The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tufted Titmice are a most lively little bird
by Ro Wauer

Along with Carolina wrens and cardinals, the little tufted titmice are one of most vocal songsters. Their loud “peter peter peter” songs can be expected in every oak grove throughout our area. They also sing a harsh “day day day” song, and may even give scolding “tsee-eep” or “seja-wer” calls on occasions. Although their loud mouth behavior can equal that of the wrens and cardinals, their appearance is in direct contrast with that of the male cardinal. They lack any bright colors, but are a rather drab gray, although a closer view will reveal buff-colored flanks. And their erect crest, short bill, and large black eyes give them a bit more character. But what they may lack in appearance, their personality is rather special.

Tufted titmice are inquisitive birds, moving about the tree foliage as well as the trunks and branches, constantly foraging for food. At times they will cling to tree trunks like chickadees, probing bark crevices. At other times they may descend to the ground where they hop about hunting insects. Their flight, as described by Harry Oberholser in “The Birds Life of Texas,” is “bounding, quick, irregular, and accompanied often by spreading of the tail.” And they may be bold enough to come to water or a seed feeder even while you are standing nearby. They seem to love water, either drinking directly from a dripper or a birdbath. Bathing seems to occur irregularly.

Titmice and chickadees are members of the Family Paridae that includes only five species in Texas: tufted, black-crested and juniper titmice and Carolina and mountain chickadees. All are little active birds that utilize cavities for their nest sites, such as natural cavities, woodpecker holes and even nest boxes. Tufted titmice normally mate for life, they line their nest cavity with leaves, moss, snake skins and hair, and she will lay five to seven eggs. Last year’s young will sometimes help with nest-construction. But the female does most of the incubation, although he will feed her a good part of the time she is on the nest. Both parents feed the young that will fledge in about two weeks. The nestlings are fed all types of invertebrates from insects to spiders. The adults will also take seeds and in fall will utilize acorns that they break open with sharp thrushes of their bill.

In spite of mating for life, the adults will sometimes split up during the winter months, joining various bird parties. Birders will often zero in on the those bird parties in winter, that may include a dozen on more birds of various species, because of the loud calls of the titmice. Apparently, the multi-species parties, containing birds that utilize different behaviors while foraging, provide greater opportunities for discovering food, benefiting all members of the party. This behavior is true not just in North America, but southern titmice species play the same role in the tropics.

The range of tufted titmice includes all of eastern North America, south to about the San Antonio River. And black-crested titmice occur to the south and west to the Big Bend Country. These two species were earlier lumped together, but more recent studies have proven they are two different species. This is true even though they do hybridize where their territories overlap. So, our area in South Texas may produce both forms, the plain tufted titmice and the titmice with a black crest. Both possess similar vocalizations and behavior. Both are lively, personable birds.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Neotropical Migrants are Like Returning Friends
by Ro Wauer

Each spring my yard becomes a center for many of the northbound migrants, flying about the vegetation in search for insects and bathing in one of my birdbaths. There are times that a dozen or more of these tiny colorful warblers are present at once. But their activity pattern usually is greatest in mid-morning, like they spend the first hours of daylight feeding, and then they need to bath. And some of those individuals seem to thoroughly enjoy splashing about. Sometimes four or five individuals will crowd in together.

The most abundant warbler species this year and each of the last several years has been the Nashville warbler, with its bright yellow underside, brown back, and gray head with bright white eyeings. Next in abundance, perhaps, is the rather poorly marked orange-crowned warbler; all yellowish-brown except for an orange cap that is rarely obvious. Its orange cap shows best while bathing. One of the most contrasting warblers is the black-throated green warbler, with its black throat, yellow face and greenish ear patch, olive green back, and white wing bars. The black and white warblers that also enjoy a good bath are the black-and-white warbler. This white species, with a black throat and black streaks, has a distinct habit of walking up and down tree trunks. And the little warbler with a yellow throat and chest, with a reddish-black chest band, white belly, gray head with broken white eye rings, and an olive back is the northern parula.

Some of the other warblers seen in my yard this year have included the common yellowthroat, with its yellow underside and black mask; the much larger yellow-breasted chat, with its bright yellow underparts and dark brown back and head, except for its white spectacles; several yellow-rumped warbler; and two additional species that I do not see every year, but are rather special. Most exciting was the worm-eating warbler, a little bird with buffy underparts, brownish-olive back, and buff-colored head with bold dark stripes. It appeared at my birdbath for only a few minutes before it continued on its way toward its ancestral nesting grounds to the northeast.

I found two hooded warblers in a tall brushy area along the edge of my yard. They, along with several resident species, including cardinals, chickadees, titmice and mockingbirds, were agitated about something in or about that site. They all were scolding and raising the roof. Hearing the uproar, I slowly approached, trying to see what was going on. They all were facing the same way, as if there scolding a predator perched in the tangle of vegetation. They seemed to ignore my presence, suggesting they were far more concerned about what was present in the brush than in me. I never did see what they were fussing about, probably a snake, but during the activity I did get some super looks at a male hooded warbler.

It is difficult not to admire a male hooded warbler in breeding plumage. Its coal black hood is divided by its bright yellow face and forehead; its dark eye seems to punctuate that pattern. Its belly is also bright yellow, and its back and tail are olive-brown, and when excited like it was it spreads its tail so that the white edges are obvious.

Many of the northbound warblers are singing, at least partial songs. Their full songs may not occur until they have reached their breeding grounds and begin to defend a territory. Their presence in my yard and other sites along their migration route, give joy to all of us who appreciate each of these little episodes of our natural world.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Owl's Escapade
By Ron Smith
McAllen Monitor

The 47-foot sloop, Escapade, was under way in heavy fog sixty miles off the Oregon coast bound for San Francisco. Below deck, co-owner Dr. Mark Upham heard a cry from one of his crew of friends,"There's a bird on board!"

When he saw the creature sitting on the deck, he noted two things: it was an owl, and it was heavily spotted. As a Michiganian, he was aware of species like Barred and Great-horned, but this was a very different bird. A brief thought, considering the location, was that it might be the rare Spotted Owl, but this one was only about nine and a half to ten inches with very long legs. A check of the bird book nailed the ID --- a Burrowing Owl!

The immediate question was, "How did it stray out to sea from its prairie home?" The farthest western range of the species is usually the dry side of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington and then on down into California. They do migrate, but not in the general direction of Hawaii or Fiji! Was fog the cause of such poor navigation?

The bird fascinated the crew. When approached or disturbed by some maneuver of the boat, it would fly up, flutter about, and circle the mast but always return to the deck, After a while, it allowed them to approach within inches but refused any food.

Mark is a retired ER doctor, but oddly enough, had treated no owls brought in by ambulance. The only choice they had to help the bird was to go on to San Francisco and hope that the sight of land would urge a flight toward safety. Coincidentally, on that day, Mark's wife, Karen, was at our home in northern Michigan for a dinner party, and so we were able to participate with great interest in the phone conversation.

The plan actually worked. Much later, after passing pods of Humpbacks and looking for Gray Whales, they sailed under the Golden Gate, and the owl lifted off, aiming for the hills, and one would hope, a drier, safer landing.

It is noteworthy that here in the Great Lakes region, sailboats, fishing craft, and freighters also have migrating species land aboard. Sometimes they are known to sit on the wheels or the captains' caps,, exhausted from their long journeys.

Burrowing Owls are interesting species, especially with their long legs, beautiful plumage and unique nesting habits, The notion that they share the same burrows as rattlers, Prairie Dogs and other creatures is a common myth; actually, they do use abandoned Prairie Dog holes, but they are quite capable of digging their own.

They live in a rather cooperative colony with the rodents and both benefit by each others' warning calls. The owls make one that sounds like a rattlesnake. This and the rodents' whistles warn of Golden Eagles, various hawks, Coyotes and other hunters. It is a mutually beneficial relationship.

Cowboys of the Old West used to call them "Howdy Birds" because of their habit of comically nodding their heads.

Here in the Valley we are very pleased when we find them. South Texas is actually a major wintering area for the owl, according to fairly recent work done by the Canadian Wildlife Service and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi..... The studies continue to improve their chances for survival in the Valley's threatened environment.

The owls smoothly adapt during their stay here by using our altered and disturbed habitats.. In all the conversion to agriculture and residential sprawl, there are still sites next to farm fields and other open spaces where the owls can use culverts as burrows. We have seen them in several places along dirt roads and highways nestled into the ditches. This can be hazardous for the birds wherever there is traffic.

One of the most peculiar nesting sites was a regular stop for birders wishing to check off the owls on their life lists, a golf course in the Florida Keys. They could always be found on Marathon at a certain hole of the Tres Sombreros course undisturbed by the strangely clad people carrying large bags and whacking around little white eggs.

You will delight in finding them here in the Valley, but it would be rare to see one land on your boat while cruising the Gulf. Have a doctor on board if you do.

Lords of the Dance
By Ron Smith
McAllen Monitor

The spring flock of sandpipers was spread across the South Padre Island beach in the rich evening light. There were perhaps a hundred or so, and if you were close, you would hear their soft sounds.

There were Westerns, Leasts and Semipalmateds, hungry and tired from their Yucatan hop, some scurrying along the edge of the waves looking for the little lives that they feed on and some snoozing peacefully with heads tucked into feathers.

But things are never very calm for long during migration. Abruptly, the entire flock exploded into the air, wheeled away, changing course again and again in perfect, swirling unison. The cause of their flight was a Peregrine Falcon, a lethal dark arrow hard on their tails.

The flock sped on an inline course to the north, and when no bird broke formation, the raptor veered right and flew back to his water tower perch. There would be more migrants and other chances.

A watcher might wonder how these sandpipers and other flocking birds make such en masse maneuvers without colliding. What bird takes the lead in making decisions about direction? How do they react so quickly?

It is well known that animals in a group are protected against attack because they can present a strong and united front. If one is ill or slowed by age, it will fall away from the rest and meet its fate. That's what predators like the Peregrine, the wolf or the lion wait for. Raptors are less likely to plunge into a swarming mass of bodies because of possible injury. A falcon, for example, is like a finely constructed craft..damage to a wing or leg could mean eventual starvation.

Other reasons for flocking include the availability of many eyes to watch for danger and also the usefulness of the familiar V-formation of geese in conserving energy.

To explain the coordinated flights, some imaginative people have posited electromagnetism or thought transference! (X-files music here) However, there have indeed been scientific studies of this phenomenon. One by Wayne Potts appeared in "Nature" magazine in 1984. (The Straight Several theories arose from the work. He used high speed film and observed frame by frame some interesting facts.

For example, there is no one "Commander Bird." Any individual can make the decision to turn in any direction, and the movement radiates through the entire group in a wave. It is not always the same bird. The best and safest move is toward the main body because birds which turn away are at risk of being separated from safety of the flock and caught by the pursuer.

The reaction of individuals to these changes can be as fast as 15 milliseconds! Potts turned to show business terms for his theory, naming it the Chorus Line Effect. For example, the Rockettes are aware of a leg kick beginning well down the line and react instinctively at the right moment.

It is very easy for an individual bird to create this wave just by flying into the group.
This then is how they avoid bashing into one another as they veer back and forth at such high speed. Individuals become aware of any random movement with such an amazing reaction time.

You can also see a similar phenomenon at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Through glass displays, you watch large schools of silvery fish bank and swirl as if they had one mind in charge.

I prefer to go beyond the science and just delight in the pure beauty of this dance of flight. You can enjoy it even watching a flock of blackbirds coming in to roost at the malls or hospitals in McAllen! A northern experience could be observing hundreds of Snow Buntings as they rise over a winter cornfield like wind-driven flakes, fan out and then settle again to feed. On a Christmas Count in Ann Arbor, Michigan, my wife and I were once thrilled when more than a thousand of them fanned out over the Huron River.

Better yet, go to the island in the spring and watch the masters, the small shorebirds called "peeps." They are the true lords of the avian dance.

The Prankster Song Dog
By Ron Smith
McAllen Monitor

Many mythologies feature a trickster, a hero, god, goddess or spirit who creates mischief and breaks society's rules. At times, the prank is malicious, but it can also result in turning a bad situation into a positive one.

Prometheus was one such figure when he stole fire from the Greek gods. There is also Loki of the Norse myths, Puck in England, and on a less celestial plane, Jack Sparrow of "Pirates of the Carribean."

The Navajo have one: Ma'ii or Coyotl. Like all the others, this trickster can be foolish, wise or both, breaking the rules and disobeying the gods.

According to the legend, the Milky Way was created by Coyote's mischief. He was annoyed because the Holy People were placing the stars in the heavens contrary to his notions, so he put a red star in the southern sky, One Who Roams, his symbol. Then he threw high his whole bag of stars , strewing them across the heavens, and that, my children, became the Milky Way!

If you know the real animal, the cunning Canis latrans, or "barking dog," you know that it is everywhere from Alaska to Panama. Called the Prairie Wolf or poetically, the Song Dog of the Dawn, its wavering wail and yipping bark are unmistakable. We once heard it in the twilight while visiting the eerie and rugged Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the North Dakota Badlands, an appropriate setting for such a thrilling and primitive call. I appreciate it best in our Michigan woods. We used to hear them in Pharr until the housing developments boomed.

Beause of its widespread population and forays, the Coyote has been the target of man for centuries. Since 1891 alone, a half million have been trapped (their fur can be beautiful), poisoned or shot at a cost of $30 million. Sheepmen and cattlemen have taken many to protect their lambs and calves. And the result? The population has increased to the point where they are now living in cities and towns, traveling the parks and streets at night hunting for rodents and other goodies.

They are beneficial in this regard, but they sometimes lose the fear of humans enough to prey on small pets, and some children have been bitten while playing in yards. Coyote jumping ability makes building most fences useless, although areas like Santa Fe, New Mexico still build them.

Many of these crimes are perpetrated by Coydogs, a hybrid of the Coyote and the domestic canine. Coyotes may even interbreed with wolves.. This adds to their size...they can usually only reach 40 pounds, about half a wolf or less.

Our very nature-savvy friends in Austin, Gene and Gary Roberts, wonder about the stories of Coyote predation on pets. They once had a tom cat that would drive coyotes away from the barn to protect his very own supply of rodents! That's rather like David and Goliath.

They also knew of a pair living in a patch of woods near the house. In the dark of night, they would put out food scraps for them so that the neighbors did not know and wonder about people who actually feed Coyotes....hmmmmm.

Proof that this mammal interbreeds with domestic dogs came when the male was killed on the highway and the female mated with a Labrador Retriever! She gave birth to black puppies. It makes you wonder if they had the same knack for swimming and retrieving ducks.

Coyotes can react with humans on other levels as well. Shelley Collier of McAllen relates this story: A friend who owned a ranch would jog every day. One morning he noticed a Coyote running with him on a parallel path some yards away. Interesting, he thought. The next day the animal appeared again and from then on, the aerobic continued for quite a while. What would explain this? Was the animal keeping track of the human's behavior and perhaps protecting young or its territory.

The prankster song dog is indeed a hardy, fascinating and wily creature. It is no wonder it belongs in the pantheon of Native American beliefs and is also such a part of our nation's folklore.

The Tale of the Anole
By Ron Smith
McAllen Monitor

It was a pleasant Valley day at the pool, and the little girl on Spring Break was happy to be away from Michigan's chill. Here there were palm trees, very different birds and flowers to enjoy...and also other creatures..

When a little green one climbed the wrought iron fence in front of her, Lindsey was delighted because she loves all the little live things. "Can I catch it?" she asked her mother. With parental approval, she climbed out of the pool under the gaze of the 55-and-over crowd and ran toward the creature with her three-year-old sister at her heels. She picked it up by the tail, but it detached and the rest of the creature scurried away. Now even more delighted with this phenomenon, she ran back to her mother with the remnant. As she showed it to her, it wriggled! Mother was not amused, and Lindsey obeyed her command to throw it in the bushes.

The little lizard was an Anole, which rhymes with cannoli, although some pronounce it AN-ol It is sometimes inaccurately called the American Chameleon. Though not really a member of that genus, (You know, the one with the gun turret eyes and the long sticky club of a tongue) it too can change color against its background or when ill or stressed. A happy, well-adjusted Green Anole The outer skin layer is transparent, and the color change is regulated by layers of pigment which determine how much red and yellow or blue go into the palette.

If temperatures are over 70 degrees, the Anole tends to remain bright green. When males are in combat, something unique occurs. The winner stays green, but the loser goes brown. No green with envy here.

These lizards are usually only about seven inches in length, although they can grow to 10 inches in certain areas. There are about 36 species in Florida, and our species may have been introduced to the South Texas area many years ago They can survive north of us all the way to Tennessee.

Anoles live in bushes below fifteen feet, along rock walls and near houses. You may have often seen them on walls or window trim inflating their pinkish throat fans and bobbing their heads to either attract mates or challenge other males for territory. The sun shining through that dewlap is rather striking. No wonder females and rivals are impressed.

Yes, people do keep them as pets, but care should be taken during handling because they are somewhat delicate. Even when biting you they can damage their teeth! They require proper temperatures, so heating pads in the cold weather are necessary. They like an environment of sterile peat moss, ivy or orchids. It is prudent not to put males together. We once discovered why when watching a pair aggressively attack each other...not a pretty sight. Also, proper food is needed such as spiders, moths, cockroaches and grubs.

The "miracle" Lindsey observed is called autotomy. It is an effective escape mechanism when a disgruntled predator grasps it by the tail. Anoles can grow new ones, but they are seldom as long or the same color as the old ones.

It is interesting that there is even a Marvel Comics creature called Anole. He has green skin, possesses sticky feet for traveling over challenging surfaces and can become almost invisible by changing color!

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Butterfly Development is Nothing Short of a Miracle
by Ro Wauer

Monarchs have been passing through the Victoria area for several weeks now. Some mornings a dozen or so lift off as soon as the sun hits them, they may cruise about the yard for a time, nectar on a few flowers, and then continue their northward journeys. By afternoon, some of those individuals spend a little more time, sampling the flower nectar, and some of the females find a milkweed plant (foodplant) on which she lays eggs. It reminds me once again of the miracle of butterfly metamorphosis.

Butterfly development from egg to larva, caterpillar to pupa, or chrysalis to adult butterfly is truly remarkable. Butterfly life history is one of nature’s most amazing happenings. And as the spring and summer months descend upon us, that miracle is all around, for all of us to see and appreciate.

All butterflies have a life cycle that is called complete metamorphosis because it includes four stages. Butterfly eggs are tiny things that can be round, spherical, or bun-shaped and may come singly, in small clutches, or in huge masses of up to 50 eggs that are attached by a gluey substance. The eggs are laid on a plant that the hatched caterpillar can utilize as a food source. The eggs can be laid on top or beneath a leaf, on a twig, or even at the base of grass, depending on the butterfly species.

Hatching can take anywhere from a few days to a full year, again depending upon the species. For instance, falcate orangetip butterflies fly only from March into May, during which time they lay eggs and live as larvae; the remainder of the year they occur only as chrysalides. However, most butterflies we see during the year pass through the four stages in only a few weeks, and so we see fresh specimens constantly during the warmer days of the year.

Butterfly larvae, or caterpillars, are true eating machines that spend the majority of their existence consuming plant materials; the exception is the harvester butterfly larvae that feeds on aphids. The body of a caterpillar is divided into the three parts: head with a pair of simple eyes, mouth, and large jaw (mandible); thorax, with three segments containing three pairs of legs for moving about; and abdomen, with ten segments containing five pairs of prolegs, built like suckers to aid in clinging to various materials. The jaws not only can tear plants apart but also assist in transporting food to the mouth. This eating machine’s entire purpose is to convert plant or animal tissue into butterfly tissue.

Like all arthropods, the butterfly caterpillar grows by shedding its skin periodically, whenever the new exoskeleton develops and hardens underneath. Once the new exoskeleton is formed, the caterpillar breathes in extra air and splits the old outer skin down the middle, and simply crawls out of its old skin. This process is called molting.

Finally, when the caterpillar reaches its maximum size, it finds a safe location and spins a form of silken mat, often with a silken thread or girdle as a safety belt. It then hangs upside down and spins a silken sheet, not a cocoon (only moths spin a cocoon), on a leaf or other object. This time, when shedding its old skin, it changes into a chrysalis, an immobile stage in which it undergoes a massive reorganization. This transformation takes a week to several months, depending on the species and the time of year, and includes both internal and external organs.

Its emergence as an adult butterfly is one of Mother Nature’s most incredible feats, going from caterpillar to butterfly, complete with small wings and an oversized body. On emergence, it quickly pumps fluid into the wings from the body that then shrinks to its normal size. The adult has also developed a proboscis (a long coiled suction tube for feeding) and six true legs. Emergence usually occurs in the early morning when humidity is high, temperatures are relatively low, and predators are less active. The first flight usually occurs in the afternoon.

Adult butterflies must have food and water to continue their life process, so they feed on nectar and pollen from various flowers and often also obtain water and nutrients from various sources such as rotting fruit, carrion, dung, and wet soil.

Butterfly courtship involves a rather complex behavior, involving recognition of the opposite sex by wing pattern and pheromones. Pairs often go sailing high in the air in courtship flights. Mating can continue for several hours, but then the female must find suitable plant species on which to lay her eggs. Once she lays her eggs, the process of transformation from egg to adult butterfly begins over again.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Its Mexican Buckeye Time
by Ro Wauer

Everything has its season, and now is the time that our local Mexican buckeyes are blooming. Although the buckeye tree is not all that impressive, the flowers that appear before the leaves emerge, are a gorgeous pink to purple. They look almost orchid-like. And although they are only an inch across, they produce a very pleasant fragrance.

Apparently bees, butterflies and various other insects also appreciate flowering buckeyes, as the buzzing of bees can usually be heard even from some distance away. On a couple of occasions I have watched a number of birds hovering nearby, undoubtedly preying on insects that are there for the nectar. In a sense, buckeyes flower at the same time as the spring migration, so it only makes sense that our northbound birds take advantage of a tree full of available prey.

Watching a series of flowering buckeye trees, I have been able to record a total of 15 butterfly species also taking advantage of the sweet flower nectar. Some of the most consistent species have been the pipevine swallowtail, gulf fritillary, and common buckeye. All three of these butterflies can occur in our area year-round. Pipevines are often abundant and it is not unusual to find a dozen or so nectaring on buckeye flowers. Gulf fritillaries seem less interested, but one can always find a few. And the common buckeyes seem to be more common at buckeye flowering time than usual. Maybe their name originated from their use of flowering buckeye trees.

Some of the other expected nectaring butterflies at the buckeye blooms include giant swallowtails, southern dogface, cloudless and large orange sulphurs, great purple and gray hairstreaks, red admirals, question marks, monarchs, queens, funereal duskywings, and the much smaller fiery skippers.

Our local Mexican buckeyes bloom in March and early April, and then the flowers fade and are replaced by bright green, 3 to 7 inch long leaves. By late summer fruit are obvious. These are 3–lobed capsules, 1 to 2 inches wide, and usually are cinnamon brown and woody. Inside the capsules are very hard, shiny black to brown seeds. These seeds are poisonous to most folks, although there are accounts of seeds being eaten with little effects. Native Americans utilized Mexican buckeye seeds in a number of ways. Southwestern Indians used the very hard seeds in necklaces as well as a hallucinogen.

It is a little sad to think that the buckeye flowering season is so short, and that most of the same species of wildlife will move elsewhere at the end of the blooms. But by then the trees will contain an abundance of leaves and some of our native birds will take advantage of the site for nesting. Cardinals, mourning doves, white-eyed vireos, and a few other species will then take their turns.