The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, May 28, 2009

How Do Our Drought Conditions Affect Our Wildlife?
by Ro Wauer

Many of our wild animals have a very difficult time during drought conditions. Most are depended on available waterholes and/or birdbaths. Exceptions include a few lizards and small rodents. For those of us that provide plenty available water in our own yards, we cannot help notice the increased use of those artificial waterholes. But for wildlife species without access to such water, they may take one of several actions. Those species that are extremely mobile, such as some birds, they move out of the area altogether. Some other species may be able to move short distances to where they can find water. Our many rivers in Central Texas may act as sponges for those that are able to get that far.

Drought conditions can and often does lead to the death of some wildlife species. When water is not available, wildlife often goes into a sort of depression. Birds may react by being less aggressive on their territories, they may sing only part of the normal time, and they become less active in general. Those that do manage to nest often produce less than a normal clutch, and the fledglings, too, may be less healthy. Birds often are able to do pretty well during the nesting season if they are able to find adequate food to feeding the nestlings. The majority of their diet that time of year is insects that in turn are more often than not dependent upon vegetation. Severe drought conditions, of course, can greatly limit the available insects.

What about the mammals? They too must adapt to abnormal conditions. They may be less aggressive and spent the majority of their time finding food, oftentimes in locations where they might not utilize at other times. For instance, deer will spend more time grazing along roadsides where additional moisture from the roadways tends to support roadside grasses. And some of the mammals that normally are active only at night may need to spend more daylight hours in search for food. Drought conditions also produce other behavioral changes. Some species, such as some rodents, can go into a semi-hibernation mode.

Reptiles and amphibians also become less active in drought conditions. Many of these individuals seek shelter below ground and can aestivate for long periods of time. Like rodents, their metabolism can decline to a point that they are barely alive.

Butterflies are also greatly affected by arid condition. But unlike most mammals and birds, they are able to hibernate (known as diapause) and wait for a change in weather conditions. Although many butterfly species possess a life cycle of a year or less, they are able to diapause for several years. Some species diapause as larvae and can remain in that stage for five to seven years. And those individuals normally will require some significant change, such as heavy and constant rainy conditions, for them to move into the next stage in their life cycle.

Butterfly populations in South Texas are currently very low, when both species and numbers are far below normal. My garden, that will produce 25 to 35 species on a “normal” day in May, has recently only produced 10 to 20 species per day, and only a fraction of the normal numbers. And that number is as high as it is because of the constant watering of the many flowering plants that attract butterflies. Outside the watered garden, the fields and roadsides, even though recent sprinkles have finally produced an assortment of wildflowers, butterfly numbers have not adequately recovered. It will take considerable more moisture before butterfly populations return to normal.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cottontails, Jackrabbits, and Hares
by Ro Wauer

A pair of cottontail was frolicking in my yard a few days ago. This was the first time we had seen cottontails in the yard for several months. Being at the lower end of the food chain for most of the predators that also frequent my yard, their presence was surprising but especially pleasing. When we first moved to our house in 1989, cottontails were commonplace. But within the last dozen years or so their numbers have seriously declined so that now it is a special treat when they do occur.

The cottontail that resides within the Golden Crescent area is the eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). Its range extends throughout all of Texas and the eastern half of North America and southward through most of eastern Mexico. Three additional Sylvilagus cottontails/rabbits occur in Texas. The swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus) is found in swampy areas along the Gulf Coast and northward into the pineywoods. The desert cottontail (Sylvilagus auduboni) is found in the western half of Texas and much of the West, from Canada into central Mexico. And the Davis Mountains cottontail (Sylvilagus robustus) is found only in the mountainous areas of West Texas, from Big Bend’s Chisos Mountains north to the Davis and Guadalupe Mountains. Five other Sylvilagus cottontails occur in the United States. The mountain cottontail is found in the Intermountain West, the brush rabbit occurs only along the West Coast, the marsh rabbit is found in Florida and along the Eastern Seaboard from Virginia south, the Appalachian cottontail occurs only within the Appalachians, and the New England cottontail in found only in New England.

The other group of rabbit-like mammals is the jackrabbits and hares, all of the genus Lepus. But only one of these – the black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) – occurs in Texas. This long-eared, long-legged rabbit can occur throughout the state, but prefers hot, dry scrublands rather that oak dominated woodland areas. Three other jackrabbits can be found in North America: the white-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii) occurs through the northern portion of North America, the white-sided jackrabbit (Lepus callotis) is found only in extreme southwestern New Mexico, and the antelope jackrabbit (Lepus alleni) is found only in south-central Arizona and southward into Mexico.

North America also has three hares, also in the genus Lepus. The best know of these is the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) of northern Canada and all of Alaska, the Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) is found only in the far northern portions of North America, and the Alaskan hare (Lepus othus) is restricted to coastal Alaska. These three snow-adapted species are generally brown in summer and white in winter, and their ears are smaller than the jackrabbits.

There are about 80 species of lagomorphs (order of cottontails, jackrabbits and hares) throughout the world. Although these mammals may resemble rodents, they differ by their arrangement of their front (incisor) teeth, with a large tooth in front on each side and a small peglike tooth directly behind it. Lagomorphs are mainly diurnal and the food is almost entirely vegetable matter, such as grasses, forbs and bark, and none of the lagomorphs hibernate. They are a unique group of mammals. And the common lagomorph representative in the Golden Crescent is the eastern cottontail.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dragonfly Days are Here Again
by Ro Wauer

Where in Texas is it possible to find 100 kinds of dragonflies? The answer is the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where dragonflies rate their very own festival. Like the many Texas festivals for birds and butterflies, dragonflies will be the subject of “Dragonfly Days,” scheduled May 21 to 24 this year. In fact, the 2009 festival marks the 10th year of this event, sponsored by the Valley Nature Center and Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco. Last year’s two-day festival produced more than two dozen species of dragonflies and damselflies, including most of the expected species such as common green darner, four-spotted and holloween pennants, great pondhawk, thornbush dancer, and roseate skimmer. The festival also produced a few truly unusual or rare species, including the first U.S. records of Mexican scarlet-tail and bow-tailed glider and blue-spotted comet. Participants were more than satisfied with the results.

Dragonfly Days is designed for the novice, those of us first learning how to identify these flying gems, as well as the expert enthusiast. Field trips and illustrated seminars are scheduled to help the beginner learn the differences between dragonflies and damselflies, know the difference between a skimmer and glider, and also to understand how these colorful insects play a vital role in maintaining a healthy environment.

Daily field trips are scheduled to several of the best dragonfly-finding locations in the Valley, including Bentsen-Rio Grande and Estero Llano Grande State Parks, Anzalduas County Park, and Edinburg Wetlands. The Lower Rio Grande Valley is recognized as one of the most biologically diverse regions in the nation. Field trip leaders will include dragonfly experts John Abbot, Bob Behrstock, Greg Lasley, Josh Rose, and Martin Reid. Seminars include “Dragonflies 101” by Behrstock, “Chasing dragonflies in South Africa” by Lasley, “Dragonfly prey: a look at what odonates eat and what eats them” by Martin Reid, “Natural superlatives along the Rio Grande” by Ro Wauer, “An odonates guide to the Lower Rio Grande Valley” by Josh Rose, and “Texas dragonflies, past, present and future” by John Abbot at the Saturday evening banquet.

Pre-registration is required for all seminars, field trips, and the banquet. Pre-registration forms are available on line at, and additional information can also be obtained from the Valley Nature Center (956-969-2475). Packets for pre-registered participants can be picked up at the host hotel: Holiday Inn Express (956-973-2222) in Weslaco. Special accommodation prices for participants are available when using the code: DFD. All seminars will be held at the hotel and field trips will also leave from that location.

Field trip participants will have the special opportunities to enjoy not only dragonflies and damselflies, but whatever other wildlife and plant life encountered. Birds, reptiles, butterflies, and plants can also be identified and discussed along the way. Participants are asked to bring binoculars (close-focusing for butterflies), study shoes, and protection from the sun. Daytime temperatures in May usually range into the low 90s F.

The festival will allow participants to visit a number of the special wetland sites in the Valley, to see a full range of dragonflies and damselflies, and also will help us appreciate the truly unique features of these marvelous creatures.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Gay Talese said of our conference, "I came to know an extraordinary gathering of writers, journalists, educators, students and readers devoted to the art and craft of literary nonfiction, a subject that has been my passion and my mission for a half century. I'm convinced that anyone who attends the Mayborn Conference will leave with a new level of insights, storytelling skills, and understanding of the aesthetic qualities and requirements of literary nonfiction. The Mayborn Conference is the gathering place in the country for serious nonfiction writers who want to deeply explore the craft and learn how its practiced at the highest levels. And that is why I'm encouraging every journalist and nonfiction writer I know to attend this summer's Mayborn Conference, and to submit their articles, essays and book-length manuscripts to the Conference Workshops."

UNT’s Mayborn Conference accepting entries for literary competition

Prizes include a book deal and $15,000 in cash.

DENTON (UNT), Texas – Since 2005, the University of North Texas’ Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference has awarded four book contracts to emerging authors. This summer could be your chance to get published.

The conference, which will feature NPR host Ira Glass and be held July 24–26 at the Hilton DFW Lakes Executive Conference Center in Grapevine, is accepting manuscripts, essays and articles for its literary competition. Additionally, the conference has teaming up with the Writer’s Garret, a prominent non-profit writing organization in Dallas, to help writers prepare their entries for the competition.

The conference and competition are sponsored by the Mayborn Graduate School of Journalism, which will become part of the university’s newly announced Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism when it opens on Sept. 1. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board granted formal creation of the Mayborn School earlier this month upon recommendation from the UNT System Board of Regents.

Selected entries will get the opportunity to work one-on-one with industry professionals in conference workshops, which will be held July 24 (Friday) before the official start of the conference. These entries also will compete for $15,000 in cash prizes and the chance to be published.

“This conference presents an enormous opportunity for unknown writers to get recognized and published,” said George Getschow, the conference’s writer-in-residence. “There are established writers who have tried unsuccessfully for years to be published. This is a rare opportunity.”

Two copies of each entry should be mailed to the Mayborn Graduate School of Journalism at 1155 Union Circle, #311460, Denton, TX 76203, attention George Getschow. Entries also must be submitted electronically to The deadline for submissions is June 1 (Monday).

Essays and articles should be no longer than 20 pages. A non-refundable entry fee applies. Twenty manuscripts and 50 essays will be selected for workshop participation. Contest winners will be selected from this group of 70 finalists. The winner of the manuscript competition will receive $3,000 and the option to enter a book publishing contract with the UNT Press. The top three entries in the categories of personal essays and mini-memoirs and reporting and research-based narratives that focus on people will receive $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000, respectively. The best articles and narratives and personal essays will be included in the 2010 edition of Ten Spurs, the conference’s literary journal. For more entry information visit

To register for the conference, visit Conference fees are $295 for the general public. Student fees are $225. Educator fees are $270. Conference seating is limited. For more information, call 940-565-4564. The conference is open to the public with no requirement to submit competitive essays or a book manuscript proposal.

For more information about the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference Competition, contact Jo Ann Ballantine, conference manager, at 940-565-4778.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Warmer Days Bring on Dragonflies and Damselflies
by Ro Wauer

Warmer springtime temperatures mean greater numbers of invertebrates, those cold-blooded creatures that require warm temperatures to become active. One group of invertebrates is the odonates, a fancy word for dragonflies and damselflies. These odonates are some of our most amazing insects. They remind me of hummingbirds, with their ability to hover and fly forward and backward. Unlike any other insects, they can move their wings independently. They can fly up to 60 mph and can lift up to fifteen times their own weight. What perhaps is most important for us humans is that their diet consists of mosquitoes, flies and other types of flying insects. They possess a voracious appetite. One dragonfly in captivity was fed 40 horseflies in two hours. They are capable of eating their own weight in food every half hour.

About 450 kinds of dragonflies and damselflies occur in North America, about 215 species are known in Texas, and more than 75 have been found within the Golden Crescent. And these dragonflies include such catchy names as petaltails, clubtails, darners, spiketails, cruisers, emeralds, and skimmers. Damselfly names include rubyspots, spreadwings, threadtails, forktails, and dancers.

Although some species of odonates can occur almost anywhere, wetland areas offer the best chance to see the largest variety. A large portion of their lives, from eggs to the larval stage (known as naiads) that undergo 17 molts, taking one to two months, occurs in an aquatic setting. The mature naiad eventually crawls out of the water, where it inflates its wings and the body hardens, and the adult takes wing. Away from the water the exoskeleton and wings continue to harden and the colors intensify. It is the adults, because of their fascinating behavior and appearance that received all of our attention.

Identifying dragonflies and damselflies is a mixed bag; some species are readily identified while others are difficult. Step one is be to recognize the difference between the two major groups. Dragonflies rest with their wings held out, horizontally or nearly so, while damselflies rest with their wings help together near the body. Also, the hind wings of dragonflies are wider at the base than the front wings, while those damselflies are similar in shape, both narrowed at the base. Male dragonflies possess three appendages at the end of the abdomen, while damselfly males possess four appendages.

Until recent years, odonate identification was difficult. But two recent well-illustrated books have made a huge difference: John Abbott’s “Dragonflies and Damselflies of Texas and the South-Central United States,” published by Princeton Univ. Press, and Sidney Dunkle’s “Dragonflies through Binoculars,” published by Oxford Univ. Press. So far, since Betty and I, along with son Brent and friends from Austin, installed my own small dragonfly pond two years ago, I have recorded a total of 21 species. Most common have been roseate skimmers, eastern pondhawks, and blue dashers. Common whitetails, band-winged dragonlets, red saddlebags, flame skimmers, variegated meadowhawks, and neon, Needham’s and widow skimmers have also been seen on numerous occasions.

It is very possible that dragonflies and damselflies will become the next great interest in natural history for the average nature lover. Birds have long been at the forefront, and the increasing interest in butterflies has emerged in more recent years. But all of a sudden many of my friends are getting turned on to dragonflies and damselflies. After all, with such neat names and their constant presence, is it any wonder?