The Dark-eyed Junco

fullsizeoutput_14ccThere is a humble little sparrow that is part of every north Texas winter. When cold winds are blowing and the straw-yellow grasses, dry and dormant, rattle against each other, little groups of dark-eyed juncos flit through the branches and gather on the ground to scratch through loose material, looking for seeds. They are graceful and beautiful in their somber, two-toned gray and white plumage, the kind of little birds I could imagine gathering around the feet of St. Francis of Assisi. For me, their appeal is in their familiarity and in being small, graceful, and understated.

I got a couple of photos of dark-eyed juncos today, and when the photos turned out reasonably well, despite my limited equipment and limited skill, I wanted to share them. And since our goal here is to offer natural history along with stories and images from the field, I needed to check my bookshelf and a couple of websites, because I still know little about birds. I have good intentions, but not enough follow-through. Every winter, birds become a more noticeable presence for me, and at that point I swear I want to become a better birder. I make it a point to keep the binoculars nearby, and I make tiny inroads into the field of ornithology. And then in the spring, the re-emergence of reptiles and amphibians distracts me, my attention is drawn to the leafing out of a million plants that I have yet to learn about, and so on. But now it is winter again, and I have re-discovered birds, including the humble dark-eyed junco.fullsizeoutput_14d2

The eastern populations of this bird in the U.S. are said to be more clearly patterned in gray and white, supposedly leading some to call them “snow birds” because their color is the leaden gray of a winter sky above, and the white of the snowfall below. Further west, they may have some brown or rufous color on the back or sides, and some western populations are described as “pink-sided.” These different races used to be considered different species, and John Tveten writes about the heavy blow to birders’ life-lists when they were all consolidated into just one species in 1973.

Both the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon describe juncos as ground-nesting birds, with nests located under overhanging grass or nestled by a log. But don’t expect to find such a nest in north Texas; they spend winters here but breed further north, often in pine and spruce forests (Tveten mentions that one population of juncos may nest occasionally in the Guadalupe Mountains). During their winters here, they make use of open woodland, fields, and back yards, foraging mostly for seeds.

One nice feature of the Cornell site is recordings of songs and calls. The dark-eyed junco song is a high, musical trill, and they also have a very high pitched, fast “chip” call that they may use during flight and when foraging.

Audubon. Guide to North American Birds – Dark-eyed Junco. (accessed 1/27/18)

Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All About Birds – Dark-eyed Junco. (accessed 1/27/18)

Tveten, J.L. 1993. The Birds of Texas. Fredericksburg: Shearer Publishing.


Countdown to Spring

‘follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness’

– Allen Ginsberg
Last Saturday the pontiac finally crossed over into the realm of the unreliable vehicle. After nearly 300,000 miles, 2 deer, and 2 water pumps, the transmission was a ticking time bomb. When the tape fell off the service engine light and the dashboard became a carnival of glowing symbols, I pulled over to the side of the road and searched for the panic button. Finding none, I sat helplessly as escaping steam belched from under the hood, the thermometer shot up into ‘self destruct’ mode, and the air took on vague undertones of acrid burning rubber. It was only a quarter mile or so from the house, so I hunched along the right side of the road, envisioning the engine stalling as I climbed the hill and trying to wish away the possibility of its occurence. I made it home fine, but the pontiac had a date with a mechanic shop and then a dealership. 

After a brief romance with a tow truck the car was restored to working order and we made the daunting journey to the dealership to be financially assaulted by the jackal salesmen. They swarmed down upon us from out of the jungle of cars lined up in neat gleaming rows of chrome, and when the dust had cleared we ended up with another bill in the mail and a brand new 2084 Jeep Orwellian, its dashboard pulsing with the lights from a thousand bells and whistles I would never understand. 

2084 Orwellian

“You have a year of Sirius XM for free”, boasted the dealer. “You can even watch Netflix on this baby”. I thought about asking him if the vehicle’s safety coverage accounted for headon collisions that occured as a result of watching Netflix while tooling along I-35 at rush hour, but he snatched the phone out of my hand before I could speak. 

“That’s not part of the trade in!” I yelled. 

“I’m just syncing your bluetooth to the car’s computer system. “, he said. 

“Now they’ve got me”, I assured myself, sinking down into the driver’s seat. “They’ll know every move I make”. 

“It’s not just a vehicle, it’s an entertainment system”, he continued. 

“That’s good”, I replied, “because I’m not going to be able to afford any other forms of entertainment after this car payment starts tracking me down.”

He didn’t laugh, but I figured he was saving it for after I had signed the papers. 

Less than an hour later we were driving the Orwellian home, with my nine year old son instructing me from the backseat on how to operate the XM radio. Our path took us through the Lyndon Baines Johnson National Grasslands, its black jack mottes and clearings of little bluestem adorned in the cloak of winter. Earlier in the week the area had seen a low of 7 degrees. I had gone out on an intended birdwalk that day once the mercury had climbed to 16, but with a wind that had several days ago swept through the Canadian tundra piercing the exposed areas around my eyes and cheeks, it had ended up being the shortest hike of my life. A pair of sparrows were the only things moving, and they looked as though they were having second thoughts. The ground and grass beneath my feet were encased in a thin layer of ice that crunched and crackled and melted and soaked through the mesh in my hiking boots, which still bore the dried smears of pond mud from last fall. 

The hike had been more of a last-ditch resort, in all honesty; an attempt to get back in touch with nature after a hectic steady onslaught of the winter blues fueled by the icy weather and mechanic shop dues and the beginning of another semester. And I felt it again as we passed the turnoff for Cottonwood Lake, a 40-acre reservoir built in the name of flood control on the LBJ. As the gadgets and apps beeped away on the jumbo screen someone had embedded in my dashboard, my mind went back to a summer of my past. I had actually skipped my own post-graduation party to go cruising the Grasslands for copperheads on that night, leaving a bunch of friends and family members high and dry, but it was late May on a new moon night and what a night for copperheads it had been! Along the sandy path that wound over the top of the levee on the lake and back into the horse trails that had been carved from a dense section of woodland I had celebrated my first night of scholastic freedom herping in cap and gown. The headlights falling upon the next serpentine assortment of russet and orange crossbands were worth more congratulations than all the handshakes from wellwishers and illegal beer kegs the night had otherwise to offer me. 

Passing by that familiar turnoff now, nearly twenty years later, with Siri and Zev engaged in a shallow conversation around me, I longed all the more for a wilderness getaway. But the grip of winter would be loosened no time soon, and the Machine is a mighty one, with great teeth and a cavernous, gaping maw that swallows all it sees and leaves poverty and desolation and wastelands in its wake. 

A week has passed now since I fed that machine and braved the world of barter and trade and negotiate and sign the dotted lines here and initial there, and still I have found no time for an outlet. No wilderness and too much commercialism make Jack a dull boy indeed, and while the average American slips into a euphoric funk that triggers the same chemical reaction in the brain as an opium rush when they purchase a new vehicle, I suppose I was wired differently. They say nothing beats the smell of a new car, but I have been to the Big Thicket after a warm spring rain, with the earthy tones of newly emergent fungi complementing the rich, sharp invasion of the scent of the pines. Where the drumming of an unseen pileated woodpecker somewhere above echoes through the magnolias and cypress swamps, with a perfection no surround sound system can replicate, and the frog and cricket and birdsong unavailable on any Sirius XM channel resound from the deep interior of the forest from tannin-rich pools and dense stands of greenbrier. Where cottonmouths and five lined skinks and the ever-present acrobatic anoles bask in the vibrant patches of sunlight that shine down in glorious celestial rays through the canopy. As I navigate the Orwellian back home at the end of another long, cold January day, my mind travels back there to where it is summer once again, where human progress and westward expansion and Chrysler Dodge and oil pumpjacks and fake news exist in some unseen and unwanted and undesirable dimension on the other side of the trees, whose naked branches are now clothed in long flowing dresses of jade and emerald and a new generation of countless species of a multitudinous number of organisms pulses through the woods and fields and prairies like a throbbing heartbeat. 

“Patience”, I say, accidentally aloud. 

“I don’t understand. Can you repeat the question?”, Siri suddenly blares in her monotonous, autonomous voice, devoid of emotion or concern. 

“Shut up. I wasn’t talking to you”, I warn the car. “You couldn’t help me with this problem, I assure you.”

“This is madness”, I think, this time keeping it to myself. “Keep it together. Spring will come.”

In Memory of Mark Brown

On December 21, a friend of mine died unexpectedly, and at age 63 (a few years younger than me) it was far too soon for Mark’s span of years to be up. I had just sent him what I apologetically called an “e-card” with a Christmas-y juniper tree and holiday caption, and he sent me one of the funny cards he always sent, showing a nose-less snowman sifting through the carrot bin in the grocery store with the caption, “Right in the middle of the produce aisle, Frosty gets caught picking his nose.” Inside, he wished us a great holiday, a better 2018, and he wrote, “Maybe we can coordinate our herping schedules!” That’s how our friendship worked, long distance messages and a perennial hope to get together again out in the Big Bend or maybe the Big Thicket. We spent too little time in the field together, but we enjoyed each other’s company and our membership in a particular “tribe” of naturalists.

Mark Brown by uprooted tree

Mark, by an uprooted tree in the Big Thicket in 2006, the year after Hurricane Rita

We both shared the view that finding snakes was great, but being out in the Big Bend, or in a thousand other places where natural communities of plants and animals survived relatively undisturbed by humans, was enough. Neither of us were biologists by trade, but we trained ourselves as best we could with dozens of field guides, volumes of natural history essays and manuscripts, and by experiencing wildlife and wild places firsthand. For us, the classics of literature were written by Conant, Klauber, Greene, Kauffeld, and others like Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey.

I can name any number of others who are brothers and sisters of that tribe. They are friends who share days and nights in the field together, breathing in the magic, wading through its waters, parting its grasses, and seeing a little of how it all works together. That is a bond as powerful in its own way as a family. It is our tribe; we have been to the Holy Land together. (I borrow that figure of speech from a quote attributed to John Muir. He was talking about how a good walk in nature should be unhurried, saying “Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently.”) It’s not that being in the field is a religion, but that wild places capture something that goes beyond the science of ecology or herpetology or other “-ologies,” and speaks to us in some spiritual way.

Mark Brown was a designer in the engineering field, and you can thank him for the safety of some of the bridges that you cross. Like many of us in our tribe, he spent much of a lifetime educating himself in natural history, herpetology, and ecology, and like many of us, being in the field was his vacation, his refuge, his pilgrimage. (He had other refuges, and they involved such things as muscle cars, racing, and music. The latter was another strong source of connection for us.) He also kept a variety of herps successfully, and learned a great deal about the husbandry and behavior of several favorite rattlesnake species. Losing Mark means losing a significant repository of information about herpetoculture, as well as field herpetology in Ohio where he spent some of his early years, and certainly in his beloved Big Bend.

Mark was a smart guy, a generous and kind man, and a good friend, even if you didn’t see him all the time. He provided a light in this world, one of many sources of light and goodness. We will miss him.

His obituary notes that, in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Big Bend Conservancy.


In the Big Bend

On Frozen Pond

Last night the temperature dropped to seventeen degrees. Some time between the ball drop in Times Square and the sunrise over the Wilson Prairie, an arctic blast swept across the prairie, freezing everything from the ponds and stock tanks to the pipes in my wellhouse. Needless to say, this first day of 2018 saw me running to the hardware store to try to improve the insulation over the well pump with more heat tape, foam fittings, a heat pad, and an incandescent bulb. After all that business was over and done, I needed a reason to appreciate the wintry conditions, so Zev and I went for a brief walk onto some property we have access to a few miles from the house. There is a particular pond here, located not too far from the fenceline, loaded with smallmouth bass, catfish and sunfish, not to mention bullfrogs, water snakes, and sliders. But with the mercury still poised at 25 degrees in spite of the blinding afternoon sun, there was little chance of seeing any of the aforementioned residents today.  What we did see were birds. A loggerhead shrike flitted between the blackjacks. House sparrows hopped noisily in the fallen leaves. A northern mockingbird watched us from the drooping outer branches of a mesquite tree, its normally ever-changing tune stilled inside it. A male American kestrel, its feathers aruffle, surveyed the prairie below its perch for something small enough to capture. In a the lowest branch of an elm, a redtail hawk watched a fox squirrel for a lapse in judgment. 

We walked across an open clearing, where a pair of killdeer piped their shrill alarms as they raced across the open ground on thin legs. Mourning doves pecked and scratched nearby, but took to wing in their sudden, explosive flight upon sensing our approach.   We passed under the rusty barbed wire fence, then walked the twenty yards south through a healthy section of little bluestem-dominant prairie to the pond. Upon first sight the scene appeared still and lifeless, a thick sheet of ice spread across the surface of the water, with the crooked black silhouettes of post oaks reflected as rippled shadows. The muted forms of submerged roots and deadfall shown opaquely from the murky brown depths, their outlines broken by sunlight reflecting off the ice in blinding patches. 

We broke through the dense stands of sugarberry that line the water’s edge, their leafless branches spotted here and there by the parasitic evergreen mistletoe. This plant, more widely known as a holiday invitation to kiss beneath, holds no such amorous intentions with the trees it uses as a host. The scientific genus name, Phoradendron, means ‘tree thief’, an befitting title for the mistletoe, which attaches itself to a tree and sends rootlike structures into the branches, which it uses to vamp up water and nutrients. While too much mistletoe can be a detriment to trees, its presence in an ecosystem is generally a healthy one, as its berries provide food for a variety of songbirds. The ovaline, waxy leaves also make choice nesting sites for these same birds, as well as food for the great purple hairstreak butterfly, a magnificently colored metallic species whose lime-green oddly wedge-shaped larvae feed exclusively on the plant. 

As we broke through the thicket, a blue-grey gnatcatcher darted in front of us. While not an uncommon bird, it is a seasonal visitor seen most often in summer here in the cross timbers. In spite of the avian diversity we were experiencing the air was devoid of birdsong, so I relied on the white-edged retrice feathers to identify this nervous species. 

As we approached the bank a great blue heron took flight with a hushed whoosh of its five foot wingspan. It must have been trying to figure out a way to go ice-fishing, although if so I doubt it was having much success, as the ice along the pond’s edge was thick enough to support my weight. 

Zev was enthralled with the icy pond, and took to casting rocks and branches across the surface. With little friction and no external force acting against them, they skated all the way to the other side. Uphill from the pond’s eastern bank a dense patch of greenbrier provided the only meager bit of verdancy to the frozen scape of browns and greys. The pallid, sea green vines, their thorns rigid and sharp, complimented the few cordate mottled leaves that remained. Shiny clusters of the greenbrier’s characteristic black berries hung from them. 

Further out in the field a group of ashe junipers grew, their branches loaded so thickly with their own powder-blue fruit that the trees appeared solid blue from a distance. All these fruiting winter evergreen species would explain the diversity of bird life we were seeing. As we watched a northern cardinal’s bright red plumage dropped down from one of the junipers and landed in the path at trailside. I pointed it out to Zev. 

 “It’s a male”, he added, which opened the door to the topic of sexual dimorphism in the animal kingdom. After giving him the definition of the word I asked if he could think of any other examples besides cardinals. 

“Cowbirds”, he said, “and cattle egrets.” 

 “That’s right”, I said, impressed with his quick response.

 “Your turn”.

“Monarch butterflies”, I said, referring to the characteristic black spot of androconial scales on the hindwings of the males.

  “Lizards”, Zev came back with. 

“What about rattlesnakes?”, I quizzed him. 

“You can tell the difference in their tails”, he replied. “Praying mantis”…

Our conversation continued as we crossed back under the fence and headed down the trail toward the gate. As we walked, a small flock of eastern meadowlarks passed overhead on swift wings. Behind us the icy pond and bare sentinel oaks and lively junipers stood as if transfixed in time, a world entombed in the grip of winter.