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These fourteen essays are held together by the story of Texas pride, the sense that from West Texas to the Coastal Plains, we and the landscape are important and worthy of pride, if not downright bravado. This book addresses all the major regions of Texas. Beginning with Roy Bedichek’s essay “Still Water,” it includes Carol Cullar and Barbara “Barney” Nelson on the Rio Grande region of West Texas, John Graves's evocative “Kindred Spirits” on Central Texas, Joe Nick Patoski’s celebration of Hill Country springs, Pete Gunter on the Piney Woods, David Taylor on North Texas, Gary Clark and Gerald Thurmond on the Coastal Plains, Ray Gonzales and Marian Haddad on El Paso, Stephen Harrigan and Wyman Meinzer on West Texas, and Naomi Shihab Nye on urban San Antonio.
This anthology will appeal not only to those interested in regional history, natural history, and the environmental issues Texans face, but also to all who say gladly, “I’m from Texas.”
Roy Bedichek (1878–1959) was the author of four books: Adventures with a Texas Naturalist (1947); Karankaway Country (1950); Educational Competition: The Story of the University Interscholastic League in Texas (1956); and posthumously The Sense of Smell (1960). His Adventures with a Texas Naturalist is widely regarded as essential reading for those interested in Texana.
Joy shall be in the bird-lover's heart over one new bird more than over ninety and nine already listed. If the newcomer is found to be nesting in territory well outside his usual breeding range, the event stirs the amateur still more deeply.
I say amateur, since the professional ornithologist through overindulgence tends to become insensible to this pleasure, or, in the manner now fashionable, conceals emotional reactions as bad form or as indicating untrustworthy observation. I sometimes think that we have become dominated by a cult of unemotionalism. We speak of "cold" scientific fact as if temperature had something to do with verity. We assume that strong feeling and sound judgment are incompatible, and regard with suspicion all facts which really excite us.
But surely only the phlegmatic person, professional or amateur, can see the vermilion flycatcher for the first time without a gasp of surprise and pleasure. When, on March 20, I found this vivid bit of color flown here from the Tropics on its own power, it came like an unexpected gift from one of those inspired givers who determine by divination, before you yourself do, just what you want.
Only within the past few years has the vermilion flycatcher been found nesting in central Texas as far north as Austin. Now I hear on good authority that this most striking member of the family of Tyrant flycatchers has been seen lately as far north as Glen Rose. The species is evidently northward bound.
On that March morning the male was showing off, displaying himself advantageously, he hoped, before the eyes of the female of his choice. I found him soaring on wings that "beat the gladsome air," poising, shivering with anticipation, breast feathers all puffed out with pride and confidence.
Although in my eyes he made a creditable exhibition and finished in approved manner, looping gracefully earthward with a final flourish, the female viewed the performance with a more critical eye. He was not immediately accepted. She moved away upon his approach. I spent some time following these lively visitors about and was rewarded by seeing them engage in a flight and pursuit as mad and furious as any of nature's hurdle races with goal set to ravish or devour.
Beautiful in her own quiet way, especially in contrast with her suitor so gorgeously arrayed, I thought of her as modesty itself wooed by an aggressive egotism. Fast and furious was the race amid the tangled vines and branches. Too quick for the eye, first here, then there, dodging with movements indescribably swift, she fled like a gray leaf pursued by a darting tongue of flame. During my observation of them he remained a rejected suitor. Finally they rested quietly within twenty feet of where I was standing.
In a proper light, the female's back appears a dullish gray dusted over with iron rust. Her breast is slightly streaked with brown, the flanks yellowish shading into gray, the throat gray with deeper gray about the cheeks.
It is the male, however, which inspires the naturalist to raptures and to do his best at descriptive writing, seeking until he finds phrases and similitudes with which to set this bird apart from all others as a kind of special creation. He is a brilliant flaming gem, an outburst of gleaming color, and outshines the most brilliant scarlet flowers. To the imaginative Mexicans, he is brasita de fuego, a little coal of fire; and his scientific name, Pyrocephalus, signifies firehead. Poised high in the crystal-clear air that morning, he seemed to me to be a star of first magnitude which the vanishing darkness had failed to take with it from the daylight sky. All who know tanagers should be advised that after seeing this tropical newcomer, the summer tanager appears faded and even the scarlet tanager seems a bit tame. The gray-tailed cardinal is dull in comparison.
The courting flight of the vermilion flycatcher—tiniest of the tribe except those of the genus Epidonax—this soaring and poising high in the air, would seem to be in deliberate scorn of the whole tribe of hawks, always on the lookout for a small bird to stoop at. But I have never seen a hawk show any interest in him. The flycatchers with the bulldoggish jaws have what is known in the athletic world as the fighting heart, and perhaps this ostentatious flight of the most colorful of the family may be considered as a red flag of defiance hoisted by Tyrannidae to assert its fearlessness, its challenge to all comers to do battle, if they choose, to the last extremity with no holds barred. Even the surly mockingbird shows great respect for flycatchers. The little ball of fire has the flycatcher fight in him. I should think that an observation of the display with which the male endeavors to win the favor of the female would give pause to those literal folk who attempt to reduce the mating of birds to the slot-machine reactions of an automat.
I wish I might report that this pair nested here, but they were only on an exploratory mission. Conditions did not suit them, and after May 2 I saw them no more, although I continued my search for a nest well into June. During their stay on Bear Creek, they occupied a feeding stratum midway between the phoebe and the scissortail. Along the creek and river courses of the Edwards Plateau, the phoebe's favorite feeding perch is a low limb preferably over water; the vermilion feeds from treetops down in the valley, while the scissortail stays on treetops of the more elevated terraces, occasionally taking advantage of a power line as it tops the hill.
The tails of these aerial acrobats are highly mobile, each one, however, with its own distinctive type of mobility. Much has been written of tail shape as an aid in maneuvering, but tail strength and tail mobility also are important. The family is noted for bursts of speed and lightening wheel-abouts rather than for swiftness in sustained flight. The scissortail, for instance, darts like an arrow, but covers a hundred yards at less than twenty miles an hour. Perching, the tail of the vermilion moves fanwise, opening and closing, to maintain balance. The phoebe, on the other hand, raises and lowers its tail as a pipit does, but much more slowly and, so far as I can see, not merely to balance himself but simply because he thinks it becoming to move his tail slowly up and down. He often sits for a long time with no movement of the tail at all and then begins again with great deliberation. It seems more of a mannerism than movement with a purpose. The only other bird I know which, while perching, moves its tail in the same plane and through about the same arc as the phoebe, but with still greater deliberation, is the hermit thrush. The scissortail perching in the wind uses his ten-inch tail as a balance, but in still weather often lets it droop down completely relaxed. It is in flight, turning and twisting in pursuit of prey, or in threatening forays toward intruders coming too near his nest, that his tail takes on the scissoring motion which gives him his name.
There is no doubt that the vermilion flycatcher is extending his range northward, especially in central Texas. Chapman (1912) gives his breeding range as Central America and Mexico, north to southern Texas. Simmons (1925) records only a straggler, a single male, taken March 16, 191
Excerpted from Pride of Place by David Taylor. Copyright © 2006 by University of North Texas Press. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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1. Roy Bedichek, "Still Water" from Adventures with a Texas Naturalist..... 15
2. John Graves, "Kindred Spirits" from From a Limestone Ledge.............. 31
3. Carol Cullar, "12 Variations on a Theme or Why I Live in West Texas".... 41
4. Pete Gunter, "A Sense of One Place as the Focus of Another: The Making
of a Conservationist".................... 49
5. Barbara "Barney" Nelson, "That One-Eyed Hereford Muley" from The Wild
and the Domestic.................... 69
6. Joe Nick Patoski, "Springs".................... 91
7. Gary Clark, "Memories of a Prairie Chicken Dance".................... 101
8. Marian Haddad, "Wildflower. Stone.".................... 111
9. Wyman Meinzer, "Nature Writer".................... 123
10. Ray Gonzales, "Tortas Locas" from The Underground Heart................ 131
11. Naomi Shihab Nye, "Home Address" from Never in a Hurry................. 145
12. Gerald Thurmond, "Faith's Place" from Crossroads: A Southern Culture
13. David Taylor, "Paddling the Urban Sprawl of North Texas"............... 173
14. Stephen Harrigan, "What Texas Means to Me" from A Natural State........ 189