The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Hummingbird Time in South Texas
by Ro Wauer

A recent note in the Advocate, regarding favorite nectaring plants for hummingbirds reminded me that it is almost time for us to experience one of nature’s most amazing events when thousands of hummingbirds descend upon our part of North America. The vast majority of those migrating hummers are ruby-throats from all across northern U.S. that funnel along the Gulf Coast en route to their wintering grounds South of the Border. We also can except black-chins, a few rufous and broad-tailed from the west, and our only full-time resident hummer, the buff-bellied. Very rarely we also find an Anna’s, Allen’s, or broad-billed hummers, and even on an extremely rare occasion a green violet-ear.

During the fall migration period from late August to mid-September, and peaking from September 5 to 15, southbound hummers can be found throughout our area, feeding on almost every flowering plant they find. Those of us that place out hummingbird feeders can expect dozens of individuals at each feeder to take advantage of those handouts. During the peak period I often place a dozen or more feeders in my yard, and on one occasion a couple years, trying to estimate the number in my yard, my rough guess was in the range of 350 individuals that were using 18 feeders. The entire backyard, the air as well as the trees, was alive with hungry hummers. Their buzzing flight was even audible indoors.

The visiting hummers, as well as the resident birds, also nectar on a wide variety of native and garden plants. Commonly used planted species, not in priority order, include bee-brush, cherry sage, cigar plant, crossvine, desert willow, firebush, firecracker bush, flame acanthus, honeysuckles, jatrophe, lantanas, mealy sage, Mexican flame-vine, Mexican heather, penta, red justica, red yucca, rock rose, shrimp plant, sky-flower (Duranta), Texas kidneywood, trumpet-creeper, and Turk‘s cap. The native tropical sage is also heavily used. But the migrants seem to prefer the artificial feeders, clustering about to get a perch and often chasing one another away only to loose its space at the feeder.

Hummingbird feeders, available in numerous store in the area, requires only minimal care, although during the peak of use cleaning and filling feeders can be an almost full-time job. Feeders should be hung in a shady location where the visiting hummers can sit nearby when not drinking. The hummingbird water can be purchased or prepared at home. I use plain old well water mixed with cane sugar at a ratio of 1 part sugar to 6 parts water; what is left is stored in the refrigerator. Red food coloring is not recommended; it may harm the hummers and serves no purpose. If hummers are present but do not come to your feeder, hang strips of red cloth from the feeder as an additional attractant. What about ants and other insects? Ants can be a real nuisance, but they can be controlled by using an ant guard (built in on some feeders) or running the string through a film cassette filled with some Vaseline. Most other insects can’t reach deep enough in the feeder to drink the liquid.

And for those readers that enjot hummingbirds, how about attending Rockport’s annual Hummer/Bird Celebration. This year’s celebration is scheduled for September 14-16 at the Rockport High School. It is a super occasion with field trips to see hummers in various yards, banding demonstrations, talks on birds and butterflies, and up to a hundred booths of bird- and nature-related items for sale. Betty and I discovered that it is a great place to find Christmas gifts. We hope to see you there!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Millipedes Love Our Wet and Warm Weather by Ro Wauer

Millipedes are far more numerous this late summer than at any time I can remember. They are not only crawling across the roadways but on the walls of my house and shed. As many as a dozen can sometimes be seen at one time. Although we humans may not appreciate all this rainy weather, apparently it is just right for millipedes. And I suspect that once our weather dries up a little that their numbers will increase even more, once they can crawl about without drowning.

Millipedes normally live in dark, moist places, as beneath logs and among piles of lumber and such, where they feed principally on vegetable matter, especially fallen leaves. Occasionally they will feed on roots of seedling plants. Like numerous other small creatures of dark, damp places, millipedes serve as one of nature's most important clean-up crews.

Almost everyone knows a millipede, although at times it becomes confused with the centipede. Millipedes are round, thick worm-like creatures that are tan to dark brown and divided into 25 to 100 segments. Each segment has two pairs of peg-like appendages that carry the animal over the ground. The twin-leg feature is reflected in the scientific name of the group, Diplopoda. There are about 6500 species worldwide, ranging from only about two millimeters to about 36 inches. Our local brown millipede rarely reached five inches in length. Sexes are separate, and the eggs, that are deposited in the ground in batches of 12 to 25, hatch into larvae with only three pairs of legs. They grow by molting, adding fresh segments each time, and may live up to seven years.

Centipedes, sometimes called "hundred-legs," possess a flattened body with fewer segments, each with a single pair of legs. Centipedes possess poison glands on the first pair of their sharp legs that are modified to form a hook-like jaw. Although the poison of North American centipedes is mild, unable to bother most humans, it is strong enough to subdue their prey. Some tropical species are far more toxic, however. Centipedes are reasonably fast and are able to run down their prey or to escape danger. The large tropical species, such as one Central American species that reaches ten inches, can catch lizards, mice and large insects.

The non-poisonous, non-predaceous millipedes use a very different tactic. When alarmed, rather than beating a fast retreat, they simply roll into a tight circle with their softer body parts protected inside. Their harder outer surface is made up of tough, calcium-rich exoskeleton that also allows them to burrow in the soil. In addition, millipedes possess a pair of glands on each segment that secrete an objectionable fluid that can be used for defense. Anyone handling these creatures more than just picking one up by its sides is sure to detect their lingering odor. Although the liquid is not dangerous, it can sting if it is somehow gotten in the eyes. And the tiny antennae carry numerous hairs that are olfactory in function.

Millipedes, along with the closely related sow bugs and pill bugs, are responsible for reducing about one-twentieth of the annual leaf fall into soils.