The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Frogs and Toads Love the Recent Wet Weather
by Ro Wauer

There is no proof more obvious for the greater activity of frogs and toads than the number of road-killed frogs and toads found right after a heavy rainstorm. But the great majority of those squashed amphibians are Gulf Coast toads, identified by their squat, warty body with a narrow pale back stripe and a wider dark side stripe. Occasional, one can also find a Texas toad, a leopard frog, or one of the treefrogs.

Even more evidence of their love for wet weather is the abundance of treefrog songs that emanate from the various trees and shrubs and even from other cracks and crannies around the yard. Although songs of green treefrogs can be expected even before wet weather sets in, the chorus is considerably louder and more abundant after a rain. There are times when a dozen or more green treefrog calls are obvious at the same time. Their calls have been described as “queenk-queenk-queenk” with a nasal inflection, and according to Roger Conant and Joseph Collin’s book, “Reptiles and Amphibians Eastern/Central North America,” their calls can be repeated as much as 75 times a minute. This treefrog is usually bright green, although some individuals can be nearly yellow, with a long yellow to whitish patch that runs from just below the eye to the flank. This is the treefrog that can often be seen of our house windows at night, where they come to prey on insects attracted by the indoor lights.

The other common treefrog is the gray treefrog, primarily gray with brown and black colors. It can look silver-gray at times, especially in the middle of the day when it is resting in a protected corner. The colors change somewhat, depending upon the activity or environment of the treefrog. Other distinguishing features include a whitish spot beneath their eye and a bright orange or golden yellow color on their concealed hind legs. And the call of gray treefrogs is best described as a resonant, musical trill. Also in our area is the smaller squirrel treefrog that has a nasal “ducklike” call and a harsh rasping trill, according to Conant and Collins.

Our resident leopard frogs probably get more attention than any other species, although bull frogs that are more likely in larger wetlands can also be numerous. Leopard frogs are what almost everyone visualizes when thinking of frogs. Most individuals are 1 to 3 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 marvelous 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. Leopard frogs love gardens, and gardeners often find this frog hiding among the foliage during the daytime. I have often been surprised to have one of these long-legged amphibians suddenly jump away just as I am about to pull some grass or weeds. Especially during dry weather, like we have experienced in recent weeks, leopard frogs seek out watered sites.

The presence of such an abundance of frogs and toads in our area is but one more indication of the amazing biological diversity of South Texas. And it also is a reminder that our yards can be an important refuge for a myriad of creatures if we care. Keeping our plants well watered and our environment free of pesticides can help such critters like frogs and toads that daily consume many pests that might otherwise degrade our yards.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Our Neighborhood Woodpecker
by Ro Wauer

Like so many of our resident birds this time of year, ladder-backs are more obvious than normal. This primarily is due to the youngsters that are out and about, searching for food and calling to the adults, perhaps thinking that they still may get a free handout. Although we have five kinds of woodpeckers in our area year-round, the easiest to identify is the ladder-back, because of its small size and black-and-white barred back. The underside is buffy with small black spots. The cheeks are white with black lines, and the males possess a red cap; female caps are black.

The other small woodpecker that is possible is the downy woodpecker that is seldom seen away from riparian habitats along the rivers and streams, and downys possess a white back, not barred. The largest of our woodpeckers, also usually found only in riparian habitats, is the pileolated woodpecker, the one with a tall, red crest that reminds most people of the “woody woodpecker” character. And the two mid-sized woodpeckers that look very much alike are the red-bellied and golden-fronted woodpeckers. Red-bellys also frequent riparian areas, but can often be found in broadleaf habitats throughout our area, even in well wooded urban settings. The look-alike golden-fronted woodpeckers prefer drier habitats and barely reach Victoria County. It is much more numerous in southern DeWitt and Bee Counties and southward. Both of these woodpeckers possess a barred back and gray underparts and cheeks. Red-bellys have a reddish belly and nape, while golden-fronted woodpeckers have a golden nape and gold spot at the base of the bill. In addition, three additional woodpeckers are possible: red-headed woodpeckers can wander into our area from the eastern forests, and the northern flicker and yellow-bellied sapsucker are fairly common in winter.

Woodpeckers are cavity nesters, and the ladder-back is no exception. It is small enough to utilize wood fence posts, utility poles, and reasonably small trees. And in West Texas, ladder-backs often construct nest cavities in century plant stalks. The nests are used only during the first season, and the next season is utilized by the equally small elf owls in the Big Bend Country and by ferruginous pygmy-owls in extreme South Texas.

The diet of ladder-backs includes both fruit and invertebrates that they find by foraging on bark and among dead leaves. Wood-boring insects, their larvae and eggs, ants, weevils, and caterpillars are utilized. Fruit can vary, but in cactus-country they seem to enjoy tunas; in fact one of the earlier names of this little woodpecker in Southwest Texas was “cactus” ladder-backed woodpecker.

Behavior is fairly typical of all woodpeckers. Their flight is generally straight but undulating, but rarely any great distance. And ladder-backs have a habit of calling a sharp “peek” note in flight. They also possess a longer rattle-call, a “keek” note, and a few other notes that are seldom heard. In addition, although most of their insect food is found by foraging on the bark, they may descend to the ground in their search for insects, and they can drill into the bark to extract insect larvae, as well to excavate nests.

There is little question about which woodpecker is our most common and most interesting. There are few places in South Texas where one cannot find and enjoy one of these little woodpeckers.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Field Crickets Are Back
by Ro Wauer

Once again, field crickets have invaded our towns, homesites, and businesses. Everywhere you look are black field crickets, scurrying here and there trying to find hiding places. Dead ones can leave an odor that can sometimes be detected from a considerable distance. There are times that these unwelcome critters pile up and actually drive customers away. They need to be cleaned up constantly.

Normally field crickets are found only in our fields and woodlots and are primarily nocturnal in character; the recent rains have driven them out of their preferred habitats into conflict with people. Millions are zapped with insecticides. But they will keep on coming until the weather changes.

Field crickets usually are welcome neighbors, so long as they stay outdoors. Many people consider crickets as symbols of good luck. Jiminy Cricket, of Pinocchio fame, also helped establish a positive image. And crickets are prized for their singing and sometimes even kept in cages in people’s homes. In China, crickets were also kept for their fighting ability; cricket fights were as popular as horse races. The Chinese actually fed their crickets special diets, including mosquitoes fed on trainer’s arms, and weighed them in order to classify them for fighting.

Many of us enjoy their cheerful evening songs, and as the nights grow longer and cooler, their nocturnal serenades increase in intensity. Before winter they must mate with a female to perpetuate their species. But only the males sing. They have three basic sound signals: a calling note, as aggressive chirp, and a courtship song to attract a female. Singing is done with the edge of one wing rubbing against the opposite wing, creating a chirping noise. File-like ridges, called “scrapers,” near the base of the wing produce the sound. We can produce a similar sound by running a file along the edge of a tin can.

Wing covers provide an excellent sounding board, quivering when notes are made and setting the surrounding air to vibrating, thus giving rise to sound waves that can be heard for a considerable distance. The cricket’s auditory organ or “ear,” a small white, disk-like spot, is located on the tibia of each front leg. The chirps become much higher in pitch in the presence of a female. Some of these ultrasonic sounds can reach 17,000 vibrations per second, higher than most people can distinguish. Females are easily identified by a long, spear-like ovipositor (egg-laying device) protruding from their abdomen. Eggs are laid in the ground and hatch in the spring.

Our local field crickets, almost an inch in length, are members of the Gryllidae Family of insects, closely related to grasshoppers and mantises. They feed on a wide variety of materials, including vegetable matter, and when they get into our buildings, they can consume everything from clothing to books. However, they will not remain there and breed but will return to their preferred outdoor environment when given the chance. Outdoors they are an integral part of our South Texas wildlife.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Laughing Gulls Are Our Common Full-time Residents
by Ro Wauer

On a recent visit to the beach, the only gull I found was the laughing gull. But because their plumage can vary so much, even during the nesting season, they can look very different. The typical summer-time appearance of an adult laughing gull includes a black hood, reddish bill, white neck and underparts, and slate-gray wings and tail. A very attractive gull! Winter birds loose their black hood and reddish bill, and they are overall grayish color. And then there are the younger (1st and 2nd year) birds that possess a very different plumage. Laughing gulls do not get their breeding plumage until their third year. That pattern of plumage development is fairly typical for all the gulls.

Laughing gulls received their name from their calls that are loud and penetrating, a high-pitched laugh, like “ha ha ha ha,” with the last note descending into a strange wail, suggesting mirth. In flight, they often give a slightly different call, like “kee ah, kee ah.”

Laughing gulls are commonplace along the entire Gulf coast, but they only rarely occur inland to any extent. During stormy weather in the Gulf, however, they often come inland at least a few miles. Then is when they can be expected on open flats, from parking lots to open fields. They can be especially abundant at those times in parking lots where they can find discarded food. Gulls possess an amazingly diverse diet that can range from live fish on the coast to washed up carrion to discarded crackers, candy, and almost everything else that can be found. Oftentimes when feeding they show a noisy and aggressive behavior, chasing one another about in an attempt to steal food or intimidate the individual gull that has found some choice morsel. They even have been found to steal food from much larger birds, such as pelicans.

The majority of our laughing gull observations are at the beach, but boaters can hardly get away from these curious and omnivorous gulls. They can be expected considerable distance off-shore in search of food or simply soaring about, utilizing thermals just like hawks and vultures. But more often they are found loafing along the beach or sitting on posts or other structures near the shore. And in the water, they are buoyant and swim very well.

Ring-billed gulls can also be found in summer along the Gulf beaches, although they are far less numerous than the laughing gulls. And during the winter months, at least two additional gulls can be expected along the shore or over the Gulf: Bonaparte’s and herring gulls. The largest of the four is the herring gull; winter adults possess a gray mantle and back, black tail, and yellow bill with a red spot on the lower mandible. Adult ring-billed gulls can always be identified by yellowish bill with a black ring. And the smaller adult Bonaparte’s gull has a black bill, black cheek spot, white underparts, and reddish legs and feet.

Gulls, often called seagulls, are some of the most difficult birds to identify during the non-breeding season. That is especially true in South Texas where a dozen or so additional species have also been recorded, primarily in winter. Many of these frequent landfills where they are able to find food. Trying to find one of the difficult to identify species amid thousands of wheeling, calling gulls can be rather trying, to say the least. However, there are a number of avid gull-lovers that spend considerable time each winter searching for one or more of the rare, out of range species. And every year one or more strays, like Herrmann’s, Black-tailed, California, Thayer’s, Iceland, lesser black-backed, slaty-backed, western, glaucous, great black-backed, and kelp gulls, put in their appearance along the Texas Gulf Coast. Our area of North America produces some unbelievable bird records.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Gaggle of Names Used for Animals and Their Young
by Ro Wauer

Recent conversation about the correct names for young cows reminded me of a Nature Note that I had done for the Advocate in June 1996. On re-reading that note, I decided to repeat it because it helped address a number of questions about animal names, many that often are incorrectly used. For instance, the young of a bull and cow are called caves, but they also are called “veals,” “vealers,” “stirks,” and even “hogs” without references to their sex. And male calves are called “bullocks,” “stots,” “bulls,” and “bull-calves,” and the females are called “heifers.”

The young of rabbits, hares, skunks, beavers, otters, ocelots, mountain lions, and bobcats, as well as house cats, are called “kittens.” And everyone should be familiar with the words “pups” and “fawns” for young dogs and deer, respectively. But how many of you know what a squealer is? It is a young quail, not a pig.

When you hear someone mention “hens,” you usually think of the female chicken, but the term “hen” also includes the females of fish and lobsters, as well as the female canary. And although the words “bull” and “cow” may refer to cattle, they also refer to the male and female moose, terrapin, and several other animals.

Here are some additional names of young animals: antling of an ant, spiderling of a spider, cygnet or a swan, chicken of a turtle, cub of a fox, calf of a giraffe, gosling of a goose, chigger of a mite, maggot of a fly, and squab of a dove.

And then there are the names of groups of animals that are misused almost as often. Some of these, such as a school of fish, swarm of bees, pride of lions, and skein of geese, are reasonably well known; others are not. Did you know that a “gaggle of geese” is the proper terminology when the geese are on the water? And groups of swallows are known as flights. But what are gulps, murders, dules, budlings, and charms? It would be proper to refer to a gulp of cormorants, a murder of crows, a dule of doves, a budling of ducks, and charm of finches. Groups of hawks, herons, magpies, and owls are properly known as a cast (hawks), siege (herons), tiding (magpies), and parliament (owls).

Here are additional group names: a covey of partridge, nye of pheasants, host of sparrows, wisp of snipe, masting of storks, spring of teal, rafter of turkeys, pitying of turtle-doves, fall of woodcocks, and decent of woodpeckers. And groups of wolves are properly known as routes, groups of squirrels as deays, turtles as bales, and toads as knots.

Numerous other rarely used names are used for animals, many of which are used only by those individuals with special interests. But the English language is sprinkled with fascinating names for animal young and groups, although they may be seldom used.