The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It is Cricket Time Once Again
by Ro Wauer

Field crickets are once again invading our towns, homesites and businesses. Everywhere you look are black field crickets, scurrying here and there trying to find hiding places. Normally these crickets are found only in our fields and woodlots and are primarily nocturnal in character. The recent rains, however, have driven them out of their preferred habitats into conflict with people. Millions are zapped with insecticides, but they will keep coming until the weather changes. Then those that remain will go about their business as usual.

Field crickets often are welcome neighbors, so long as they stay outdoors. Many people consider crickets symbols of good luck. Jiminy Cricket, of Pinocchio fame, also helped establish their positive image. And crickets are prized for their singing and sometimes even kept in cages in people’s homes. In China, crickets were also kept for their fighting ability; cricket fights were as popular as horse races. The Chinese actually fed their crickets special diets, including mosquitoes fed on trainer’s arms, and weighed them in order to classify them for fighting.

Many of us enjoy their cheerful songs, and as the nights grow longer and cooler, their nocturnal serenades increase in intensity. Before winter they must mate to perpetuate their species. But only the males sing. They have three basic sound signals: a calling note, an aggressive chirp, and a courtship song to attract a female. Singing is done with the edge of one wing rubbing against the opposite wing, creating a chirping noise. Filelike ridges, called “scrapers,” near the base of the wing produce the sound. We can produce a similar sound by running a file along the edge of a tin can.

Wing covers provide an excellent sounding board, quivering when notes are made and setting the surrounding air to vibrating, thus giving rise to sound waves that can be heard for a considerable distance. The cricket’s auditory organ or “ear,” a small white, disklike spot, is located on the tibia of each front leg. The chirps become much higher in pitch in the presence of a female. Some of these ultrasonic sounds can reach 17,000 vibrations per second, higher than most people can distinguish. Females are easily identified by a long, spearlike ovipositor (egg-laying device) protruding from their abdomen. Eggs are laid in the ground and hatch in the spring.

Our local field crickets, almost an inch in length, are members of the Gryllidae family of insects, closely related to grasshoppers and mantises. They feed on a wide variety of materials, including vegetable matter, and when they get into our buildings they can consume everything from clothing to books. However, they will not remain there and breed but will return to their preferred outdoor environment when given a chance. Outdoors they are an integral part of our South Texas wildlife.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hummingbirds, Anyone?
by Ro Wauer

Once again it is that time of year when we can expect millions of hummingbirds to pass through South Texas on their way to their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. The most abundant of these is the ruby-throated hummingbird, a species that nests all across the eastern half of North America, including the Golden Crescent. In fall the southbound hummers will often stop to feed at our feeders. These high octane birds need a constant food supply, especially this dry year when the natural sources from flowering plants are at an all time low.

For the last 20 years the Rockport-Fulton area of South Texas has become the best known place in all of North America to enjoy the special treat of the fall hummingbird migration. This year marks the 21st Annual “Hummer/Bird Celebration,” scheduled from September 17 to 20. Although the ruby-throated hummingbird is the star of the show, other probable species seen during this four-day period include the black-chin, rufous, and buff-bellied hummers. Participants can take two-hour bus tours to area homes with lots of feeders. Or participants can take a self-guided hummer trip to various homes on their own.

The Hummer/Bird Celebration will offer a wide assortment of activities this year. Beside the scheduled home visits, participants can attend hummingbird banding demonstrations. Birders also can take morning trips to Hazel Bazemore County Park on Friday, the Fennessey Ranch on Saturday, and Tule Lake and Indian Point on Saturday. Also this year, butterfly programs and field trips will be provided by Ro and Betty Wauer on Friday and Sunday mornings and by David and Jan Dauphin on Saturday morning. Other scheduled talks will include several on hummingbirds, and others on hawk migration, Texas warblers, moths, water in the landscape, and gardening.

Another reason to attend this year’s Hummer/Bird Celebration is to wander through the Rockport High School auditorium where more than 80 vendors offer everything from books to art to binoculars to clothing. Over the years Betty and I, even when we have not been personally involved with the celebration, visit Rockport to spent a few hours among the vendors. It provides a super opportunity to purchase various goodies, including Christmas presents. And just outside the auditorium one can also purchase garden plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

How to get involved? Although anyone can wander among the vendors at no charge, attendance to the talks and field trips can be arranged on site or on the internet at www.rockporthummingbird.com. It also is possible to obtain information about the Celebration by calling the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce at 361-729-6445. We have found that the Hummer/Bird Celebration is one of the best organized and best attending festivals we know.

If you go, be sure to stop and say hello.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A Morning Walk Through the Neighborhood
by Ro Wauer

We sometimes walk early before the sun really heats up the neighborhood. Early morning is a marvelous time of day, when the yard birds are in full song and a few larger birds are passing overhead. Although early fall is not the best time of the year to experience birds at their territorial peak, far from it, but early morning is the best time of day to hear what probably are the last of the territorial songs. The oak woodland habitat where we live contains a number of resident birds that are through nesting. But some are still in song, at least during the early hours: cardinals, Carolina wrens, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, white-eyed vireos, and mourning and Inca doves.

Some of these resident species may nest again, depending on weather conditions. And some of those may not have nested yet this year due to the extreme drought. Many birds simply postpone nesting until conditions are appropriate so that they can find adequate food for their young.

A few early fall migrants are already passing through the neighborhood. Upland sandpipers and golden plovers from the far north and dickcissels have been heard overhead. And a few orchard orioles, several blue-gray gnatcatchers, a summer tanager, a female indigo bunting, and a couple warbler species have been seen in the yard. Black-and-white warblers are most numerous so far, walking up and down the tree trunks, searching for whatever insects and other invertebrate foods they can find. And a lone Louisiana waterthrush spent a few minutes at one of our birdbaths, chipping loudly and bobbing on its two long legs.

The hummingbird population has already increased considerable during the last couple weeks. It has gone from a half-dozen individuals to several dozen. I put out two more feeders to accommodate these little gems, and now I am refilling the feeders every other day. I know that within a week or two I will be refilling feeders at least daily. Although I am limiting my feeders to seven this year, four or five years ago, when I had hung 17 feeders, and was refilling each twice daily, I had an unbelievably large number of hummers. On one occasion I estimated that my yard contained 300 or more individuals. The hummers buzzed around each feeder, fighting for a chance to feed, and the trees were filled with a constant roar of hummer wings. The Hummer/Bird Celebration in Rockport is coming up September 17 to 20, but more about this marvelous festival in next week’s nature note.

I am unsure what to expect about the fall bird migration this year. Southbound birds are significantly affected by weather. And our extremely dry conditions this year may suggest that the bulk of our migrants will pass around us. More than the normal numbers may take a route across the Gulf. Others may pass us to the west where there has been a more normal rainfall pattern. Most migrants depend upon a daily supply of insects to provide them with adequate nutrients. The drought conditions we are experiencing in the Golden Crescent have severely limited that necessary food supply.

But nevertheless the few migrants that do enter the Golden Crescent will be most appreciated. Some of my favorite fall migrants include the gray catbird, brown thrasher, yellow-throated vireo, and golden-winged, chestnut-sided, and black-throated green warblers. Enjoy whichever migrants that visit your yards.