The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Village Wildlife
by Nick Mirro, from the magazine 75206, January 2007

I’ve lived here for 12 years. In fact, I’ve lived in the same building for 11 years. We’ve just recently moved to a larger 2 bedroom, but there was one thing Phoebe and I wouldn’t give up. The lake. That glorious lake! Every morning I wake up and draw our blinds and there it is. Every time it appears before me in its frame of delicate oak leaves I’m taken by a feeling of privilege. No three million dollar estate in University Park can hold a candle to this. It gives me a great sense of satisfaction to think of how much money they spend desperately trying to bring this magic to their multimillion dollar ½ acre plot. Maybe they’d be better off putting their money into electronics and antique furniture. There really is nothing like the real thing. Not in my former Mount Desert Island in Maine or the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. Not at least from any window I’ve ever peered out of.

For a residential community smack in the middle of an urban metropolis, somehow natural wonders abound. It’s a tribute to the adaptability of wild creatures and the uniqueness of our Village home. There are two very good reasons that The Village property hosts enough wildlife to justify a dedicated column. The first is that we live in this incredible state of Texas, which has by far the greatest variety of all things wild. We have more diversity than most other states combined, including the most birds, wildflowers, reptiles and pretty much everything. For a quick example, of the 64 species of oaks in all of North America, 44 are native to Texas. The second reason The Village is an oasis is simple. There’s one thing about searching for natural beauty. If you’re near a water source, especially in Texas, you won’t have to look far.

So here’s what this is all about. You might consider me The Village naturalist, someone who loves watching, photographing and identifying wild things. I’m also someone who can to tell you just where you might look on your stroll around the lakes to take in some easily missed and pretty impressive wildlife. Each month, I’ll write about something different among the marvelous variety of living things found here. In the process, it would be a great benefit if you would help me. If you happen to snap a shot of some interesting critter or plant, please email it in. If you’ve sighted something, please describe it in a paragraph and send it too, so I can include it here.

Since this article will include lots of directions, we’ll need a frame of reference. Lets create one by coming up with long overdue names for our two beautiful and deserving lakes. If you’d like to make your own name suggestion, email it. For now, the west lake (nearer to the tennis courts) will be Cattail Pond (for obvious reasons) while the east lake will be Beaver Lake, named for the family of critters that were recently trapped there and escorted off of the property - to the relief of anyone who hoped The Village would remain green.

For this month, let me leave you with a quick sampling of some of The Village’s wild secrets. Lets start with something very easy to find. On the southern tip of Cattail Pond (Southwestern Blvd. is to the north) sits a not always noticed but highly enviable Trio Castle 24 room purple martin house. It is highly enviable not only because it is top of the line, but because it has for several years been a huge success in attracting breeding pairs of purple martins. They are the nightingales of North America with one of the most relaxing sounds you’ll ever hear. Putting up a martin house is no guarantee that any will ever show up and occupy it. Many fail in their efforts to attract our prized summer residents. This success bestows us with the responsibility of “purple martin landlords” according to the Purple Martin Society. The story behind this marvelous martin condo deserves an entire column and will be covered in a later issue, along with details of the purple martin mentoring program.

Speaking of birds, we have way more here than you might expect. Occasionally, spectacular and rare species grace our humble ponds such that birders (as they now prefer to be called) would on word come driving in for miles. Over the last several years more than 30 different species of waterfowl have dropped in for a dip in one of the lakes including some truly spectacular species. Winter is the best time for unusual bird sightings so this would be a good time to dust off your binoculars. On the subject of interesting bird sightings, The Village has its own resident red-tailed hawk that visits quite frequently to pluck up a pigeon or two. We also host screech owls that can be seen at night pretty regularly in the trees between the two lakes. Seeing one up close will take your breath away. Amazingly, they’re not at all afraid and don’t even seem to mind a flashlight aimed at them. Moving over to the reptile world, somewhere between 10 to 20 colorful, marvelous (non-poisonous) blotched water snakes live in our streams.

Finally, August and early September brings out our small population of bright-eyed gulf coast toads, which are easily encountered late night along the jogging path surrounding Beaver Lake. There are gads more creatures to talk about before ever mentioning The Villages trademark arboreal showcase. Yes we are probably most known for our magnificent trees. You might be happy to learn that there are more than 40 species of trees spread over our 337 acres. A complete species list and the story behind this priceless treasure will follow in another issue. For now, if you wouldn’t mind having your pics and descriptions of wildlife sightings, I’d like to include them in this column. Email them to vwl@mirrosoft.net. See you next month and happy viewing!

Say Hi to Nick Mirro

We'd like to welcome a new contributor to the Nature Writers of Texas. Nick Mirro writes for the magazine 75206. Here's a look at Nick:

My undergraduate degree is in Biology with a focus on organismic biology, from Binghamton University in New York (1987). I am a Doctor of Chiropractic with an electrodiagnostics practice in Dallas.

· I moved from New York to Texas in 1991 and married Phoebe (a banker) in 1996.

· Phoebe and I love studying and photographing Texas wildlife. My personal area of interest has been in plant and animal taxonomy, and photography.

· I own a small software development company focused on applications and web products designed to support bioinformatics presentation and wildlife image processing. We also have medical billing and marketing software (not as fun).

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Wildlife Survival During Extreme Cold
by Ro Wauer

Our recent cold snap, in which we all suffered through colder than normal conditions, also affected our wildlife that lives outdoors all of the time. Some individuals undoubtedly were unable to survive, either because of cold and wet conditions or their inability to find adequate food. Most of the cold blooded adult insects, for example, simply perished, unless they were fortunate to find a protected niche. More than likely all of the butterflies died from either the cold, lack of food, or dehydration. There is at least one exception to this. Although the mourning cloak (butterfly) is extremely rare in our part of Texas, it does occur in most of the remainder of the country. And it is known for finding a protected place during stormy weather, goes into a semi-hibernation, and is able to fly about during warming periods, even when snow cover the ground. The mourning cloak is our longest lived butterfly.

What about our wild mammals and birds? This group of wildlife, of course, is warm-blooded. So they are able to do much better than the cold-blooded creatures during cold weather. Mammals, such as deer and some of our large predators, get along very well so long as they are able to find enough feed. There are, however, records of deer, usually those already weakened by disease or injury that is unable to survive during exceptionally cold and wet periods. And most of the smaller mammals, such as armadillos, skunks, and even smaller species such as mice, that spend most of the daylight hours in a den, usually remain there, cozy and warm, even when temperatures outside the den drop below freezing.

Our wild birds often find cold and stormy conditions more difficult. But even the smaller birds can usually survive unless they have already been weakened by injury or disease. Birds have developed extraordinary methods for survival. For instance, hummingbirds actually go into a state of torpor, in which their body temperatures drop to 50 degrees F. for several hours. But once they awaken they must feed. That is the reason it is so important to maintain hummingbird feeders during the winter. Recent studies suggest that many other birds, besides hummingbirds, swifts and poorwills, can enter shallow torpor for short periods.

As might be expected, birds lose their body heat more through bare surfaces than through their feathered bodies. Bird legs and feet are especially vulnerable, so the warmer body blood circulates, keeping the legs and feet at a safe temperature. Also, a bird can stand on one leg and tuck the other up against it warm body, or it can sit with its legs underneath. In addition, birds can fluff out their feathers to increase the thickness of their insulated "coat."

On sunny days, even during periods of cold, numerous birds warm their bodies by spreading their wings. Some of the better examples of this include the vultures, anhinga, and cormorants. Even roadrunners will sit with their wings partially spread so that their back is fully exposed to the sun. This type of sunbathing occurs in lots of other birds, too, such as grebes, hawks, and even a number of songbirds. And in many bird species their non-feathered patches of skin are dark colored, better for absorbing heat from the sun.

And what about our wild reptiles and amphibians? Because these animals are cold-blooded, like insects and other invertebrates, they must find shelter before a winter storm. Alligators and sea turtles can sink to the bottom of bays and ponds where they enter a torpid state. Other reptiles, such as most snakes, hibernate from late fall until spring, usually in dens or under the soil or rocks. During those periods they are inactive and sometimes almost lifeless. There are records, mostly in the colder regions of the country, where a snake den has been uncovered that contains 100 or more individuals of several species.

Sitting in our heated homes, watching TV or visiting with friends and family during winter storms, we tend to take much for granted. But it is not always so easy on our wildlife neighbors.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Brewer’s Blackbirds, Our Other Blackbird
by Ro Wauer

Blackbirds are some of our most abundant birds this time of year. It is next to impossible to ignore our resident blackbirds, both in town and about our fields and pastures. Huge flocks of redwings, cowbirds and grackles, either in species-specific flocks or in mixed flocks, can often seen wheeling about on their way to or about feeding sites or en route to overnight roosting sites. Oftentimes, European starlings are added to the mixture. A drive into the countryside can easily turn up all of these ground-feeding blackbirds, sometimes so numerous that can blacken the ground or, in flight, look like a dark cloud.

But there is yet another blackbird that is with us during the winter months that we often ignore because of so many look-alike others. This other blackbird is the Brewer's blackbird that is with us only from mid-October to late April. And yet it is fairly common in some localities. Small flocks of Brewer's often can be found along the edge of highways throughout South Texas. They walk about searching for seeds and tiny insects, spiders, and such. Very rarely do they associate with other species, although isolated flocks do frequent feedlots that attract large numbers of blackbirds.

Brewer's blackbirds can easily be identified by both their appearance and behavior. They are slightly larger than redwings, and considerably smaller than grackles. They are most like the common grackle, principally because the adults of both species possess pale yellowish eyes. But the tails of these two species are very different, long and keel-shaped on common grackles, but long and straight on Brewer's blackbirds. Plus, Brewer's habit of walking about includes an obvious head jerk with each step. This behavior can be recognized even at a distance.

Although wintering Brewer's blackbirds can usually be found throughout Texas, except in the high mountains, all leave the state in spring. The exception is a lone nesting record in Jeff Davis County in 2000. Breeding birds can be found throughout most of the other western states from northern Arizona to northern Canada. Nesting birds utilize various habitat types from sagebrush in the Great Basin to streamsides in all the western states. Even then, unlike most other birds that flock in winter but nest alone, Brewer's are colonial nesters. Dozens of nests are often built close to others within preferred localities. And the breeding birds even feed together in flocks. This gregarious behavior allows inexperienced birds to learn about food sources from more-successful foragers. And such behavior also provides them greater protection from predators.

Another characteristic of breeding Brewer's blackbirds is that some flocks practice polygamy, where one male mates with more than one female while each female mates with only one male. The logic of this behavior, according to ornithologist Paul Ehrlich and colleagues, discussed in The Birder's Handbook, is that "when males hold territories that vary greatly in the quality of resources...Females will tend to choose superior males - by interference those that have high-quality territories. When those males already have mates, females have a choice. They can either select a male that holds an inferior territory, or they can become the second mate of one of the superior males." Such behavior is most likely to provide for greater success in reproduction.

Bird behavior can vary considerably in all of the species that we see in our yards or elsewhere in the vicinity. It not only makes birds even more fascinating, but makes one wonder what other characteristics they possess that we have yet to learn about.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Bird Feeding Is the Perfect Way to Enjoy Nature
by Ro Wauer

How many of you feed birds? According to a report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 86 million Americans regularly put out feed for birds. That’s one out of every three people in the United States. And those 86 million Americans spend more than one billion dollars on birdseed annually. An additional huge amount is spent on feeders, binoculars, and field guides. The hobby of feeding birds is increasing for a very good reason; it is the best possible way to enjoy the outdoors from the comfort of our homes.

The easiest group of birds to attract to a home feeder is the seed-eaters. At this time of year there are a dozen or more species around our yards that eat seeds. Some of the most common species include Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, northern cardinals, chipping sparrows, American goldfinches, and house sparrows. And some of the less common but expected species include white-winged, mourning, and Inca doves; blue jays; field, Lincoln's, and white-throated sparrows; brown-headed cowbirds; house finches; lesser goldfinches; and pine siskins.

A few years ago, birdseed was pretty well limited to cracked or whole corn, but now there are a variety of options. And there is considerable information about which seed is best for what species. And most people who feed birds agree that black-oil sunflower seed is most preferred by the greater number of species. Striped sunflower seeds are larger and have tougher seed coats that are difficult to handle and too tough for smaller birds. The standard birdseed common on shelves in all the stores contains a blend of sunflower, milo, millet, oats, wheat, flax, and buckwheat seeds. Many birds will kick out some seeds to get to the prized ones. This results in lots of unused seeds, more cleanup time, and greater expense. The more expensive black-oil sunflower seeds are cheaper in the long run.

Niger or thistle is preferred by finches, especially American goldfinches and pine siskins. However, these seeds are so small, special feeders but readily available at most stores selling such products are necessary. Also, cracked corn is still popular for blue jays, mourning and Inca doves, and northern bobwhites. And green jays, that are beginning to move into our area, seem to prefer cracked corn.

Another option in winter is suet, favored by woodpeckers but also eaten by chickadees, titmice, Carolina and house wrens, and cardinals. Suet is strictly a wintertime food; it turns rancid when temperatures exceed 70 degrees. Birds prefer plain, inexpensive beef suet over commercial suet cakes. Suet can be placed in wire baskets, wired to trees, or pressed into holes drilled in small logs hung in trees. Wire baskets are recommended because they are less likely to get oil on the bird’s plumage. Plus, I use small logs with shallow holes as a peanut butter feeder. I find that peanut butter mixed with cornmeal, to lessen the chance of choking on the thick substance and also to reduce the cost, packed into the various holes is an excellent attractant. It is amazing how many species will take advantage of this handout.

Nectar-feeders normally are few and far between in winter, but some hummingbirds, including our full-time resident buff-bellied hummingbird, remain with us all winter. Nectar can be essential some cold winters when insects are in low supply, although a hummingbird diet normally consists of more than 50 percent insects. And during periods of extreme weather, the hummingbird feeders can easily be taken inside overnight. But be sure they are taken out at dawn.

Feeder maintenance is extremely important year-round. Seed-feeders should be cleaned and scrubbed with soap and water, dipped or washed with a solution of bleach (1 to 9), and dried thoroughly each season. Also rake up the seed hulls regularly; decomposed hulls will kill the lawn and could spread disease to your birds.

Feeding birds is great fun and a way to attract birds to your yard; my yard list currently includes 176 species. Several of those are seed eaters and a few are present only in winter.