The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers Are Arriving in South Texas
by Ro Wauer

Of all the Neotropical migrants that pass through South Texas, the lovely scissor-tailed flycatcher is probably the most welcome of all. Few birds have the appeal of this charismatic songbird. Not only is it one of our most beautiful birds, but it seems to prefer a relationship with humans, nesting on utility poles and in trees often surprisingly close to our various structures. Its amazing courtship flights and continuous singing tend to give it an additional appeal. It therefore is often called the “Texas bird of paradise.” And its arrival in South Texas is a sure sign that the new season has begun.

The long-tailed, brighter males arrive first with the shorter-tailed females appearing a few days later. By then the males have already established territories and are chasing competitors away from preferred sites, often the same sites utilized the previous season When the females arrive, the males take on a very different persona, performing some wonderful courtship flights, ascending to more than 100 feet before sailing back, often with outstanding acrobatics. These dramatic flights include up and down flying, much zigzagging, and even reverse somersaults, usually at great speeds and with tails flowing and fluttering and wings out to display their salmon-colored armpits and underwing linings. All the while he is performing, he will be giving cackling-snapping calls. The female will usually join in the fun. Scissor-tails also give a unique dawn song on their breeding grounds that include a series of loud stuttering “pup” sounds that conclude with an emphatic “perlep” or “peroo.”

Like all flycatchers, the scissor-tail’s diet is principally insects, at least during the nesting season. Although most insects are captured in flight, scissor-tails will also take insects on the ground, perhaps more often than most flycatchers. Grasshoppers are a favorite food source. On their wintering grounds in southern Mexico and Central America they will also consume berries.

Although paired scissor-tails are generally loners, as soon as the youngsters are fledged, they will usually join other family groups. In some cases these flocks can include up to 200 individuals. And unlike most other members of the flycatcher family, which usually are quiet after nesting, scissor-tails continue calling until they leave for their wintering grounds in September or October, as well as throughout their migration and in winter. These often congregate at choice sites. And 100 or more scissor-tails can create quite a racket.

Most Texans think of this bird as their state bird instead of the mockingbird, which is the official state bird. That undoubtedly is because of the charisma of this long-tailed songbird, and also perhaps because the mockingbird is so commonplace. While mockingbirds are full-time residents throughout most of the state, leaving only the far northern portions of the state in winter, scissor-tails normally are present only from March through October. But during that period they can be found in all but far West Texas, where they occur only occasionally.

By November the vast majority of the summer resident and migrants passing through the state from Oklahoma, Kansas, and southeastern New Mexico have gone south. Recent records, however, suggest that a few birds remain in South Texas all winter. The rest migrate south of the border where they occur in huge flocks, flycatching over open grasslands, pastures, and fields. But by March they are with us again. Few songbirds are as welcome and admired as out lovely scissor-tailed flycatcher.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Mourning Doves are Common and Widespread
by Ro Wauer

Almost everyone knows the mourning dove. It is one of our most abundant birds, residing in the countryside as well as in our towns and cities. It can be found in every county in Texas. Although mourning doves are readily spooked when approached, they seem to have a strange affinity for humans. Part of that behavior is related to their attraction to seed feeders that we humans place out for songbirds, but they also are known to move from their preferred habitats in the countryside into towns during hunting seasons.

Mourning doves are easily recognized by their plumage color and shape. They are gray-brown color with a scattering of dark spots on the wings and with a pale breast and belly. They possess a small head and reasonably thin neck, and have a long, tapered tail with white edges. And they also have a distinct flight that is strong and swift and produces a noticeable whistling sound. And taking flight or landing they usually will lift their tail up and back down.

During the nesting season, according to Kent Rylander’s “The Behavior of Texas Birds,” “males will often glide over their mates in a spiral pattern, and he also will strut before her with spread feathers while nodding his head. The pair frequently preens each other.” Nests usually are place in the fork of a horizontal tree limb, but they also nest directly on the ground or on various structures such as houses or barns. The courting male will lead his mate “to several sites before choosing the one she prefers, where she builds a flimsy platform of sticks.” There she will lay three or four eggs that are incubated by both sexes. Upon egg-hatching “both parents feed crop milk to the nestlings.” Fledging occurs in about two weeks, and then the family will join other families to form rather large flocks. Those flocks will usually stay together until the next breeding season.

Although mourning doves are far and away our most abundant dove, six additional doves or pigeons (members of the same family) occur in our region. Two are much smaller: Inca doves possess a scaly plumage and long tail, and usually are present around our homes. Common ground-doves lack the scaly plumage and have a short, rounded tail. They prefer open wild areas and only occasionally spend much time in our yards and at feeders. Four species are larger than the mourning dove. White-winged doves, with obvious white wing-patches, often spend considerable time at out feeders. Eurasian collared-doves have only recently invaded Texas; they possess overall gray-brown plumage with a black collar. White-tipped doves, found only in the southern portion of our area, possess grayish-brown plumage with a pale forehead, and white tips on their tail. Finally, rock doves or domestic pigeons can occur almost anywhere and possess a huge variety of plumage colors and patterns.

This time of year is when all of our doves are in their breeding mode, when they begin to defend a nesting territory and spend considerable time, especially in the mornings, singing. And their song/calls are very distinct. Mourning doves, true to their name, give a sad, mournful call, like “who-ah, whoo-whoo-who” with a sharply rising, inflected second syllable. White-wings sing a song that can be interpreted as “who-cooks-for-you.” Eurasian collared-doves sing a similar song but one that sound like an owl, or “who-whoo-whoo.” White-tips sing a higher-pitched, drawn out “oo-wooooo.” Inca doves give a repetitive, hollow “whirl-pool” call. And ground-doves sing a low, repetitious “woo-oo, woo-oo, woo-oo, woo-oo,” with a rising inflection at the end of each syllable. And our rock doves/pigeons sing little more than a muffled “coo-crooo.” My favorite is the mournful songs of our common mourning doves.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Ground Skinks Are Out and About
by Ro Wauer

As our spring weather warms up, a number of wildflowers appear, and our resident birds begin to sing more enthusiastically. But there is yet another sure sign of spring: the appearance of our little ground skinks. They have been in semi-hibernation since late fall, appearing only occasionally on warm days. But now they are active and one of our most abundant reptiles, in spite of being hardly noticed. One reason for this is their secretive behavior, moving about amid leaf litter, only occasionally spending much time in the open. And their generally brown coloration provides them with excellent camouflage. Unless one is actively searching for one of these little skinks, they usually go undetected except if one happens to sees movement among the litter.

Adult ground skinks (scientifically known as Scinella lateralis) are 3 to 5.5 inches in length, are rather plump with a long thin tail, very short legs, gold-brown to blackish-brown back, pale belly, and a close look will reveal a dark stripe along each side. Ground skinks are widespread across the southeastern quarter of the United States. In Texas they occur west through the Hill Country and southward almost to the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Eight other skinks, all of the genus Eumeces, also are found in Texas: southern prairie, five-lined, broadhead, northern many-lined, Great Plains, southern coal, short-lined, and four-lined.

All skinks are smooth and shiny in appearance, and they normally are active and swift and difficult to capture. Although they are considered to be lizards, they belong to a separate family, Scinidae. The majority of skinks are terrestrial, although a few live in trees. Our ground skink very rarely is found anywhere other than on the ground among leaf litter. They can climb, however, but rarely do. Most observations are of lone individuals moving through the liter, snake-like, foraging for small invertebrates that are rapidly consumed. They serve as prey for many larger predators; their numbers offer a ready but difficult food base for a wide variety of species.

Several clutches are often produced each season. Females lay one to seven tiny eggs in the humus, in rotting wood, or under rocks. Unlike other skinks, ground skinks do not protect their nest. Newly hatched babies are less than two inches in length. But almost immediately they are out and about, foraging for even smaller food.

For anyone who does not spend time in the outdoors, you may not be aware of these little creatures. But once one begins to pay attention, you will find them commonplace, whether in open fields, woodlands, and even in yards. Get acquainted with our only skink.