By Their Ripples Ye Shall Know Them

Spreading, circular ripples on still water may seem mysterious, but they often signal the presence of one of our area’s smaller but especially attractive birds: the Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps).

Shy, with a preference for bank edges and small vegetation-covered islands that offer protective cover, the bird rarely is seen in flight. Instead, it dives: often at the slightest hint of a human presence. Its genus name, Podilymbus, is rooted in the Latin word for “feet at the buttocks.” Like many diving birds, its feet are located near its rear end: a feature which helps the bird propel itself through the water.

Despite their tendency to disappear in a flash, they sometimes will pause for a portrait despite their awareness of a human observer: cautious as ever, but undeniably cute.

 

Comments always are welcome.

This One’s for Florida

 

After hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike, and Harvey did their worst, workers and supplies poured into Louisiana and Texas from Florida. Once Ian has wreaked his havoc, the favor will be returned. Utility workers and search and rescue teams already have been deployed from both states, and no doubt from others. Civic and church groups are making their plans, as are individuals.

For now, there’s little to do but shelter, wait, and hope, until the time for work has come.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Down By the Brazos

The Brazos in Flood ~ 2016

The longest river in Texas, the Brazos rises near the eastern boundary of Stonewall County, east and slightly south of the town of Lubbock. Flowing 840 miles across the state, it drains into the Gulf of Mexico roughly halfway between the Brazoria and San Bernard wildlife refuges.

Like any river, its course is far from straight. Communities that grew up along its banks testify to that by their names: Meeks Bend, Big Valley Bend, Horseshoe Bend.  Fort Bend, a blockhouse built to provide protection against Indian raids in the 1800s, eventually gave its name to Fort Bend County: the home of Brazos Bend State Park.

Brazos Bend provides everything that makes a park appealing: miles of trails, well-designed campgrounds, picnic spots galore, and a rich variety of plants and animals. Alligators are a primary claim to fame. Visitors often ask one another, “Have you seen any alligators today?” But there’s more to see than alligators. Here are a few sights that delighted me during a visit last Sunday.

An early arrival meant dew drops still could be found on this tiny leaf of a newly-energized grapevine (Vitis mustangensis).

Only feet from the parking lot, a diminuitive mushroom caught my eye. So tiny that the shadow on its left side was caused by mown lawn grass, it was just over an inch tall, with a half-inch wide cap.

For the inexperienced like myself, identifying mushrooms can be especially difficult. In this case, translucency offered a hint; this ice-like beauty may be a Marasmioid mushroom. My photo hardly does it justice, but you can see better examples here.

Fuzzier than the beach tea (Croton punctatus) found on our dunes, wooly Croton (Croton lindheimeri) lives up to its common name. According to Flora of North America, C. lindheimeri can be distinguished in part by the rusty/orange color on young growth, and sharp leaf tips. This plant certainly seems to fit the description.

An especially small morning glory, Ipomoea lacunosa has been described as “growing in low areas adjacent to creeks and rivers.” Proximity to the park’s 40 Acre Lake apparently suited these; their long vines twined over a substantial area. Sometimes called Whitestar, the diminuitive native blooms well into October.

Whitestar morning glory

Along a shaded trail, a Texas endemic I’d seen only once before was coming into bloom. Even smaller than the Whitestar morning glory, Texas pinkroot (Spigelia texana) is easy to miss. Other Spigelia species, like the woodland pinkroot, are more colorful, and often are used in garden plantings.

Spigelia texana at Brazos Bend
Spigelia texana bud and bloom at the San Bernard refuge

Butterflies, like this Queen nectaring at a species of Heliotrope, were common.

To my delight, native lotuses (Nelumbo lutea) still were blooming. A flower as much as twelve inches across can make it hard to include both the entire flower and a tiny damselfly in the same photo, but the pairing did bring a smile.

The most interesting find of the day involved this common garden spider, Argiope aurantia. When I first noticed it alongside the path, it didn’t seem to be doing anything other than what spiders often do: hang out in their webs awaiting prey.

Sometime later, once again passing the spider on the same path, I noticed something different. It seemed to be holding a ball of white silk unlike anything I’d seen before. Although the egg sacs of A. aurantia usually are larger, it’s possible that this was an egg sac in the making, especially since the spider clearly was ‘working’ the silk as I watched.

 
James Trager, a biologist/naturalist for the Missouri Botanical Gardens’ Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Missouri described the process of Argiope egg sac creation in a comment on the Prairie Ecologist blog, edited here for length:

When the time comes for egg laying, the mother spider produces an uncompleted upper half of the egg sac’s papery outer layer, followed by an inverted basket of soft yellow silk, which will form a padded receptacle for the eggs.
Laid in a single mass, the eggs — held together by a slightly viscous fluid — are pushed up into the inverted basket by movements of the abdomen. Then, the layer of yellow padding around the egg mass is finished, followed by an outer, water-resistent but porous layer which protects the eggs and allows for gas exchange.
The whole process takes an hour or so.

In fact, it had been just over an hour between my sightings of this particular spider. Whether I found it creating a small egg sac may be debatable, but one thing is certain: whether coming or going along nature’s paths, the sights aren’t always the same.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Awaiting Equinox

Early autumn color at Brazos Bend State Park ~ September 18

 

It is an old drama,
this disappearance of the leaves,
this seeming death
of the landscape.
In a later scene,
or earlier,
the trees like gnarled magicians
produce handkerchiefs
of leaves
out of empty branches.
And we watch.
We are like children
at this spectacle
of leaves,
as if one day we too
will open the wooden doors
of our coffins
and come out smiling
and bowing
all over again.
                 “November” ~ Linda Pastan

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on poet Linda Pastan, please
click here.

Buttoning Up Summer

Grassleaf Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia graminifolia) bloom from late summer through early fall in the wet flatwoods and prairies, seeps, and bogs of east Texas’s Big Thicket. Here, the warm hues of a pitcher plant flower provide a glowing background for the emerging disk florets of this small, button-like flower.

A member of the Asteraceae, or sunflower family, the plant’s dome-shaped flower heads sway atop slender stems as much as sixteen inches tall. Like its family-mate the Basket-flower, Barbara’s Buttons have disk flowers but no rays: a characteristic that increases their resemblance to one another in shape, if not in size.

The genus name Marshallia honors Humphry Marshall (1722-1801) and his nephew Moses Marshall (1758-1813), American botanists active in and around Pennsylvania during the Colonial period. The specific epithet graminifolia refers to the plant’s grasslike leaves.

Although every species in the genus is known as Barbara’s Buttons, the identity of ‘Barbara’ remains unclear.  It seems the name first appeared in print in botanist John Kunkel Small’s 1933 book, Flora of the Southeastern United States.

Whatever the source of the flower’s common name, it’s quite attractive to late-season pollinators like butterflies, beetles, and bees, and a lovely bit of lingering color as the season begins to change.

 

Comments always are welcome.