Sunday, September 7, 2008

What is a "native"?

You must not know too much or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and watercraft; a certain free-margin, and even vagueness - ignorance, credulity - helps your enjoyment of these things.
Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892)

Today officially launches my seventh decade as an amateur naturalist, and the Web dropped Whitman’s quote on me as my reminder for the day. Thank you, Lord!

I have been in nature, observing nature for 60 years so far. Only in the last four years or so have I pursued nature as an avocation and just this past year that I have earned a fraction of a living at it. And while I do make a few bucks working with nature to teach others about nature, I refuse to surrender my amateur naturalist status and leave the ranks of giants like Darwin, Whitman, Thoreau and Muir.

Certain dangers are inherent in close observation and study of what goes on in the natural world. Chief among these (on my list, at least) is nitpicking; getting too hung up on scientific classifications, definitions and nomenclatures. I know Guy Here is a male ruby-throat hummingbird simply because he presented his red throat patch when he visited our porch feeder. Do I need to know his proper name is Archilochus colubris to appreciate his behavior as he camps out in our yard, defending “his” feeders against all male (no, he doesn’t chase away females) comers? No, I don’t. In fact, I had to Google “ruby-throat” to get Guy’s Latin name for this citation.

Like Willie said, “What’s in a name?”

But it goes deeper than that. Down at the nature center, our mission is closely tied to preserving the ecosystems on our 15 acres. Most of the site is river bottom wetland inhabited by cottonwoods, buckthorn, pecan, sugarberry, soapberry, rough-leaf dogwood, green briar and Japanese honeysuckle. Of those eight species, one is a foreign invasive introduced into the region long before there was a nature center.

Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), in fact, ranks high on Texas’ list of public enemy plant species because it is such a highly aggressive, invasive vine that left unchecked will take over everything in its way. Lonicera was introduced into the United States from Asia as an ornamental vine, and its popularity helped spread it across the country where it has naturalized in many areas.

Strictly speaking, then, all Japanese honeysuckle should be removed from the nature center as a non-native invader, right? Personally, I think so. Yet our resident honeysuckle has its fans who would be more than a little upset if the plant was totally wiped out. Many of those same folks would much rather I remove the prolific poison ivy that flourishes in our woods, even though poison ivy is native to our ecosystem.

So the debate becomes what is “native” and what is not “native”? The immigration issue does not apply exclusively to foreign nationals of the human species. Plants, like people, may become naturalized citizens, but it often takes more than an official status or designation to make them welcome.

When I was first invited to join the staff down at the nature center, one of my goals was to eliminate non-native honeysuckle (yes, Virginia, there is a native species, coral honeysuckle) from our acreage, and to my mind Lonicera is still the kudzu of North Texas. Today, however, I am more inclined to cut it back to the bordering neighborhood to the west, allowing it to remain on our fences as a specimen of what NOT to plant in your yard!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Home for the hummers

Certainly did not take long for a handful of
hummingbirds to find us! I noticed this little
guy to the right here dining at our feeder just a couple of days after I put it up in the corner of the front porch. Nearly all the books will tell you NOT to hang a feeder on your porch if you want to attract hummingbirds in close. The accepted method, they say, is to start with a feeder some distance from where you really want it and then to gradually move the feeder in to your target viewing area. Hmmmm. Day One: Hang a feeder on the porch; Day Three: Male ruby throat hummingbird observed at feeder. Anyone see a pattern emerging here concerning myself and following the rules?

Turns out Guy Here--I just this moment decided that what I'm calling the male ruby throat above--isn't the only one. Not even by a stretch. Saturday afternoon, about the time we had that nice little shower, I called Annie out to the porch to check out Guy Here. She no more than got settled into the folding-chair stand-in for a rocker when she exclaimed, "Oh, look! There's two of them! No, wait....three!"

Of course, we broke out cameras and took up strategic positions to capture the moment. Guy Here wasn't having any of it. He and his cronies seemingly were masters at popping in when we least expected an appearance and buzzing right back out of frame just as quickly. All in all, Annie tallied no less than five individuals, and nary a one of them was captured in pictures that day.

Some five yards out from the porch is a soon to be dead tree of indeterminate species. I say soon to be dead because what remains of the tree is terminally infested with mistletoe. For now, however, this is Guy Here's tree. Rubys are known for being strongly territorial, and Guy Here's preferred sentry perch is a small, bare twig some 15 feet above our front walk. This post offers a clear hummingbird's eye view of both porch feeders. Woe be unto any other hummer who dares dart in on Sir Guy's domain!

Annie is convinced Guy Here and a significant other has a nest in that old tree. I'm not yet convinced. He will, from time to time, vanish into the foliage for a few moments in area where the mistletoe is quite dense and sheltering. And while hummers are known to have as many as three broods in a season, I'm not sure how much the male figures into the nesting and child care scene. I could, I suppose, climb into the tree and see what I can find, but that's not gonna happen. I can just hear myself saying, "Hey, honey, I found it!" just before branch, nest and my 60-year-old ass all come crashing to the ground.

Some things are better left a mystery.