The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Victoria’s 2008 NABA Butterfly Count
by Ro Wauer

Every year since 1998 a handful of nature lovers have spent a day in the field counting butterflies. Our results are reported to the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) that is then published in an annual NABA Report. Last year there were 447 counts within the United States, including 37 in Texas. All of the counts must be conducted during June and/or July, all within a 15-mile diameter area, and they must include at least six hours in the field. Some of the counts are conducted by only one or two individuals while others, like the one for Boulder, Colorado, includes three dozen or more individuals.

Five individuals participated in the 2008 Victoria Count: Bill Farnsworth, Paul Julian, Linda Valdez, Betty Wauer, and I. From about 8am to 5pm, with scattered breaks due to the temperature and need to eat, we covered a number of potential butterfly sites. These included Riverside Park and Saxet Lake Recreation Area, the Master Gardeners Demonstration Garden and area at the Victoria Regional Airport, all the Victoria nurseries, various roadsides around the city, and a number of private gardens, all within the count circle. Our results include 485 individuals of 45 species.

Although the majority of the species were more or less expected, because they are commonplace most of the years, a few others were unexpected. This is generally typical for butterflies, as butterflies, unlike birds, move about to much greater extent. Birds, except during migration, generally settle in to specific locations and remain in place. Butterflies wander far more, as females must locate specific larval foodplants on which they can lay eggs. That is a major reason for butterfly gardeners to include proper foodplants, besides planting only nectaring plants. The most surprising species found on the Victoria Count included rounded metalmarks, mazans scallopwings, and Texas powdered-skippers. Although these do appear on occasion, they can never be expected.

Another species on note was the coyote cloudywing. Not that this species was unexpected, but we recorded 101 individuals, probably a new national high. This is a butterfly that until recent years was known only for the Lower Rio Grande Valley where, according to various authors, they utilized only Texas ebony for their larval foodplants. But in recent years I have found it egg-laying on blackbrush acacia, a common shrub throughout our area. And the numbers of coyote cloudywings that frequent my garden and adjacent areas have been exceptional. Although it has a white hindwing fringe, like funereal duskywings, it rarely perches with spread wings and is brownish color rather than dark gray or black like funereal duskywings. Victoria County has recently become recognized in the butterfly community as the centerpiece of the coyote duskywing range.

A few other butterfly species found in numbers (20 or more) on the Victoria Count included (in descending order) pipevine swallowtails, fiery skippers, little yellows, common checkered-skippers, giant swallowtails, and Celia’s roadside-skippers. Species that tallied 19 to 10 included whirlabout, white-striped longtail, gray hairstreak, large orange sulphur, and cloudless sulphur. All the other species were found in smaller numbers or as loners. But even the loners were welcome.

The majority of our recorded butterflies were located in various gardens. This year, because of the extreme aridity in our part of the country, butterfly numbers are lower than what they might be during normal years. So gardens become extremely important for maintaining butterfly populations. But a garden is always are a marvelous part of our world.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Roadrunners Are Fascinating Birds
by Ro Wauer

Last week, “out of the blue,” a roadrunner suddenly appeared in our front yard. It crossed the yard, circled the garage, and continued across the back yard into the pasture beyond. It had been a dozen years or so since we last saw a roadrunner in our yard. Yet for the first several years while living in the same house, roadrunners were not infrequent visitors. And since we occasionally heard their cuckoo-like calls in spring, I assumed that we had a small breeding population nearby. Plus, an occasional individual would approach the house while hunting for food. It seemed that our population of anoles and spiny lizards declined dramatically during that period. And maybe because it caught the majority of our lizards, it eventually moved elsewhere to find a greater supply of its favorite food.

To most people, roadrunners (proper name is greater roadrunner, for there is a lesser roadrunner in southern Mexico) are considered desert birds, hunting down rattlesnakes or running across the cactus studded terrain. For others they are cartoon characters that always are outsmarting Wiley coyote. But in truth, roadrunners are possible anywhere in the American Southwest, including Texas, except for the pineywoods. However, seeing one in the Central Gulf Coastal area is not an everyday occurrence. My favorite roadrunner site is Rio Grande Village in Big Bend National Park; they seem to have less fear of humans there than any place I know.

Roadrunners are a member of the cuckoo family, closely related to our summering yellow-billed cuckoo. They mate for life, and produce a family of four offspring annually, building a bulky stick nest in a low spiny shrub. Both parents feed the young, and are known to feign injury to a predator that might approach the nest, running off like they are injured to lead the predator away from the nest. Once the young are out on their own, the parents are said to lead their youngsters away from the nesting territory a considerable distance and lose them.

Roadrunners possess a number of other rather odd characteristics, at least from a human prospective. They often are seen during early morning sitting atop a fencepost or shrub with their wings stretched out to allow the sun to shine on their back. This is because, even in desert areas, they often lower their body temperatures overnight to conserve energy, and they utilize the morning sunshine to warm their bodies. And during courtship, a male will often offer a captured lizard to an intended mate to entice copulation.

Also during courtship, especially in the mornings, males sing a mournful song. It is dovelike, “kowoo kowoo kowoo kowoo,” that can sound like a sad puppy from a distance. “He also parades with his head held high and his wings and tail drooped while producing a “pop” sound with his wings,” according to Kent Rylander’s book: “The Behavior of Texas Birds.” And at times rapid bill-clacking occurs; Rylander states that bill-snapping in females is a higher pitch than for males.

Roadrunners are fun birds to have around. They not only are comical in their behavior, strutting around, elevating their long tail now and again, then running down prey that can range from lizards to small snakes to a wide assortment of invertebrates, such as scorpions and centipedes. They will occasionally also take small vertebrates like mice and various birds. Although the roadrunner that we observed in our yard may only be passing through, he is more than welcome to come back and use our yard for whatever he wants. Roadrunners make good neighbors!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Watch for Daddy Longlegs in Summer
by Ro Wauer

As summer comes on we can expect to see our familiar, long-legged daddy longlegs once again. Also known as harvestmen, a name derived from their appearance at about harvest time. In Europe, large numbers of harvestmen are considered signs of a good harvest, and it is unlucky to kill one. Although these long-legged creatures have been out and about since early spring, in summer the young daddy longlegs venture out into the open, appearing in our fields and gardens and in our barns and other structures, and we become aware of their presence. At my home near Mission Valley, I have already found a few individuals moving about; that number in likely to increase dramatically in a few weeks.

Most often, daddy longlegs are lumped with spiders, but they actually belong to a unique family of arthropods known as Phalangiidae. They differ from spiders in that they have no constriction, or waist, between their front part and abdomen. Also, their legs are much longer than that of spiders. That gives them a rather awkward appearance, but they are able to move surprisingly fast when necessary. And they also have a strange habit of moving up and down, like doing deep knee bends, when disturbed. Finding congregations of several dozen daddy longlegs gyrating in unison can be unnerving.

Their eight legs seem extremely fragile, and they sometimes get entangled in cracks, weeds, or whatever, but when that occurs, they simply discard the entangled leg and move on; they are able to grow a new one in no time. Their legs, however, are stronger than they appear.

Another major difference between daddy longlegs and spiders is the former’s lack of silk glands. They, therefore, are unable to spin webs. And they lack poison glands of any kind; they defend themselves by emitting a foul odor that humans very rarely notice. Daddy longlegs feed on spiders, mites, and small insects, which they run down and capture. They also suck juices from soft fruit, vegetables, and decaying materials.

About 200 kinds of daddy longlegs occur in North America, some with a 3-inch leg span, but they all look basically alike. The females lay eggs in the ground, under rocks or in crevices in wood prior to the first frost. Unlike the eggs of insect, they do not hatch until spring. The majority of the adults do not survive the winter. Here in South Texas, some individuals make it through the winter by hibernating under rubbish and in damp, warm locations. The survivors appear in spring, but they do not become commonplace until the new crop is out in summer.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Chickadees Don’t Seem to Get Much Attention
by Ro Wauer

Almost every yard in Victoria and adjacent counties has a family of these little black-and-white birds. They are one of our most common songbirds, and yet they constantly get overlooked for the more colorful and larger cardinals and blue jays, along with the loudmouth mockingbirds. Although our Carolina chickadee is often one of our most common yard birds, it seldom gets much attention. That is even when it is one of our most easily identified species: a tiny, nervous bird with a black cap and bib and white cheeks.

The Carolina chickadee is a bird of the eastern forests, and our area of Texas lies along the southeastern edge of its range. Its range extends northward almost to the Great Lakes, eastward to the Atlantic shore, and through the northern half of Florida. Like many of the eastern forest birds – such as the pileolated woodpecker, American crow, tufted titmouse and blue jay – the southern edge of their range is roughly marked by the San Antonio River. These birds are seldom found south of the San Antonio River.

North America can claim a grand total of eight species of chickadees. Although the Carolina chickadee occurs throughout most of the Southeast, the range of the black-capped chickadee overlaps that of the Carolina chickadee along its northern edge, and extends northwest into Alaska. The boreal chickadee occurs even further north from Alaska to the extreme northeast and Newfoundland. And there are three western chickadees: (1) The range of the mountain chickadee extends from the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas northward through the Rocky Mountains to coastal Alaska. (2) The chestnut-backed chickadee is found only along the West Coast from central California to Alaska. (3) The Mexican chickadee barely reaches the United States in the mountains of extreme southern Arizona and New Mexico.

All the North American chickadees possess a similar pattern, although birders can readily separate them by habitat, general color, and song. The Carolina chickadee sings a fast “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” song. Others possess a slower or wheezier song or a husky whistle. And all the chickadees are cavity nesters, utilizing cracks and holes in trees, bushes, and various structures. Chickadee feed on seeds most of the year, but young are feed a diet of insects. Food is primarily found by gleaning, that is by searching the bark and cracks for whatever can be discovered. They also drink and bathe frequently.

The Carolina chickadees in my yard already have produced numerous youngsters that are now spending considerable time about my feeders and birdbaths. If the last few years are examples, I can expect a second brood in five or six weeks. Although majority of the 2008 youngsters will move elsewhere, perhaps to establish their own territories, by wintertime, the adults remain together year-round. They will, however, spend the wintertime in flocks of several chickadees, including some of their own young, as well as a few other songbirds. These individuals roam the neighborhoods in search of foods. Most years the adults will return to the same general area where they raised their own broods and where they, too, were fledged.