The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Crested Caracara is a South Texas Specialty
by Ro Wauer

On returning to South Texas from a two-week trip to Arizona, Utah and Colorado, seeing crested caracaras again was a real pleasure. Although those other states offer the birder a good variety of raptors, including some really remarkable hawks and falcons, none have that special appeal as our very own caracara. And this time of year, adults as well as youngsters can usually be found with little effort. In fact, family groups, two adults and two or three youngsters, are now cavorting along our roadsides and over our pastures and brushlands. The adults undoubtedly are busy teaching their youngsters the art of caracara-predation and which of the abundant roadkills and other carrion to feed upon.

The caracara, best known as crested caracara, due to their low crest, is a large bird - hawk sized - that sports contrasting plumage: black back and cap, with contrasting white cheeks, throat, tail, and noticeable wing-patches in flight; a streaked or barred breast; and a yellow face and long yellowish legs. It has a loud call when disturbed, a grating "trak-trak-trak," like a stick drown rapidly across a wooden washboard, or a bird clearing its throat.

Although ornithologists generally agree that the caracara is a true falcon, it is far more adaptable than most other falcons. It is known to nest on trees, on giant cacti in the Sonoran Desert, on cliffs, and in South Texas on yuccas, large shrubs, and in oak mottes. However, there is no better example of its adaptability than its feeding habits. One time it may be seen perched on a dead cow or deer carcass, feeding with vultures along the roadsides, while the next time it may be found attacking prey from the air, falconlike. In addition, it also is able to run on the open ground, chasing down lizards, snakes, and small rodents.

Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his Life History series, lists the following foods: rabbits, skunks, prairie dogs, opossums, rats, mice, crayfish, fish, young birds, beetles, grasshoppers, maggots, and worms. Bent also points out that in Texas, caracaras will also harass larger birds that are carrying food; when the food is finally dropped, they will scoop it off the ground or from the water for themselves. An inland pirate of the finest sort!

To many Texans, caracaras are better known as "Mexican eagle" or "Mexican buzzard," but those names are very misleading, as it is neither an eagle nor a buzzard. The caracara also is sometimes thought to be Mexico's national bird that is depicted on its colorful flag. But that bird, sitting on a cactus with a snake in its talons, is actually a golden eagle, not a caracara.

Caracaras, in spite of not looking or acting much like other falcons, are most closely related to peregrine and prairie falcons and kestrels. And their name was derived from the Guarani Indians who named it for the caracara's infrequent "cara-cara" calls. What other bird is so adaptable in its feeding habits and has such a remarkable personality as our crested caracara?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Two Big Bend Nature Festivals
by Ro Wauer

If any of my readers are thinking about spending a few days in the Texas Big Bend Country this year, there is no better time that during the two upcoming nature festivals in the Davis Mountains and in Big Bend National Park. Both festivals will feature super field trips and a number of presentations on the area's principal natural resources. For those of you who have been looking for a reason to go west, now is the time!

The first of the two festivals is the Davis Mountain's Hummingbird and Nature Festival, scheduled August 16 to 20. WildBird magazine has rated this festival as one of the top Texas bird festivals. The total festival cost is $85, and participation is limited to 150 people. With several field trip options, none are crowded and uncomfortable, and each has been very productive in previous years. This festival has earned a marvelous reputation because of the abundance of hummingbirds found each year; some years as many as 14 species are recorded.

Dr. Peter Scott will be this year's keynote speaker who will talk about hummingbirds and their diet; Peter did considerable research on Lucifer’s hummingbirds in the Big Bend. Other speakers will include John O'Neal, a well known bird artist, and yours truly who will present a program titled "Butterflies 101," and also lead butterfly field trips and do a book-signing for my new book of "Finding Texas Butterflies." The coordinators have added butterflies as a major attraction this year because of the numerous Davis Mountains specialty butterflies, those that cannot or are rarely found anywhere else in the United States.

The Big Bend Nature Festival is scheduled for September 14 to 17, and headquartered out of Study Butte, adjacent to Big Bend National Park. Most of the field trips are scheduled for the park. They include those on the birds of the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend's reptiles and amphibians, and the butterflies and plants. Additional tours will include those on Big Bend's archeology, geology, and dinosaurs. And there are even a tour to the Villa de la Mina Mine and an evening astronomy presentation.

Total cost for adults is $85 ($50 for children 12 years old and under) that covers all tours, talks, opening evening barbeque and presentation, and a Saturday night banquet at Terlingua's Starlight Theater. My Thursday evening talk, "Big Bend Superlatives," will cover the Big Bend birds, butterflies, and other specialty wildlife species. There will be additional charges only for the geology jeep tour or entrance to Big Bend National Park and the Barton Warnock Environmental Center. The variety of activities available at this festival is amazing, and they will offer participants a marvelous introduction to the Big Bend Country.

Since these festivals are scheduled in late summer and early fall, weather is always in question. But the hottest days in the Big Bend Region are in May and June, and by July through September daytime temperatures average in the mid-80s and nights can be cool enough to require a light jacket. But one should always be prepared for warm and cool temperatures. After all, this is Texas!

Additional information on the Davis Mountains Festival is available from Melissa Brady at mbrady_cdri@overland.net or 432-364-2499 at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Center near Ft. Davis, and for the Big Bend Festival from Sarah Bourbon at info@bigbendchamber.com or 432-371-2427 at Terlingua.

It constantly amazes me when Texans, who have lived in the state all their lives, tell me they have never been to the Big Bend. Yet, folks from all the surrounding state, as well as those from places even further away, have discovered the Big Bend. There is nothing like the present to take advantage of this marvelous piece of Texas!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Doodlebugs Are Strange Creatures
by Ro Wauer

I suppose that if doodlebugs were giants and free-roaming, they would star in some of our most scary movies. Instead they are tiny creatures that are very rarely seen. Small ant- sized, doodlebugs live underground in dirt areas in our yards and elsewhere. They actually are the larval form of antlions. They built little pits about one inch in depth in the fine dirt at the edge of buildings and cliffs at this time of year. Each pit is an inverted pyramid with rather steep sides, designed so that when an ant walks across the pit it will slide backward to the bottom. Suddenly, the dirt at the bottom of the pit will be thrown upward, slowing the ant's progress so it will again slide backward into the bottom. It is then that the ant is suddenly grabbed and eaten by the doodlebug.

Recently, I watched this activity for several minutes, as an ant fought furiously to escape by ascending the loose dirt of the pit. But just as it was about to reach the top, the tiny creature hiding underground below the center of the pit flipped dirt upward, and the ant again slide backward. Then, just as the ant was starting its uphill climb again, two tiny pinchers grabbed the ant from underneath, and I watched as the ant was slowly dragged out of sight. I had observed a doodlebug capture its prey, and I knew that below the surface, the predatory doodlebug was feeding on the unfortunate ant.

Such acts of nature occur thousands of times a day, all across the southern states. It is simply the method that this particular kind of insect has developed to capture prey. And these kinds of actions are readily available to anyone with the curiosity to watch.

Our doodlebugs are the larval form of a species of antlion, a delicate, four-winged insect of the family Myrameleontidae. Antlions, about two inches long, look very much like lacewings or pale damselflys. They possess two pairs of long, narrow, multiveined wings and a long, slender abdomen. They are rather feeble fliers and often are attracted to light after dark. And they often can be found during the daytime on the walls and screens of buildings.

Eggs, laid in the dirt, produce a small colony of soft-bodied larvae with strong sicklelike jaws. Each larvae (doodlebug) digs a funnel in the dirt to aid in capturing ants. After feeding on its prey, the doodlebug throws the remains clear of the pit, and the pit is repaired for the next meal. After some growth, the larval doodlebug builds a rough cocoon of sand and silk, from which it will soon emerge as a winged insect.

Anyone interested can find his or her own doodlebug pits and watch nature in the raw.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Cross Timbers News
A Little Bit Blue
Jim Dillard, Wildlife Biologist, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Mineral Wells

I’ve been a little bit blue lately as I contemplate retirement after working 40 years as a wildlife biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife. The miles are beginning to catch up with me. The thrill of spotlighting deer from the back of a bouncing pickup truck after midnight on some remote, rough Cross Timbers backroad isn’t nearly as much fun as it used to be. Be that as it may, I’ll always enjoy observing wildlife around me whether I’m at the beach or in my own backyard.

Like the other evening as I sat out under my favorite shade tree in the backyard reflecting on some past experience, a little blue heron quietly and gracefully floated overhead, flying north to roost somewhere for the night. I hadn’t seen one since last October when they moved out to spend the winter down along the Texas coast. Within a few weeks it will be busying itself with nesting and trying to raise more little blues in a rookery along with several other species of colonial waterbirds.

The little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) fared better than other heron and egret species during the market hunting days around the turn of the century when feathers in ladies hats was the craze. Since little blues didn’t have white feathers or long, showy aigrettes, they weren’t in the crosshairs of the plume hunters.

The little blue heron ranges from the Atlantic and Gulf states to the interior of the eastern United States. After the breeding season, birds wander widely throughout the eastern two-thirds of the country and as far north as Canada before heading south for the winter. In Texas, they nest primarily in the eastern one-third of the state and winter along the Gulf coast. Here in Cross Timbers Country, they’re commonly seen around area lakes and wetlands or nesting in rookeries with cattle egrets, snowy egrets, great egrets and black-crowned night herons. In these large aggregations of nesting birds, little blues tend to nest on the periphery of the colonies somewhat away from all the hustle and bustle. They may also nest in small colonies with only their own kind.

Their plumage is dull slate-blue except on their neck and head where it’s maroon: sexes are similar. Legs and feet are dark bluish-green and eyes yellow. Their long slender gray bill bends slightly downward and is black tipped. They stand about two feet tall, have a 40 inch wingspan and weigh less than a pound. Young little blues are white and are often confused with snowy egrets since they don’t take on adult plumage until their second spring. In molt transition, their coloration appears mottled with a combination of bluish and white feathers. They’re usually quiet, but at the nest site they make considerable racket squawking, clucking or croaking.

Little blues prefer freshwater over saltwater areas where they wade in the shallows or along shorelines searching for crayfish, small fish, crabs, aquatic insects, tadpoles, frogs, turtles, spiders, snakes and other crustaceans. On land, they’ll feed in open fields on lizards, small rodents, grasshoppers and other insects. I once found a florescent orange plastic fishing worm under a little blue heron nest that apparently failed to pass the taste test of a nestling. They’ll also follow farm tractors cultivating fields to feed on exposed insect larvae, worms and small rodents. Over in Louisiana and Southeast Texas where they’re often seen feeding along the dikes and levees of rice fields, they’re called “levee walkers.” Other common names are blue cranes or little blue cranes.

Courtship may involve a variety of nuptial displays including neck-stretching and bill-snapping by the male, mutual nibbling of each other’s feathers and crossing or intertwining necks. Males also display in their territory to discourage other suitors from getting too close to their little blue darling.

As with other heron and egret species, their nest is a flimsy see-through platform of sticks and twigs with a slight depression in the middle. It’s built by both parents in only three to five days during April or early May in a tree or shrub 3-15 feet above ground or water. During wind storms, eggs are often blown from nests and crack on the ground.

The female will lay three to five light blue eggs that they both incubated for 20-23 days. Egg shells are discarded from the nest as soon as the young are hatched. Eggs hatch over about a five day period and hatchlings are then fed regurgitant by both parents for two to three more weeks. Young will then begin to climb around on limbs near the nest. At four weeks they can make short flights and by six or seven, they’re off to fend for themselves.

Little blue herons are very shy and hard to get close to. They’ll feed in small groups with other heron species, often walking slowly through shallow water or standing still waiting for something to move. Prey is caught with a quick jab of their bill and then swallowed whole. When in flight or resting, their neck is held in an “S” shaped curve.

My theory is that our population of little blue herons has increased during recent years, largely due to the expansion of the breeding range of cattle egrets. Where they’ve established nesting colonies, little blue herons and several other species of herons and egrets have followed. Consequently, the skies here in Cross Timbers Country are a little bit bluer these days than they used to be. Until next time, I’ll see you down a Cross Timbers country road and God Bless America!