The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Long-billed Long-billed Curlew
by Ro Wauer

Some Victoria residents know it best by its springtime appearance on the lawns at Victoria College across Red River Street from Citizens Hospital. That is when a small flock of long-billed curlew migrants usually appear, remain for a few weeks, and then disappear until the following spring. Those individuals likely move northwest to their breeding grounds in the northern Intermountain West and northern prairies. Some individuals nest in the northwestern Texas Panhandle, rarely along the upper Gulf Coast, and there are even historical nesting records in Jeff Davis and Cameron counties. Plus, non-breeding birds sometimes are found year-round within their Texas wintering grounds, principally on the coastal prairies.

Long-billed curlews can hardly be misidentified. To start with, this is a large, long-legged bird, more than twice the size of a killdeer. Its plumage is mottled brown to buff, and with cinnamon-buff wing linings that are easily see in flight. But its most noticeable feature is its very long, slightly down curved bill. The similar whimbrel, also a curlew that can occur in the Golden Crescent during migration, has a much shorter bill and a boldly striped head pattern. Long-billed curlews also have a rather loud, clear and musical call, an ascending "curr-lee," thus their name.

Curlews are classified as shorebirds, and yet they are more common on prairie habitats rather than along the seashore, where they feed on a wide variety of prey. That can range from insects to spiders, worms, numerous burrow-dwelling crustaceans, small snakes, frogs and toads, and even an occasional bird and their eggs. Because of their extremely long, slightly curved bill, they can reach deep into burrows for prey.

Long-billed curlews usually are wary birds that will fly or run away when approached. However, in cases where they become accustomed to people, they can adjust to some traffic and allow a much closer approach. Their flight is usually swift although somewhat erratic, and when landing they will run a few feet and then they will momentarily hold their wings high over their head before settling down and continue their search for prey. At night they usually will leave their feeding grounds and fly to roosting grounds where they gather together in small flocks.

Breeding birds utilize an unusually courtship by fluttering high into the air and then gliding down while calling loudly. On the ground, according to Kent Rylander's book, The Behavior of Texas Birds, "their displays include ritualized nest-scraping movements." Nests, often in loose colonies in moist or dry grassy areas, are placed on the ground and lined with grasses. "Two females occasionally lay eggs in the same nest," according to Rylander. He also points out that "Although males join together to mob approaching intruders vigorously, incubating bird hold their ground so tenaciously that an intruder can approach them very closely. To conceal their presence, incubating birds stretch their heads out of the grass."

Long-billed curlews are fascinating birds for a number of reasons. They are worth watching on the college lawn, as well as on their more typical short grassland habitats. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Indicators of Spring in Texas
by Ro Wauer

Spring is my favorite time of year! It signifies renewal, a fresh start. It seems to make everything young again. It brings with it an anticipation of good things to come, warming weather, spring flowers, butterflies, and bird migration. In The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth wrote: "Come the Spring with all its splendor, All its birds and all its blossoms, All its flowers and leaves and grasses." And Anne Morrow Lindberg once wrote: "Today I went out, It smelled, it felt, it sensed spring. I had for the first time faith - not intellectual belief, but the sudden feeling of turning tide. Yes, there will be spring."

Officially, spring begins at the spring equinox, on March 20. On that day, the earth's axis is at a right angle to the sun so that both poles receive equal illumination from the sun and the days are of equal length, hence the term equinox. Thereafter in the Northern Hemisphere, the days continue to grow longer and the weather becomes warmer. Spring continues until June 21, the summer solstice, when the earth’s axis makes its greatest angle to the sun, when the noonday sun is directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer, and daylight lasts 24 hours north of the Arctic Circle.

But springlike days do not necessarily signify the arrival of spring. Our fickle weather still can bring us more cold. Yet for me, living in the Golden Crescent, there are certain signs of spring by late February or March that clearly indicate a change in the season. Without fanfare, the bright yellow flowers of agarita shrubs are blooming. The sweet-scented flowers of huisache trees permeate the surroundings. And lawns and fields are spotted with the white blooms of ten-petal anemone flowers.

Just as soon as the earliest of the spring flowers appear on our shrubs, various butterflies begin to put in their appearance. Gray hairstreaks, pipevine swallowtails, orange and cloudless sulphurs, gulf fritillaries, and common buckeyes are some of our earliest species, appearing as if by magic. Bees and wasps also become more numerous. And with the increased food supply and warmer weather, anoles, scaly lizards, ground skinks, and a few other lizards become active.

For the last few weeks, on sunny days some of the resident birds have become more obvious. Songbirds, such as cardinals, chickadees, titmice, and Carolina wrens, as well as a number of larger birds, have been establishing their springtime territories. Purple martins and the earliest swallows put in their appearance. And pairing red-shouldered hawks cruise about overhead screaming their appreciation of longer days and their excitement about another nesting season.

All of nature reacts to spring! One can actually watch spring gradually creeps northward in Texas. Indicators may include blooming Spanish daggers and early monarchs in deep South Texas; the first green blush on the cottonwoods along the Rio Grande in West Texas; returning turkey vultures into the Trans-Pecos; the small of yellow jasmines and dogwood blossoms in the pineywoods; return of the endangered golden-cheeked warblers and the blooming of mountain laurels in the Hill Country; blooming grape hyacinth in the Red River area; the joyous songs of western meadowlarks in the Panhandle.

Spring is a wonderful time to be alive - to be outdoors and experience nature at its best. Promise is all around and fulfillment is just ahead.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Frogs Are Getting Lots of Attention
by Ro Wauer

During the last few weeks there have been numerous newspaper articles and comments by media personalities regarding the declining frog populations all across the world. However, herpetologists, scientists who study amphibians and reptiles, have written about those very same concerns for several years, and the vast majority of those individuals have blamed the decline on both loss of pertinent habitats and global warming. I remember my brother, who is an amateur herpetologist, telling me about the loss of frogs in California, especially in Yosemite National Park and the San Francisco Bay Area, 15 - 20 years ago. He pointed out that such declines were a significant warning about the declining stability of our natural world. Now that this issue has hit the headlines, maybe it will provide one more bit of evidence that something must be done to reverse that trend.

With that said, I thought it might be appropriate to access our local frog population. After all, the Golden Crescent has six species, and at least four of those have been reasonably common, at least in my yard, over the last several years. The most numerous of those is the southern leopard frog, a medium-sized frog with leopard-like black spots and pale sidelines against a green background and a pointed snout. The Rio Grande leopard frog, a paler version of the southern species, also occurs in the southern portion of our region. Leopard frogs can occur almost anywhere there is sufficient moisture, even where there is only a birdbath at ground level. From all that I have observed, leopard frog populations have remained stable.

The largest frog in our area and throughout all the eastern two-thirds of Texas is the bullfrog. It can be abundant in large ponds and slow-flowing streams. This species has a brownish back, greenish head, a noticeably large eardrum, and a rounded snout. This is the frog that has a deep bass voice that has been described as "jug-o-rum" in Roger Conant and Joseph Collins' excellent book, Reptiles and Amphibians Eastern/Central North America, a Peterson Field Guide.

We have three treefrogs in our area: green, gray and squirrel. Green and gray treefrogs are reasonably common, while squirrel treefrogs, at least in my yard, are not as numerous as they once were. All three of these frogs are smaller than leopard frogs, and each possess adhesive discs at the end of their toes. They therefore are able to climb onto trees and shrubs and up walls and even glass panes. Another interesting characteristic of treefrogs is their ability to change color, depending upon their substrate. But basically, green treefrogs are usually bright green and with a yellowish side stripe from just below the eye to their flank.

Gray treefrogs are multicolored with gray blotches, usually outlined in black, against a paler background. A major feature is a light spot below each eye, and the undersurface of the legs is orange or yellowish. The call of the gray treefrog has been described as a musical, flutelike trill, not too unlike the call of a red-bellied woodpecker. The call of the green treefrog is more bell-like and its call has been expressed as "queenk-queenk-queenk," with a nasal inflection. They may repeat their calls as many as 75 times a minute, according to Conant and Collins.

Squirrel treefrogs are the smallest of the three, and can be green to brown, but with a short darker line running from the snout through the eye to near the leg and sometimes onto the belly. It has been called "rain frog" in some parts of the South, due its habitat of falling out of trees during hot pursuit of prey. The squirrel treefrog's voice is ducklike, but more nasal. It has been described as a harsh trill repeated 15 to 20 times in 10 seconds, according to Conant and Collins.

There are four additional frogs that have been recorded within the Golden Crescent, the upland, spotted, and Strecker's chorus frogs, and Blanchard's cricket frog. These little frogs are fairly similar in appearance, and readers wishing to identify them need to utilize plate 46 in the Conant and Collins field guide.

All the frogs, whether in South Texas or elsewhere in the world, are extremely sensitive to toxic substances in the air and water. They truly are like caged canaries that are carried by miners underground as an early warning system. We need to take heed!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Early Spring Sightings
by Nick Mirro, from the magazine 75206, March 2007

One of the great things about Texas is that we get a real jump on the rest of the country. Happily, our spring seems to arrive right in the middle of everyone else’s winter. Many Village plants and animals are already back in business and well on their way to beautifying our landscape. A glance outside will reveal that a few of our highly envied trees are already wide awake and in full blossom. Right now is really the perfect time for a first spring foray out onto the property. In this article, we’ll take a quick look at three Village icons and include a must see for some quick aroma therapy.

Trees here start flowering in late February, a truly astounding thing to a one-time New Yorker. The award for the most recognizable sign of spring goes hands down to the eastern redbud, easily the most well known member of the pea family - pea pods appearing in late summer! Eastern redbuds can be easily found, growing nearly everywhere in The Village. Their showy bright pink flowers officially ring in the new growing season and easily give them away. While they are sticking out like sore thumbs, it is the perfect time to go in for a closer look. They are all quite small (10 - 20 feet tall) and being dark grey to light black, easily standing out, even without flowers. When you learn to recognize redbuds just by their bark and shape, you’ll really have put a good first dent in learning our trees - since there are just so many of them.

Redbuds do not get the award for the earliest tree to bloom in The Village. This goes to a truly spectacular specimen. When in school back east, we learned of Dutch elm disease and how it ravaged the population of one of North America’s truly ancient and majestic trees. American elms, white oaks and white pines were the very fabric of temperate North America for hundreds of thousands of years. American elms survived repeated ice ages and countless eons of competition, only to be done in sadly in a few short years by a fungus imported from Europe. Though I had heard that populations of American Elms existed in Texas, it was not until I arrived at The Village in 1993, that I actually saw one.

To say that my hopes were not high is an understatement. I expected a sickly looking remnant of this once great icon, but instead was astonished by what I found. It was as if there was a wall on the northern border of Texas, south of which no fungus carrying elm bark beetles could cross. I was thrilled to learn that many American elms in this state are entirely unaffected and grow to a towering 120 feet tall, on their way to a lifespan of occasionally over 300 years. I almost fell over backwards when I set eyes on my first American Elm - growing of all places on the bank of our east lake. Though not the tallest - we have some truly towering cottonwoods - it is unmistakably the greatest tree on our property. From the middle of the dam bordering the east end of the east lake, look out over the water, just to the left of the fountain. It’s the only tree with an astounding 80 foot wide crown.

Next may I direct you to the tree with the most beautiful flowers on our property. Finding it is a bit tricky, though it is easily the tallest of our trees. Again at the east lake, it is at the south-most point of the trail. This is where Village Bend Dr. and the walking trail are side by side. Look up and behold the giants of the Village - Cottonwoods. These normally streamside leviathans should just be going into flower now. If you can get close enough, carefully pluck off one of its dangling jewels and marvel at what few see and appreciate up close. They won’t last for more than another week or so and will be gone for another year.

Finally for this month, take a walk out on the dam bordering the east end of the east lake. On the dam (a little closer to the side with the spillway) you will see several small trees with clouds of white flowers. If you brought a blanket and your significant other, prepare for a really great day. These eye-level ornamentals are marvelous Mexican plums - thank you Village grounds keepers! Once near them, their charm will pull you in very close. Take in a long deep breath and experience something exceptional. Winter is over.

To have your pics and descriptions of wildlife sightings included in this column, email them to concierge@lincolnapts.com. See you next month and happy viewing!