Monday

A Special Tree for That Time of Year

My phone and tablet dinged simultaneously at 8:03AM. It was the alert I'd been expecting this time of year. No, not that Amazon was delivering a last-minute round of holiday gifts. Instead my multi-platform notification read, "A high pollen alert has been issued. Predominant Pollen: Cedar, Juniper."

© Chase Fountain | TPWD

On cue, the itchy eyes and raw throat commence. Cedar fever is here.

Those of you that live outside of the zone of drifting pollen might think giving such a moniker to a common allergy a little silly. But cut us some slack — cedar fever is all too real.



The culprit is the Ashe juniper, a type of mountain cedar, more specifically the male of the species. It's not that they have a more virulently allergenic pollen than any other plant or tree. But the trees exist in such high concentration in the Hill Country and Central Texas, all releasing pollen to the wind at the same time, that the sheer volume is bound to trigger allergic reactions.

courtesy Texas A&M Forest Service

Thus, the classic inflammatory response of the immune system — a stuffy nose or a runny nose; sneezing through the nose; sinus drainage leading to a sore throat or lack of sinus drainage leading to headaches; and of course itchy, reddened eyes. And, for me at least, an intense desire to just go back to bed until I feel normal again.

Unfortunately, those same symptoms are also commonly associated with a cold or the flu. This can lead to confusion since this massive wave of pollination runs December into March, right in the middle of flu season. This year concerns may be higher as these are also coronavirus symptoms. 



There are a few differences to keep in mind. Cedar fever can actually cause a fever, but it's rarely going to be particularly high. If you have symptoms and your temperature is higher than 101.5 F then it's unlikely to be due to pollen. Itchy eyes, stuffy nose and sneezing are also not commonly linked to coronavirus but are trademark symptoms of cedar fever. The dead giveaway according to Robert Edmonson, a biologist for Texas A&M Forest Service, is that "if your mucus is running clear, then it's an allergy. If it's got color, then it's probably a cold or the flu." 

In the end, it's not the trees' fault; they're just doing as nature intended. They choose the optimal moment to release their pollen into the world and let it fall where it may. We just blow our noses, take our antihistamine and wait for a good rain to clean the layer of yellow dust from our cars.

© Ilona Lablaika | Dreamstime


To learn more about the about the flora that call Texas home subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.

Friday

Feathered Fridays - Winter Texans

In December's issue Landry Allred brings to life the elegant sandhill crane, a true Texas snowbird. For our Feathered Friday post, we celebrate these beautiful birds in pictures.

© Gonepaddling | Dreamstime


© Frankf74 | Dreamstime


© Grayfoxx1942 | Dreamstime

© Kojihirano | Dreamstime

Not sure you know the best way to take outdoor photos? Earl Nottingham reveals tricks of the trade each issue in his column, Picture This. To get the most out of your outdoor photography, subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Our Super Holiday Gift Offer is a great option for last minute giving. Your first subscription is only $10, and each additional gift is only $5 more! 


Tuesday

Increase in New Hunters Garners National Media Attention

Wall Street Journal article features a Texas first-timer and TPWD mentored hunts

Isolation due to COVID-19 has enticed more Texans (and Americans) than ever to head to the field in pursuit of wild game. The increased participation caught the notice of one of the largest newspapers in the nation, the Wall Street Journal, in a December 14 article that predicts a million new hunters in 2020.

“It’s an activity seemingly designed for a pandemic: outdoors, thriving in small groups and featuring built-in social distancing,” the article explains, noting a similar rise in fishing license sales.


New Texas hunter Jonathon Nguyen was featured
in the Dec. 14 Wall Street Journal article.


  New hunter Jonathon Nguyen, a 26-year-old electrician from Victoria, shared his story from Texas with the WSJ reporters. A self-proclaimed city kid, Nguyen signed up for a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department mentored hunt, participating in skills and safety sessions before heading to a state park with a mentor to harvest his first doe.

Nguyen was lucky to secure a spot this year, as there were more than twice as many applicants as there were workshop spots, which include a guided hunt. The doe provided 30 pounds of meat for his freezer; he harvested a small hog, as well.

Besides a bounty of homemade sausage, Nguyen and other Texans are finding many personal benefits from spending time hunting, especially in stressful times. Blood pressures drop and moods elevate as they fill their lungs with crisp fall air and watch the antics of birds in nearby trees. There’s a satisfying sense of pride and self-reliance gained from harvesting your own food.

The benefits of hunting don’t stop with personal satisfaction, happiness and health, though that would be plenty. Hunting is an integral part of the conservation model, not only keeping our game animal populations sustainable but also benefiting the other wildlife that shares the habitat, like those birds.

With an estimated 5.5 million white-tailed deer in Texas, keeping population numbers in check with what the native habitat is capable of supporting is the critical role of hunters. That resulting population balance keeps habitat is in better condition to support not only the deer but all the other wildlife that utilize those habitats such as songbirds, small mammals, game birds and more. The revenue generated from hunting license dollars also translates back to wildlife and habitat conservation, including deer management across the state.

Want to learn more and hunting and maybe give it a try? We’re here to help. 

For inspiration, check out our exhaustive “(Almost) Everything Whitetail” extravaganza in the November issue. Then, head over to the TPWD website to learn more about mentored hunts, hunter education, safety, license sales and more.

Experience a TPWD mentored hunt virtually through this episode from the Emmy award-winning Texas Parks & Wildlife PBS show.


To learn more about hunting and fishing and conservation, subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.


Friday

Feathered Fridays - The Plain Chachalaca

I heard them before I ever realized I was looking at them. 

© Cheri Alguire | Dreamstime


Strident is certainly one way to describe the call of the plain chachalaca. A sort of low register clucking, somewhat like that of a chicken but in the range of a turkey, curling up into a shrill cry. It's hard to describe but distinctive and impossible to ignore. 

I was gazing across the bed of a dry resaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge trying desperately to pinpoint what was making that sound. It took me several minutes to realize that a handful of large birds had emerged from the brush and were picking their way gingerly towards the blind where I sat. 

They were agile and fleet despite their rather unwieldly looks; long necks, tail feathers and legs seemed to balance like teeter-totters across their rounded bodies. Their movements were familiar enough to evoke a comparison to chickens, and there was something about their neck and head that was certainly akin to a turkey. But it was obviously not a bird I'd seen before.


© 19838623doug | Dreamstime

Nonetheless, the plain chachalaca is a common sight in the Rio Grande Valley. It's the northernmost member of the bird family Cracidae, which can be found throughout Latin America.  None of the Cracidae are particularly ornate and the chachalaca is no exception. Its plumage is best described as, well, plain.  Somewhat dun colored, the chachalaca sports feathers in a range of brown, olive and beige, and is roughly the size of a roadrunner.

Apparently the chachalaca is considered difficult to find during the course of the day — but if you hear that call you know they're somewhere close by.

Wednesday

Native Americans, Native Plants

November is Native American Heritage Month. Many Texas state parks have ties to Native American tribes, in the past as well as today.

These tribes have long recognized the many beneficial uses for Texas’ native plants. Here are four plants you can discover all over the state.


 

Prickly pear cactus, the yellow rose of Texas, was named our state plant in 1995. It’s also an important plant to Texas’ Native Americans, who eat both the prickly pear pads and fruits. Used for medicine too, a cut prickly pear pad can treat a burn.


©Gary Nored

 

There are many types of yucca in Texas, but they all have something in common. Native Americans of different tribes use them in their daily lives to make soap, fiber for cordage and clothing and often as food.



Cattails aren’t just a place for ducks to hide, Native Americans in Texas use them for roofing materials. The pollen from cattails is often used in their ceremonies, too. 


© Sally and Andy Wasowski, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

These beautiful, red honey mesquite beans are loved by wildlife such as deer, javelina, turkeys and more. Native Americans in Texas also harvest and enjoy the sweet beans by crushing the pods into meal to make small round cakes. 


To learn more about the legacy and heritage of our state subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.

Monday

Mammal Monday - The American Bison

"It will be remembered that it was in southeastern Texas, in all probability within 50 miles of the present city of Houston, that the earliest discovery of the American bison on its native heath was made in 1530 by Cabeza de Vaca … They were also found in immense herds on the coast of Texas, at the Bay of St. Bernard (Matagorda Bay), and on the lower part of the Colorado (Rio Grande, according to some authorities), by La Salle, in 1685, and thence northwards across the Colorado, Brazos, and Trinity Rivers. They afterwards landed in St. Louis Bay (now called Matagorda Bay), where they found buffaloes in such numbers on the Colorado River that they called it La Rivière aux Boeufs.

It is a curious coincidence that the State of Texas, wherein the earliest discoveries and observations upon the bison were made, should also now furnish a temporary shelter for one of the last remnants of this great herd."

— Mr. William T Hornaday, Superintendent of the National Zoological Park. From the Report of the National Museum at Smithsonian Institution, 1886-1887.


I'll be honest. This post ended up going in a very different direction than originally planned. My intent was to highlight the bison, particularly as this past Saturday was National Bison Day. But then, as I was doing a bit of research, I stumbled across Mr. Hornaday's report. And it is a fascinating piece of American history that's intrinsically tied to Texas. So Mammal Monday went a little sideways. It's still about the bison, but more about why we still have them than the bison itself.

Every American knows the story of the buffalo, an animal so plentiful that vast herds covered the landscape from Alaska into Mexico, 60-million strong. But by the time Mr. Hornaday's report was published in 1889, he could only confirm that roughly 635 wild bison remained alive on the continent — 85 of those in the U.S.

The report itself is rather breathtaking in its scope. It is a celebration of the animal, a mourning of its systemic slaughter, and a plea for "preservation of the species from absolute extinction."  In his preface, Mr. Hornaday writes, "The wild buffalo is practically gone forever, and in a few more years, when the whitened bones of the last bleaching skeleton shall have been picked up and shipped East for commercial uses, nothing will remain of him save his old, well-worn trails along the water-courses, a few museum specimens, and regret for his fate."

Thankfully his report was something of a wake-up call. Today it is considered one of the first important treatises of the American wildlife conservation movement. 

According to the report, there were bison "running wild and unprotected" in Texas on January 1, 1889. About that small herd he notes that a "miserable remnant" of the great southern herd could be found in the Panhandle along the Canadian River. It numbered about 100 individuals in 1887, but over the course of two years a local rancher, identified as C.J. Jones, had killed 52 and captured 18. Jones and the men in his hunting party "saw about all the buffaloes now living in the Panhandle country, and it therefore seems quite certain that not over twenty-five individuals remain. These are so few, so remote, and so difficult to reach, it is to be hoped no one will consider them worth going after, and that they will be left to take care of themselves."

On page 458 of the report, Mr. Hornaday begins listing every bison herd and individual bison in captivity on January 1, 1889. Every single non-wild bison in the United States, Canada and Mexico appears on the report, along with their sex, provenance and value if purchased or sold!  He notes that an I.P. Butler of Colorado, Texas, owns a young bull buffalo and a half-breed calf. At the top of page 461 we find the following:

"Herd of Mr. Charles Goodnight. Clarendon, Texas. — Mr. Goodnight writes that he has been breeding buffalos in a small way for the past ten years, but without giving any particular attention to it." At present his herd consists of thirteen head, of which two are three-year old bulls and four are calves. There are seven cows of all ages, one of which is a half-breed."

Records indicate that this small herd left on its own to wander Goodnight's JA Ranch, slowly grew in number. In 1894 there were between 25 - 30, in 1903 there were 45, and by 1914 it included 35 bulls, 107 cows and 22 calves. In 1996 the JA Ranch donated the herd to the state, although first the state had to find them.  

It's been over a century since conservation efforts by men like William Hornaday and Charles Goodnight ensured that the bison would survive. Today the Official Texas State Bison Herd, descended from the Goodnight herd, with unique genetics of the great southern herd not shared by any other bison in North America, is a living testament to those efforts. 


To learn more about the about the animals that call Texas home subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.

Mammal Monday - Playful River Otters

In East Texas, along the Gulf Coast, a sinuous line in the water may alert you the presence of the river otter. These inquisitive and graceful mammals are, like badgers, Mustelids — a family of animals well-represented in Texas. 

© Ray Carroll | #inthewildhood

River otters, as their name implies, are generally associated with water. However, they also spend a considerable amount of time on land. Their long, lean bodies and undulating gait appear awkward on dry ground, but make no mistake, once this creature slides into the water, it has entered its domain. Otters have webbed hind feet, ears and nostrils that can be closed underwater, and a long, tapered tail that aids in their aquatic escapades. River otters are masterful swimmers and divers, and can hold their breath for up to eight minutes.

Otters can live a decade, grow to four feet long and weigh up to 20 pounds. They are well known for their playful antics, and are often observed slipping, flipping and sliding into the water. They are active throughout the year but are seldom seen because of their secretive, mostly nocturnal nature. Otter dens are typically located near water and have two entrances, one on land and one submerged. They are not finicky eaters; their diet consists mainly of fish, crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians and invertebrates.

© Linda Taylor | #inthewildhood

Otters normally mate in the water and produce an average of two to three pups per litter. Pups are born about 10 inches long, blind, toothless and fully furred. At one month they can open their eyes; after four months they are fully weaned, waterproof and ready to face the world.

Once heavily trapped for their pelts, river otter populations are now believed to be expanding in Texas. This is welcome news to those wishing to have their very own close encounter. It is definitely a good day when you get to see a river otter.

Portions of this post were excerpted from the August/September 2013 Wild Thing, written by Tucker Slack.

To learn more about the about the animals that call Texas home subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.

Thursday

Celebrating Bats During #BatWeek

Bats, unfortunately, get a bad rap. In reality though, bats are some of the most fascinating and misunderstood critters throughout the world. Bat week is an international, annual celebration, held October 24-31, that aims to raise awareness about the need for bat conservation and the vital role they play in our natural world. 


Many old horror movies and tall tales portray bats as blood-thirsty creatures, all of whom carry rabies, that will intentionally fly into and get stuck in your hair. Let’s start there and bust some bat myths!

Indeed, while it’s true that a limited few species of bat, 3 out of over 1400 species, eat blood from other animals, bats around the world have hugely varied diets, including insects, frogs, fish, nectar, pollen, fruit, birds and even other bats. Researchers believe that the variety of bat species is associated with their ability to adapt to available food sources. Most bats in Texas are insectivorous. As such, bats can act as natural pest control. Researchers have estimated that bats save farmers billions of dollars in pesticide due to their appetite for bugs. So, more bats = fewer bothersome insects and more affordable produce!  

Speaking of some of the ways bats benefit humans, bats provide economic services to people by providing opportunities for tourism. The Congress Avenue bridge in Austin is thought to bring millions of dollars in tourism to Austin each year.



For the gardeners, bat guano is a very effective fertilizer because it is so rich in nitrogen. It’s such a rich energy source that it is the basis of cave ecosystems that operate largely independent of the sun. If you want to use it at home, the rule of thumb is “one teaspoon per tomato plant”.

Next, it should be known that not all bats carry rabies. In fact, rabies is no more prevalent in bats than in other common urban animals, including foxes, raccoons and skunks. Many people mistake bats for rodents but they’re actually a unique group of mammals known as Chiroptera. They are mammals, just like us. Bats give birth to live young, feed their pups with milk, are warm-blooded, have furred bodies, and their wings are comprised of the same bones that form our arms and hands.


Interestingly, bats are the only flying mammal. Other mammals like flying squirrels can glide, which is little more than steerable falling. Bats, though, are capable of powered flight, meaning they can generate lift and speed by flapping their wings. With minute movements of their fingertips, bats can pull off impressive maneuvers, including flips, loops and high-speed turns while they chase down their prey.

Some myths have some grounding in reality. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department bat biologist, Dr. Nate Fuller, recalls a story he heard from what he describes as “an old-timey bat guy”.

“It turns out that bats flying into hair is one of the weirdest myths in bat biology,” Fuller says. “Bats really aren’t interested in you. Sure, they may check you out and wonder what you’re doing in their home, but they don’t want anything from you.”

Fuller says that the story about bats in your hair comes from times long past when ladies would wear their hair up high and wrap them in fine nets. Meanwhile, hygiene wasn’t the best back then and smelly humans would attract bugs. Bugs would attract bats, and bats, confused by the acoustic image of hair in a net, would errantly crash into these towers of hair while chasing down a meal.



Bats vision isn’t as bad as you may think either. A bat’s vision is about as good as the average nocturnal animal, such as a raccoon or fox. However, their most effective sensory system is echolocation. Using high frequency calls and listening to the way these calls echo off objects, bats can sense their environment in extraordinary detail. Some species of bat can detect millimeter-sized changes in the environment, such as ripples on water surfaces. Researchers have also shown that the neurological pathways that provides echolocation information also translates the signals in color. So, while the colors aren’t the same that we may perceive, bats can effectively “see” color with echolocation.

You can learn more interesting bat facts, why humans need bats and how you can help bats at Bat Conservation International’s website

To learn more about the about the animals that call Texas home subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.

Wednesday

German American Heritage Month - The Food

If you've never wandered around Wurstfest in New Braunfels dipping your Kartoffelpuffers in apple sauce you're definitely missing out.

New Braunfels, like many Texas cities with a strong German heritage, celebrates with a festival honoring its founders' rich traditions. New Braunfels is unique in calling it Wurstfest rather than Oktoberfest, but the general idea is the same. Unfortunately in 2020 many of these celebrations have been canceled or are being held online due to COVID-19. And yes, we'll miss the music, the color, the fanfare. But we'll also miss the food.

Schnitzel © ChronoPhoto | Dreamstime

German immigrants brought with them an array of native recipes, and as it turns out their hearty meat and potatoes diet was a perfect match for Texas. Most of their staples could be grown or raised here as they were on German soil. In fact, two of the foods we think of today as quintessentially Texan likely owe their very existence to German immigrants.

Chicken-fried steak bears more than a passing resemblance to Schnitzel — a tenderized slab of meat, breaded and fried. Germany has a number of specific Schnitzel dishes, as the word itself simply means meat cutlet. But chicken-fried steak seems most like a Jägerschnitzel, commonly served with a mushroom sauce, or Rahmschnitzel, which is served with a cream sauce. Either way, it's clear that the much beloved CFS has its roots firmly in a German tradition.

German meal prepared at Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm

And of course we can't talk about the German-Texas food connection without discussing smoked meats. We tend to think of Germany + smoked meats = sausage. Move that equation to Texas and you get German Texans + smoked meats = brisket. That's right. Texans owe that smoky, salty, fatty, bark encrusted beefy goodness to German American butchers who decided to pop a brisket in the smoker, instead of in a dutch oven. 

Clearly we owe a lot to German food. 

Which brings us back to Kartoffelpuffer. They're a kind of potato pancake or fritter. More substantial than a hashbrown, but not precisely an entrée either. While some like there's topped with sour cream, I prefer mine with a tart applesauce. Yum!

Kartoffelpuffer © Barmalini | Dreamstime

To learn more about the legacy and heritage of our state subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.