The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mexico is a Beautiful Country That Gets Few Visits from Americans
by Ro Wauer

Betty and I, along with friends from Del Rio, recently spent two weeks in Mexico, mostly in the state of Veracruz, an amazingly diverse area geographically and biologically. Veracruz lies along the eastern slope of the Sierra Madre Oriental, between the Gulf of Mexico and the highlands of Oaxaca. It exemplifies a 16th century description of Mexico. When the Spanish king asked a returning conquistador for a description of the new land, the visitor seized a piece of paper, crushed it into a crinkled ball, and laid it in front of the king. “There, your majesty,” he said, “is a map of your New Spain.”

For those Americans who do visit interior Mexico, few leave without the realization that Mexico not only is a beautiful country, but also as safe as anywhere in the interior portion of the United States. Just like no one in their right mind would wander about the streets of many of our large cities after dark, one doesn’t wander after dark about many of Mexico’s large cities and border towns. But we have found that the interior Mexican towns are safe. And the people we meet are just as honest and kind as those in the U.S.

I have been traveling to Mexico one to several times most years since 1966. And although the roads, accommodations, and restaurants were less acceptable then, all have been improved immeasurably in recent years. Mexico’s main highways today are equal to those in the U.S. Mexico caters significantly to visiting Americans. And the exchange rate makes prices only one-half to two-thirds of what they are in the U.S.

Our recent Mexico trip was designed primarily to find and photograph butterflies. A secondary purpose was to visit a number of archeological sites and some locations that I had not seen during my earlier birding years. We generally covered an area from Tampico south to Catemaco and westward into the Sierras to the Esperanza cloud forest. I was disappointed in the amount of forest that had been cleared during the last couple decades, but I was impressed with the efforts underway to protect some of the last remaining forests. For example, sizable tracts of native jungle-like vegetation still exist in the Sierra de Tuxtlas near Catemaco and cloud-forest habitat along the Veracruz-Oaxaca border. And some good forest also remains surrounding the various archeological sites.

We recorded more than 300 kinds of butterflies during our trip, none more impressive than the huge morpho. This tropical, deep blue species occurs in intact forest habitats as far north as the El Cielo area in central Tamaulipas. But to see one flying in the rainforest of southern Veracruz is extra special. And the numerous heliconians that we found at various sites were extra special as well. Isabella’s heliconians were widespread, as were the zebra and julias, but we also got great photos of Mexican, tiger, and erato heliconians. Other large butterflies of special interest included rusty-tipped pages, common and crinkled banners; Blomfild’s, Karwinski’s, and small beauties; and five species of crackers. These tree-huggers are named for their behavior of snapping their wings in flight.

Some of the smaller butterflies were just as impressive. Perhaps, the wavy-lined sunstreak, an extremely long-tailed, bright green hairstreak, was most welcome. But finding pearly and sky-blue greatstreaks, a square-spotted yellowmark, Anna’s eighty-eights, blue-eyed sailors, and a fuzzy saliana was also impressive. And finding seven kinds of clearwings was another highlight. Of the more than 300 total species, 48 were lifers for me.

My message with this nature note is not about butterflies and magnificent scenery as much as it is about the country in general. We Americans too often believe the worst about what we don’t understand, and we rarely give that new idea a chance. Anyone who does venture south of the border, beyond the border towns and into the countryside, cannot help but appreciate Mexico for all it has to offer.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Our Tiny Birds of Winter
by Ro Wauer

I am never sure that our winter season has really begun until some of our smallest winter-only songbirds have returned. But they now are back, and they are consuming their share of birdseed and enjoying the birdbaths. The principle species that I refer to include ruby-crowned kinglets, house wrens, orange-crowned and yellow-rumped warblers, and chipping sparrows. The slightly larger winter-only species, such as eastern phoebes and robins, don’t qualify.

Of all the tiny winter birds, the most common is the chipping sparrow, a rather nondescript species with a reddish-brown back and gray underparts. Adults also possess a reddish cap and white eyelines. Anyone who offers birdseed to our wintertime species is sure to know this little sparrow. They usually occur in small flocks, and they spend a lot of time feeding on the ground, but they also will take seed from feeders. In fact, of all the wintering songbirds and in spite of their size, chipping sparrows probably consume more seeds than any of the others.

Ruby-crowned kinglets are more widespread in winter, but usually are found alone in the foliage or in brushy areas. These tiny, always nervous birds, are greenish brown with white eyerings. They also possess a red crown that is seldom obvious. When agitated, they can elevate their red crown patch. Ruby-crowns never feed on birdseed, but spend their time foraging among the foliage in search of tiny insects. And unlike chipping sparrows that are usually silent in winter, ruby-crowned kinglets often give je-dee call notes.

Maybe one of our most common wintering songbirds, but one that is the shyest and seldom seen, is the house wren. Yet, almost every patch of brush can possess a house wren in winter. It is even less colorful than the chipping sparrow and ruby-crowned kinglet. About half the size of our full-time resident Carolina wren, the house wren is a buffy-colored little bird with a very short and banded tail. Although it seldom spends much time in the open, birders tally a surprisingly high number of house wrens because of their constant call notes. And on especially sunny and pleasant mornings they may even serenade the area with a fast, bubbling song. And like kinglets, house wrens feed almost exclusively on insects that they find in brushy areas.

The two warblers mentioned above – orange-crowned and yellow-rumped – spend most of their time foraging among tree foliage. And in the case of the yellow-rumps, they also will fly-catch, sailing out from high perches in pursuit of a flying insect. Yellow-rumped warblers are easily recognized by their yellow-rump, brownish-green back, and whitish throat.

Orange-crowned warblers also forage for insects among the foliage, but will also search for insects on tree bark and under eaves. They seem to be more opportunistic than most warblers, as I have found them feeding on the peanut-butter and cornmeal mixture that I offer in winter on hanging logs. Again, this wintering warbler is never brightly marked, but has a general olive-green appearance. Their orange crown, like that of the ruby-crowned kinglet, is rarely in evidence. And like chipping sparrows, it is silent throughout its wintertime stay in South Texas.

If there is one similarity among these little wintering birds, it is that all enjoy a good bath. Although their bathtub may only be a depression in a leaf or ground, some individuals seem to bathe more often than others. Maybe the orange-crowned warbler enjoys its bathing time more than the others. A birdbath placed in an outdoor location where it is readily evident from indoors can bring many pleasurable observations all winter long.