The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Praying Mantises Are Ferocious Insects
by Ro Wauer

Although most sightings of mantises are of individuals either walking along a branch or standing very still, hardly noticeable at all. But I recently photographed one that had just captured a butterfly and was in the process of consuming all the body parts. The butterfly wings soon fell away, and the mantis finished up its butterfly meal. It was a larger than normal mantis with green wings and banded arms. According to my insect field guide, Kaufman’s “Field Guide to Insects of North America,” it was a female Carolina mantis, one of 20 mantis species that occurs in North America.

Mantises, along with bees, mosquitoes, ants, butterflies, and moths, are one of our best known insects. This probably is mostly due to its typical praying stance and its very distinct, almost grotesque, features: extremely long, snakelike body, triangular head with huge, bulging eyes, and powerful, angular forelegs, armed with strong spines and fitted for grasping prey. Few other insects, when magnified a hundred times, could look so scary.

Although mantises rarely fly, they are able to do so very well. And they seem to be attracted to lights at night, probably to search for prey that has also been attracted to the lights. They have been found many stores high on lighted buildings in our cities.

Mantises give the appearance of praying as they wait for passing prey species, which can range from insects of all kinds and sizes, including other mantises, to surprisingly large animals. There even are records of mantises capturing and eating hummingbirds. Mantises normally are very slow in their movements, but they are extremely swift in reaching out and grabbing prey species that they usually kill with a bite to the neck, severing nerves and leaving them helpless.

Another reason that praying mantises are so intriguing is their ability to look over their shoulders, behavior not normally associated with insects. Mantises overwinter in the egg stage. In fall, the female deposits foamy masses of up to 200 eggs on a twig; the mass quickly hardens into a waterproof, walnut-sized egg case. The eggs hatch the following April or May, and the little mantises drop down and scamper off. Those that remain nearby are often eaten by their larger siblings.

Full-grown mantises may be one-half to six inches in length, depending upon the species. Our native Carolina mantis averages about two inches, the pale green European mantis is also about two inches, but the exotic Chinese mantis is about four inches in length. The most common mantis in the United States, however, is the nonnative Oriental mantis, which can reach six inches.

Some mantises are kept as pets, although each must be kept in a separate cage because of its habit of eating other mantises. They can be fed insects, such as mealworms, pieces of raw beef, apple, potato, and other raw vegetables. They will soon learn to take food from your fingers, and they will eagerly sip water from a spoon. Mantises make very strange but fascinating pets!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Book Review
by Ro Wauer

Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail is a very different kind of bird-finding book. My wife, Betty, who is not a serious birder, was impressed with the colorful, eye-catching page design. She found the scattered historical facts an interesting addition to a nature book. We think this is a book that would make a great Christmas present. The key purpose of the book, of course, for finding birds, is also very worthwhile. It not only includes all of the best ingredients of such a bird guide but also includes numerous highlights about wildlife other than just birds. This 272-page book, with 179 color photos and 15 color maps, was published by Texas A&M University Press, and sells for $23.00

The authors, Ted Eubanks, Bob Behrstock, and Seth Davidson, have divided the Upper Texas Coast into 15 birding loop routes, such as Big Thicket, Bolivar, Galveston, and Katy Prairie, and provides directions on all the best birding sites. They include a grand total of 125 sites, each with excellent directions and suggestions on the best times of year and even a relative ranking of each site’s birding potential. For instance, some of the best birding sites, receiving a “3” ranking, includes Sabine Woods, Candy Abshier Wildlife Management Area, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, High Island Woods, Bolivar Flats, and Texas City Dike. But in reviewing the 1 and 2 ranked sites, I discovered numerous additional places that, although they were not ranked as high as others, offered locations well worth visiting.

Another extremely useful facet of the book is the numerous “Birding Tactics” sections that are scattered throughout in pertinent locations. These include such helpful discussions as “Finding” worm-eating warblers, brown-headed nuthatches, Bachman’s sparrows, wood storks, red-cockaded woodpeckers, rails, grassland sparrows, American woodcocks, northern gannets, and flycatchers. An excellent illustration is also included in most cases. And there also are numerous photographs of other animals that might be seen along the various loop routes. These can include anything from butterflies to dragonflies, lizards and mammals, as well as a few plants and some scenic features. This combination of illustrations may seem a little strange for a book primarily designed to help one find birds, but it works extremely well. It is obvious that the authors are well rounded naturalists, with a wide interest in all the creatures possible along the trail.

Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail begins with some introductory materials, including an introduction, habitat strategy, seasonal strategy, and various hints on how to find and watch birds. The authors include a short description of all the principal habitats: woodlands, prairies, wetlands, water surfaces, and sky. And the section on “To Call or Not to Call” is also helpful. Overall, this book is well-designed and needs to be included in every nature lover’s library. It is one super book!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Barn Swallows, Our Most Widespread Texas Swallow
by Ro Wauer

Even this late in the avian breeding season, barn swallows are still about, some actually still actively nesting. While all the other swallows that we might find in our area – tree, northern rough-winged, bank, cliff, cave, and purple martins – have completed their nesting cycle and are en route to their southern wintering grounds, the barn swallow is the exception. Some may stay with us until early winter before moving south, and some can even be found at select areas even later. And some early northbound birds can be expected by mid-February.

Barn swallows are one of the easiest swallow to identify. Their most distinguishing feature is their long forked tail, a feature that none of the other swallows possess. The long tail gives them a long, streamlined appearance. Adults possess a reddish-brown throat and cinnamon or buffy underparts. The underparts of juveniles are much paler. Although both cliff and cave swallows also possess reddish-brown to blackish throats, they are square-tailed swallows that lack the long forked tail.

During this time of year, it is not uncommon to see a family of barn swallows perched together on high wires or tree snags. Occasionally several barn swallow families will gather together, and other swallows that may just be passing by may join them. But the majority of the migrating swallows, often in large flocks of one to a few species, will more often continue their flight instead of resting. These migrating swallows feed on the wing, so unlike some other songbirds, such as flycatchers that often perch en route to flycatch, they continue on and only roost at night. But they usually commence their migration soon after sunup.

The majority of the barn swallows that nest in North America spend their winter months in Mexico and southward into Central and South America. But with Global Warming, barn swallows are staying further north and are returning to their ancestral nesting sites early than normal. Like most birds, they return to the same locations where they were fledged, oftentimes to the exact same nests. Once they are settled in from their northward journeys, they touch up or rebuild their nests. This requires the use of tiny mud pellets from nearby muddy sites that are shaped just right in their mouth. The cup-shaped nests are plastered on a wall or cliff that contains an overhang that protects the nest and youngsters from the weather. The four or five eggs hatch in about seven days and the young are fledged in another two weeks. They sometimes nest in small colonies, and sometimes last year’s young serve as helpers in nest-construction and feeding the new crop of youngsters.

Barn swallow diets consist primarily of insects that they capture on the wing, although the adults will occasionally feed on various berries that they find nearby. Winter birds in more tropical settings probably take more fruit than they do on the breeding grounds in the north. But in Texas, most feeding barn swallows take flying insects low to the ground in a swift, direct, and graceful flight. They frequently are found over our lawns, fields, and roadsides. They may follow the farmer’s plow or feed among grazing cattle, taking advantage of insects that are stirred up.

Barn swallows are not only beautiful creatures but also are valuable in maintaining the pests that can impact on our enjoyment of the outdoors.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Texas Raptor Migration Can be Spectacular
by Ro Wauer

It is again time to watch the skies for the abundant raptors that pass through South Texas en route to their wintering grounds south of the border. Many of the raptors – hawks, kites, harriers, falcons, and even eagles - funnel through our area from all across the northern portion of North America. Like an hourglass, coastal Texas offers a natural highway for millions of raptors each fall. A lucky observer could possible see more than two dozen species over a six week period. Their numbers usually peak during late September, but migrating raptors usually can be seen as early as mid-August.

Raptor migration occurs in many parts of the world, and formal “hawk watches” are organized at a few key sites. Many of these provide some amazing statistics. The best known historic sites include Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain and New Jersey’s Cape May Point. But in recent years Texas sites have produced even greater numbers. The single most productive one in North America is Hazel Bazemore County Park near Corpus Christi, where over one million raptors are known to pass over each year. Hawk watchers at Hazel Bazemore, a geographic chokepoint, have tallied up to 100,000 individual raptors in a single day. That is something very special to see!

It is estimated that 94 percent of North America’s broad-winged hawk population migrates southward along the Texas central Gulf Coast. The total count of broad-wings during the 2007 season at Hazel Bazemore totaled 596,838 individuals. Fewer numbers (in order of abundance) of Mississippi kites; sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks; American kestrels; ospreys; Swainson’s hawks; peregrine falcons; northern harriers; red-tailed hawks; swallow-tailed kites; merlins; white-tailed, zone-tailed, and red-shouldered hawks; crested caracaras; prairie falcons; Harris’s hawks; bald eagles; aplomado falcons; northern goshawks; white-tailed kites; and golden eagles moved through the area as well.

But the most outstanding spectacle of the raptor migration is a circling flock of broad-winged hawks – especially when several hundred of these hawks begin to leave a preferred overnight roost site at one time, usually about 8:30 A.M., and slowly ascend by circling to a point where they are out of sight. There are times when similar events are possible at various other sites, such as Victoria’s Riverside Park. The broad-winged hawk is a fairly small hawk, built very much like our common red-tailed hawk but with a banded rather than an all reddish tail. It is a common nester throughout the eastern deciduous forests of North America. And like many of our raptors, it is a Neotropical migrant that goes south for the winter. Broad-wings spend their winter months from southern Mexico south to Peru and Brazil.

For anyone interested in watching or participating in a hawk watch, you would be welcome to visit Hazel Bazemore County Park. It is located west of Corpus Christi. Take US 77 south of Calallen and turn west onto SH 624. The park entrance sign is one mile beyond on the right. The right day can produce one amazing spectacle!