The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Fall Butterfly Season Can be Marvelous by Ro Wauer

From early October until mid-November, it is possible to find 50 to 65 kinds of butterflies in the Golden Crescent in a single day. These include many of the year-round residents, species that have wandered northward, as well as the numerous so called migrants that are passing through our area. The best known of these southbound butterflies is the monarch, actually the only true butterfly migrant. It is the only species that goes south in fall, overwinters in Mexico, and returns (at least part way) in spring. The many other butterfly species going south in fall never head back in spring. They wander south of their normal breeding sites in fall to die before they are able to return in spring.

Although the monarch is well recognized for its fascinating behavior and long life, the mourning cloak butterfly may live longer, as much as eleven months. Monarchs that emerge in August or September, fly south to Mexico for the winter, and start northward in March or April, live only nine or ten months. The mourning cloak, very rare in South Texas, instead of migrating to Mexico for the winter, can overwinter in protected crevices and such, and fly about during warm winter days, even when there is snow on the ground. The life span of most butterflies, however, is seldom more than two weeks.

Some of the other southbound butterflies one is likely to encounter this time of year include the monarch-like queen, both American and painted ladies, and the sulphurs, such as the southern dogface and cloudless and large orange sulphurs. The sulphurs, small to mid-sized yellow butterflies, can be especially abundant in fall, nectaring on a wide variety of flowers along our roadsides, in fields, and in our gardens.

One of the more exciting groups of butterflies likely to be encountered in fall include the more tropical species that wander northward in fall, rarely present at any other time of year. This includes the monarch-like soldier, another of the milkweed butterflies, that looks very much like the queen. Watch also for three large sulphurs: white and yellow angled-sulphurs and orange-barred sulphur. And white peacocks also appear in fall, although this species may be a temporary colonist in our area. This status refers to those butterflies that have wandered away from their normal breeding range, found proper foodplants on which the females lays eggs, and a population persists until some environmental condition kills off the population.

Two additional tropical species, that usually are considered only fall visitors, are present this year in reasonably large numbers, the zebra and julia heliconian. These two gorgeous creatures have been present in my garden, and many other locations in South Texas, for almost two months this year. There are even reports of zebras as far north as the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. Such a northern movement occurs only rarely, and it is possible that such an extensive “invasion” will result in temporary colonies. This movement probably is the result of the greater than normal rainfall this year. Some additional tropical species possible in our area this fall include Florida white, Mexican yellow, tailed orange, zilpa longtail, and white-patched skipper.

A third group of butterflies that help to increase the daily tally is the residents that increase in numbers or are more obvious because they take advantage of the late blooming flowering plants. By mid-October, my crucitas (Eupatorium odoratum) come into flower. These plants act as amazing butterfly magnets, attracting and holding all of the resident and many of the wandering butterflies. Last year on October 27, I recorded a high of 52 species within my half-acre yard. My crucitas are just starting to bloom, and I know that, with the amount of rainfall we have experienced this year, that my one-day total is likely to be even greater. It is a wonderful time of year for butterflies!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Quiet Time is Also Bathing Time for Our Songbirds
by Ro Wauer

On my morning walks around my neighborhood, I hear very few birdsong this time of year. Of course, there is the occasional, but shorten songs of mockingbirds. And a few other birds make themselves known by an occasional call note. This morning during my two-mile walk I heard only a few distance crows, a titmouse, Bewick’s and Carolina wrens, and the soft coos of Inca doves. It seems as if our birds are exhausted from their long breeding season, and are now resting up for the upcoming winter season.

My yard birds, those that reside in and around my yard, are a little more obvious. Those birds spend considerable time there because of my three birdbaths and various seed and hummingbird feeders. The hummingbird feeders are still active, although the massive number of migrating hummers has already passed by on their southward journeys. The birdbaths may be used by more birds than any of my other avian attractants. Although the birdbaths don’t have the appeal as they did during the hottest part of the summer, they still are popular.

Most of my yardbirds this time of year only use the birdbaths for drinking, but some individuals will also bathe. Cardinals seem to bathe on a regular basis, although some of their neighbors, such as the Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, and Carolina wren, seem to bathe less often. The white-eyed vireo - another of my resident birds – may be the cleanest of the group, if that term applies to songbirds. This little bird is seen constantly at a birdbath, and it utilizes a very different bathing technique than the others. It will perch on an adjacent branch and then fly swiftly down to the water, barely touching the surface, and then immediately fly back to a perch and preen. It will do this time and time again. Even from a distance it is easy to identify the white-eyed vireo because of its unique technique.

There are a few birds that will simply plop down into the birdbath and sit there, as if it is expecting someone to come along and help. The red-shouldered hawk provides the best example of this method, in spite of its large size. It will fly in to the ground-level birdbath, sit for a few minutes nearby, checking in all directions for danger, and then walk over and sit inside the pot; I use a two-inch deep flowerpot. At times the hawk may remain for 15 to 20 minutes, dipping down now and then and afterwards shaking its wings to shed the water. The preferred birdbath is too shallow to allow for a really good bathe. It occasionally will just sit still, letting its wings droop like it is totally relaxed.

I have set up a dripper to supply constant water to all my birdbaths. Birdbaths with drippers that noisily splash on the surface seem to attract the greatest number of birds. These birdbaths attract a surprising number of migrating birds. They are like a bird-magnet for any passing birds. They have attracted a wide variety of songbirds, from various warblers, to orioles and tanager, and vireos. Yellow-billed cuckoos also like to bathe and drink.

Although I also use four or five seed-feeders, as well as a suet feeders in winter, the birdbaths get the greatest attention. Not all birds feed on seed, nectar, or suet, but all birds bathe.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Kingfishers Are Back! Winter Isn’t Far Behind by Ro Wauer

The return of belted kingfishers to South Texas is a sure sign that the hot summer is over. These wonderful birds normally spend their summers along more northern rivers and streams from central Texas to Alaska, migrate south for the winter months, and many remain into May. They overwinter south into Mexico and as far south as Argentina.

Their abundance in South Texas during the winter months provides a marvelous opportunity to enjoy one of nature’s most unique creations close-up and personal. They perch on wires and posts over roadside ditches, along our reservoirs, bays, and other wetlands.

Kingfishers are among out easiest birds to identify. It is a fairly large bird (about a foot in length) with a noticeably large stocky bill and blue and white plumage; females also possess a rusty bellyband. A closer examination reveals a finely banded tail, back flecked with white, and a tiny white spot in front of each eye. And their vocalization can hardly be ignored; it is a loud clattering rattle, given from a perch or in flight.

By watching one of these active birds, you will soon understand why it is called “kingfisher.” It spends most of its daylight hours foraging for food that may include fish of varying size, frogs, crayfish, crabs, and almost anything else that lives in water. But their method of fishing is what is most exciting. They physically dive on their prey headfirst, from a perch or hovering position up to 40 feet high, and often become totally submerged, sometimes for several seconds. They will then literally fly out of the water with their prey either tightly grasped or stabbed with their sharp bill, carried to a favorite perch, beat senseless, flipped into the air, and swallowed headfirst.

At times the prey may be so large that it is impossible to swallow whole. In such cases, the bird will simply remain still to allow its rapid digestion to consume its catch that slowly slips down the gullet. The undigested scales and bones are regurgitated as pellets.

Kingfishers nest in dirt banks along rivers, constructing tunnels as far as 15 feet deep and slightly angled upward. At the end of the tunnel, it constructs a 6- to 10-inch-deep nest chamber. Its bill serves as a digging tool, and it pushes the loose dirt out with its small but strong feet. The construction takes three days to three weeks, depending on the type of soil. The chamber us then lined with grass, feathers, and materials from its pellets. The female lays five to eight eggs that hatch in about three weeks. After the young are fledged, the parents teach the youngsters the art of fishing by dropping dead meals into the water for retrieval; within ten days the fledglings are catching their own prey,

Although the belted kingfisher is our most common kingfisher species, two other kingfishers occur in our region: the tiny green kingfisher is resident along the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers, and an occasional ringed kingfisher visits our area from further south. The larger ringed kingfisher sports an all rusty belly and more massive bill and deeper rattle call. The call of the green kingfisher is a series of metallic ticks.

Belted kingfishers will be us all though the winter months, and their presence allows us to appreciate our rich diversity in our bird life. One author wrote: “Up and down the creek he goes, With rattled call to warn his foes.” Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

How about that Annotated Budak, putting up a GREAT Spineless #25? Check it out here!