Search Nature Watch

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Spring Heralds

Texas Redbud, Cercis Canadensis var. texensis

Nature has a way of letting us know when spring has arrived in the hill country of central Texas.  In addition to increasing temperatures, the awakening of birds, butterflies, and native plants are among the harbingers that mark the arrival of the season.

More than half of the birds recorded in Texas are migrants.  Returning north in the spring to exploit the more productive temperate regions, they come in search of abundant food supplies, longer daylight hours, and less competition for nesting space. Texans have the advantage of being situated in the path of two flyways or principal routes used by North American birds – the Mississippi Flyway and the Central Flyway – and of the 338 species of North American species listed as Neotropical migrants, 333 are documented for Texas.

Chuck-will's-widows, Caprimulgus carolinensis, lay their eggs on the ground in the spring

Listen for the song of the Chuck-will’s-widow (Caprimulgus carolinensis), which sounds just like its name, rising up from the canyons in the twilight and pre-dawn hours.  Delight in the acrobatic flight of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), a pearl gray and white bird with salmon-pink underwings and very long outer tail feathers, whose return coincides with the leafing out of the native Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa var. glandulosa) trees. Marvel at the nest-building skills of the Cliff Swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), who zoom down to creek beds gathering mud to build colonies of gourd-shaped nests under our bridges and overpasses.  And watch for the Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis), a gray bird with a pale breast and yellow belly, whose raucous calls are heard in between bouts of insect-chasing from perches high in our neighborhood trees.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Tyrannus forficatus

The sweet scents of early-blooming native plants catch our attention and the attention of many pollinating insects.  Some of the most fragrant include the Texas Mountain Laurel (Sophora secundiflora), whose glossy, evergreen leaves form the perfect backdrop for huge clusters of deep purple to whitish flowers, up to ten inches long, that smell like grape Kool-Aid.  Or the less common Mexican Plum (Prunus mexicana), a beautiful small tree identified by its numerous and intensely fragrant white blossoms, which like the pink blossoms of the Mexican Buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa) and the Texas Redbud (Cercis Canadensis var. texensis) and the yellow blossoms of the Elbowbush (Forestiera pubescens), appear on the tree before the leaves begin to emerge.  

Mexican Plum, Prunus mexicana
Elbowbush, Forestiera pubescens

Many of these native plants provide nectar for several species of bees, and are nectar and/or larval food sources for spectacular butterflies such as the Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes), Two-tailed Swallowtail (Papilio multicaudata), Great Purple Hairstreak (Atlides halesus), Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus), Long-tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus), and Henry’s Elfin (Callophrys henrici).

Henry's Elfin, Callophrys henrici
Juniper Hairstreak, Callophrys gryneus

Wildflowers will soon begin to grace our fields and roadsides, starting with the famous Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis), intermingled with Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa), pink Evening Primrose (Oenothera speciosa), Winecup (Callirhoe involucrata), and Indian Blanket or Firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella), to name a few.   These swaths of multi-colored gems not only delight the eye and provide the perfect setting for those upcoming Easter family photos, but they are a key element of the hill country ecosystem, and should be protected and propagated for the visual enjoyment and habitat value they provide all living things.          

Prairie Paintbrush, Castilleja purpurea var lindheimeri

As the weather warms, take the time to go outside and discover for yourself the distinctive essence of a central Texas spring.  As Lyndon Baines Johnson, one of our more famous Texans said, “The beauty of our land is a natural resource.  Its preservation is linked to the inner prosperity of the human spirit.”  Celebrate it!