strays that usually can be found in late summer and fall.

It is only natural and expected that an area like little DeWitt County, that can boast more than 1000 kinds of wildflowers, also attracts a wide variety of butterflies. The two groups go together like no other categories of flora and fauna.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Daniel Morgan at Get Busy Livin' or Get Busy Bloggin' is gearing up for Circus of the Spineless #8. Check his announcement out here and then get busy submittin'!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Bewick’s Wren Is More Than Just Another Wren
by Ro Wauer

Although the larger and more common Carolina wren is far better known in our area, the little, long-tailed Bewick’s wren can more than hold its own. Although Bewick's wrens seldom reside in our larger towns, they are commonplace in our surrounding oak woodlands. It has been described as a thicket and brush bird. And Oberholser's classic book, The Bird Life of Texas, states that "It seems to thrive best in hilly, semiarid localities."

This time of year, Bewick's wrens are in full song, defending nesting sites with considerable energy. Males spend much of the day singing their spirited songs throughout their territories. Perhaps it is their singing that is most appealing; their rollicking songs seem to go on and on with little let up. The songs have been described as clear and variable, loud and musical, and often ending with a high-pitched buzzing sound. Studies have shown that Bewick's wrens sing sixteen different songs, and often sing forty to fifty repetitions of one song before switching to the next.

Bewick's wrens (pronounced like the Buick car) are little brown to gray birds with obvious white eyelines, whitish underparts, and a long tail with a white tip. They were named by early ornithologist and painter John Audubon for English engraver Thomas Bewick. It is a perky bird that often waves its tail back and forth and cocks the tail upright. Although it normally is shy and secretive, it can also be found singing from high open posts. When nesting they utilize cavities, including holes in trees, shrubs and posts, and even brush piles and among upturned tree roots. One of the strangest nest sites was in the bed of a pickup truck. According to Kent Rylander's book, The Behavior of Texas Birds, the pair "continued to attend the nest, even though the pickup was taken to town for an hour or so each day." He also pointed out that males often build dummy nests to fool predators.

Texas has nine species of wrens, although only four nest in our area, the Carolina, Bewick's, cactus, and marsh wrens. Five additional species nest in Texas to the west and/or north of our area or are present in Texas only as migrants and/or winter residents only. Of our other nesting Texas wrens, the cactus wren is resident in the southern and western portion of our area, but is especially common in the Trans-Pecos where it often builds nests in the protection of spiny shrubs and cactuses. The marsh wren nests in Texas wetlands only along the Gulf Coast region; it prefers cattail dominated marshes. Once known as long-billed marsh wren, it is reddish with white streaks on the back and a white eyeline.

Rock, canyon, and house wrens also nest within the state. Rock and canyon wrens are especially common in the western portion of Texas and locally in the Edwards Plateau. The rock wren is a grayish little bird that has a habit of bobbing up and down. The canyon wren, a reddish bird with white underparts, is most memorable for its loud descending song that is so common in the canyons of Big Bend National Park. House wrens nest only in northern Texas along the Canadian River and in the highlands of the Davis and Guadalupe mountains of the Trans-Pecos. However, this little bird has an extensive range throughout most of North America, and it is one of the best known of all the wrens.

Winter and sedge wrens occur in Texas only as migrants and winter residents; they nest considerably north of the state. The winter wren is the smallest of all our wrens, and it is best identified by its very small size, reddish plumage, and extremely short tail. And finally, the sedge wren, formerly known as short-billed marsh wren, is similar to the marsh wren but with a streaked crown. It can be common in the coastal prairies in winter.

Wrens all belong to the same family of Troglodytidae, a Greek name for those who creep into holes, a cave dweller. There are 59 species of avian Troglodites, all found in the Western Hemisphere. Only one - the winter wren, know simply as "wren" - occurs in Europe.

Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Pop! Goes the Weasel

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

The word “weasel” means different things to different people. I’ve known people I considered to be low down “weasels” and others that used “weasel words” to dance around a subject rather than say what they actually meant. On more than one occasion, I’ve stealthily snuck or “weaseled” out of a situation I didn’t want to be in. To my grandson, the music and lyrics of the tune “Pop-Goes-The-Weasel” emitting from his Jack-in-the-Box excites him every time the lid pops open – “All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel. The monkey thought ‘twas all in fun. Pop! Goes the weasel.” Great! – now, I’ll have a weasel-earworm for the rest of the day!

This is an example of how the perceived behavioral characteristics of a wildlife species, either good or bad, become descriptive of some of our human qualities. Sly as a fox, wise as an owl, quiet as a mouse and happy as a lark are just a few other examples. I would guess that few people here in Northcentral Texas have ever actually seen or had a close encounter with a real live weasel. To be honest, I haven’t either, but I wish I had. However, we do have a weasel species that is found here in Cross Timbers Country that merits our attention as a fellow critter of our faunal community.

The long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) of the Family Mustelidae is found statewide in Texas except for the Panhandle. They’re close kin to other Texas mustelid species including American mink, northern river otter, black-footed ferret and American badger. Members of this group of mammals are carnivores with short, strong jaws used to dispatch their prey with a powerful bite. They also have a pair of musk glands used to leave a lingering odor to communicate weasel to weasel about territory and mating rather than for defense like their stinky skunk cousins.

Long-tailed weasels have a long, slender body with a small head, long whiskers and short, stocky legs. As their name implies, the tail is relatively long; at least half again the length of their body. A large mature long-tailed male weasel measures up to 22 inches long and tips the scale at a whopping 9-10 ounces. Females are about half as big. On their back and upper sides, their thick velvety fur is cinnamon brown. On the lower sides and belly, the fur is white with a yellow or orange tinge; feet are brownish and the tail is black tipped. The underside fur color extends from behind the front legs below the chin. Up north, their coat becomes all white during the winter except for the black-tipped tail, making weasel hunting in snowy country tough for predators. During the year, they molt their fur in spring and again during the fall.

Weasels are active either day or night but prefer the cloak of darkness to move about. When they run, they have a hunch-back appearance, sorta like an inch-worm on the move. Although primarily terrestrial, long-tailed weasels will sometimes venture into trees to pursue prey. Weasels are wound pretty tight and have a high rate of metabolism, so they don’t hibernate and are active throughout the year. They live in a variety of habitats including woodlands, brushy areas, bottomlands, rocky outcrops, forest edges and will even take up under your house. They’ll also den up in abandoned burrows of other small mammals or evict reluctant tenants. Water is usually nearby somewhere in their home range, and they’re good swimmers.

A long-tailed weasel is a worse case scenario for a pocket gopher, ground squirrel, rat, mouse, small cottontail, shrew, tree squirrel, mole or other small mammal. They’ll quickly dispatch them with a bite to the skull or neck and then hang on until they expire. What they don’t eat, they’ll cache for later dining. Weasels sometime go on killing sprees in chicken coops and become less than welcome down on the farm. Chickens don’t seem to appreciate them either. On the flip side, they do kill many species of rodents and vermin around farm buildings and barns. Contrary to popular folk lore, they don’t suck blood from their victims. If preferred prey species aren’t available, they’ll also eat small birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, earthworms, fruits or berries.

Male weasels are territorial and defend their home range when other males intrude. Being polygamous, their home range may cross that of several females. For most of the year, males and females live separately and only mix and mingle during the breeding season. Weasels have acute senses of sight, smell and hearing making them very skilled predators. They communicate with a variety of sounds including screeches, squeals, rapid trills and even purr like a kitten when content.

Long-tailed weasels breed during July or August, but due to delayed implantation, the actual birth of young doesn’t happen until the following spring some 280 days or so later. They build their nests in rotting logs, hollow stumps, under tree roots or in holes in the ground. Nests are lined with grass, leaves and rabbit or rat fur for warmth and coziness. Once implantation occurs, embryos develop in only 27 days and up to nine young are born during April or May. They’re covered in white fur at birth and their eyes open in 36 days. By then they’re weaned and able to eat whole foods brought to them by the mother. Young weasels will stay with mom until fully grown; females mature in three months, males at one year. She teaches them to hunt and within a couple of months they can catch and kill prey on their own.

Long-tailed weasels aren’t without their own set of enemies. Snakes, hawks, owls, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, cats and dogs are known to have a weasel meal if given the opportunity. Their malodorous scent is enough to discourage most predators but not all.

There’s not a lot of current information on the status of long-tailed weasel populations in Texas and some reference I read indicate their population has declined because of loss of riparian habitats and land fragmentation due to development. They’re classified as fur-bearing animals in Texas and subject to regulations that govern those species. I hope there are still at least a few four-footed, long-tailed weasels here in Cross Timbers Country – heaven knows there’s sure plenty of the two-footed variety around. Until next time – I’ll see you down a Cross Timbers Country road and God Bless America!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Spanish Daggers Are in Bloom
by Ro Wauer

In spite of the extremely dry conditions throughout the area, many of our native plants are blooming. One of those is the fleshy-leaved Spanish dagger, our common yucca that is also known as Spanish bayonet, Palma Pita, or Our Lord's Candle. Scientists know the Spanish dagger as Yucca treculeana.

Some years the landscape is dotted with the ivory blooms of this large plant, but blooms are less numerous this year. Coastal forms of Spanish daggers tend to be taller with shorter leaves and a relatively slender trunk; more inland plants possess longer leaves with a shorter, stockier trunk. The flowering stalks may reach 20 feet in height, although most are less than half that. The yucca leaves are thick, dark green or bluish green and branch out in all directions from the stalk. Some of these fleshy leaves may be 40 inches long and three inches wide at the base and taper to a fine, sharp point. They can easily puncture the skin or clothing.

Native Americans and Texas settlers utilized Spanish daggers in numerous ways. Leaves provided coarse fiber that was made into sandals, baskets, rope, and cloth. They also were used for fencing and in thatching for walls and sides of huts. Young flower stalks, buds, and flowers were eaten raw, boiled, or pickled. The petals, often used in salads, are high in vitamin C. The fruits were also baked, peeled, stripped of fiber, and boiled down to a pulp that was then rolled out in sheets and dried; the material could then be stored and used like molasses on bread and tortillas. Prepared fruits were also fermented for a powerful beverage, and soap, known as "amole," was made from some yucca roots.

Our Spanish dagger is but one of twenty yucca species known in Texas, according to Donovan Correll and Marshall Johnson's classic Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas. Most botanists place yuccas in the lily family, while others lump them with agaves in the agave family. But whatever its lineage, each yucca plant is a complete ecosystem in itself. A wide array of creatures, large and small, utilizes the plants year-round. Beside those that feed on the fresh flowers, ground squirrels and wood rats nibble on the fleshy leaves. And the wood rats, better known as pack rats, often build a nest at the base of a yucca, hauling in volumes of materials for the cache.

Several birds also build nests on the yuccas, usually within the protection of the daggerlike leaves. Examples include mockingbirds, roadrunners, wrens, and Harris's and white-tailed hawks. They also take advantage of the tall yuccas for observation posts year-round, or, in the case of the mockingbird, for singing posts.

But the yucca ecosystem also includes a number of much smaller creatures that require closer inspection. The most important of these is the tiny pronuba moth, which sips nectar from the yucca flowers and lays its eggs within the flowers, thus pollinating the plants by pushing pollen into the stigma tube in the process. In return, the moth larvae feed on the seeds. All yuccas, therefore, are dependent upon the pronuba moth for the long-term survival of the species.

In addition, yuccas are also utilized by the yucca giant-skipper (a butterfly, not a moth) that flies in March and April. The female lays its eggs on the yucca leaves, the tiny larvae (caterpillars) then burrow into the leaves and gradually eat their way to the base of the plant where they remain until the following spring. The fully grown caterpillar will then emerge at the base of the yucca in the spring, and it then builds a small chimney of debris and goo where is lives for several days before emerging as an adult. It then seeks out a mate and the process begins again.

But however the moth and butterfly reproduce, our Spanish daggers are one of our most outstanding native plants.