The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Bird Navigation is an Amazing Ability
by Ro Wauer

At this time of year, millions of birds of all sizes and kinds are passing through South Texas. The majority of these are neotropical migrants, those that spend their winters in the tropics but come north to nest in North America, in the United States and/or Canada.

Many of these northbound birds fly across the Gulf of Mexico, leaving Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula during the early evening hours. They normally arrive along the Gulf Coast the following day between mid-morning and early afternoon. Others follow the Gulf Coast northward, passing directly through South Texas. Most are nighttime migrants, although a few, such as swallows and others that feed along the way, are daytime migrants.

In the big picture of migration, it is understandable that these spring migrants head north toward their ancestral nesting grounds. But what is less clear is how they are able to navigate from one tiny speck of habitat in the Tropics to another speck of habitat that may be as much as 4,000 miles to the north. How do they manage to find the exact place at Victoria’s Riverside Park, on the shore of Lake Michigan, or on the Alaska tundra where they were fledged?

The answer to that question is not fully understood, but some pieces of the avian navigation puzzle have been found. For instance, it is well known that birds are fully capable of following principle landforms, such as rivers, seashores, and mountain ranges. This suggests, of course, that once a bird has traveled the route once, even in the opposite direction, it can do so again. Domestic pigeons released miles from their roosts fly in circles until they are able to recognize their home surroundings. But what about nighttime migrants or those birds flying over fog or clouds?

Birds also are able to use celestial navigation; they can navigate by the stars. Biologists have placed spring migrants in a circular cage in a planetarium, and when stars come out the birds begin hitting the north walls. When the northern stars were reversed the birds begin hitting the south walls.

To take this experiment even further, spring migrants (equipped with tiny radio transmitters) were placed in a cardboard box that was suspended from a helium-filled balloon. When the box was opened from aloft on a clear night the birds flew erratically for only a minute or two and then set out on a straight northward course. If the birds were released on an overcast evening, when an afterglow was still visible in the west, they were able to orient themselves by that method. But when neither clue, stars or an afterglow, was available, they flew downwind, even if the wind was blowing in the direction opposite their destination. When that direction proved to be incorrect, they eventually had to turn back.

Migrants often remain in choice feeding areas, awaiting the right cue to head out. They make a go or no-go decision based on what the weather will be like over the next several hours. They apparently are able to detect the most reliable conditions, when they will be aided by a tailwind and not encounter severe storms along their route. They are correct the majority of times.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Purple Martins vs. Red-shouldered Hawks
by Ro Wauer

Neighbors have wondered why I have not reinstalled my martin house. It has been a spring staple in my community for the last dozen or so years. I have religiously set up my martin house in my yard in early March, and within a few days purple martins begin checking it out. And every year one or a few pairs of martins claim an empty site and begins their nesting process. But during each of the last four years that process have been interrupted by predation. My martin house has not produced a single youngster.

The purple martin predator each year has not been one of the more “normal” predators, such as a snake or raccoon. No, my purple martins have been decimated by a pair of red-shouldered hawks. These much larger predators land on the martin house, reach inside and extract the nestlings, and haul them off to their own waiting youngsters. But this year I have decided not to give them that opportunity by not reinstalling the martin house at all. Maybe by next year they will have forgotten about their source of martin morsels and ignore the martin house altogether.

The question obviously arises about which one of the two bird species would I prefer, purple martins or red-shouldered hawks. And that question is impossible to answer. After all, purple martins truly depend on us humans supplying them nesting sites, while red-shouldered hawks are totally independent, nesting high in trees where the nests are seldom readily visible from the ground. While red-shouldered hawks are full time residents in our neighborhoods, purple martins are neotropical migrants that are with us only during a few weeks in spring and early summer. They usually leave for their wintering grounds in Brazil by late July. In a sense, martins are more a South American species than a North American species, spending seven or eight months in South America and only four of five months in North America.

With mixed feeling, I have decided to forsake my martin colony this year. I can only hope that when next year rolls around and I reinstall my martin house that my red-shouldered hawks have found another diversion. But I won’t bet good money on it. Predators are opportunists, and I suspect that even this year’s youngsters will discover a fresh source of prey next year.

However, for my many readers that are still housing purple martins and are not experiencing the same kind of problems, if you have not already put up you martin house, it is time! And as a reminder, here are some easy rules to follow: (1) Houses must contain apartments with at least a 6x6-inch floor space and an entrance hole 1 ¾ inch in diameter and 1 inch above the floor. (2) Houses must be placed on poles 12 to 20 feet above the ground and should be 40 feet away from taller trees, poles, and other structures. (3) Poles must be free of vines and shrubs that might allow access to the house by predators. (4) Houses must be free of nesting materials and other debris that accumulated in the off-season.

Purple martins often are rather finicky at the start but seem to put up with shorter poles and poorly maintained structures once the colony is established. Most birds are repeats, but the majority of the first-year birds (usually last year’s youngsters) seek out new sites, usually in the general area of their natal home sites. This means that a new martin house, especially if it is in proximity of an active martin house, is likely to be used early on. Distant houses are not as likely to be selected.

Housing purple martins is not only fun, but a fascinating connection to the outdoors and to our interrelationship with the tropics. Good luck!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Writing a Wide Land: A Conference on Texas Nature Writing
April 11, 2008, EESAT Building, University of North Texas

On April 11, 2008 Writing a Wide Landscape: A Texas Nature Writing Conference will bring together for the second time major writers, editors, and interested groups from the region. This literary symposium is designed to reach out across multiple fields of study: creative writers, journalists, scientists, and those studying community outreach and/or environmental policy. It will also include workshops which highlight positive environmental change and work that has been done recently in writing and outreach across disciplines in order to engage the largest audience in communities. This conference will focus on the potential and possibilities of this intersection of ideas and how it may benefit Texas, its environment, and its citizens as well.

See the conference website at:

Registration for this event is free; however, all those attending must register with Jenna Ledford. Please send her your name, address, phone number, email, and status (student or non-student) at:
When you arrive you will need to pick up a ticket and conference materials from the registration booth.

For general information about the conference, please contact Dr. David Taylor at:

*Information on Parking, Lodging, and Local Restaurants is below.


Friday April 11, 2008

8-12 Registration, Environmental Education, Science, and Technology Building, UNT

8:30 Opening Remarks: President Gretchen Bataille, UNT
David Taylor, English Department, UNT
Community School, Poetry Reading

9-9:45 Gary Clark

10-10:45 Susan Hanson

11:00-11:45 Keith Bowden

12-1:30 Lunch (on your own; maps will be provided)

1:30-2:15 Joe Nick Patoski: 2008 Writing WaterWays Lecture (Irene Klaver, Director of Philosophy of Water Project, Introduction)

2:30-3:15 Break-out Workshops:
Susan Hanson, nature writing
Joe Nick Patoski, environmental journalism
Keith Bowden, environmental journalism
Gary Clark, natural history
Bob Pyle, nature writing

3:30-4:15 Editorial Panel Discussion:
Shannon Davies, Texas A&M Press
Karen DeVinney, UNT Press
Barbara Brannon, TTU Press
Bill Bishel, UT Press

Dinner Break

6:00-7:00 Keynote Address

7:30-8:30 Booksigning for Robert Michael Pyle

Support for this year’s conference comes from:
Office of the Provost, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, Department of English, Department of Biology, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Philosophy of Water Project, Institute of Applied Sciences, Team Engineering, Inc., Elm Fork Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists, Texas A&M University Press Consortium, Texas Tech University Press, University of Texas Press, Elm Fork Environmental Education Center, and the Environmental Speaker Series.

Featured speakers this year will include:

Keynote Speaker:
ROBERT MICHAEL PYLE (see Bob’s current project at: ( was born on July 19, 1947 in Denver and raised in nearby Aurora, Colorado. His B.S. in Nature Perception and Protection (1969) and M.S. in Nature Interpretation (1973) from the University of Washington were followed in 1976 by a Ph.D. from Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. In 1971, during a Fulbright Fellowship at the Monks Wood Experimental Station in England, Pyle founded the Xerces Society for invertebrate conservation, and later chaired its Monarch Project.

Bob has worked as an assistant curator at Yale's Peabody Museum, as a butterfly conservation consultant for Papua New Guinea, Northwest Land Steward for The Nature Conservancy, and guest professor or writer at Portland State, University of Alaska, Evergreen State, and Lewis & Clark College. He has lectured for scientific, literary, and general audiences in many cities and countries, taught numerous field courses and creative writing seminars, been on the faculties of Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and the Port Townsend, Pacific Northwest, Sitka, and Desert writing conferences, and appeared on NPR's E-Town. He received a 1997 Distinguished Service Award from the Society for Conservation Biology.

In 1979, Pyle moved from Portland, Oregon to the rural community of Gray's River, on a tributary of the Lower Columbia in far southwest Washington. It was a deliberate migration, in the Thoreauvian sense, toward the requisite setting for confronting life's bare essentials and to see what effect that may have on the creative act of writing. As Michael Pearson has commented: "For a man trained in natural history, science, and conservation much more than in literature, the transformation from scientist into full-time writer was a daring step into terra incognita, a metamorphosis reminiscent of the butterflies he studies."

As a professional writer, Pyle has published hundreds of papers, essays, stories, and poems, in many journals. His dozen books include the The Thunder Tree, Wintergreen (winner of the 1987 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing), Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide (1995), the subject of a Guggenheim Fellowship; and Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage, as well as the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies, Handbook for Butterfly Watchers,The Butterflies of Cascadia, and Walking the High Ridge: Life as Field Trip (in the Milkweed Credo Series). A novel, Magdalena Mountain,and a book about the home he shares with with botanist and silkscreen artist Thea Linnaea Pyle are in progress.

Other Speakers:

Bill Bishel has been since 1999 a sponsoring editor at the University of Texas Press. He acquires books in natural history, ornithology, environmental studies, Texas history, gardening, and cooking. He has a Ph.D. in history from Indiana University, where he specialized in U.S.-Latin American relations. Over the course of twenty-five years he has held a number of editorial positions, including stints with the Organization of American Historians, the Texas State Historical Association, and the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio. For five years he was the book review editor of the American Historical Review, one of the most prestigious academic history journals in the world.

Barbara Brannon is marketing manager for Texas Tech University Press, which primarily publishes nonfiction books related to the history and culture of Texas and the West and other scholarly subjects. She has taught and lectured widely on the history and practice of book
publishing and is the author of The Ferries of North Carolina: Traveling the State's Nautical Highways (2007).

Gary Clark writes the weekly column “Nature” in the Houston Chronicle and writes feature articles in a variety of state and national magazines. His writing has been published in such magazines as Texas Highways, Texas Parks & Wildlife, and Texas Wildlife, and Women in the Outdoors. Gary wrote the text for the book, Texas Wildlife Portfolio (Farcountry Press, 2004) and Gulf Coast Impressions (Farcountry Press, 2007). He has won seven writing awards, and he is the recipient of the 2004 Excellence in Media Award from the Houston Audubon Society. Gary also co-leads nature and nature-photography tours with his wife, professional photographer Kathy Adams Clark.

Shannon Davies is the Louise Lindsey Merrick Editor for the Natural Environment for Texas A&M University Press.

Karen DeVinney has been managing editor at the University of North Texas Press since January 2000. Because UNT Press is a small operation, she is able as managing editor to do a little bit of everything, being involved directly in every aspect of the business except marketing and financial planning. She edits or supervises the editing of every book UNT publishes and acquires several books each season, including David Taylor's anthology, Pride of Place. Before working at UNT Press, she taught English composition and literature classes in area colleges and universities.

Susan Hanson is the author of Icons of Loss and Grace: Moments from the Natural World, and a co-editor of What Wildness Is This: Women Write about the Southwest. Her work has been anthologized in Getting Over the Color Green; To Everything on Earth: New Writing on Fate, Community, and Nature (forthcoming from Texas Tech UP); and Let There Be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark (forthcoming from the University of Nevada Press). It has also appeared in such publications as Northern Lights, EarthSpirit, ISLE (Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment), Southwestern Literature, and Texas Parks & Wildlife. A long-time member of the English faculty at Texas State University, Susan also worked for nearly 20 as a journalist and 12 as an Episcopal lay campus chaplain. She and her husband live in San Marcos, Texas, and have a grown daughter.

Keith Bowden, author of The Tecate Journals: Seventy Days on the Rio Grande, has taught English at Laredo Community College since 1990. When he's not teaching, he rafts and canoes rivers all over North America, including more than forty trips on the Rio Grande. Keith has lived in such diverse places as Canada and Chile. The Tecate Journals has been praised by Texas Monthly, Dallas Morning News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Austin American-Statesman and other major publications. He recently appeared on C-Span's Book TV.

Joe Nick Patoski is the author and co-author Texas Mountains and Texas Coast, both published by University of Texas Press. A former staff writer for Texas Monthly magazine for 18 years, his byline appeared in the Texas Observer, No Depression, People magazine, Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, Field & Stream, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, among many publications.

David Taylor teaches in the English Department at the University of North Texas in Denton. He has published poetry and creative non-fiction essays in such journals as ISLE, Southern Poetry Review, Environmental History, and Mountain Gazette. His latest publications are Praying Up the Sun (Pecan Grove Press, 2008) and Pride of Place: A Contemporary Anthology of Texas Nature Writing (UNT Press, 2006). He was selected as a featured speaker for the 2006 Texas Book Festival.

Map of Denton:

Free parking is available at Fouts Field. Please see the following link for a map:
A bus dedicated to this conference will make two schedule stops at Fouts Field at 7:45 AM and 8:15 AM and take attendees to the EESAT Building.
Evening return trips will be announced later.

Lodging :
Conference rates are available at:

Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites, Denton
1434 Centre Place Dr.
Denton, TX 76205
Phone Number: (940) 383-4100

Lunch and Dinner:
Multiple lunch and dinner venues are within walking distance of the conference. Maps will be provided in the conference packet to all those attending.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Golden Crescent Frogs and Toads
by Ro Wauer

The recent article in the Victoria Advocate about the plight of frogs and toads, especially the Houston toad that occurs just out of our area in the Bastrop area, prompted me to think again about which of these amphibians are common in our area. I already have seen a few tadpoles in my dragonfly pond, so I know that, at least on warmer days, frogs already are active. These cold-blooded creatures stay hidden out of the weather during the colder winter months, but become active just as soon as daily temperatures reach into the 60s and 70s.

Leopard frogs are our most common frog. They are what almost everyone visualizes when thinking of frogs. Most individuals are one to three inches in length when squatting but may be twice as long with their legs extended. Some of the largest can be 12 inches or more and those individuals are big enough to offer a delicious meal of frog legs. Leopard frogs are wonderful jumpers; some can jump three feet or more. The typical leopard frog can easily be identified by the leopard pattern of black blotches on a green background and a pair of whitish stripes that run down its back. Its legs are usually brown with black blotches with lighter borders.

Leopard frogs prefer wetlands, including permanent and semipermanent pools, as well as flooded roadside ditches, where females lay masses of eggs. These egg masses, which may include 1,000 eggs, are laid in shallow water. The female is usually enticed to the site and persuaded to mate by a singing male. His love song is a series of guttural croaks and clucks, like the sound produced by rubbing a finger across an inflated balloon. And breeding can occur at any time of year, so long as hot and humid temperatures prevail.

Leopard frogs are members of the family Ranidae, or true frogs. This group includes 13 species, all of the genus Rana. Bullfrogs are probably the best known of these. Bullfrogs, usually measure six to eight inches in length as adults. They are smooth with a greenish back, tan belly, and powerful hind legs. These larger frogs are preferred for a dinner of frog legs. Their mating call is a booming “jug-o-rum” that can be jarring to the human ear. Females lay clusters of as many as 20,000 eggs and attach them to underwater vegetation.

Frogs begin life as a tadpole, a tiny, tailed, fishlike creature that lives underwater. It breathes with gills and rasping on plants with a beaklike mouth. It gradually transforms into an adult by a process known as metamorphosis. The change is first noticed when the tadpole develops a pair of hind legs, then forelegs, and the tail disappears. Lungs gradually replace gills, and the tadpole resembles an adult and begins to invade the land.

Toads belong to a separate family (Bufonidae) and can easily be identified by their dry, warty skin, compared to the moist, relatively smooth skin of frogs. Most toads also possess a cranial crest (ridge on the head) and parotid glands, the round or oblong knobs located just behind or below the eyes. Frogs never have these features. And what’s more, one cannot get warts from touching toads. However, secretions from the skin glands of both toads and frogs can be irritating to mucous membranes. Some folks are more allergic than others. So whenever touching these amphibians, be sure to wash your hands afterward. Until you do, keep your fingers away from your eyes and mouth.

All of these creatures are part of our natural environment. And we have learned in recent years that they are extremely susceptible to human induced pollutants. Populations of frogs and toads serve as our indicators of a clean environment. Appreciate them in their native habitats. We all are residents of the same planet.