Nature Watch Austin: Guide to the Seasons in an Urban Wildland

Nature Watch Austin: Guide to the Seasons in an Urban Wildland

by Lynne M. Weber, Jim Weber


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Ducks in January . . . bats in March . . . rain lilies in April . . . meteors in August . . . the predictable appearance of fauna and flora allows humans to experience the natural cycles in the environment, no matter how urban the setting. In Nature Watch Austin, avid amateur naturalists Lynne and Jim Weber provide an introduction and guide to some of the natural events that define the seasons in the city of Austin and its surrounding areas.
Month-by-month, each chapter profiles the plants, animals, insects, and other natural phenomena that are particularly noteworthy at that time of year. The authors also provide suggestions on how and where to see them—from driving to a nearby water treatment plant to lounging by the backyard bird feeder. Opening with a chart on weather, temperature, and daylight hours, each month’s chapter features photographs and original illustrations by the authors. A list of references includes area field guides and more in-depth sources of information by subject.
No matter how clogged with traffic and entombed in concrete, even large cities harbor wildlife and support a community of plants, either in tucked-away places both familiar and unexpected, or in parks and preserves dedicated to city dwellers in search of open space. Learning the annual rhythms of “urban wildland” encourages everyone to be in tune with nature and welcome the opportunities to enjoy it, year after year.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781603444316
Publisher: Texas A&M University Press
Publication date: 10/31/2011
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 747,670
Product dimensions: 8.70(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.83(d)

About the Author

Lynne Weber and Jim Weber work at IBM in Austin, where she is a senior manager and he is a senior engineer. Both are certified Texas Master Naturalists, and Lynne is past president of the Capital Area chapter. The Webers are dedicated naturalists who conduct bird surveys, monitor and map invasive species, write nature columns for neighborhood newsletters, and lead nature hikes among their many outdoor activities.



Read an Excerpt

Nature Watch Austin

Guide to the Seasons in an Urban Wildland

By Lynne Weber, Jim Weber

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2011 Lynne Weber and Jim Weber
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-481-1



Feathered Winter Visitors

Like many people from northern climates, there are several bird species that arrive in Central Texas to spend the winter. Three of the most notable are the American Robin (Turdus migratorius), the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), and the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius).

The largest of our thrushes, the well-known American Robin is gray-brown above, with a brick-red breast, white belly, and black-streaked white throat. Like all thrushes, it is one of our best singers (cheerily cheer-up cheerio!), and was named by homesick colonists for the robin that occurs commonly across Europe. The two are only distantly related, but both have red breasts. Robins withdraw from the northern portion of their range in winter and migrate southward to seek more abundant food supplies. They winter throughout Texas, but remain to breed primarily in the northern and eastern portions of the state and locally in the mountains of the west. On their southern wintering grounds here in Central Texas, they congregate in huge flocks, feeding together mostly on berries, and roosting en masse in trees at night. Earthworms are an important food source during their breeding season, and because they forage for worms largely on suburban lawns, they are vulnerable to pesticide poisoning and can be an important indicator of chemical pollution.

Gray-brown overall, with a crest on top of the head, a black mask edged in white, and yellow tips on its tail feathers, the Cedar Waxwing is a beautiful medium-sized songbird. Gregarious and often flying in flocks, its calls sound like very high-pitched bzeee notes. The waxwing gets its name from the waxy red appendages found in variable numbers on the tips of the secondary wing feathers of most birds. Waxwings with orange instead of yellow tail tips began appearing in the United States in the 1960s as a result of a red pigment picked up by the birds from eating the berries of an introduced (non-native) species of honeysuckle. One of the few temperate dwelling birds that are "frugivorous" or specializing in eating fruit, waxwings swallow berries whole. They can survive for months on fruit alone, and unlike many birds that regurgitate seeds from the fruit they eat, waxwings ingest and then defecate fruit seeds. Like American Robins, waxwings are also vulnerable to alcohol intoxication and even death after eating fermented fruit!

A robin-sized falcon, the American Kestrel is a gorgeous bird of prey with a sharp, hooked bill and talon-tipped feet ideal for hunting. Sometimes called a "sparrow hawk," the male kestrel is a rust-colored bird with slate blue wings and an unbarred tail while the female, the larger of the two, sports a barred tail and lacks the slate blue on the wings. Both possess a white face with two black streaks. Typically, it is the larger female kestrel that arrives on its wintering grounds ahead of the male, which allows her to select preferred habitats, so when the smaller males arrive they must take secondary locations. They utilize open fields and other grassy areas with perches from which they can watch for prey such as flying insects, bats, mice, small birds and reptiles. They can hover in mid-air while searching for prey and "kite" against the wind, flying at an appropriate speed facing the wind so they can stay in place.

As you enjoy a brisk winter walk in your neighborhood and surrounding areas, keep an eye out for these common but attractive "winter Texans."


* For waxwings and robins, check any location with a concentration of berry or fruit-producing shrubs and trees, such as the parking lot at the Westlake Village Shopping Center, the Hike & Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake along Caesar Chavez, and the trails at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

* Kestrels prefer to perch on power lines above large, open, grassy areas like those along Platt Lane, Decker Lane, and MLK Boulevard towards Webberville.

The Cunning Coyote

Although the Coyote (Canis latrans) has been (and continues to be) one of the most persecuted mammals in human history, this is largely due to widespread, common misconceptions and myths that surround the species. Add the fact that they are a highly intelligent animal with keen senses of hearing, sight, and smell, and you can easily see why they are the subject of such scrutiny.

About the size of a small German shepherd, the Coyote weighs an average of 25 to 40 pounds, with long, slender legs, a bushy tail with a black tip, and large ears that are held erect. While its coat can vary, it is usually gray or buff-colored and its snout is long and slender. A strong swimmer, the Coyote characteristically runs with its tail down, instead of horizontally like foxes or up like wolves and dogs. Primarily nocturnal and very opportunistic, Coyotes will eat almost anything, but in Central Texas they prefer rabbits, rodents, and insects. Because Coyotes can utilize many different food sources and humans have all but exterminated its main predator, the wolf, Coyotes have rapidly spread to all parts of the country, including urban and suburban areas.

Considered monogamous with pairs living together for several years, Coyotes are usually shy and elusive, but are frequently seen individually, in pairs, or in small groups, especially when near food. A family group, more commonly known as a pack, consists of the parents, their pups, and occasionally, the previous year's pups. Male and female Coyotes pair up, establish a territory, and breed from mid-January to early March. Normally utilizing a natural cavity or a den dug by another mammal, they will make the necessary renovations by excavating multiple escape tunnels linked to the surface. After a gestation period of 63–65 days, a litter of five to seven pups is born. During the weeks following the birth, the male will bring food to the family, but the female will not allow him inside the den. Coyotes normally live from 10 to 12 years.

It is easy to get the impression that an area is overflowing with Coyotes when one hears a family's howls. In reality, there are probably only 2–6 individuals in a pack. While some people may find it a bit unnerving, Coyotes use howling as a means of communication to tell non-family members to stay out of their territory, to locate one another within their territory, to distract other Coyotes away from young pups, and as a means for older pups to practice mimicking their parents.

Due to misconceptions and fears about Coyotes, many people don't recognize the beneficial aspects that Coyotes contribute to our ecosystem. Predators such as the Coyote, serve a valuable function in keeping prey species in balance with their habitat. Populations of small animals, such as rodents and insects, could increase out of control without these predators. Coyotes can reduce the number of small animals that homeowners and gardeners consider as pests. While Coyotes may change ecological balances of predator and prey species somewhat, they will not eliminate other species from the environment. Many scavenger animals, such as foxes and vultures, benefit from Coyote predation on other animals through increased food availability from leftover carcasses.

Coyotes are naturally afraid of people and their presence alone is not a cause for concern, though they can become habituated to rely on human-related sources of food. Simple steps you can take to peacefully coexist with them include keeping your garbage and recycling inside and secure until the morning of pickup, closing off crawlspaces under porches and decks, feeding your pets indoors, keeping your pets indoors at night (especially cats and small dogs), and educating your neighbors to do the same.

Like all wild animals, Coyotes have a right to inhabit our wild places, including the preserves that border our suburban homes and neighborhoods. If you do your part to help strike a proactive balance between humans and these wild creatures and respect their right to exist, you may well be rewarded with a familial chorus of eerie howls on a moonlit night.


* More often heard than seen and active mainly at night, Coyotes can be found in open spaces that border our urban and suburban neighborhoods, such as Barton Creek Greenbelt, Bull Creek Preserve, Wild Basin, and Emma Long (City) Park.

* Get a close-up look at a Coyote at the Austin Nature & Science Center (ANSC).

There's No Such Thing as Buzzards

To most Texans, vultures are simply "buzzards," an unfortunate misnomer that stems from the term early settlers used to describe these birds that reminded them of a common, medium-sized hawk found in Europe. American vultures have their own distinct family and differ from vultures found on other continents, which are more closely related to hawks and eagles.

Vultures are characterized by small, unfeathered heads and hooked beaks, which help them feed on the carrion that makes up most of their diet. As scavengers, they often feed together and assemble in large groups to roost at night. These normally social birds become solitary during the spring nesting season, from March to June in Central Texas, and prefer protected rock ledges, caves, hollow trees, and even deserted buildings as nesting sites, as they do little to no nest construction. Male and female vultures look alike, and they have no song or call, although they will grunt and hiss when feeding or frightened.

Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) are one of two vulture species common in the Austin area. Large, sleek, and black with a naked red head, white beak, and longish tail, the Turkey Vulture has a six-foot wing span. Combined with its relatively light weight, you will often see this bird using thermals to carry it aloft, soaring high above the ground in sweeping circles. From below, its slender wings appear two-toned, with leading edge black wing linings contrasting with trailing edge light gray flight feathers. Unlike other vultures, the Turkey Vulture uses its sense of smell to locate carrion. And like its stork relatives, this vulture often defecates on its own legs, using the evaporation of the water in its feces to cool itself down.

Smaller, with a shorter tail, naked black head, and a wing span of less than five feet, the Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) is not built for endless soaring like the Turkey Vulture. As such, you will often see this bird alternate rapid flapping of its wings with short glides. From below, its wings also appear two-toned, but with the light gray feathers appearing only on the wing tips. Unlike the Turkey Vulture, the Black Vulture will supplement its carrion diet with small mammals, reptiles, and young birds, and depends solely on its vision to find food. A more aggressive bird, Black Vultures will frequently form small groups and gang up on a larger Turkey Vulture to drive it from a carcass. But when threatened, it often regurgitates its stomach contents.

Populations of Turkey and Black Vultures fluctuate throughout the year in Central Texas. Although some stay year-round, many Turkey Vultures spend the winter in Central America. Black Vultures also migrate, and may travel as far south as Brazil for the winter. Protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it is illegal to take, kill, or possess Turkey or Black vultures (or even possess a feather), except for those with the authority to care for birds that are injured and unable to return to the wild.

While vultures may not be the most attractive bird around, you have to admire their majestic stature, graceful flight, unique social characteristics, and the key role they play as nature's best recyclers.


* More often than not, vultures are seen soaring along highways such as Loop 360, RM 2222, and US 183, looking for carrion (roadkill).

* Vultures roost in groups and can be found in fairly large numbers on power/transmission towers in many areas of the city.

Dabblers and Divers

Wintertime is the perfect time to look for ducks in Central Texas. Several species that breed far north of our state's border return to Texas in the colder months to feed in our unfrozen freshwater lakes and rivers. From the Old English duce, the word duck is a derivative of the verb meaning to duck or dive, or bend down low as if to get under something. It best describes the way many ducks feed, by upending or diving under the water in search of a wide variety of food sources, such as small aquatic plants, grasses, fish, insects, amphibians, worms and mollusks. Most ducks fall into either the dabbler or diver category. Dabblers feed on the surface of the water, and sometimes on land, while divers disappear completely beneath the surface and forage deep underwater. In general, divers are heavier than dabblers, giving them the ability to submerge more easily, but they often pay the price by having more difficulty when taking off to fly.

The most distinctive dabbling duck is the Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata). True to its name, it possesses a large, 2 1/2 inch long shovel-like bill, which is spoon-shaped and has a comb-like structure at its edges called a "pectin." The pecten is used to filter food from the water, and as an aid in preening its feathers. A medium-sized duck, the adult male (or drake) has an iridescent green head, rusty sides, and a white chest. When flushed from her nest, the adult female (or hen) will often defecate on the eggs, presumably to deter predators from eating them. This species of duck is monogamous, and stays together longer than any other known pairs of dabbling duck species.

Another common dabbler is the American Wigeon (Anas americana), the population of which is increasing throughout its range. The male has a white crown, green face patch, large white patches in its wings, and a black rear end bordered by white. At one time this duck was known as "baldpate" because the white crown resembles a man's bald head. Its feeding behavior is distinctive among the dabbling ducks, as its short bill allows it to be much more efficient at plucking vegetation from both the water and sometimes even agricultural fields. The diet of this duck includes a much higher proportion of plant matter than any other dabbler species.

Among the most abundant and widespread freshwater diving ducks is the Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis). The male has a slight bump or peak on the back of the head, a bluish bill with a small black tip, light gray sides (black on the ends with white in the middle), and a black head, chest, and rear end. When grasped by a predator like a gray fox, an adult Lesser Scaup may play dead, rendering itself immobile with its head extended, eyes open, and wings folded close to its body. They are capable of diving underwater the day they are hatched, but are too buoyant to stay under for long, until maturity gives them the body composition and strength they need to stay underwater for longer periods of time.

Usually found on smaller, calmer bodies of water like ponds, Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) are more readily identified by the bold white ring around their bill than the subtle purplish band around their necks for which they are named. A medium-sized diving duck, they also have a small bump or peak on the back of their black heads, with the male having a black chest, back, and rear end, with gray sides and a white stripe up the shoulder.

The next time you visit a lake, river, or pond this winter, venture out to the quiet corners to see if you can spot one of our best known dabblers or divers.


Excerpted from Nature Watch Austin by Lynne Weber, Jim Weber. Copyright © 2011 Lynne Weber and Jim Weber. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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