Human roads have utterly fragmented the world of wild animals, but the engineering to reconnect the pieces is within our grasp.
From Sweden to Romania, animals from salamanders to the resurgent brown bears are crossing busy roads safely
By Darryl Jones
Edited by Pam Weintraub
December 13, 2021
Edited by Pam Weintraub
December 13, 2021
It is almost certain that you recently interacted closely with an invisible giant, as the Harvard landscape ecologist Richard T T Forman has described it. Others have called roads ‘the single most destructive element in the process of habitat fragmentation’, declaring that ‘Few forces have been more influential in modifying the Earth than transportation.’ Yet you probably didn’t even notice. An expansive feature that snaps the globe, but is effectively invisible: the vast network of transportation infrastructure – all the railways, canals but also, most significantly, roads.
Roads are everywhere, forming an almost inconceivably complex system, an endless, ever-expanding, interconnected grid that facilitates the movement and exchange of people and goods over vast areas. This colossal structure is probably the greatest ever cultural artefact, a requirement and precondition for human development. For us, roads are essential connectors, linking places and purpose. But almost everywhere these networks have been imposed with scant regard for the landscape in which they occur.
Despite its extraordinary scale, this vast, inescapable, indispensable network is largely ignored. As we hurtle between the places where we live, shop, learn and play, the road on which we travel is unlikely to cross our minds. (The traffic we encounter is, of course, another matter.) We are even less likely to conceive of the road on which we are travelling as a component of the huge, sprawling web made up of all the roads spreading out over regions and the entire continent.
If we conceive of a road at all, it is most likely as a trip taking the shortest distance from A to B as displayed by a map app on a smartphone. Much harder to envision is the network of interconnected roads, a literal web, sometimes densely meshed in places where many people live, sometimes in diffuse bands that skirt around areas of difficult terrain where human presence is low. It is not only the most efficient connection for people we should consider, of course, but also the resulting subdivision of the landscape into pieces – fragments – of land bounded on all sides by roads. These pieces may be city blocks, farms or national parks but they are all, to some extent, circumscribed by the surrounding roads and the traffic these carry.
Unsurprisingly, there are strong and obvious relationships between the density of humans and the density of roads. This is most evident in small countries with large populations. The Netherlands, for instance, compact and crowded, has a road density of 1.55 km (0.96 miles) of road per square kilometre. However, even in a country as apparently spacious as the continental United States, there is almost nowhere more than a few miles from a paved road.
Why might this matter? Imagine any large animal, a deer or wolf perhaps, that needs to travel for any typical but compelling reason: finding food, seeking a mate, regular migration. Wherever it lives, wherever it moves, sooner or later it will come upon a road. What happens next will depend on a lot of different factors. It may travel this route regularly and be quite familiar with the abrupt change in the landscape. Or it may have never encountered a road before. It may even be attracted to the roadside to graze on the grass, sample the edible trash or scavenge the dead animals found alongside. On the other hand, the noise or lights of the traffic may be so disturbing that the animal retreats as far away as possible. The animal may cross if there are no vehicles, or inexplicably wander straight into the traffic. It may be sufficiently motivated to cross despite the risk or, having learned to judge what are safe intervals between moving vehicles, it may delay crossing until the quietest parts of the night. All of these responses are happening almost everywhere every day.
Crossing a road with traffic is often dangerous for wildlife, especially for slower, ground-dwellers. Collisions with vehicles almost always lead to the death or serious injury of the animal, and the numbers involved are almost unbelievable. For example, about a million individuals of all species are killed every day on the roads of the US. In North America overall, the cumulative scale of all this roadkill now surpasses hunting as the main cause of death in larger species. It is now regarded by researchers as an ‘evolutionary novel threat’. While some types of mammals such as deer (being much more conspicuous) dominate the statistics, the numbers of smaller, less obvious groups such as birds and amphibians are enormous.
Of course, not every road is dangerous. Some have very little traffic or virtually none at night. Certain species have learned to avoid vehicles and cross when it is safe. And even shockingly large roadkill tolls do not mean that a species or local population is imperilled. Having a lot of visible roadkill may simply indicate that the species is plentiful in the area. Certainly, the enormous number of white-tailed deer in North America or roe deer in Europe killed through collisions with vehicles has had a negligible impact on their abundance. There is, however, powerful evidence that collisions with vehicles can drive species to the point of extinction. Infamously, during the 1980s, around 10 per cent of the entire Florida panther population of was killed annually. In Tasmania, a simple road upgrade led to the elimination of a rare marsupial carnivore.
While the sight of dead animals along the roadside is troubling, other influences may be far more important. For many species, it is not the traffic that is the problem: it is the road and the associated space that matters. In extreme cases, some animals – small forest-dwelling birds or rodents, for example – simply will not cross even a small road, whether cars are present or not. For these species, the gap may be a complete barrier to their movement. This so-called ‘barrier effect’ is one the most significant discoveries made recently by scientists studying roads.
These insights have added a new and alarming dimension to our understanding of the way habitat destruction impacts biodiversity. The cumulative effect is that, piece by piece, what was once a continuous natural landscape has been relentlessly subdivided and separated into increasingly smaller patches. At its most pronounced, the resulting landscape becomes a series of discrete islands, each isolated from one another by the surrounding ‘sea’ of entirely different, often hostile, environments.
The challenges are daunting and impossibly complex, but the fledgling hybrid fields of road and landscape ecology offer realistic hope: ‘Perhaps just in time,’ Forman wrote in Road Ecology (2002), ‘a solution appears to lie before us. Its underlying foundations include knowledge in transportation, hydrology, wildlife biology, plant ecology, population ecology, soil science, water chemistry, aquatic biology, and fisheries.’ Fitting these fields together should lead to a science bulging with useful applications.
These words, written 20 years ago, have proven remarkably prescient. Sure, roads continue to dissect and isolate, bringing degradation into some of the remotest places on the planet. But in places as diverse as Borneo and Brazil, India and Idaho, unexpected allies are coming together to find ways to rejoin long-severed fragments and provide safe ways for all manner of creatures to cross.
It is early morning, and a ghostly mist is rising above a meadow of thin grass. It is cool, damp and clear. A lapwing calls urgently from somewhere above, abruptly splitting the quiet. A pair of roe deer, grey silhouettes on the edge of the dark forest, raise their heads quickly but soon resume their grazing. A lone bat flitters past, then calm returns.
We are slowly walking through wet grass on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, where the never-ending cars and trucks moving along the massive highway (the E34/A67) connecting Eindhoven in southern Holland with Antwerp in Flanders generate a constant hum. Although there is nothing tangible to indicate an international boundary, this region is one of the most ecologically fragmented landscapes in the world, the result of millennia of intensive farming, logging and innumerable conflicts, including the catastrophic impacts of two world wars. In this particular spot, numerous important species and ecosystems, all of them highly susceptible to human disturbance and several threatened with extinction, still occur in hopeful numbers.
This is possibly as perfect a place as anywhere to stoically consider and then reengineer the uneasy embrace between human actions and the natural world. The rising sun has dissipated most of the mist as we walk slowly up a steady slope onto a broad flat expanse of rough grass and bare sandy substrate. I had assumed that these open areas were temporarily bare, eventually to be planted with shrubs and trees, but soon learned that this barren appearance was intentional. One of the most significant species found here, the smooth snake, prefers open sandy habitats, and these long, bare strips are managed intensively to keep them this way; the snakes thrive under the exposed skies. On the vast sweeping slopes to the south, the sandy strips transitioned into what would eventually become dry acidophilus oak woods, suitable for honey buzzards and black woodpeckers. Finally, a strange grated doorway, hidden in a steep-side ravine, indicates the entrance to a damp underground concrete maze designed for Geoffroy’s bat, another significant local species.
We continue walking, past rows of exposed and upended tree roots and smashed trunks (habitat for reptiles and small mammals), then down steeply, our feet leaving marks in the sand. A series of small impoundments have
beeninstalled at the base of the slope to capture runoff and provide breeding places for amphibians. As we round the corner of the long sweeping wing, an overpass designed especially for wildlife – known as an ‘ecoduct’ in Europe – comes into view. A massive bridge-like structure extends above the road and continues far beyond the edge of the motorway, providing a broad space on either side of the road. The shape of the vast curving wings that sweep sinuously on either side were inspired by the undulating patterns left by sand snakes in the loose substrate.
The structure of the Ecoduct Kempengrens incorporates design for the broad range of fauna expected to use it. Photo courtesy the Willemen groupViewed from the side of the road, it was finally possible to take in the grandeur and colossal size of this structure. Known as the Ecoduct Kempengrens (meaning ‘on the border of open fields’), this is an astonishing construction. It is 60 metres (65 yards) wide at the top, and stretches out to 200 metres (220 yards) at the bottom of the sweeping slopes. Directly above the road, the weight of reinforcements alone for the soil-covered bridge is 1,325 tonnes (1,460 US tons). It is one of the most sophisticated and ecologically accomplished wildlife crossing structures ever designed. Already, numerous species of bat and more than 15 mammals have been detected using the structure.In some ways, the structure’s most extraordinary achievement has been cooperation between people from the jurisdictions on either side of the border. Despite the very different legal, funding, procurement and design processes of the Dutch and Flemish authorities, those involved decided the goals were too important to let mere bureaucratic obstacles get in the way.
And this remarkable structure, impressive though it may be, is just one component of the European Union’s comprehensive defragmentation project. All across Europe, over and above roads (and railway lines) from northern Sweden to eastern Romania, animals from salamanders to the resurgent brown bears are crossing busy roads safely. In every case, significant consultation and collaboration were essential.
Though authorities at the highest level are involved, the crucial impetus for such projects frequently originates with local community groups or citizens who coalesce in opposition to a proposed road project. The magnificent wildlife overpass over the I-90 in the Cascade Mountains just inland from Seattle is one such case.
The Washington State Department of Transport (WSDOT) found itself facing a formidable array of thoroughly informed groups, full of determined and experienced people eager to suggest alternative ways of thinking about an upgrade through the Cascades. Having started the mandatory public consultation process with a bland ‘We just build roads’ stance, WSDOT soon found itself on the losing end of a well-coordinated public relations campaign. To their credit, the agency was willing to listen and learn. The opposition groups acknowledged openly that the upgrade was needed – a masterful disarming tactic – but forcefully described the major impact that would occur unless changes were made. Negotiations were initially difficult but, as the numerous participants got to know one another, the suspicions and animosities diminished. The outcome is a structure of incalculable value to the land, the people and the animals, and a substantial symbol of where genuine collaboration can take us.
Overpasses are certainly the most effective of all wildlife crossing structures. Their sheer size allows a wide variety of species to cross, especially if additional vegetation is included. While these large structures have traditionally been built with big animals in mind – elk, bear, deer, caribou, kangaroo – and usually resemble a grassy hill, the addition of trees, clumps of shrubs or places for water to collect, for example, can attract a diverse array of species. One well-studied fully vegetated overpass near Brisbane in Australia now has a greater number of amphibians and reptiles living on the structure than in the forests that surround it.
Successful crossing structures do not need to be huge or complicated. The passages with the heaviest animal traffic are almost certainly the amphibian tunnels that have been installed in many locations to aid the safe migration of amphibians from their wintering sites down the slopes to the breeding ponds. Hundreds of thousands of toads, frogs and salamanders use these small culverts every spring, frequently aided by locals who assist by transporting bucketfuls across the roads and directing (human) traffic around key spots. These ‘frog tunnels’ are simple and cheap to install, just a slightly modified version of the innumerable pipes and culverts beneath virtually every road on the planet. Myriad creatures have been utilising these ubiquitous conduits without fanfare or attention ever since they first began being installed in the 1990s. But there are some obvious limitations such as often being full of water (as intended) and, of course, size.
Today, wildlife-specific underpasses are everywhere, catering to species of every size, literally up to elephants (such as those completed some 10 years ago in Kenya and Malaysia). Being some version of a concrete box culvert, variety can be added to encourage use by a wider diversity of animals: ledges along the walls or raised on poles, floors of sand, soil and even shade-tolerant moss, rocks, logs and piles of woody debris. All these turn a cold, bare tunnel into a passage that appears safer and less artificial. But only up to a point: they are still long, dark places utterly unlike anything most species will encounter in their natural environments.
And there are some species who need an alternative approach. Those committed to living in the treetops are understandably reluctant to descend to ground level if possible. For larger animals such as koalas or monkeys, breaks in the canopy mean that climbing down and walking is inevitable but risky, especially if a road has to be crossed. Numerous structures connecting trees above the road are now in place around the world. Rope ladders are legion, assisting opossums, squirrels, reptiles and possums to move safely to the trees on the other side. In India and Madagascar, simple and cheap bamboo bridges are being used daily by lorises, langurs and lemurs.
A diverse suite of innovative crossing structures is revolutionising how roads are designed and constructed.
Other species avoid the ground by ‘flying’ – gliding, actually – from tree to tree. Flying squirrels, marsupial gliders and colugos, for example, can now traverse some narrow roads through the air, but anything wider becomes a serious challenge. In Australia, appropriately spaced ‘glide poles’ are enabling sugar gliders and other species to cross even major highways in a series of steps rather than one enormous glide.
This diverse suite of innovative crossing structures is revolutionising the way that roads are designed and constructed. They offer genuine hope for severed populations, and attempt to defragment landscapes everywhere. But let’s also be realistic about the scale of this challenge. At the time of writing, an additional 25 million km (15.5 million miles) of roads are expected to be built in the next 30 years, with most planned for Central and South America, and Africa.
In 2013-14, China launched two initiatives of extraordinary ambition and scale: the Belt and Road Initiative (formerly known as One Belt, One Road); and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. These interlinked projects envision a global transportation infrastructure network stretching across much of the planet, effectively linking China with the rest of the world. The size of these schemes – which involve ports, railways and a truly colossal amount of roadwork – makes them by far the world’s largest and most expensive infrastructure construction projects ever proposed.
These and other massive transportation schemes are being rolled out in many parts of the world, but especially in poor countries in tropical areas; typically, the very places where political decisions – made in the capital cities – have little connection with or regard for the impact of infrastructure projects on the ground. Standards of planning and construction set down on paper often bear little similarity to what actually happens. The provision of funds for ongoing maintenance, a critical element in the long-term functioning of these roads, is rarely adequate, or simply disappears.
Even more alarming is the unplanned exploitation of areas adjacent to the roads. From local expansion of bush-meat hunting and opportunistic slash-and-burn farming to sophisticated large-scale illegal timber smuggling, the influence of new incursions can spread into neighbouring forests in an almost organic, disease-like pattern. In Brazil, 95 per cent of the rainforest lost over the previous decade was within 5 km (3 miles) of a legal road, which initiated the spread of an ‘expanding spider web of illegal secondary and tertiary roads’, to quote the road researchers William Laurance and Irene Burgués Arrea. The neat contained lines printed on the glossy, professionally produced proposals may be only a small proportion of the area actually impacted.
In 1998, impetus to meet the challenge was so low that Forman and his co-author Lauren Alexander described road ecology as ‘a sleeping giant’ waiting to be roused. Three decades later, we can state that this giant is now fully awake. Just in time: there is much to be done right now.
Darryl Jonesis professor emeritus of ecology at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. His books include The Birds at My Table: Why We Feed Wild Birds and Why It Matters (2018) and A Clouded Leopard in the Middle of the Road New Thinking about Roads, People, and Wildlife (forthcoming in 2022). He lives in Brisbane.
Bat Houses: A Guide to Creating a Roosting Box for Bats
Why you should add bat houses to your garden and discover expert tips to improve success.
By Holly Reaney
WHAT IS A BAT BOX FOR?
A bat box is similar to a bird box in size, however, instead of having a hole in the front opening to a large box, it is composed of several small rectangular boxes (between 15mm and 25mm deep) which have been joined together. This replicates bats' natural roosts as the small spaces help to protect them from predators.
It is also vital that the wood used for your bat box has not been treated, as bats are very sensitive to chemicals, and that it has a rough, sawn surface, as this will give the bats purchase when roosting. If your wood is not already rough, use the teeth of a saw to create a surface on which the bats are able to grip.
WHERE SHOULD A BAT BOX BE PLACED?
A bat box should be placed in a sheltered location about 4m above the ground.
Whether building your own bat houses – The Wildlife Trust has a useful guide – or installing a ready-made box – Amazon sells a whole range of bat houses – its location is key.
The Bat Conservation Trust recommends that bat houses be placed in areas where bats are known to feed; positioned at least 4m above the ground, ideally on a tree trunk; away from artificial light sources and sheltered from strong winds. Ness also recommends ‘positioning your bat houses so they face between southwest and southeast and make sure there is a clear flight line in’. Adding bat houses to your garden is one of the easiest jobs you can do to help to transform your backyard into a nature-friendly plot.
Of course, we all know the importance of wildlife garden ideas – they are a key part of our ecosystem and a vital part of protecting the planet. And while you might already have been feeding birds or – in the UK – have set up hedgehog houses – it is also important to spare a thought for bats.
These winged mammals have so much to offer. A single bat can eat up to 1,200 mosquitoes each hour – which makes a significant impact on mosquito population control – and surprisingly, bats are important pollinators for many plants, even some that are not pollinated by any
There are 47 species of bat across the United States, but one of the most commonly sighted is the little brown bat as they habitually roost in buildings. However, they are also one of the most endangered. In many countries around the world, bats are protected species meaning that it is illegal to disturb roosting bats. 'In North America, bats have protections in their natural environments and some laws protect bats when they occupy a home or building,' explains experts at Bat Conservation International.
Here, we look at the benefits of bat houses and roosting boxes.
WHY SHOULD I INSTALL BAT HOUSES?
You should install bat houses in your garden because they offer a safe place for bats to roost and raise their young. Bat populations are on the decline and therefore, it is more important than ever to protect them.
Like so many animals, bats are becoming increasingly at risk due to deforestation and urbanization. ‘Bats roost in a variety of different places, from holes in trees, to churches and other buildings, to caves, mines and railway tunnels,' explains Ness Amaral-Rogers, science communications executive at the RSPB. ‘But as old trees are cut down, buildings disturbed and mines filled in, bats are left with very few natural roost sites.’
Thankfully, we can help to combat this by providing artificial roosts, also known as bat houses.
Unfortunately, if you already have bats roosting in your roof, adding bat houses are unlikely to lure them away, says Douglas Kent, technical and research director at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. ‘However, it’s still a good idea, especially as it’s generally considered that the loss of bats’ natural habitat is what leads to them using buildings in the first place.’
If you don’t have a tree available, you can place your bat houses under the eaves of your house; bats are attracted to eaves and many older houses will already have bats roosting in their roofs.
HOW DO YOU ATTRACT BATS TO BAT HOUSES?
You attract bats to bat houses by placing the bat box in good location: 4m above the ground and in a space where they are known to feed.
However, encouraging bats to your bat houses requires patience, it can take months or even years for a bat to find your box. However, there are a few tips and tricks to make it even more enticing. ‘Putting up more than one is recommended. Research has shown that bats are more likely to roost if you put up several boxes near each other,’ advises Ness, ‘and some foliage around the box will encourage use, such as climbing rose or honeysuckle.’
Even though it may take a while for bats to find your bat houses, they are creatures of habit. ‘Once bats find a bat box, they tend to return regularly but only use them for a few days at a time, so they need lots of roosts’
You will be able to tell that your bat houses are being used if there are droppings underneath it. ‘The droppings (like mouse droppings made of crumbly stock cubes) are also a very good fertilizer for your garden,’ continues Matt.
WHEN SHOULD YOU PUT UP A BAT HOUSE?
You should put up a bat house in early spring or early fall. Bats rely on bat houses throughout winter, while hibernating, and during summer when they are raising their young. Therefore, you should put up your bat houses just before these busy periods when bats are searching for a space to roost. However, there is no reason you can't put them up at another time of the year, it just may take a little longer for your bat houses to become occupied.
DO YOU HAVE TO CLEAN BAT HOUSES?
No, you do not have to clean a bat box, unless it has been used by a bird. Some smaller birds like to try and build their nests in the lower part of the bat box. If this is the case, leave the birds be until the end of summer and then remove the nest, clean and rehang for bats to make use of during the coming winter.
DISADVANTAGES OF BAT HOUSES
There are few disadvantages to having bat houses on your property – however, be careful not to site yours above windows or doors – the bats' droppings will make a mess around and below them; anywhere above or around a patio or decked area should be avoided for the same reasons. Away from the house where the bats can roost peacefully is best.
The Mysterious Adventure of an Exceptional Buck
By Lindsay Thomas Jr.
November 3, 2021
November 3, 2021
It’s difficult to trap a good deer scientist. They leave themselves room to maneuver when you ask them for certainty about deer behavior, a sort of scientific CYA. Good deer scientists say “usually” instead of “always” and “rarely” instead of “never.” When a good “yes” or “no” is what you desire, they say “It depends.” And they should. Though we know a lot about the average deer’s biology and behavior, there are always rare exceptions.
This is the story of an exceptional buck and his mysterious adventure.
A responsible deer scientist will tell you most bucks disperse from their birth range, usually around 1½ years of age, and set up a permanent adult home range which they rarely abandon. That adult home range might have
seasonal compartments, but the majority of adult bucks are done with dispersal and will likely die in or near that adult home range. Did you notice my own CYA in italics? Those words are necessary because of bucks like N17003.
By all odds, he should not have done this: He left his adult home range in northwest Missouri on November 4, 2017, and traveled 186 miles over 22 days, an average of more than 8 miles per day. That distance in a straight line could have taken the buck across the entire width of northern Missouri and well into Illinois. As it was, the straight-line distance from start to finish of 134 miles is more than five times the next closest adult buck dispersal movement in scientific records, 25 miles. The map below shows the
Why did a 3½-year-old Missouri buck take off during the peak of the rut and truck rapidly across an entire state during hunting season? That’s what Dr. Remington Moll of the University of New Hampshire tried to learn by analyzing all the data collected on the buck’s GPS tracking collar. (Dr. Moll goes by Rem for short, but when a deer scientist has a name like Remington, we’ve got space on this deer-hunting website to spell it out). We know a lot about the buck and his road trip thanks to the collar, but there are large pieces of the puzzle missing. Follow along as I describe the clues Remington had to work with.
Each winter from 2015 to 2019, researchers from the University of Missouri, in partnership with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), captured and collared whitetails for an extensive study of deer survival, movement and habitat selection. Dr. Josh Millspaugh and Dr. John McRoberts, both now at the University of Montana, oversaw the capture of more than 700 deer between two focal areas in north and south Missouri.
On January 26, 2017, technicians working in northwest Missouri launched a rocket net and captured buck No. N17003. They handled, measured and collared him. Technicians noted he appeared to be in good health with no injuries or outward signs of disease or parasites. They examined his teeth and estimated him to be 2½ years old at the time. After 10 minutes of handling, they released him.
If you’re going to play along in this game of Clue, it’s important to know the age estimate of 2½ is likely very accurate. Fawns and yearlings (1½-year-olds) are easy to spot with almost 100% accuracy because of tooth replacement patterns. You don’t need to look at tooth wear to spot a yearling. Plus, studies have shown that estimating age from tooth wear is
accurate out to age 3½. So, while the buck might have been older than 2½ when captured, it’s extremely unlikely he was younger. In short, he was already an adult buck when captured.
SPRING & SUMMER 2017
The buck’s GPS collar showed him initially using a home range of 1,010 acres that was about 19% forested. That’s slightly more than average forestation in this part of Missouri, where the landscape is about 12% forest, 45% agriculture, and 38% pasture and CRP grassland. But on September 4, he drifted north about 5 miles and started occupying a new sector 783 acres in size and about 40% forest. He would stay there for two months.
This shift northward a few miles is not unusual. Numerous examples from GPS-collar studies show bucks shifting focal areas within an established home range or even departing to separate “rut ranges” that are as much as a few miles distant from where they spend the rest of the year. The shift occurred on September 4, and Missouri’s archery season opened on September 15 that year. Did scouting and stand-hanging activity, a shift in food resources, or the rise in testosterone preceding the rut push the buck to a separate breeding range? We can only guess.
A RARE EVENT
The fall range shift in September was nothing that would have caught a researcher’s attention, but it was a mere warm-up for the buck. The big move began on November 4. Through that night, N17003 traveled another half dozen miles north and stopped in a small wooded area inside the city limits of the small town of Stanberry, Missouri (see below). He spent the daylight hours there, moving little, then set out again as darkness fell. This wasn’t another range shift. It was the beginning of a travel-by-night pattern that would last the next 22 days.
If it was hunting pressure that sparked this trip, the buck over-corrected. He didn’t just leave his home range.
He didn’t just leave the county. He went to a different corner of the state!
He didn’t just leave the county. He went to a different corner of the state!
Shortly after leaving Stanberry in the dark, the buck crossed a 20-yard-wide branch of the Grand River. Ultimately, he would cross the river six more times before the journey was over, in places with a width around 100 yards. He would follow the river’s course at times, and other times not, but the Grand River was not a barrier to him. He crossed it seven times at night with no problem.
After curving eastward, on November 10 he was in the town of Bethany, Missouri and close to Interstate 35, which runs north from Kansas City to Des Moines, Iowa. At sunset on the day before opening day of rifle season,
the buck set out down the Interstate and traveled nearly 9 miles south, then he holed up in a small patch of cover close to the highway, where he spent opening day. As the sun set again, he crossed Interstate 35 and continued southeast.
He was traveling through (we assume) unfamiliar country in gun season. But his travel pattern continued to suggest a buck who was aware of the danger. By night, he trucked. In addition to the river and the Interstate, he crossed a railroad and eight state highways, some of which were four-lanes. By day, he sheltered in small patches of forest surrounded by open farm fields or tucked in close to suburban areas.
On the evening of November 25, almost a month and nearly 200 miles after departure, the GPS collar stopped its east-southeast movement. The buck had arrived – somewhere. A new – “new” as far as we know – home range started to take shape over the next few weeks. It covered 793 acres and was 19% forested, much like the two ranges he’d left behind.
His journey began less than a year after he was collared. Unfortunately, there’s not much post-journey life to examine either. On June 20, 2018, seven months after he arrived at his new home range, his GPS collar stopped moving and started sending a “mortality” signal. According to Jon McRoberts, the buck was fairly decomposed when he found it. The date of death in late June, and the location of the carcass near water, suggested the buck died of hemorrhagic disease (EHD or bluetongue virus). But even that is not certain.
FASCINATING TRAVEL HABITS
After the buck died, and because he exhibited such unusual behavior, Remington carefully analyzed the buck’s entire trip through data in the GPS
collar, digging into small-scale movement patterns that aren’t obvious from looking at a string of GPS waypoints on a map.
For example, when he was traveling, the buck covered much more ground than normal. In his home ranges before and after the long dispersal, the buck averaged 62 yards per hour in daily movement. During the dispersal, he averaged 621 yards per hour: 10 times as much.
During the dispersal, he clearly favored darkness for traveling. In the day, he averaged 181 yards per hour, while at night it was 927, or five times the rate. And it’s clear he looked for forested cover in which to hide during the day: 57% of his daytime locations were in forested cover, while at night he spent about 20% of his time in the woods. Remember the region averages about 12% forested cover, so his night moves were more like cross-country tours, while he seemed to make an effort to select forested cover during
Finally, Remington analyzed the buck’s “turning angle,” or how often he changed direction left or right on a fine scale. Turning angles run high inside a deer’s home range, where an animal is browsing, returning to cover, and otherwise circulating around inside fairly solid boundaries. On the dispersal, the buck traveled as if he had a destination in mind and wanted to get there soon. His turning angles were very low. They were especially low at night, as he traveled, and somewhat higher in the day, as he hid. He was not motionless during the day, but his lower rates of movement and higher turning angles suggest this was when he looked for food.
Now you know most of the major clues. Let’s consider some of the explanations for this extreme dispersal.
WAS IT ABOUT HABITAT?
“From a habitat perspective, there’s nothing unique about the place he stopped,” said Remington. “I would love to know what made him stop where he did.”
The buck ended his trip in a landscape similar to where he started. There’s no remarkable difference in habitat quality, deer herd characteristics, hunting pressure or other factors. And I find it hard to believe you can cross 186 miles of terrain in northern Missouri before you find land with high-quality deer habitat. But again, the buck did not appear to be range-shopping as he moved.
“There could have been a little bit of exploratory movements that aren’t quite captured in this data, but it’s not like he stops for a few days,” said Remington. “Every day he continued moving. Those cues that finally caused him to stop? It’s hard to say.”
BACK HOME AGAIN?
Because the buck was captured at age 2½, we don’t know where he was born. If he did what most yearling bucks do, then he had already dispersed from his birth range more than a year before he was captured. It’s possible his big dispersal was his second time running this route, and he was simply returning home. But this would be another extreme oddity: Yearling-buck dispersals aren’t known to run in reverse.
WAS IT ABOUT BREEDING?
Some might suggest the buck was leaving an area of high rut competition to find better breeding opportunities elsewhere. This theory doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. The stretch from November 4 to 25, while the buck was traveling at warp speed, captures the majority of breeding dates in northern Missouri. He missed the peak of the party during his travels! If an estrus doe was his desire, why did he pass through the scent trails of dozens if not hundreds of them without turning aside? His movement patterns on the trip leave no evidence of courtship, one-night stands, or even stopping at a local bar to see who was there. He hid in the day and made tracks in straight lines in the dark.
“Turning angle” is a measure of changes in direction left or right. Low turning angle at night indicated the buck was traveling hard in straight lines. His turning angle ranged higher in the day as he held tight in small pockets of cover, foraged, and rested. If this was a trip about finding does or better habitat, he didn’t spend much time looking around as he traveled.
WAS IT ABOUT HUNTING PRESSURE?
Given the timing, this is something to consider. The buck departed for the big trip on November 4 during archery season and seven days before the opening of firearms season. Hunting activity was not measured, but it’s safe to assume noticeable pressure given Missouri’s half-million licensed
My problem with this theory: If it was hunting pressure that sparked this trip, the buck over-corrected. He didn’t just leave his home range. He didn’t just leave the county. He went to a different corner of the state!
Also, if hunting pressure forced him to depart, it seems to me he would spend a little time surveying the countryside on his trip to evaluate conditions and determine a new home. But his movements for 22 days do not suggest this was an exploratory trip. He traveled fast in straight lines at night, and hid and fed a little during the day. He never spent two nights in the same area, for 22 days. It was as if the destination was known.
Three home ranges the buck occupied while wearing a GPS collar: A and B were pre-dispersal, and C was after the 186-mile trip. All three were close in size, similar in habitat, and had no known differences in hunting pressure or deer herd characteristics. If there was something special about the last one that attracted the buck from 134 miles away, only he knew what it was.
WAS HE SICK?
Missouri is a chronic wasting disease (CWD) state. In fact, one of the purposes of this study was to better understand deer movements to help manage the spread of CWD. However, the buck’s starting point is not in a CWD zone, and CWD has not been detected close to his route. Generally, deer that are infected with CWD tend to move less over time as the disease develops, not more. It’s unlikely CWD was a factor in his behavior.
The story of N17003 would be just be a wild tale for deer-camp discussion except for one thing: It has implications for disease management, especially CWD. This buck’s trip was an extremely rare event, but if the deer making such a trip happens to carry CWD into a new area, the impact might be significant.
“This buck was one of 700 animals tracked in this study, but there’s over a million deer in Missouri,” said Remington. “Even if this is happening once in every 10,000 animals, it’s potentially happening a hundred times a year. It seems like a very, very rare event, but we collar such a small proportion of the population that it’s hard to say how rare it is in reality.”
LESSONS FROM A ROGUE BUCK
Yearling dispersal and brief excursions by adult bucks and does serve at least one significant benefit to a deer population: They ensure genetic
diversity through gene flow across the landscape. Because these are risky behaviors, though, there’s a dance between gene distribution and home-range loyalty. Dispersal mostly occurs once in a deer’s lifetime and at a young age, after which they settle into a familiar range where they can easily find food, water, breeding opportunities and escape cover.
These are accepted behavioral norms that have been documented repeatedly in scientific research, but the Missouri buck proved they are not strict rules. Home ranges are not bounded by brick walls. Dispersal might or might not happen, it might involve a range of distances, and it might sometimes occur among adults. There are always rare outliers, both in behavior and in DNA, that introduce variations that may improve survival. N17003 was probably that kind of pioneer.
We don’t need to change our understanding of managing and hunting deer because of this buck’s adventure. As this organization has said before: We manage deer populations, not individual deer, and the norms of behavior give us the best understanding of how to do that.
One wild outlier doesn’t change our deer management advice, but it sure makes for an interesting mystery to fuel new firepot stories. Let me know when your deer-camp crew solves it.
Texas Horned Lizard Hatchling Release Marks Milestone to Save State Reptile
September 16, 2021
FORT WORTH — Once common, the Texas horned lizard is now one of more than 1,300 species of concern across the state. But there is good news for the little “horned toad.” Today, a coalition of zoos and wildlife scientists released 204 captive-raised hatchlings into the wild (100 of them hatched at the Fort Worth Zoo), and this follows new evidence this year that previously released lizards are now reproducing. Meanwhile, a landmark bipartisan proposal now moving through Congress, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, would bring the resources needed to save this species and hundreds like it.
This August at Mason Mountain WMA, after years of captive-raised hatchling releases, TPWD biologists and graduate students discovered a breakthrough milestone. They found 18 hatchlings believed to be offspring of zoo-raised hatchlings released in 2019. To their knowledge, this marks the first time that captive-reared horned lizards have survived long enough to successfully reproduce in the wild.
For more than 10 years, the Texas Horned Lizard Coalition, including the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas Christian University and zoos in Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio and elsewhere, has been studying how to restore Texas horned lizards to formerly occupied habitats. Reintroduction efforts have happened at TPWD’s Mason Mountain and Muse Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) where extensive habitat management and restoration have provided vital “new homes” for the lizard.
Researchers tried translocating adult lizards, capturing them in the wild and then releasing them on the WMAs. This provided a wealth of valuable data, but it also highlighted challenges. Many relocated lizards died, killed by predators. Normal wild mortality ranges from 70-90% and scientists have seen this with translocated adults. Also, capturing and translocating sufficient adults in the wild to establish self-sustaining populations may prove unsustainable long-term.
For these reasons, in recent years the focus has shifted to captive breeding Texas horned lizards at partner zoos, which makes it possible to breed and release hundreds of lizards at once. Texas horned lizards have large clutch sizes with many eggs, often with multiple clutches each year.
The Fort Worth Zoo developed the breeding and husbandry protocols required to successfully breed and care for these animals in managed collections. These practices have since been implemented and modeled at several zoos around the state. The Fort Worth Zoo has the longest-running captive breeding effort in Texas and, in fact, the zoo hatched its 1,000th Texas horned lizard last week.
Biologists remain optimistic that continued research and restoration work will ultimately lead to self-sustaining wild populations of Texas horned lizards. But they say the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would provide the funding needed to make this dream a reality. People can learn how to help in the online toolkit of the Texas Wildlife Alliance, a grassroots coalition formed to support RAWA.
Richard Moore Outdoor Report: KVEO-TV
May 27, 2021
May 27, 2021
With sharp horns protruding menacingly from its head, and a body covered in scaly spikes, the Texas Horned lizard appears rather fierce. But the horny toad, as many affectionately know it, is quite docile.
The official state reptile was once found throughout much of Texas, but they are now recognized as a threatened species and have disappeared from most of their former haunts due to a variety of factors.
They were once so numerous that they were captured by the thousands and lost to the pet trade. By the time the state legislature passed a law in 1967 making it illegal to collect them the popular reptiles were already on a steep decline.
Habitat destruction has also played a role in their demise, and many a horny toad has been flattened on Texas roadways. The widespread use of pesticides has drastically reduced the reptiles’ main food source
harvester ants, while the introduction of nonnative fire ants has also been extremely harmful, as stinging swarms can attack and kill the lizards.
These fascinating creatures are very well adapted to the arid parts of the state, and rarely lap up water, but rather absorb moisture, particularly morning dew, thru their skin.
While the curious critters will never be as numerous as they once were, they continue to thrive on tracts of protected lands in the Rio Grande Valley where they are provided sufficient undisturbed habitat and access to their favorite food source.
Perhaps, the best place to see Texas Horned lizards in the Rio Grande Valley is Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. You can frequently spot them as you hike or bike around the big lake on the refuge’s west side.
Public's Help Needed in Reporting Wintering Monarchs
Thursday, November 18, 2021
We asked and, thankfully, you answered. Now we need your help again.
Last winter, volunteers from across the Southeast and Gulf states provided more than 5,800 observations of monarch butterflies. This winter, the partnership of universities, agencies and other organizations called Monarchs Overwintering in Southeastern States is requesting the public’s continued involvement in reporting sightings.
Sonia Altizer, a University of Georgia ecology professor and director of Project Monarch Health, said the information can help scientists determine if these iconic but declining butterflies “can overwinter as non-breeding adults in the southern U.S. and how this might affect future population numbers.” The monitoring will also help document how winter-breeding activity might be affecting the annual migration to Mexico.
Understanding migration and overwintering behavior is crucial to conserving monarchs, a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Thousands of monarchs stream across the South each fall on their way to wintering grounds in central Mexico. In the spring, this eastern population of the butterfly returns to the U.S. and Canada to breed.
But not all monarchs migrate to Mexico. Volunteer observations over the past two decades have helped scientists better understand how and why some monarchs breed throughout the winter in the southern U.S. Scattered reports also suggest that some monarchs can overwinter in coastal regions in a non-breeding state, similar to their wintering behavior in Mexico.
The goal this winter is to collect more data for a growing partnership that has expanded to include organizations such as Florida Natural Areas Inventory and the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program.
Gabriela Garrison of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission said the monarch is a species of greatest conservation need in North Carolina’s Wildlife Action Plan, as in the action plans of many other states. “So monitoring overwintering populations and learning more about their behavior is critical.”
The public is encouraged to report monarch sightings from Dec. 1-March 1 in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
Observations are entered in Journey North’s online data portal, where they are transformed into real-time mapping visualizations of monarch migration and breeding. Journey North is an organization designed to engage people across North America in tracking wildlife migration and seasonal change.
Program coordinator Nancy Sheehan said the public has a long history of being a part of scientific discoveries. “Journey North is excited to provide a platform for engaging citizen scientists in this targeted monitoring effort.”
Susan Meyers, co-chair of Monarchs Across Georgia agreed. “Volunteers are vital to this effort. If you enjoy being outdoors and exploring your local ecosystem, this is an easy activity that can be done alone or with your family.”
Wildlife biologist Anna Yellin of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said project partners are grateful to all who reported sightings last winter. “When we come together as a community as we have with this effort, we stand a better chance of protecting the monarch butterfly for future generations.”
HOW TO TAKE PART
Monarch Butterflies Are Migrating Across Texas. Here’s How to Raise Your Own.
By Charles Scudder
November 2, 2021
November 2, 2021
“We think we’re helping the species, but as with all things human beings do, we’re probably doing more harm,” Treviño-Wright cautions
Armed with a small trowel, I leaned over on my hands and knees on a hot evening in August and carefully tried to rescue our fledgling butterfly garden. Aggressive ivy had wrapped around the little green milkweed stalks my wife and I had tried to protect, so I dug up each plant, placing it in a new pot with fresh compost and a light covering of mulch. I knew that all our hopes of having a healthy habitat for the native insects depended on the health of these plants.
I’ve always had a soft spot for backyard wildlife. As a kid growing up in the Fort Worth suburb of Grapevine, I learned from my parents how to plant a native garden and remove invasive plants. We even attended our town’s annual monarch butterfly festival, the charmingly named Butterfly Flutterby. When I bought my own home in Arlington, I wanted to find ways to provide habitat and protection for the official state insect. The most obvious way to do that is to plant milkweed, which my wife and I did this spring. After it was crowded out by invasive English ivy, we moved the plants into terra-cotta pots on our patio.
We weren’t expecting any caterpillars until the native milkweed plant started blooming in a few years, but I knew its presence was critical to helping monarchs on their biannual migrations through Texas to and from Mexico. So one evening in early September, I was thrilled to spot something small with white, black, and yellow stripes crawling along a leaf on the larger of the three plants: a monarch caterpillar.
I leaned down to take a photo and spotted another. Two caterpillars! I named them Pancho and Lefty, after the Townes Van Zandt song, and moved them into a mesh butterfly cage. I checked on them several times a day, cleaning their frass—little green caterpillar poops—and hoping to see them attach to the wall of cage and begin forming their pupae, or chrysalises.
It was a difficult proposition, I knew. I didn’t realize how much of an uphill battle it can be to protect something so fragile as an inch-long caterpillar.
Every spring and every fall, backyards across Texas are a rest stop for one of nature’s greatest migrations. Thousands of monarch butterflies with bright orange and black patterned wings travel the “monarch highway” of Interstate 35 to and from the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico. This path is one of two main routes, or flyways, that the insects follow through Texas on their long journey south, which takes place throughout October and into November. They also traverse the Gulf Coast a few weeks later than those taking the central flyway. In March and April they head north toward Canada.
But natural predators, non-native species, pesticides, habitat destruction from human development, and a changing climate all threaten that migration pattern. Scientists estimate monarch butterfly populations by measuring the acreage the bugs occupy each winter, and that number dropped by 53 percent from 2019 to 2020.
That’s a worrying sign, even though monarchs are not yet on the endangered species list. If the monarch migration continues to dwindle, we’ll lose a connective tissue between three nations—Mexico, the United States, and Canada—that ties the continent together, says Marianna Treviño-Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center in Mission.
“It unites all of us,” Treviño-Wright says. “You can hardly talk to anyone who hasn’t seen a monarch and enjoyed their majesty.”
Raising butterflies starts with raising native plants in the garden. Milkweed is just one piece of this puzzle. Butterflies need a combination of nectar plants for adults and host plants for caterpillars to munch on in any backyard habitat. That means growing flowering plants like goldenrod, autumn sage, Texas lantana, or varieties of mistflower or aster.
“Primarily you want to plant natives because they evolved with the monarchs through the challenges of the Texas climate,” says Daniel Cunningham, a North Texas horticulturist and co-owner of Rooted In, an environmental consulting firm.
But without milkweed, the monarch’s life cycle is in danger, and finding and growing the native plant is easier said than done. Tropical, non-native milkweed is plentiful in Texas garden shops. It grows quickly and blooms late into the year, which can cause problems for monarchs. If the non-native plant is blooming when winter arrives, monarchs may stick around and freeze, rather than migrating south with their kin.
One day, I noticed Lefty wasn’t growing and had begun to shrivel. A few hours later, it was clear he was gone. All that hard work to keep him safe, and it looked like he’d been attacked by an infection or parasite—common for caterpillars, I’ve since learned. To my dismay, Pancho also met an unfortunate end: he was eaten by fire ants just before his big transformation.
I told this story to Sam Kieschnick, a Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist based in Dallas–Fort Worth. He said protecting the lives of my monarch caterpillars meant keeping a meal from other creatures. Watching Pancho die was horrifying, but those fire ants had to eat, too, Kieschnick says.
“There is warfare, constant warfare, to exist in all cases,” says Kieschnick. “Nature is always struggling for existence, and we get to experience this in our little gardens as we try to enjoy butterflies.”
When I called her to ask what I could’ve done differently in my own backyard, Treviño-Wright at the National Butterfly Center said that some people take monarch fever to extremes. There are online communities of “monarch mommies” who raise hundreds each year, care for caterpillars as though they’re pets, and scour the internet for more milkweed and bigger cages. It’s a rabbit hole I could’ve fallen into with Pancho and Lefty.
But others, including Cunningham, the horticulturist, argue that captive monarch caterpillars can be a powerful educational tool. “Raising cats,” as he calls it, can teach children about the importance of caring for natural habitats. “To actually have a monarch that forms its chrysalis and emerges inside your home is an incredible way to get people involved,” he says. “You have successes and failures, but in the end you have a greater interest in protecting this species that is so iconically Texan.”
Kieschnick agrees. He adds that planting milkweed and other wildflowers not only makes your garden more attractive to monarchs, it also welcomes other wildlife. “We have an opportunity to use our flower beds as a refuge,” he says.
Those refuges are increasingly important to keep monarchs in Texas. The species isn’t listed as endangered or threatened, but researchers and fans are still concerned about its decline. In 1996, there were 384 million monarchs wintering in Mexico. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that just 60 million made it back there in 2019. Treviño-Wright said the worry isn’t so much that the entire species could go extinct, but that the iconic migration could end if habitat destruction continues in places like Texas.
Some advocates hope that monarchs will eventually be added to the endangered species list, but this is controversial. Such a designation would make it illegal to breed monarchs or to release them en masse, as currently happens at the Grapevine festival.
After Pancho and Lefty died, I decided to stop by the Butterfly Flutterby to see how the event had changed since the small festival I remember from the late nineties. Jenny Singleton, who calls herself a butterfly wrangler, has worked for the festival since it started 24 years ago. She says there are far fewer monarchs today than when she began.
“Back then, there were lots of butterflies,” Singleton says. “They don’t know where they’re going, but I swear they go up to our yard. It’s like they know they should be there.”
The main event, the one I remember most from my childhood and the one Singleton had carefully prepared for, was the butterfly release. Singleton and a few volunteers had already tucked hundreds of butterflies into individual waxed-paper envelopes—entomologists say butterflies don’t feel pain, and the envelopes, amazingly, don’t injure the paper-thin creatures. Families lined up, hoping to get one of 250 butterflies for the first release of the morning. Jenny handed them carefully to each child until the supply ran out. Someone with a microphone started the countdown. Five, four, three, two, one . . .
One at a time, little spots of orange floated up over the crowd. Soon they were all around, landing on children’s shoulders and outstretched hands. For a half hour, the butterflies lingered, almost like they wanted to show off their colors for the crowd. Singleton watched them all with a slight smile. She adjusted her hair behind pewter butterfly earrings.
“It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?” she asked. “They’re going to remember this for the rest of their lives.”
“I did,” I told her, thinking about my own visit to the festival as a child.
I’d already told her about Pancho and Lefty, and as I turned to say goodbye she reached into a bag and handed me two small envelopes—two butterflies to bring back to Arlington. Later that day, my wife and I stood in the backyard, not far from where we’d kept our caterpillars, and had our own countdown. Three, two, one . . .
The two bright orange butterflies launched out of their envelopes. I watched them float up into the sky, not stopping on our little milkweed plants. Before long they were already on their long journey ahead, away toward Mexico.
FIVE TIPS FOR RAISING MONARCHS IN YOUR BACKYARD
Plant native. Native plants help provide food and shelter for native animals. They often don’t need as much water and are adapted for your local climate. For monarchs in particular, native milkweed is crucial, and three species—green milkweed, antelope-horns milkweed, and zizotes milkweed—are best in Texas. If you plant a non-native species, like tropical milkweed, make sure to cut it back each fall so migratory species know it is time to move south. Ask staff at your local garden center which milkweed species they’re selling, or use this handy identification guide.
Plant diverse. Butterflies need both nectar and host plants. If your flower bed is diverse, you’ll attract other critters too, like songbirds, moths, and bees. Need ideas for what to plant in your neck of the woods? We’ve got them here.
Make sure caterpillars have plenty of food and a clean space. Some experts say that once you have created a healthy ecosystem, it’s best to leave it alone and let nature take its course. If you decide to move caterpillars into a cage, make sure you’re cleaning the droppings daily and providing plenty of milkweed for them to eat.
Be ready to lose some caterpillars. Part of enjoying nature means accepting death as a part of the circle of life. It’s natural for caterpillars to be eaten by predators or be killed by parasites. Only a small percentage will become butterflies and eventually give birth to the next generation.
Let them fly free. Check on your caterpillar daily, especially if it has gone into its pupa or chrysalis. When it emerges as a butterfly, be ready to let it fly free. The point of raising these insects is to let them go so they can pollinate your garden and produce more caterpillars.
By Monika Maeckle
October 12th, 2021
October 12th, 2021
Change is the only constant and this year’s sixth annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival will be substantially different from years’ past.
The FREE, family friendly event has a new venue this year: Confluence Park. It takes place this Saturday, October 16, 9:30AM – 2 PM.
Confluence Park ranks as a San Antonio gem and sits at the intersection of San Pedro Creek and the San Antonio River. It punctuates one of the most significant urban riparian restorations in the world and contributed in large part to San Antonio winning the prestigious International River Prize in 2017. And since monarch butterflies migrating this time of year typically follow the waterways in search of nectar to fuel their journey, few settings could be more appropriate.
The Festival kicks off with a People for Pollinators Parade. Get your wings on and gather at 9:30 at the top of the staircase that overlooks the river near the giant petal pavilion. Leading the procession: our charismatic emcee and host, Adam Tutor.
Programming will follow promptly at 10 AM with more than 30 partners offering myriad engaging activities–story times, composting lessons, make- your-own-butterfly wings, and more. Highlights below. Pollinator art will be on display in the Estela Avery Education Center and pollinator poetry will be recited on the main stage.
Full schedule and map here.
We’ll be tagging monarch butterflies all day. Trained docents will occupy “tagging zones” to demonstrate this engaging act of citizen science. Look for stars on the map to find the docents. We’ll record the date, time, place and sex of the butterfly tagged, as well as the person who tagged it.
If you want to tag a butterfly in honor of someone who died, head over to the Forever Journey altar, where we’ll pay our respects to loved ones by tagging butterflies in their name. We ask that everyone please respect our six-foot social distancing requirement.
Ever want to give kayaking a whirl? Our partners at Mission Kayak will have 10 kayaks available for free tours in a low flow pool near the park. Kids of all ages can don a life vest and give our Bee Adventure a try–all while emulating nature’s most effective pollinators gathering pollen in the wild. Upcycled Bee headband made in partnership with Spare Parts will be provided at no charge. Kayaks, paddles, life jackets and expert advice, by veteran kayakers will be available, too.
Want to learn the Waggle Dance? That’s the hip-shaking, butt-bumping dance that bees do to communicate with each other where the best nectar flow is. That’s right–bees can direct their peers to plants that are rich with nectar. They do an amazing figure eight dance. Local dance instructor Mau Garcia will lead the crowd at noon on the main stage to teach you how its done. Watch for the (non stinging) Compost Queen Bee Swarm on roller skates to chime in, too.
A word about parking. If you don’t join us on foot, bicycle, or via rideshare or bus, you’ll have to think about parking. Some street parking is available, but we anticipate a large crowd, so Festival organizers have arranged for FREE parking at several nearby lots, including:
Each of these lots is within a few minutes walk of Confluence Park. Look for the Festival Parking signs.
By Monika Maeckle
October 10th, 2021
October 10th, 2021
Monarch butterfly experts predicted a late migration this year, but taggers on the Llano River this weekend hit the jackpot with thousands of monarch butterflies arriving in what appears to be an early wave.
Near London, Texas, our tagging team encountered dozens of clusters of the iconic black and orange insects along the Llano River bottom this weekend. The butterflies appeared stalled in the face of winds out of the south, which prevented them from continuing their migration to Mexico. They gathered in pecan trees in an area well-known for annual roosts, their gold and rust colored wings blending in perfectly with dried pecan leaves.
The winds from the south created an opportune tagging weekend for those on the butterfly hunt. Alexander Rivard, Nicolas Rivard and Lee Marlowe, all of San Antonio, joined me for net swoops of 10 -20 butterflies. Alexander Rivard hit a new record of 41 butterflies in one net swoop.
The 24-hour tagging talley: 325 butterflies.
In Hext, Texas, veteran tagger Jenny Singleton, chief docent for Grapevine’s Butterfly Flutterby Festival, witnessed the same large numbers.
“Hundreds of butterflies are flying! So cool,” she texted earlier this week. “Easy to see because we have clouds.”
Singleton said she and her team tagged 250 butterflies in two hours on Saturday.
Journey North, which tracks the migration of monarch butterflies and other wildlife, posted a report from Del Rio, Texas, on October 5 that noted monarchs “roosting in clumps of two – six on huisache, hackberry and ash trees. Watching them stretch their wings when the sun starts to reach them is incredible!”
On iNaturalist, dozens of citizen scientists reported monarch butterfly sightings in Texas this weekend. Interestingly, we also witnessed two courtship flights, as well as first instar caterpillars and eggs on late season swamp milkweed on the Llano River.
Peak migration season for San Antonio’s latitude occurs October 10 thru 22. Check peak migration for your latitude on the Monarch Watch homepage.
Plenty of chances to see monarchs continue throughout October in Texas, with a prime opportunity taking place next weekend at San Antonio’s sixth annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival. More than 600 butterflies will be tagged and released at Confluence Park, Saturday, October 16, 10 AM – 2 PM. Details here.
(L-r): Queen and monarch caterpillars were spotted at the same time on milkweed planted at Tye Preston Memorial Library's Butterfly Garden in July -- a very unusual phenomenon, a local butterfly expert said. Queen butterflies usually appear well after monarchs have departed. Image courtesy of Susan Bogle.
Monarchs Who Made Rare Choice to Summer at TPML’s Butterfly Garden Face Fall Migration
August 27, 2021
August 27, 2021
Something odd happened over the summer at Tye Preston Memorial Library’s Butterfly Garden.
Some monarch butterflies — who use the garden as a way station during migrations to and from Mexico — decided to stay behind in the spring when their cohorts headed north.
“This year was very unique in that all of Comal County was reporting sightings of the monarch butterfly throughout the summer, which is when they are usually nowhere to be seen because they are congregating in the north and on up into even Canada,” said Susan Bogle, president of the board of the Canyon Lake Community Library District, and a Lindheimer master naturalist who oversees the garden.
The phenomenon resulted in dual sightings of caterpillars of both queen and monarch butterflies on the garden’s milkweed plants.
“This has never been observed before, as the queen butterflies usually appear well after the monarchs have departed,” she said. “But as we can all state, this has been a year for the record books. We are of course hoping that these monarchs, who never went any farther north, will join the migration when it comes through our county this fall on its way to the over-wintering grounds in Mexico.”
Bogle thinks cooler and wetter conditions this spring may have encouraged the monarchs to settle in at the library and throughout Comal County.
Canyon Lake lies in the famous “Texas Funnel,” the area through which all monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains pass during their fall migration in September and October.
Meanwile, Monika Maeckle with Texas Butterfly Ranch, which encompasses the geographic area around Austin, San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country, said Tuesday “things look good” as the 2021 monarch butterfly migration begins.
Sightings of the iconic insects in San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country are running strong, she said in an article posted online to TexasButterflyRanch.com.
Up in Ontario, Canada, tagger Donald Davis said almost all of the monarchs captured were in pristine condition.
Maeckle said peak monarch migration through Texas occurs between Oct. 10-22, just in time for San Antonio’s sixth annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival on Oct. 16.
She reports sightings of dozens of monarchs along the San Antonio River and said there are numerous accounts of monarch eggs, caterpillars, adults and even native milkweeds — unusual for this time of year.
Such sightings typically occur around Labor Day as part of a premigration migration, Maeckle said.
Another butterfly expert, Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, said conditions appear favorable for a large migratory population that could rival that of 2018.
In March, the outlook wasn’t that great.
Butterfly gardens along the San Antonio River were frozen to a crisp in February.
With the library’s butterfly garden severely pruned, Bogle hoped enough plants would be blooming in time for the butterflies’ northerly migration.
After breeding, female monarchs start moving north in search of milkweed, the only plant on which they’ll lay their eggs. If there’s no milkweed, they’ll keep flying or die without reproducing.
Bogle prophesied then that with warmer weather and some rain, TPML’s butterfly garden might blossom in time to help monarchs breed and feed on their way north.
“There’s no real food to encourage the monarchs to stop,” she said on March 5. “Some milkweed sprouts were spotted in the area the last few days, but they are so small they don’t offer much opportunity as larval hosts.
“But while the roosts in Mexico are restless, they haven’t actually started their migration yet, so hopefully by the time they do come through our area, we’ll have more to support their life cycle. My fingers are crossed. Our own butterfly garden just had its spring cleanup, so all the plants have been pruned fairly severely. There’s not much there to attract a monarch. But just give it some warm weather and some rain — that’ll make a real difference.
The majestic ocelot, the vibrantly colored aplomado falcon, the otherworldly Barton Springs salamander: Texas’s diverse ecosystems are teeming with specialized and spectacular animals, many of which are threatened as climate change, pollution, and real estate development reshape their habitats. But while some endangered species—flashy birds, cute mammals—get all the headlines and attention, plenty of other organisms in our state have found themselves in a tight spot. Such animals as the warty Houston toad and the Leon Springs pupfish seldom win hearts.
And how many endangered Texas plants can you name? If you’re like we were before reporting this story, probably none.
Unfortunately, conservation can sometimes be a popularity contest, with charismatic critters often getting far more aid. “Everyone thinks about climate change and polar bears, when there are lots of other animals in our own backyards that [also] need the attention,” says Jonah Evans, the nongame and rare species program leader at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “We’re kind of in a triage situation, trying to focus … resources where we can and making these difficult decisions.”
Bunched Cory Cactus
Status: Threatened at the federal and state levels
Range: Brewster and Terrell counties in West Texas
Found only in the most arid limestone flats of the Chihuahuan Desert, the bunched cory cactus looks like a rotund, three-inch-tall pincushion—until summer, when it very briefly puts on a show with bright pink blooms, attracting bees and other desert pollinators. (Occasional rainy seasons make the blooms last longer.) A halo of long, sharp spines protects the plant from desert herbivores, and lends it a nickname: the whiskerbush.
Spotted in at least seven Texas locations—several of them in Big Bend National Park—and elsewhere in Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert, the species’ tendency to grow in remote and inhospitable areas has given it some protection from humans. Nonetheless, enthusiasm for these squat little charmers contributes to their plight: they are often poached by cactus enthusiasts and black-market dealers. Grazing livestock trample them too. Conservation efforts for this species are sparsely funded—the federal government spends roughly $140,000 a year on it—but investing just a few thousand more could make a big difference, Arizona State University scientist Leah Gerber told National Geographic.
Status: Under consideration for federal listing as endangered
Range: Upper Guadalupe River drainage
We included this one in part because of its wonderfully silly name, which we intend to employ as an epithet the next time someone cuts us off in traffic. The subtly striped Guadalupe fatmucket is found only in north central Texas. Like other mussels, fatmuckets begin their lives as fish parasites before developing into their final shelled forms, which rest on sandy or muddy river bottoms. They are a vital part of the Guadalupe River ecosystem, sieving bits of organic matter out of the current. In the process, they also filter out sediments and contaminants, leading to clearer, cleaner water. In a press release announcing the species’ discovery, Roel Lopez, director of Texas A&M’s Natural Resources Institute, said it and its relatives are “our canary in the coal mine, letting us know when ecosystems aren’t healthy.” The Guadalupe fatmucket is vulnerable to environmental shifts in the river, including increased sedimentation from erosion and pollution.
Interior Least Tern
Status: Endangered at the state level
Range: The birds breed in Roberts and Hemphill counties in the Panhandle; Hall to Morris counties along the Red River; and Val Verde, Webb, and Zapata counties along the Rio Grande in South Texas. They winter along the Texas Gulf Coast.
Narrow-winged seabirds with black caps and long, sharp beaks, interior least terns are—true to their name—the smallest of the North American terns. Every spring, they migrate inland to nest on undisturbed sandbars or gravel banks along Texas rivers. After three weeks of noisy courtship dances and acrobatic pursuits, the birds lay eggs in late May, defending the colony by dive-bombing any intruders. In late August, the whole colony—including newly fledged chicks—gorges on fish in preparation for the long flight to its wintering grounds on the Gulf.
The species has suffered badly because of development along Texas rivers: the construction of channels and dams, as well as changing patterns of river flow caused by human activity, have obliterated much of the least tern’s traditional nesting habitat. Recreational beach use also scares terns away from breeding spots. Conservation monitoring and the deployment of signs and fences to keep people away from the nervous birds’ nests has helped the national population grow to around 18,000, up from a low of 2,000 in 1985. As a welcome side effect, these efforts have helped other wildlife too. “Restoring the tern’s river habitat to more closely mimic natural flows improved river health and benefited many other species that call those same places home,” Stephanie Kurose, a senior policy specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.
Status: Federally endangered
Range: Val Verde, Edwards, Real, Uvalde, and Kinney counties
Found only in the Lone Star State, the Texas snowbell is a tall, leafy shrub with hanging sprays of dainty white flowers. Once found on limestone cliffs, slopes, and gravel streambeds along waterways of the Edwards Plateau, this April-blooming plant has two fatal flaws: it has always been somewhat rare, and it is very tasty to browsing herbivores. Large populations of white-tailed deer and introduced exotic herbivores such as atlas deer now devour the vast majority of snowbell seedlings; most survivors now grow only along steep cliffs and in other inaccessible locations.
The combination of low genetic diversity, fragmented habitat, and small population sizes make prospects for the snowbell somewhat bleak. However, state officials and landowners have managed to lighten the pressure by cutting down on browsing—both by shooting exotic herbivores and using cages to protect growing plants.
Status: Endangered at federal and state levels
Range: Hidalgo, Starr, and Duval counties
This vinelike perennial plant has elaborate cross-shaped leaves; white, five-lobed flowers; and fleshy, water-storing roots. It’s a close relative of cassava, the starch from which tapioca is made. Reaching six feet in height, Walker’s manioc grows best in thorny shrublands or sandy soils, leaning on nearby plants for support. It’s notable in part for its smell: a faint almond scent that deters herbivores, warning of the poisonous hydrogen cyanide inside the plant. Unlike other plants, which depend on wind or animals to disperse their seeds, Walker’s manioc fruits split open by themselves, violently ejecting their seeds as far as fifteen feet from the mother plant.
Like other endangered plants in South Texas, Walker’s manioc is under particular pressure from brush clearing. Walker’s manioc is cultivated at the San Antonio Botanical Garden and the University of Texas at Austin, and it’s the subject of a federal recovery plan. Researchers believe that the manioc’s genes may be disease-resistant. Studying it could offer clues on how to make cassava—a food source for millions of people around the globe—hardier and more nutrient-rich.
Concho Water Snake
Status: Success story
Range: The Colorado and Concho river basins; from Irion and Coke counties in the west to Lampasas County in Central Texas
Don’t mistake it for a cottonmouth. Three feet long, tan, nonvenomous, and shy, the Concho water snake lives only in Texas, and has one of the smallest home ranges of any North American snake. Unlike many reptiles, which lay eggs, Concho water snakes give birth to litters of live young in late summer. The babies hide among the shallow riffles of fast-flowing streams, while adults wander more widely, turning up on drowned tree stumps and rocky shorelines, and in shallow backwaters. They are avid anglers, hiding near areas thick with fish and snapping up any that come near. This snake is a food source for hawks, owls, herons, and raccoons, as well as bigger snakes.
The primary threat to the Concho water snake is habitat loss. Channelization (an engineering method that widens or deepens rivers), the flooding of stream habitat through the construction of reservoirs, and the silting over of the riffles needed by young snakes have all contributed to declining populations in the past several decades. There’s hope, though—six artificial riffles installed along a section of the Colorado River in 1982 by the Colorado River Municipal Water District were found to harbor consistent populations by 1992, and the snake was delisted in 2011.
Status: Endangered at the federal and state levels
Range: Parts of Austin, Bastrop, Burleson, Colorado, Lavaca, Lee, Leon, Milam, and Robertson counties
Speckled and warty, with a perpetually affronted expression, the three-inch Houston toad is found only in Texas. The species was once a common sight in the loblolly pine and post oak woodlands of East and Central Texas. Groups of toads, called knots, gather from December to June, trilling pleasantly and breeding in seasonal ponds and marshes from Houston to Austin. But the toad vanished from the Houston area in the sixties because of urban development and drought. By the mid-nineties, the state’s largest consistent knot, which gathered at Bastrop State Park, had severely dwindled as well. (The 2011 Lost Pines fire didn’t help matters.)
Today, the Houston Zoo has a breeding colony of close to six hundred Houston toads. Their eggs and newly hatched “toadlets” are being reintroduced on both public and private land within the toads’ range, and the efforts are proving successful: according to Stan Mays, the zoo’s curator of herpetology and entomology, last season’s surveys in Bastrop County produced an estimate of more than five hundred toads, along with forty wild egg strands. The zoo is continuing its efforts in hopes that the toad’s piping song will once again ring out on Hill Country evenings in spring.
Leon Springs Pupfish
Status: Endangered at federal and state levels
Range: Pecos County
Sausage-shaped, small-finned, and a bit goofy-looking, the Leon Springs pupfish lives only in the desert pools of Pecos County. Discovered in 1851 in Leon Springs, six miles from Fort Stockton, the two-inch fish had disappeared from its original site by 1938. Scientists feared it was extinct until 1965, when naturalist Anthony Echelle discovered a small population in the Diamond Y Spring, ten miles north of Fort Stockton. Pupfish eat tiny organisms such as diatoms from the bottom of springs, stirring up their meals by wiggling in the substrate. Males aggressively guard their breeding territories, waging tiny battles over small areas on the bottom of the pool. The fish breeds steadily year-round and prefers areas without much vegetation. It’s a food source for bigger fish in the springs, including one that’s also endangered: the Pecos gambusia.
While pupfish population numbers are currently stable, the species’ limited distribution puts it in a tight spot. Shrinking flows from springs and surface waters, as well as competition from introduced species such as the sheepshead minnow, are the most serious threats to the pupfish’s future.
Mexican Long-Nosed Bat
Status: Endangered at the federal and state levels
Range: Presidio and Brewster counties in West Texas
These narrow-muzzled bats emerge at night, flitting out from caves and abandoned mines to lap nectar. After overwintering in lush Mexican valleys, they follow the flowering seasons of desert plants northward in spring, arriving in the Big Bend every summer to feed on the blooms of the century agave. Like hummingbirds, the three-inch bats hover in place as they lap up their meals with a tongue as long as their body.
The Mexican long-nosed bat serves as an important pollinator for the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem, but research suggests that population numbers in Texas and northern Mexico have crashed in recent decades. It’s still not clear why, though rangeland clearing and wild agave harvesting for mezcal may be contributing factors. Humans have also destroyed some potential roosting sites out of unfounded fears of vampire bats. Details of the species’ breeding and ecology remain mysterious, but researchers with the Austin-based Bat Conservation International are working to develop management practices to help increase their numbers.
Tooth Cave Spider
Status: Federally endangered
Range: Six locations in Travis and Williamson counties
The limestone grottos and caves of the Texas Hill Country host some eleven species of animal that are found nowhere else on earth. But while the Texas blind salamander gets most of the press, the Tooth Cave spider is just as threatened. Identified at just a handful of locations in the vicinity of Austin, these tiny (just one sixteenth of an inch) spiders are troglobites, meaning they spend their entire lives on thin webs in the cool darkness of limestone caves. While some individuals have kept their dark colors and functional eyes, others have turned white and gone blind. (Who needs eight eyes in pitch blackness, after all?) While the Tooth Cave spider preys on other rare cave insects, the details of its life remain a mystery.
For specialized and rare animals like the Tooth Cave spider, development can mean a death sentence. The cave ecosystems such underground invertebrates depend on are threatened by urban encroachment, which can lead to caves collapsing or being filled in, as well as by groundwater pollution and the loss of humidity. Unwary human explorers—or active vandals—can also damage these fragile ecosystems.
Its eyes two ghostly white spheres, a slim deer stands in the middle of the nighttime photo, serenely munching a branch. In the next picture, a coyote inspects the camera, its nose huge like that of a pet dog sniffing an iPhone. Then come fuzzy cottontail rabbits and a scraggly possum. Taken in April by trailside cameras, the black and white pictures are—in their low-res way—historic. They are the first official recordings of animals using the largest wildlife crossing in the United States: the new Robert L. B. Tobin Land Bridge on San Antonio’s North Side. Measuring some 150 feet in both length and width, the structure arches gently over the traffic on the six-lane Wurzbach Parkway below. The final portion of the bridge opened to considerable media acclaim in April, with the express purpose of joining the two sides of Phil Hardberger Park and providing a safe passage for both the people and the countless wild animals that pass through its 330
On an early summer ramble through the park by golf cart and on foot, San Antonio Parks and Recreation naturalist Casey Cowan points out some of the many amenities that make the large preserve a popular destination for human visitors, more than a thousand of whom may stop by on a busy day. “Here we have some water features,” she says, indicating small ponds rimmed by stones where animals come to drink. “I’ve seen birds and a herd of white-tailed deer using them.” A few steps away, she points to two attractive iron screens with rusty patinas: “These wildlife blinds were designed by local artists.” Each blind lets parkgoers spy on the area’s furry and feathered residents. Farther along the trails, motion-triggered cameras quietly click, which is how Cowan discovered earlier this year that the park’s deer were up to no good. “They were standing on their hind legs and eating our brand-new sumac trees!” she exclaims. Those trees, along with numerous other native shrubs and grasses, have been so carefully placed that the bridge looks completely natural. Many of the hikers, birders, and school groups strolling its broad expanse don’t even realize they’re on a highway overpass until they walk to the fencing on either side and look down. As for the critters, judging by their activity, they like it just fine.
Meanwhile, a little less than three hundred miles away in South Texas’s steamy Rio Grande Valley, a very different type of wildlife crossing has also been receiving media attention. On January 25, an automated camera snapped pictures of a smallish spotted cat entering an underpass below Farm-to-Market Road 106, not far from Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Los Fresnos. The passage wasn’t much to look at—it’s a hundred-foot-long concrete culvert bordered by weeds—but it functioned exactly as intended, providing safe passage for area wildlife. Five-year-old Ocelot Male 331 (a.k.a. OM331) walked purposefully through the tunnel and exited on the other side. His GPS tracking collar identified him as one of a dwindling group: the only breeding population of ocelots on public land in the United States. Just over a hundred years ago, ocelots roamed South Texas (they are still numerous in Mexico, Central America, and South America). But after the Rio Grande Valley’s dense palm forests started to be cleared for agriculture around 1900, the number of cats declined, as habitat loss, fur trapping, and vehicle collisions took an unrelenting toll.
Today only some fifty to eighty ocelots remain in South Texas, roaming free but followed and studied by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office at the refuge. Hilary Swarts, the wildlife biologist who coordinates the program, has been known to refer to her subjects as kitty cats, and worries more or less constantly about their most deadly enemy, the American automobile. “We had eight ocelots hit by vehicles in eleven months between 2015 and 2016,” she says, citing an especially bad year. “The phone ringing was my worst nightmare.” She has been sleeping better, though, following the completion in 2019 of eight new underpasses designed primarily to help keep the cats cross FM 106, which runs through their habitat. The wary ocelots took their sweet time checking things out, she says, but other animals stepped right up. “Bobcats, javelinas, tortoises, coyotes, long-tailed weasels, alligators—you name it, they’ve used the crossings,” says Swarts. “We’ve even seen shorebirds in them.”
The design of the structures is extremely basic. Each is a rectangular concrete tunnel sized for the road and the animals that are expected to use it. The one where the ocelot was photographed measured seven feet wide by seven feet high by one hundred feet long. The tunnels are accompanied by extensive chain-link fencing that cuts off access to the road and funnels the felines toward the passageways. In a final genius touch, any tunnels that might flood have raised catwalks.
“Ocelots are great swimmers,” Swarts says, “but they don’t necessarily want to walk through a deep puddle with an alligator in it.” The simple design has another benefit: construction is economical. When completed together with other road improvements, culverts range from $38,000 to $200,000 (the ocelot-photo tunnel was $38,000). By contrast, the massive, landscaped, state-of-the-art Tobin Land Bridge cost $23 million. An even more extensive land bridge, scheduled for completion in Houston’s Memorial Park in 2022, will weigh in at $70 million. It is funded primarily by private philanthropy. An ocelot emerges from a tunnel along Farm-to-Market Road 106 in February. No more than eighty of the animals remain in South Texas. As enthusiastic recent news coverage of both the Tobin and Valley [critter pictures] indicates, wildlife crossings are having a bit of a moment in Texas. The concept, however, is far from new. The idea started in France in the 1950s and spread across Europe, with countries like Germany and the Netherlands building large, attractive land bridges as a point of civic pride. But there is a dark truth behind wildlife crossings’ laudable installation: the appalling toll in life and limb exacted by highways in the first place. In the United States alone, according to the Federal Highway Administration, between 1 and 2 million animals are hit—and, for the most part, killed—by cars each year. Some 200 people in those cars die, and another 26,000 are hurt.
These collisions also exact a steep financial toll, with the annual economic fallout for society estimated at close to $8.4 billion.
Over and above that, highways impose an environmental cost for animals in the form of fractured, disrupted habitat. When a road keeps creatures from reaching all parts of a once continuous range, they find it harder to hunt, feed, and raise young. Over the long haul, it can reduce a species’ genetic diversity and make it more vulnerable to changes in climate and other conditions. Simply put, pouring concrete and asphalt upsets the balance of nature.
As wildlife crossings have grown in popularity, some remarkable successes have been recorded. On one eleven-mile stretch of Colorado’s Highway 9, an average of 63 animal carcasses (mostly deer) were being found every winter. A system of five wildlife underpasses and two large overpasses—completed in 2016—resulted in a 90 percent carcass reduction. Banff National Park in Canada, which is famous worldwide for its early construction of 44 crossing structures, touted an 80 percent reduction in wildlife-vehicle collisions.
The success stories cited by advocates and reporters usually involve large hoofed animals, for the unfortunate reason that they cause serious damage in collisions (and are also easy to count). But big animals are by no means the most numerous wildlife crossing users, nor do they inspire the most ingenious designs. A quick YouTube search shows a plethora of species and animal crossing sizes. In a passageway in New Zealand for blue penguins, the birds vanish into what looks like a large drainpipe, while a bridge for red crabs on the Australian territory of Christmas Island employs screens to fit the crustaceans’ tiny, spiny feet. Over a highway between Melbourne and Sydney, rope ladders are navigated by squirrels, their tails flying high; and turtles follow each other into a shallow trough under a railroad in Japan. At the other end of the spectrum, one of the largest corridors is an underpass in Kenya for elephants. Predictably, YouTube viewers appeared delighted, leaving comments like, “Taxes going for something I’m OK with!” and “This makes me so happy : ).”
Texas, meanwhile, has quietly been in the wildlife crossing game for two decades. Only in the last five years or so, however, has the state substantially increased its efforts and profile. As far back as 2000, the Texas Department of Transportation was incorporating wildlife crossings—all of them underpasses—into selected road-building and repair projects. Those culverts were small and not usually monitored, so little is known about them. But starting in 2016, amid growing interest in crossings around the world, TxDOT picked up the pace. Today, spokesperson Adam Hammons wrote in an email, the state agency has completed 33 crossings and has another 23 in the planning stage, with the majority in South Texas. The crossings have been built mainly for ocelot protection and are associated with roadways large and small, from interstate highways and toll roads to a cemetery road. When asked which animals were using the crossings, Hammons confirmed the usual suspects—coyotes, deer, and rabbits—and added raccoons, bobcats, armadillos, tortoises, horned lizards, and indigo snakes, for a total of sixteen species in all, including, of course, ocelots. “The most unexpected animal,” he wrote, “was a mountain lion on SH 100.” Presumably that big cat had the crossing all to itself.
The number of non-TxDOT crossings around the state is small, because counties, cities, and state parks generally do not have the money to build their own. The one exception to that rule is San Antonio’s Tobin Land Bridge, which shows what can be done with visionary leadership and generous community support. The project goes back fourteen years, to 2007, when popular then-mayor Phil Hardberger spearheaded the acquisition of a large former dairy farm located less than thirty minutes from downtown—and thus perfect for a park. The only drawback was that the plot was split by Wurzbach Parkway, so something was obviously needed to connect the two sides. The city proposed a $13 million bond issue, which passed in 2017. Then, says Hardberger, “foolishly and with some hubris, I said I would raise the other ten million.” It took him a year, but he doesn’t regret it: “So many people have told me, ‘I feel better just being there,’” he says. The park and bridge “may be the most important things I did as mayor.”
In addition to saving human and animal lives, as well reducing medical costs and property damage, wildlife crossings also have long-lasting, indirect benefits. It’s true that no crossing can miraculously reunite a forest or prairie or valley that has been severed by a highway—that genie is out of the bottle. But they can help put some of the pieces back together. People who work with them every day confirm the long-term benefits. “In a small, local way we are increasing genetic diversity,” says Casey Cowan at Phil Hardberger Park, because the animals can safely move from one side of the park to the other, “helping rebalance the ecosystem.” In the Rio Grande Valley, Hilary Swarts is thankful that the ocelot program has received much-needed help. “Most [visitors] come away thinking underpasses are cool,” she says. “They dig it—Texans love their wildlife.”
Both the naturalist and the biologist are encouraged by the growing profile of wildlife crossings in Texas. But they are even more excited by recent congressional action. Two major bills are now in play that could give wildlife corridors a huge boost. Passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in July, a mega-infrastructure bill titled the INVEST in America Act includes up to $500 million in building and research grants for wildlife crossings over five years. A Senate counterpart, the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act, pegs the amount at $350 million; it awaits a full-chamber vote. The outcome is far from certain—the two bills would need to be reconciled, and previous efforts have fallen by the wayside. But the optimistic Swarts has a good feeling about the future of wildlife crossings: “I think we will see more of this in the future.”
Bipartisan Wildlife Proposal Would Enhance Fish and Wildlife, Add Jobs, and Grow Businesses in Texas
July 6, 2021
July 6, 2021
AUSTIN— During the pandemic, Texans headed back to nature in record numbers, with more people visiting state parks, hunting, fishing, and boating than ever before. A new congressional proposal aims to tap that exploding interest by investing more than $50 million per year in Texas for wildlife recovery and related public education and recreation, a move expected to boost the state’s already booming nature-based economy into overdrive.
The bipartisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, H.R.2773, would provide $1.4 billion to state and tribal wildlife conservation initiatives to support at-risk wildlife populations and their habitats. The funding would come from existing revenues with no new taxes.
If passed, this legislation would send grant funds flowing across Texas to nonprofit organizations, nature centers, universities, landowners, and many others for projects to conserve vulnerable wildlife before they become endangered. Species like the much-loved Texas horned lizard, our state fish the Guadalupe bass, and many songbirds and coastal birds are among the many wildlife that would benefit. This funding will also help recover species that are already endangered, such as sea turtles and the whooping crane. The additional resources are urgently needed to aid fish and wildlife populations under increasing pressure from habitat loss, invasive species, emerging diseases, and extreme weather events in Texas and throughout the country.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association, the Texas outdoor recreation economy contributes to 327,000 jobs, generates $14.4 billion in salaries and wages per year, and $3.5 billion in state and local tax revenue. For example, nature tourism is huge in Texas, and people travel from all over the world to see iconic landscapes and catch a glimpse of unique wildlife. Around 4.4 million wildlife watchers in Texas generate $1.82 billion in retail sales and support 146,000 jobs. Research surveys conducted in 2011 and 2013 found that about 2.2 million people fish in Texas annually, and their spending amounts to $2.01 billion in retail sales and contributes to
“The litany of ways natural resources bolster the Texas economy and improve our quality of life is seemingly endless,” said Carter Smith, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department executive director. “Studies show property values can increase up to 20 percent when adjacent to natural areas. Natural buffers make coasts and communities more resilient to intense storms and flood events, thereby protecting our citizens and saving billions of dollars in recovery costs. Well-managed and restored habitats provide clean water, clean air, and healthy rivers, rangelands, and bays and estuaries that benefit both wildlife and people’s enjoyment of the outdoors. While it would do much to protect fish and wildlife that need it most, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would also mean a long-term investment in the public health and well-being of all Texans, as well as stewardship of our home ground.”
Unfortunately, many fish and wildlife species on which the outdoor recreation industry depends are declining. For example, in a 2019 study that gained worldwide attention, researchers estimated that North
America has lost close to three billion breeding birds since 1970. Many of the bird groups mentioned in the report—such as migratory songbirds and grassland birds—depend on Texas natural areas, working lands, coastal habitat, and city spaces—either during migration, or as year-round residents. This loss of birds is a blow to our natural heritage, the enjoyment of future generations, and critical ecosystem services such as flood control, pest control, and pollination.
Birds are also essential to our vibrant nature tourism economy. There are 2.2 million birders in Texas, and people “flock” from all over the world to bird across the state. In the Lower Rio Grande Valley—a popular birding hot-spot—a 2011 study from Texas A&M estimates the direct economic contribution from nature tourism led to a total county-level economic output of $463 million and 6,613 full and part time jobs annually. Passage of H.R. 2773 would provide the funding needed to greatly expand habitat restoration on public and private lands, which in turn will support bird life and critical nesting habitat and help reverse course for declining bird species. Bird-watching infrastructure could also be boosted through new wildlife-viewing platforms and nature trails. RAWA funding could expand marketing and education for programs like Bird City Texas and the Great Texas Wildlife Trails, to further mitigate some of the threats that birds face in urban areas, such as window collisions. It would also benefit more local communities through bird tourism.
National estimates indicate that passage of Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would create 23,800 to 33,600 jobs and add $3.36 billion of economic output, leading to a net positive gain of $1.96 billion annually to the U.S. GDP. In Texas cities and counties large and small, the funding would fuel natural investments in things like coastal artificial reefs, oyster bed restoration, habitat enhancement for clean air and water, urban ecology centers, and getting Texas children outside. It would create thousands of new “shovel-ready” jobs for wildlife management, tree planting, river restoration, and outdoor recreation projects and reap benefits tenfold.
To cite one more example, the conservation of Guadalupe bass—our state fish of Texas—is about helping the entire river systems where the fish lives, including the people who live along its banks, and all those who love to come swim, wade, fish, float or paddle. On the South Llano, the Guadalupe bass is the centerpiece of a broad effort involving local communities, riverside landowners, nonprofits and universities, all focused on improving the health of the entire watershed. Fisheries biologists say, if RAWA passes, we could restore thousands of acres of spring, stream and river habitats and directly benefit water quality for human use while helping Guadalupe bass and many other aquatic creatures. Recovering America’s Wildlife Act funds may also be used to create more paddling trails to give kayakers and canoers safe places to access rivers including signs and educational kiosks sharing information about the Guadalupe bass and other aquatic life.
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is strongly supported by the Texas Alliance for America’s Fish and Wildlife, a statewide coalition of more than 165 diverse organizations and businesses. See the alliance website for information about this historic legislation on how to help.
The Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan (EAHCP) defines how we protect federally listed species that live in the Edwards Aquifer and the Comal and San Marcos springs. Our program’s Incidental Take Permit was granted to the Edwards Aquifer Authority, City of San Marcos, City of New Braunfels, Texas State University, and the City of San Antonio acting by and through the San Antonio Water System (collectively known as the EAHCP Permittees) to protect federally listed species from specific activities, Covered Activities, like groundwater pumping.
The EAHCP ArcGIS StoryMap application is organized in an immersive, interactive display accessible to viewers from any organization looking to learn about the EAHCP program and the threatened and endangered species covered.
Here are three new StoryMaps. Scroll each of the StoryMaps to read about each species.
The EAHCP ArcGIS StoryMap application is organized in an immersive, interactive display accessible to viewers from any organization looking to learn about the EAHCP program and the threatened and endangered species covered.
Here are three new StoryMaps. Scroll each of the StoryMaps to read about each species.
Move over, birds. Another flying creature is capturing the attention of Texas wildlife watchers.
by Russell Roe, Managing Editor
Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine
Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine
Perched by the side of a pond in an Arlington park, we watch the dragonfly drama unfold before us, an elemental spectacle of mating, dominance and, ultimately, survival.
A male blue dasher, a dragonfly common to many Texas ponds, has found a female to mate with, and he grabs her behind the head to begin mating as they fly along. This is what the male dragonfly has been waiting for his whole life.
But wait! What’s this? Another male dragonfly appears on the scene. After a brief and intense battle, the new dragonfly prevails and begins to mate with the female.
Many male dragonflies have genitalia designed to scoop out another dragonfly’s sperm out of the female before depositing their own — we wonder if that’s happening here
Many male dragonflies have genitalia designed to scoop out another dragonfly’s sperm out of the female before depositing their own — we wonder if that’s happening here — and we watch closely as the new dragonfly couple mate. Copulation achieved? Yes! The game’s not over yet, though. The female needs to lay her eggs, and there are still several males hanging around that might try to mate with her. To ensure success, the male vigilantly stands guard above the female as she deposits her eggs in
“This is a battlefield,” says Texas Parks and Wildlife Department urban biologist Sam Kieschnick, who has led us to this pond to watch dragonflies and damselflies. “We may come to places like this to relax, but for dragonflies, this is a battlefield of love and war.”
Kieschnick is one of a growing number of dragonfly enthusiasts in Texas who pursue dragonflies and damselflies with the same passion that bird watchers bring to birds.
Why dragonflies? Why not? They’re beautiful, charismatic and accessible (they’re everywhere), and they exhibit some pretty incredible behaviors.
Texas has bragging rights when it comes to dragonflies and damselflies. It’s the best place in the U.S. to watch them, with “hands down” more species than any other state, says John Abbott, former entomology curator at the University of Texas and the unofficial dean of Texas dragonflies.
“Texas is really a tremendous place for dragonflies,” he says, noting its 250 known species. “Its geographical positioning allows for a real mix of eastern and western faunas, as well as subtropical and temperate faunas. No other state has that.”
These are exciting times in the Texas dragonfly and damselfly world, with more and more people joining the ranks of “dragonflyers” and new state species still being discovered. In 2019, the Austin area hosted national and international dragonfly conferences, solidifying the state’s place as a worldwide dragonfly hot spot.
And, if you didn’t realize it, dragonflies are pretty special.
“They are visually stunning,” says Abbott, author of 2011’s Damselflies of Texas and 2015’s Dragonflies of Texas and founder of Odonata Central, a national archive of observations. “They’re arguably the strongest fliers in the insect world. And they have the best eyesight in the insect world, with a nearly 360-degree field of view.”
Eric Isley is one of the most active dragonfly watchers in Austin — he goes out several times a week — and he has invited me to chase dragonflies with him on a couple of warm September mornings. I meet him and a handful of other dragonflyers at Barkley Meadows Park and the Hornsby Bend wastewater treatment facility in southeast Austin.
Dragonflies and damselflies belong to the same order, Odonata, and are often referred to as odonates, or odes. They both depend on fresh water to lay their eggs and live the early parts of their lives. They are ancient species, flying around our skies for 250 million to 300 million years.
As we walk down a path near a pond at Barkley Meadows, Isley points out dragonflies with names like the red-tailed pennant and the checkered setwing and tells me he started off with an interest in butterflies and birds.
“Then dragonflies caught my eye,” he says as he points out a four-spotted pennant, with distinctive spots on its wings, and an eastern pondhawk.
His digital camera, with a big lens and a tripod, is ever-present as he captures photos of the insects. Photography is a big part of Texas dragonfly culture, helping enthusiasts identify species and appreciate the minute details of a dragonfly or damselfly.
A married couple with us, David Byers and Wei-Li Huang, watch birds for part of the year, then turn their attention to dragonfly watching in the summer, when dragonflies are active and birds less so.
“We’ve birded on and off for 30 years,” Byers says. “Dragonflies are a natural in summer if you want to photograph something beautiful.”
Texas has several dozen people who actively pursue dragonflies and damselflies. They keep up with each other through iNaturalist (an app for recording wildlife observations) and the Texas Dragons and Damsels Facebook group.
“Eric showed me a photo of a dragonfly eating a butterfly,” Byers says of their first meeting. “I was like, ‘Holy cow, we need to learn more about dragonflies.’”
Dragonflies are indeed one of the animal world’s deadliest predators, a quality that Isley appreciates.
“They’re the ultimate predator,” Isley says. “They have a 96 percent kill rate. They’ll eat anything they can catch, including their own species.”
At Barkley Meadows, Byers spends some time trying to get a good photo of a Halloween pennant (distinctively colored with orange and black) while Isley tells me about some of his favorite species.
“The dragonhunter is the most impressive dragonfly we have here. They like to hunt other dragonflies,” he says. “The prettiest one we get here is a blue-eyed darner. When you see it, you’ll know why we photograph it. The blue when the sun hits it …” His voice trails off in admiration.
We tally a few more species — widow skimmer, green darner, red saddlebags and wandering glider — before calling it a day.
BIRDER GONE BAD
Besides John Abbott, Greg Lasley has done more to promote and document dragonflies and damselflies in Texas than anyone else. He calls himself a “birder gone bad.”
“You can go looking for birds on the Texas coast in April, and there are more bird watchers than birds,” Lasley says. “One thing that appealed to me about dragonflies is that there weren’t tons of people doing it.”
Lasley’s interest in dragonflies was sparked in 2000 at a South Texas photo contest and when he wanted to ID his odonate photos. He sent them to Abbott, and the two struck up a friendship.
Coincidentally, that year marked a turning point in the dragonfly world when the first U.S. field guide — Sid Dunkle’s Dragonflies Through Binoculars — came out, and when common names were assigned to many dragonflies and damselflies.
“It was the first book I had, the first book a lot of people had,” Lasley says. “It gave us ways to try to figure out what we were seeing or photographing with dragonflies.”
Lasley, a former police officer who became one of Texas’ most accomplished naturalists and photographers, saw an opportunity to engage in an emerging field and even make contributions to scientific knowledge.
“When I started, there were still 44 counties in Texas that had no record of dragonfly species whatsoever,” he says. “I found it fun to travel to the Panhandle of Texas with my wife, and I’d try to photograph species in counties that had no records. Now every county in Texas has dragonfly records.”
His wife, Cheryl Johnson, a former state judge, had a quest to photograph every courthouse in Texas, and she and Lasley traveled the state together pursuing their passions.
One of Lasley’s other discoveries involved a species called the blue-faced ringtail, a dragonfly with a striped tail and, yes, a blue face. It hadn’t been seen in decades, so he searched along the San Marcos River.
“I finally made my way down to Gonzales, and I happened to find the species there,” he says.
Since then, scores of people have traveled to Gonzales to look for the blue-faced ringtail. It’s practically a rite of passage for Texas dragonflyers. Within the U.S., the species occurs only in Texas; seeing the blue-faced ringtail was one of the most popular field trips at the 2019 international odonate convention in Austin.
Telling The Difference
Dragonflies: Bigger, stockier. Hold wings apart when at rest.
Damselflies: Smaller, more delicate. Typically fold wings behind when at rest.
Dragonflies: Bigger, stockier. Hold wings apart when at rest.
Damselflies: Smaller, more delicate. Typically fold wings behind when at rest.
DRAGONFLY "BIG YEAR"
Gonzales was one of the first places Ben Schwartz traveled just to see a dragonfly, but not the last. The Texas State University karst hydrogeologist completed a Big Year for dragonflies in 2020, attempting to see as many species as he could in a year’s time. Schwartz’s goal was to see 200 of the then-248 dragonfly and damselfly species in 2020 — he tallied 209.
“I’d say the first 150 were relatively very easy,” he says. “The next 25 took some work — going up to the Panhandle, West Texas, South Texas, spending a lot more time looking for them, looking for uncommon species. The last 10, getting up to 200, really took a lot more work and a lot of persistence.”
In some cases, he had to look for dragonflies in unexpected places.
“In the Big Thicket I was looking for a species called the smoky shadowdragon,” he says. “I had spent all morning and early afternoon bashing around in the brush. I came back to the bridge where I had parked and looked up and saw a bunch of cobwebs on the bridge. I realized there were dragonflies hanging all on the underside of this bridge. I got a long stick and pulled a bunch of these cobwebs down, and I got about 15 smoky shadowdragons.”
During the year he tallied two new species not documented in Texas before, bringing the state species count from 248 to 250. One is the taper-tailed darner, a dragonfly he spotted in East Texas; the other is the boreal bluet, a damselfly he saw in West Texas.
Not bad for someone who’s a relative newcomer to dragonflying. Schwartz got interested in odonates around 2015 when he started noticing damselflies along the San Marcos River. He posted damselfly photos on iNaturalist, and Lasley started ID’ing them. The rest is history.
John Abbott has moved on from Texas — he is now chief curator and director of research and collections at the University of Alabama — but his dragonfly work brings him back to the state.
His latest research, funded by a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department grant, is a cutting-edge project that uses environmental DNA to detect rare species.
“We’re taking water samples from prospective habitats of some of these potentially rare species and then looking for the DNA,” he says. “We can extract DNA out of the water and recognize a dragonfly as having been there, without ever collecting it or seeing it. It’s a new field that’s getting a lot of attention.”
Back at our dragonfly habitat in Arlington, Kieschnick nets a desert firetail and puts it in a petri dish for us to view.
“This is a lovely damselfly,” he says, noting the bright red body and eyes. “There’s a vibrancy of color. Spectacular.”
It’s easy to see the appeal of these creatures. The body and eyes of the desert firetail are so bright they almost glow, and in Kieschnick’s way of thinking, the future of dragonfly watching in Texas is as bright as this firetail, with new discoveries still happening, groundbreaking research occurring and enthusiasts increasing.
“I used to be oblivious to the things flying around,” says Kieschnick, an avowed “plant guy.”
“Now my eyes have been opened up through dragonflies. I see charm in them. We can ooh and ahh over them. They have interesting behaviors and there’s great diversity. It’s exciting to see different species, and you don’t have to go too far to see them.”
How a children's book about the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler became part of a movement to embrace Indigenous languages in Mexico.
Maria de los Angeles Azuara couldn’t hold back tears when she heard two dozen children singing at a small school in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Guided by their music teacher, the elementary students performed a song they’d adapted about a new friend, a young Golden-cheeked Warbler named Chipilo who lived in the same mountains they did. He connected them, they sang, with “the only world that can cover us both / the world in which we all live.”
The children sang in Spanish—the second language of their Indigenous Tsotsil Mayan community. It was 2015, and only a couple of months had passed since Azuara and colleagues had started working with 28 teachers from several Indigenous schools in Chiapas. As the environmental education program director at the non-profit Pronatura Sur, her job was to convince teachers to include a children’s book called The Tale of Chipilo Crisopario (La Historia de Chipilo Crisopario in Spanish) as part of their classes.
Pronatura is working to conserve the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler’s overwintering habitat, the pine-oak forests that grow across Chiapas’ mountains and extend south through Guatemala, Honduras, and parts of El Salvador and Nicaragua. When Azuara heard the song inspired by the book, she was thrilled. “I’ve always believed a children’s book is an extremely powerful tool to create change,” she says. “And Chipilo has proved it to me.”
RiveraChipilo has become a cornerstone of Pronatura’s environmental education, a fun tool for helping to instill a conservation ethic in children, with the hopes that they will care about and protect the natural world throughout their lives. The book has reached more than 3,000 children, mostly in Chiapas, many of whom are Tsotsil. In 2018 Pronatura had the book and accompanying lessons translated into Tsotsil. The Golden-cheeked Warbler doesn’t have ancient cultural significance for the community, but there are parallels: Just as the endangered songbird’s plight has long been neglected, so has their language. Translating Chipilo into Tsotsil is just one small part of a growing effort to dignify the country’s more than 68 Indigenous language groups, which are in turn divided into 364 language variations.
In Mexico, as in most Latin American countries, European languages are “power languages”—they inhabit streets, courthouses, hospitals, and schools, says linguistic anthropologist Margarita Martínez Perez, a native Tsotsil speaker. Indigenous languages have long been deemed inferior and relegated to private spaces. But in recent years, they’ve started to seep into public spaces. In the past decade, Tsotsil has begun to appear on street signs and social media and in rock music, comics, poems, and novels. “This is just the beginning,” Martínez says. “Chipilo’s book is just a little sprout of what’s to come.”
The Tsotsil version of Chipilo has been distributed, via CDs and USB flash drives to teachers; now Pronatura wants to do the same with the audiobook.
The story of Chipilo starts in 2003, the same year native languages were officially recognized in Mexico thanks to the decades-long efforts of Indigenous communities like Chiapas’ Zapatistas Movement. That year, Pronatura hired two young biologists, José Arturo García Domínguez and José Raúl Vázquez, to monitor the arrival of Golden-cheeked Warblers travelling from central Texas to the pine-oak forests in the Chiapas Highlands that support more than 300 bird species, of which 55 are migratory.
Back then, the warbler’s winter range distribution was still being mapped out, explains Claudia Macías Caballero, Pronatura’s deputy director of conservation. Observations of the bird were spotty, and no one really knew their wintering behavior that well. García and Vázquez were tasked with searching for the bird throughout 10 municipalities and following the mixed flocks in which the warblers traveled. For five months the duo woke up at 4 a.m. and set out before the firsts sun rays bathed the treetops. “It was so cold that you didn’t want to take your hands out of your jacket to hold the binoculars,” recalls Vázquez.
They started in central Chiapas and struggled to find their tiny targets. The scarcity was easily explained: The dense forests that the warblers require for foraging and roosting had been transformed into sparse stands, heavily logged for commercial lumber and for cooking and construction by the impoverished Indigenous communities. Across the species’ range, habitat degradation due to unregulated fires, logging and clearing land for agricultural development has fueled the bird’s decline. At the current deforestation rate, the remaining forests could disappear in 45 years.
Golden-cheeked Warblers breed in central Texas and migrate to southern forests such as this one, near San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Jorge Silva RiveraTheir luck changed when they headed north. As they neared a small town called Coapilla, they noticed the thick expanse of deep green covering the surrounding hills. Speaking with locals, a mix of mestizo and Zoque peoples, they learned that the community prioritized managing the forest sustainably, and restricted agriculture to the ejido—community-owned land managed according to Indigenous people. As a result, the landscape supported abundant wildlife. In just one week they made 10 of the approximately 40 sightings they recorded in all, García recalls.
Near Coapilla the forest was filled with birdsong, and García saw his first mythical quetzal. He found the healthy state of the landscape remarkable, and one afternoon, after following songbirds all morning, he started writing the migration story of a Golden-cheeked Warbler. He called the bird Chipilo Crisopario, a nod to the species’ common name in Spanish (chipe) and scientific name (Setophaga chrysoparia), and asked Vázquez, who liked drawing and carving birds out of wood, to illustrate the book. The tale follows the young bird as he journeys south and encounters a human-started fire, is saved by an old Turkey Vulture, and eventually arrives in Coapilla’s forests, where he reconnects with old friends and makes new ones, including a Resplendent Quetzal.
A few months later, in March 2004, the biologists presented the first draft of the text and 12 acrylic-paint illustrations to Pronatura’s Macías. Two years later, after securing financial support from The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Wildlife and Fish Service, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the State of Chiapas, Pronatura printed 5,000 copies of Chipilo. Most ended up in school libraries and at environmental education nonprofits in the five countries where the Golden-cheeked Warbler winters.
The book was out there, but there was no guarantee that kids would pick it up. Chipilo had been translated into English in 2011, and Texan teachers were using that version in their classrooms. Inspired by their approach, in 2012 and 2013 the Pronatura team created lessons to accompany the book, including Nature and Living Beings, Birds’ Homes, and Birds and Climate. Then they trained eight teachers from three Mexican states (Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero) to include the book in their curriculum. A year later, Pronatura trained 28 more teachers. By 2017, they had trained 66 teachers from 40 schools, half of which were located in Chiapas’ Indigenous communities.
Bringing Chipilo into the classroom has sometimes been challenging, says teacher Mario Alberto Pérez Ruiz, native Tsotsil speaker. Chiapas remains one the poorest states in Mexico—76 percent of its population lives in poverty—and some of his colleagues worked in schools that lacked basic supplies like paper, scissors, and colored pencils. Pérez has worked hard to incorporate the lessons into his curriculum at a school near San Cristóbal de las Casas. He first started teaching about Chipilo in 2015, when he was one of two teachers in Pueblo de Israel, a Tsotsil village of 200 people. There his fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students built a nest and learned geography following the bird’s migration path. In other schools, students created radio programs recounting the dangers that birds like Chipilo face, wrote and performed plays and songs like the one that made Azuara cry, and installed native-plant gardens on their school grounds.
Despite their success, Macías and her colleagues at Pronatura felt they could do more. The book was mostly being taught at bicultural and bilingual schools, but it was written in Spanish. These schools exist to strengthen Indigenous languages, but they fall short on that promise. “They are a big joke,” says Martínez, the linguistic anthropologist. When the Secretary of Education assigns teachers to schools, there’s seemingly no effort to place them in areas where they speak the native language, she explains. While the hundreds of Indigenous languages and variations spoken in Mexico all come from ancient Mayan, they’re as different from each other as Spanish is from Italian or French. So a teacher who speaks Tsotsil, for example, can end up in a school where children speak Tojolabal. As a result, in the classroom they default to their common language: Spanish.
So they contacted writer Juan Benito de la Torre López, a native Tsotsil speaker. De la Torre and his daughter Ana Guadalupe de la Torre Sánchez translated the children’s book to Tsotsil over four months. Some of the work was straightforward—the Tsotsil already have a name for the Golden-cheeked Warbler, for instance: K’anal ton sat Chipe. But in many instances they were starting from scratch. “It was very fun, but also very hard,” he says. “We had to come up with new terms quite often.” The Tsotsil people, for example, have only two seasons: vo’tik, the time of rain (April to October), and korixmatik, the time of lent (October to March). So they had to create names for the four seasons mentioned in the book: spring is Chk’ exp’uj yanal te’, the time when all the hills start to turn green; summer is Ch-och vo’tik, when the rainy season arrives; fall is Chlok’ vo’tik, end of the rainy season; and winter is Yora siktik, the coldest of times.
Once the translation,Slo’il xch’iel Chipilo Crisopario, was finished, in 2018, it immediately hit a hurdle. “Teachers didn’t want to read the book in front of the children,” Azuara says. “They were ashamed they would make a mistake.” This insecurity is directly related to the racist policies that relegated Tsotsil and other Mayan languages to non-public places. The more than 500,000 Tsotsil speakers have kept the language alive by speaking it with family and friends, but there is no written tradition, says Martínez. It was only in the late 1990s when Tsotsil-speaking professionals and writers first established the writing rules for Tsotsil using the Latin alphabet. Today even if people can speak it, many don’t know how to read it or read it confidently. Bilingual education specialists suggested recording the text as an audiobook. “That way, teachers wouldn’t feel insecure in the classroom,” Azuara says.
She convinced Floriana de la Torre, the translator’s oldest daughter, to record herself reading the Tsotsil version. De la Torre recorded herself over and over again from May to August. Now the recording is ready, but COVID-19 has stalled its dispersal: Schools are closed, and for most students attending virtual classrooms isn’t an option. Only 61 percent of Tzotzil localities have internet access, and of those only 22 percent have access to a 4G network (the technology needed to have effective group calls or video meetings, for example), according to government data.
Azuara and Macías are exploring other routes to deliver Chipilo to Indigenous students in Chiapas—and beyond. They’re considering distributing the audiobook to teachers via USBs, and have shared the recording on social media. They’ve discussed having a Tsotsil radio station broadcast the audiobook. One day, they would potentially translate the text into other Mayan languages spoken by communities throughout the rest of the Golden-cheeked Warbler’s range. In the coming years the story of one tiny warbler could spread across its 10,319-square-mile forest habitat, teaching children about the importance of saving its habitat while simultaneously helping to lift up their native languages. “This little bird is incredible,” says Azuara.
“It has made us fly.”