Nature Notes | Desert Renewal

Photograph by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren. With their flute-like songs and bright yellow plumage, Scott's orioles bring both color and melody to West Texas in spring and summer.
Photograph by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren. With their flute-like songs and bright yellow plumage, Scott’s orioles bring both color and melody to West Texas in spring and summer.

Desert Renewal: Signs of Spring in West Texas

By Andrew Stuart

Spring is sweet everywhere – but it comes with a special wonder in West Texas. The harsh edges of this land are softened. The rugged plants and animals of the place emerge in color and song. It’s a reminder that life is more than endurance, and that the promise of renewal is abiding.

Now, as the Earth awakens, Spring is announcing itself in West Texas in diverse ways.

In his 1999 book “Heralds of Spring in Texas,” longtime Big Bend National Park naturalist Roland Wauer cataloged the very personal ways people across the state register the season’s arrival. It’s a common experience. As we connect with the natural world, we develop a “phenology” – a knowledge of cyclic natural phenomena – that’s more “site-specific” than the official calendar.

For Linda Hedges, of Limpia Crossing, Spring is revealed in her native-plant garden. It starts with one particular plant.

“I was out yesterday near the agarita that’s starting to flower,” Hedges said, “and noticed, audibly, I could hear pollinators buzzing around. That’s my personal harbinger of spring – agarita. When the first buds pop open, I know we’re there.”

Its name comes from the Spanish verb “agarrar,” to grab, and it’s a little prickly. But agarita embodies tough desert beauty. Its blue-gray leaves are lustrous. And in February and March, its tiny yellow flowers offer food for native bees and other insects. Later, its fruits will sustain birds.

Track the flowering of plants as spring deepens, and you’ll notice that there’s a succession, or progression. Among cacti, claret cups bloom before prickly pears, prickly pears before chollas. It means continuous sustenance for bugs and birds.

In her garden, Hedges tracks seasonal change via penstemons, beautiful native plants with tubular flowers. The magenta-hued Wright’s penstemon blooms first. The Havard penstemon, orangish-red, flowers next. Beard-lip – “the Scarlet Bugler” – waits for monsoon rains. Hummingbirds are uniquely equipped to pollinate these plants.

“It’s like, ‘the March of the Penstemon,’” Hedges said. “One flowering cycle is going to replace the previous one, which is really great for hummingbirds that rely on that nectar source.”

Then, there are markers of spring that are hard to miss. David Larson is Fort Davis National Historic Site superintendent.

Photograph by Drew Stuart. Take a closer look into the thorny labyrinth of a cholla cactus this spring, and you're apt to find a curve-billed thrasher nesting or caring for hatchlings.
Photograph by Drew Stuart. Take a closer look into the thorny labyrinth of a cholla cactus this spring, and you’re apt to find a curve-billed thrasher nesting or caring for hatchlings.

“I checked my notes the last couple weeks trying to figure out when was the earliest I’ve ever seen turkey vultures in Alpine,” Larson said. “The earliest was the third of March, and the latest was the seventh. So it was, like, wow, they are right on target for that first week of March to come back.”

Turkey vultures return, as Larson noted, on a reliable schedule. Some will summer here – others will continue north as far as Canada.

Indeed, seasonal signposts abound in the avian world, Larson said. From Midland to Big Bend, there are two birds whose songs are synonymous with springtime.

The curve-billed thrasher has been called the “default desert bird” – it’s a humble dun in color. But the melody of its song is brightness itself. Then there are Cassin’s sparrows. These birds too are modest in appearance. But they’re unique in their “skylarking” – which means they sing while they fly. On lonesome prairies, their song is bittersweet and haunting.

But pollination is the main attraction, and Larson said the region’s solitary native bees are his first harbinger.

“I’m standing at my house right now in Alpine,” he said, “standing in front of a flowering plum. I’m looking at all the bees coming to it. One of my favorite bees is the orchid bee. I think that’s a bug sign of spring for me. It’s a metallic blue or metallic green bee, and it’s really small. But when you see it, it’s just like, ‘That is a really beautiful bug.’”

Allowing your yard to grow out can attract and sustains native bees, and other pollinators on which the planet’s life relies. Michael Nickell is the Sibley Nature Center’s museum scientist.

“All my neighbors have these putting-green lawns and things like that,” Nickell said. “And then there’s me – with a prairie on my lawn.”

In his Odessa neighborhood, his yard is an anomaly. And it’s uniquely alive. That includes plants others dismiss as “weeds.”

“They’re not weeds to me,” Nickell said. “They’re wildflowers. And this is what’s available to so many of our insects early in the spring, things like henbits, and storksbill, also some of the mustard plants. I saw some today, the spectaclepod mustard.”

Migrating hummingbirds will nectar in Nickell’s yard. And in a cholla bramble on his property, a mated pair of curve-billed thrashers is already raising hatchlings.

To experience Chihuahuan Desert springtime, nothing compares with Big Bend National Park. But birds and blooms aren’t all that surges in March, said Tom VandenBerg, the park’s chief of interpretation.

“Spring Break has sprung,” he said. “It’s in full force right now. We basically had about 2,000 people in the Panther Junction Visitor Center yesterday, which is significantly higher than any number we’ve ever recorded.”

Some visitors aren’t prepared for the swings of spring weather – ranging from almost 100 degrees on the river, to near freezing in the high-country nights. But Supervisory Ranger Cathy Hoyt said there’s a bounty for those who leave their cars behind, and explore the desert flats and canyons.

“We’ve got an outstanding display of Torrey yuccas right now,” Hoyt said. “I’ve never seen the yuccas bloom like they are right now – it’s just beautiful. The creosote are blooming. The mountain laurels are blooming in the canyons. The Mexican buckeyes are in full bloom. There’s a lot out of there – if you look for it.”

New birds are appearing daily in the park, either as a stopover on migrations or to summer here. Black-chinned and Lucifer’s hummingbirds. Cliff swallows in the canyons. Common black hawks near Rio Grande Village. Elf owls – the world’s smallest owl species – nesting in agave stalks. There are radiant birds, like summer tanagers, painted redstarts and vermillion flycatchers. And then, full-time residents are absorbed in the business of courtship and homemaking, VandenBerg said.

“And of course cactus wrens are all over the place,” he said. “They’re always doing something worth watching. And they never stop vocalizing. This is without a doubt the most exciting time of year – plant-wise, bird-wise and people-wise. ”

Mammals, too, are stirring to new life, Hoyt said.

“Another sound of the spring for me is the singing of the coyotes very early in the morning,” she said. “Almost every morning I wake up to the songs of the coyotes and cactus wrens.”

“Measure your health by your sympathy with morning and Spring,” Henry David Thoreau wrote. “If there is no response in you to the awakening of nature… know that the morning and spring of your life are past.”

Spring in West Texas is an invitation – to join in the Earth’s renewal, and be quickened in spirit.

Nature Notes is supported by the Shield-Ayres Foundation and produced by Marfa Public Radio with the Sibley Nature Center. The program can be heard each Tuesday and Thursday, at 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., Central time, on KRTS Marfa, 93.5 FM, and KXWT Odessa/Midland, 91.3 FM. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.


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