The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Winter Wind – Nature’s exhilarating exhalation
by Susan M. Sander
Jan. 31, 2008, Center Point, Texas


Sometimes I remember to stop in my tracks and really look around, and take in the abundance of Life teeming in all the nooks and crannies. And there’s nothing like a good stiff wind to bring Nature back into lively focus, to shake off the dust of my complacency.

It’s the winds of January, and if I lived in Ghana we’d have a name for it, the harmattan, a northwest trade wind that lifts the Sahara Desert up, dust particle by dust particle, during the winter season (from November to March), often making shipping hazardous.

And sometimes Nature can exhale her breath with such force as to can literally blow the Sahara to our doorstep. On January 22, 2008 the NASA’s Aqua satellite captured such a dust plume blowing off Africa’s west coast (see it at http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/NewImages/images.php3?img_id=17903.
Could that be what I saw (and felt in my eyes and lungs) on January 29 in central Texas? The sky was a dusty brown all day as the winds whipped loose anything not tied down. Valley views were obscured, edges soften (some were literally being worn away as I watched).

Since reading “The Secret Life of Dust: From the Cosmos to the Kitchen Counter, the Big Consequences of Little Things” by Hannah Holmes, my world view has been blown away – from viewing my dust bunnies from a different angle to seeing the wind made visible. It has grown from microscopic to global as Hannah explained the rivers of dust that migrate around the globe, lifting and depositing, Nature as the ultimate re-arranger, and wind as one of her many acts.

The dust we curse as we sneeze is a mixed blessing of soil particles and minerals, organic bits of plants and animals, as well as spores and seeds that help replenish soils and habitats, but can also contain pesticide residues as well as pollutants from vehicles and factories. Wind makes the Six O-clock news with allergen disclaimers, such as, “Be careful what you breathe.”

Folks in the Hill Country of Texas can literally view the winter winds through weepy eyes as the male Ashe Junipers (AKA cedar) let loose their small grain pollen for wild sex on the fly. If a light breeze or a bird landing on a branch can set off a smoky plume, a full force wind really stirs things up as it aids pollination.

I like how wind challenges my senses (and sometimes my ability to walk upright). There are the “vocalizations” borrowed as it weaves through branches and leaves, whirls around corners, howls up and down canyons, hums and drones punctuated by the rattle of swirling windmills, loose tin roofs, and tumbling garbage cans. It can overwhelm the songs of birds and every other creature. It can roar like a freight train as my step-sister found out when a tornado ravaged her house and neighborhood in Wisconsin recently.

Without wind the grasses in the far pasture would just be a tan background, but wind forces them to shimmer as they do the wave. A gust just sent a herd of dried leaves scurrying across a mowed field. A dried sycamore leaf skips and does cartwheels.

I grew up on the edge of a cattail marsh in northern Illinois that literally turn into a sea of green when winds pushed through it. And there’s nothing like a good old nor’wester on Lake Michigan to send waves rumbling onto limestone cobble beaches or crashing out of bounds against a bluff. It’s raw power, Nature having a wild day.

The power of air can literally take your breath away, stop you in your tracks, knock out power, knock down buildings and trees. Over the years I've watched how trees “dance” differently in the wind: some flounce up and down, others sway, and some just shudder. The flexible will survive with their structural parts intact; those that resist will suffer cracks and crashes.

Wind constantly tests the riders in the sky. A flock of red-wing blackbirds had to bank around upwind before landing on a bird feeder. American goldfinches flap in place as they try to land against the wind. Pine siskins cling tightly to the thistle sock as it gyrates. A gust of wind disrupts the smooth sailing of the vultures.

It’s the last day of January, time to blow out the old to blow in something new.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cedar Waxwings are Regular Spring Migrants in South Texas
by Ro Wauer

Every year in early spring, when spring flowers are starting to appear and the first of the northbound migrants are being reported in South Texas, flocks of cedar waxwings appear. Some of these lovely songbirds are surely neotropical migrants, wintering in the Tropics, but others may have remained north of the border. Now they are gathering in larger flocks and feeding on last year’s berries and new buds that are developing on our trees and shrubs. Mulberry, cedar, mountain ash, and pyracantha berries are favorites. Choice feeding sites often become staging areas for gathering flocks of migrants.

Cedar waxwings are one of our best known birds. They are easily recognized by their size (7-8 inches long), distinct, pointed topknot, black mask against a soft brown head, pale yellow belly, and a bright yellow tip on their otherwise gray and black tail. And their soft, high-pitched, slightly trilled whistle also is distinct. A wheeling flock of cedar waxwings, flying in unison, can hardly be mistaken.

Waxwings are truly a social species. These gregarious creatures rarely are alone, but flocks of a few to 100 or more are typical. Even on their nesting grounds, only in the Texas Panhandle and northward, many individuals will share common feeding areas. Although fruit and buds are utilized most often in South Texas, they also will feed on a wide variety of insects, oftentimes taken in mid-air, like a swallow or flycatcher. They may even alight on the ground to feed, and they also come to the ground to drink. I have often found a ring of eight to ten individuals on my birdbath. Like American robins, waxwings seem to drink a great deal of water.

They also possess some rather unusual habits. Harry Oberholser in his classic book, “The Bird Life of Texas,” tells about a “charming ritual” in which a pair or group of cedar waxwings, sitting together side-by-side on a branch, will “pass a cherry back and forth before one swallows it,” or, in courtship, a pair may pass flower petals or insects back and forth.

But it is their gregarious feeding habits that are best known. Hundreds of waxwings, that descend upon a tree or shrub filled with berries or buds, can strip the food in a few minutes. And in spite of their normally quiet and dignified manner, they can become avian clowns after feeding on fermented berries. There are numerous reports of drunken waxwings falling off branches and hanging upside down while attempting to right themselves. They may fall to the ground and put on a grand show of attempting to stand upright, teetering about or running in circles. But eventually they recover and continue their journey toward their breeding grounds.

In South Texas, we normally can enjoy these lovely creatures only during spring.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Early Spring Days Means Early Wildflowers, Birds and Butterflies
by Ro Wauer

Although we all know that there is a good chance that the Golden Crescent will still experience some really cold and blustery days before spring truly arrives, it is very pleasant to sit back and enjoy these pre-spring conditions. My viburnum shrubs already are in flower, and the groupings of tiny white blooms are attracting a variety of nectaring insects. Besides the numerous bees, gray hairstreak, dusky-blue groundstreaks, checkered-skippers, and a few other butterflies are taking advantage of these early nectar sources.

Our resident birds also are responding to the early spring conditions. Although bird activity is largely the result of increasing day lengths, they readily react to sunny days. Birdsong increases significantly during these warming periods. And there is no more eager songster than the northern cardinal. The bright red males and paler females have taken center stage, singing their loud and throaty “wheer wheer wheer” songs. The Carolina wrens seem to compete very well with their “tea-kettle” or “wheedle” songs. And the bell-like calls of the tufted titmice and the “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” songs of our Carolina chickadees are all part of the backyard chorus.

Red-shouldered hawks have also become more active, flying about and calling their distinct shrill calls, a screaming and drawn out “kee yar.” Since this neighborhood raptor usually maintains a set territory year-round, I suspect that on warm days they already are inspecting previous nesting sites. And the adult male that often sits on a tree within easy viewing distance from my house, appears to already be in breeding condition.

Migrants have not yet begun their northward movement, although there seems to be considerable restlessness in those species that are with us only during the winter months. For instance, eastern phoebes and yellow-rumped warblers are far more active than usual. If our warm weather continues, it would not surprise me if some of these individuals begin to drift northward. Maybe, like some songbirds, they could move out but return with the next cold front. Oftentimes for some species there is almost a tidal response.

There also are a few species that overwinter in the greater Golden Crescent area, wandering about in search for adequate food supplies, and are now rechecking sites they visited previously. One of the best examples of these birds is the American robin. Although robins were present in my yard during November and early December, they moved elsewhere for a number of weeks, but have now returned in small flocks. Probably one of the major attractants in my yard is the ground-level birdbaths. Robins love to bathe. And cedar waxwings, also avid bathers, usually appear at about the same time.

It is always interesting to guess when the first purple martins will appear in our area. Although the earliest visitors usually are reported first along the Gulf coast, more inland visitors can arrive as early as mid-February. Will our changing weather patterns mean that martins will appear at our inland martin houses much earlier?

And what about the vast array of other spring migrants? Will many of those species reach South Texas earlier than usual? It would not surprise me if the majority of the northbound migrants appear earlier this year. I already am looking forward to seeing some of our more colorful Neotropical songbirds. Their marvelous spring songs are one of our most welcome signs of spring.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Our Wintertime Hummer
by Ro Wauer

Buff-bellied hummingbirds are our only year-round resident hummers. A few other hummingbird species occur at various other times, ruby-throated and black-chinned hummers in summer and a few other species pass through South Texas during migration, and occasionally some of these, such as the rufous hummingbirds, overwinter at choice areas where they can find an adequate supply of food. But the buff-bellied is our only full-time resident hummingbird.

At four and a half inches long, the buff-bellied hummingbird is the largest hummer occurring regularly in the eastern half of Texas, compared with three and a half inches for both the ruby-throats and black-chins. The buff-belly is our only species with a red bill, emerald green throat, buff underparts, and a rufous tail. Buff-bellies also possess a unique voice, producing high-pitched metallic or shrill, squeaky notes. Some of these can be loud and piercing, especially during courtship or when a bird is defending a territory. Although the sexes are marked alike, adult males are somewhat brighter with a redder bill.

Buff-bellies have a bold and assertive personality. Males often perch in a live oak within easy viewing of a feeder or patch of flowering plants. They may sit for long periods, watching whatever is moving in their surroundings, and then suddenly, without warning, they will streak off to another perch or after another hummingbird, a territorial invader. Or they may dive down to sip liquid from a feeder or flower, and then return to a favorite perch.

Buff-bellied hummingbirds are tropical hummers that range as far south as Guatemala but only as far north as South Texas and the southern edge of the Central Texas plains during their breeding season. But this has not always been the case. Only since the 1970s have they been recorded regularly north of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. By the early 1990s they had moved northward into Victoria County for the summer months, and since the late 1990s have become a fulltime resident.

Preferred habitat always includes oaks, although nesting can occur on a variety of other trees and shrubs. In fall 1995, I discovered a deserted buff-belly nest on a hanging yaupon branch. Like all hummingbird nests, this one was constructed of plant fibers and decorated with lichens and bound with spider webbing. New hummingbird nests are little more than thimble-size structures, but by the time the young are fledged the nests usually have been stretched to twice the original size.

Buff-bellies were earlier known as fawn-breasted or Yucatan hummingbirds, the latter name in recognition of their type locality. And their scientific name is Amazilia yucatanensis. But none of these names does justice to these birds, which are among our most colorful and personable hummers.

Naturalist Louis J. Halle also had a deep appreciation of hummingbirds. He wrote: “I have always felt that the hummingbird was a special gift to the New World…The human imagination, which has created unicorn, dragon, and phoenix, has created nothing more wondrous. It is like a precious gem, emerald or ruby, that has life and movement, that hovers, dips, and darts in the air. Looking only at its form and color, its jeweled surface, one would say it belongs in a prince’s turban. Its wings have more delicacy than the finest watchwork, humming when they are set off, whirring so fast they are blurred to sight, shooting it here and there, back and forth, or holding it stationary in the air.”

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Carolina Wrens, A Favorite Full-time Resident
by Ro Wauer

Even in winter, when our temperatures seem to temper the enthusiasm of most other birds, our Carolina wrens are still active and cheerful. They still are busy searching for bugs and other tiny creatures about our yards, and every now and then they will stop and sing their perky songs. Then they will continue their search in every possible corner and hole where they could possible discover some choice morsel. No flowerpot, chair, bench, utensil, or hole and crevice in trees and shrubs are missed. And unless we approach close enough spook them into a retreat, they seem to ignore our presence. They go about their search with impunity.

Carolina wren songs are some of our most commonly heard birdsongs, and they can usually be heard during all the daylight hours. Even in winter, when most other songbirds are quiet, Carolina wrens are rarely silent for more than a few minutes at a time. And what is also fascinating is their ability to sing a number of tunes. Most songs are a loud and clear ringing sound, and usually 3-syllabeled, but they can also be 2-syllabeled. And most songs are repeated three to five times or more. Although Carolina wren songs usually follow a “tea-kettle” format, they can just as well be more of a “weedle” format, a huge variation, or a wild combination. In fact, Paul Ehrlich and colleagues , in “The Birder’s Handbook,” point out that male Carolina wrens “sing 27 to 41 different song types, singing one song repeatedly before switching to different song types; neighboring males frequently match song types.” In addition, males and females duet, a behavior more typical of the tropical wrens. And as far as their call notes are concerned, they can be just as varied with a descending “tiirreee” or buzzing, chattering, or scolding sounds.

Carolina wrens, for those readers who do not know this bird, are easy to identify. It is the largest of our wrens. It is a stubby bird with a heavy dark bill and a rufous back, buffy underparts, and a thick, conspicuous white eyebrow stripe. It has a fairly long, rusty tail, barred with narrow black lines, and is often cocked or switched back and forth. And it has a habit of bobbing up and down. Carolina wrens are very different from the smaller Bewick’s and house wrens that we could possible see in our yards and woods.

For the most part, Carolina wrens are birds of the eastern half of the United States, where they can be present in habitats of all kinds. They are equally at home in deep forests to streamsides and backyards. Their range extends northeast into Maine, but not into the Canadian Provinces. The western extension of their range barely reaches West Texas, although in recent years it has been recorded on the eastern side of Big Bend National Park on several occasions. Like so many other birds, range expansion has become accepted.

Carolina wrens seem to get along just find in human habitations, even constructing their grass and stick nests in flowerpots and folded sheets that are left on the line too long. More typical nesting sites include cavities in trees and stumps, but they frequently utilize deserted woodpecker holes and nest boxes. The nests themselves are bulky structures of leaves, weeds and other materials and built by both parents. Incubation is done principally by the female, but the male brings food to feed the sitting female. Both parents feed the nestlings, but if the female moves to another nest to lay additional eggs, he will continue feeding the youngsters. And unlike most songbirds, Carolina wrens mate for life, maintaining their bond year-round. It is possible to see young birds almost any time of year.

Behavior of Carolina wrens is truly fascinating, not just because they are so obvious, but also because of their strange activities. For instance, they are one of the few songbirds that, like roadrunners, often perch in a sunbathing position, exposing their rump to the sun’s rays. They often remain in that position for several minutes. This is most common during cooler winter days.

Enjoy one of our most abundant and unusual songbirds.