Walden West ~ January 1

On January 1, as I returned to the small, wet depression I’d dubbed Walden West, I’d made some assumptions about what I would find on a cool, dim New Year’s Day. I fully expected seed pods and fallen leaves, bare branches, and a mixture of yaupon and palmetto, but in only a few hours I discovered a far richer and more varied world: a world splashed with color and teeming with life.

The first clue that I wouldn’t be alone came as I crossed a boardwalk on my way to the less-traveled path that leads to the pond. An iridescent fly with the amusing name of Secondary Screwworm (Cochliomyia macellaria) was lolling about, ready for a photo session. While the larvae feed on carrion and decomposing tissue, they only enter existing wounds: a practice which gave rise to the ‘secondary’ in their name.

(Click any image for more details; I imagined this one’s eyes held together by a zipper.)

At the edge of a clearing beyond the boardwalk, a few eastern annual Saltmarsh Asters (Symphyotrichum subulatum) still bloomed, while patches of Crow Poison (Nothoscordum bivalve) hosted hoverflies, ants, and at least one metallic sweat bee.

One of our earliest-blooming spring wildflowers, Crow Poison can put on quite a show even in early winter when conditions are right.

Moving more deeply into the woods, I found innumerable trees sporting lichen covered trunks. Judging by color alone, the blue-green example shown here might be a powdery medallion lichen, or a lobed cotton lichen. For that matter, it could be salted shell lichen; I really haven’t a clue.

But this website, filled with lichen photos and more amusing lichen names than I could have imagined — yellow cobblestone, sunken button, golden moonglow, pebbled pixie cup — will be helpful in future attempts to identify fungi of all sorts.

It is, of course, seed season, and an abundance of Clematis pitcheri seed pods dangled, spider-like, from red-berried Yaupon trees (Ilex vomitoria): a reminder to watch in spring for the deep blue, urn-shaped flowers that produced them.

In some places, Seaside Goldenrod continues to produce a few blooms, but other species, like this Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima), have bid a final farewell to summer.

Other farewells are more colorful. Gardeners no doubt are familiar with leaf spots like these, which can be caused by bacteria as well as by fungi. Bacterial infections often form a yellow ‘halo’ around infected areas; fungal diseases more typically produce spores within the leaf spot, aiding identification.

Just above this leaf, another bit of color hung swaying in the breeze. An Orchard Orb Weaver (Leucauge venusta) had positioned itself beneath its horizontal web, presumably awaiting the arrival of prey. Its name certainly suits: Leucauge comes from Greek roots that mean ‘with a bright gleam,’ while the specific epithet venusta means ‘charming,’ or ‘attractive.’

Deep in the dim, damp shade, more fungi appeared. At first, I assumed this smooth, round ‘something’ to be a puffball. Then, I realized larger examples nearby had taken on the appearance of rising bread. I’ve yet to find a similar photo online, so identification will have to wait.  

Despite my inability to identify this six-inch wide mushroom, I found its serrated edge interesting, and the symmetry of its gills especially attractive.

As I worked my way back to the edge of the grove, a few more flowers appeared, like this perfectly named Hairypod Cowpea (Vigna luteola). Coaxed into additional bloom by sunlight and warmth, it already was producing seed.

Nearby, I thought I’d found a mutated hoverfly with four wings, until I took a closer look and realized two hoverflies had chosen to dally on a petal of Whitemouth Dayflower (Commelina erecta ).

Looking at the photos, I noticed for the first time the small bulb-like appendages extending from the hoverflies’ bodies. They’re known as halteres: a second pair of wings reduced to flexible, vibrating, club-shaped rods. They function like miniscule gyroscopes, constantly feeding information to the insect about its position and providing for the instant, precise flight adjustment that allows hoverflies to hover or quickly change direction.

As a final treat, I found this Four-spotted Aphid Fly (Dioprosopa clavata) visiting a late-blooming Texas Vervain (Verbena halei). The only Dioprosopa species in North America, this member of the Syrphidae lays its eggs on vegetation near aphid colonies. Newly hatched larvae feed on the aphids, making this hoverfly an important biological control agent in citrus growing areas where Brown Citrus Aphids are common.

It’s sometimes confused with a wasp because of its narrow ‘waist,’ but its two wings and the presence of halteres confirm it as a true fly.

Given what January already has offered, I’m eager to see what February will bring at ‘Walden West.’

“The day is an epitome of the year. The night is the winter, the morning and evening are the spring and fall, and the noon is the summer.”
Walden ~ Henry David Thoreau


Comments always are welcome.

78 thoughts on “Walden West ~ January 1

  1. Wow, that’s quite a compendium of little treasures. Thoreau would be proud of you. That’s a great abstraction of the mushroom seen from the side, kind of like the grille of a car.

    1. I was so deeply immersed in the research involved with putting this post together that it was fun to see it afresh this morning. I enjoyed mixing in a little photographic abstraction with the documentation. My two favorite photos are that mushroom and the tree trunk. If I hadn’t wanted to emphasize the ‘trunkness’ of the tree segment, it would have made an appealing abstract image as well.

  2. I’m overwhelmed by all the wonder Linda! Fantastic post.. I’ve shared via twitter and told folks, “Honestly, you should really see a ‘Hairypod Cowpea'” LOL. Total joy to read this post!

    1. I’m happy for your enthusiastic response, Liz. There are some wonderful common names out there, and ‘hairypod cowpea’ is one of the best. ‘Hairypod’ is obvious; what I don’t know is whether cows enjoy munching on them. I’ve said before that I keep a magnet bearing Georgia O’Keeffe’s words on my refrigerator, and look at it every day. It says, “Take time to look.” The woman was right.

    1. Thanks, Becky. I especially enjoyed finding so many insects, and having the good people at BugGuide so willing to help me identify a couple of them. Learning about the halteres was especially interesting, since I’ve photographed hoverflies before, but never noticed those little gadgets.

  3. Uau, look and you shall find! What a rich collection of creatures! I often have problems identifying mushrooms also. Sometimes we need to look at structures that are not readily available to correctly id them. The photos of the insects are really nice, they seem to have posed for you!

    1. When I began to be interested in native plants, I tended to lump everything into the category ‘pretty flower.’ Eventually, I began to learn the genera, and then the species. I suspect the same will be true with fungi. I’m still at the, “What a weird mushroom!” stage, but families, genera, and species will come in time, just as they have for insects. The move from prairies to woods really is a move into a quite different world.

        1. I didn’t know that, about your profession. You may enjoy this article, if you’ve not already come across it. The title caught my attention, and the article itself was so enjoyable — and enlightening — that I’ve saved it for occasional re-reads.

    1. You’re welcome. It’s always good to be reminded how enjoyable learning can be, and I certainly learned a lot as I was putting this together. I’m glad you enjoyed the results!

    1. When I finally saw those photos on the computer, I was glad I’d worked at getting at least one decent image. I do have to be more mindful of getting the twigs out of my hair before I go in a public place, though.

  4. Your Walden West looks like a summer resort for me if winter is just your night time and in the morning it’s spring. We over here are having as low as -30C temp. (-22F) for over two weeks now, thought I could escape it being in Toronto but the cold lingers. Great pics as always.

    1. Geography may not be destiny, but a few degrees of latitude certainly do make a difference. Of course, the day after I made this visit, one of our ‘blue northers’ had blown through, and we dropped a quick forty degrees. Now, we’re back in the warmth; the meteorological roller coaster’s our winter normal. I hope you get at least a little more warmth; that sounds truly bone-chilling. Console yourself with thoughts of spring birding!

      1. Glad you mention birds. A few days ago I saw a couple of robins in my backyard feeding on the remaining tiny fruits on the bare tree. I checked the temperature: -26C. They are an inspiration!

        1. My goodness. I’m surprised that all of your Turdus didn’t migratorius! I’m still hoping to see them here. Last year, my first photos of them were taken on January 9.

  5. You have, with your clear prose and your close photography introduced us to a mini-world. The second Secondary Screwworm really has a human face; the lichen textures are wonderful; the final mushroom image is architectural; the overflies’ halteres are well seen. All in all an intriguing post

    1. The details really do matter, don’t they? One thing I’ve learned is never to allow my first look at something to be my last. Despite the number of hoverflies I’ve photographed, I’d never noticed those halteres. This time they stood out, and all it took was an image search for ‘hoverfly anatomy’ to get their proper name.

      I enjoyed combining documentary photos with the abstractions; differently cropped, the lichen photo would make a wonderfully abstract image. I wanted to make clear they were on a tree, though, so I resisted the temptation.

    1. Sure enough, GP. Of course, you’re engaged in the same sort of ‘looking’ with your posts. It’s the details of history that make it come alive, just as the details of a flower or fly allow us to see them more clearly and sympathetically.

    1. As I’ve often said, one of the best purchases I’ve made was my macro lens. A metallic blue sweat bee’s beauty shines even without magnification, but I never would have imagined the beauty of a blowfly. Every time I see something new like that, I can’t help thinking, “What’s next?”

    1. The naming usually comes even more slowly than the seeing. On average, I’d say that for every hour spent wandering around, I spend two to three hours at my desk trying to figure out what I’ve seen. On the other hand, experience builds on experience, and every year I’m able to recognize more. Those clematis seed pods are a good example. When I found them on New Year’s Day, I knew immediately what they were, but there was a time when I didn’t have a clue that a favorite flower had produced them. Live, and learn, is a pretty good motto.

  6. Your description of the Secondary Screwworm’s eyes being held together by a zipper is perfect! And that spider! Whoever thought to describe such a frightening predator as ‘charming’…. Incredible photos, I can picture you on your knees or belly, on a tarp (?)…

    1. The spider’s a pretty thing, and to be honest, they’re so small it’s hard to think of them as threatening. Even finding one can be a challenge. The bright colors help, but I don’t think this one’s body was any more than a third of an inch long.

      I laughed when I saw the photo of that fly’s face. I thought ‘zipper!’ as soon as I saw it. As for tarps and such, I never bother. At the end of the day there’s always soap and water, and just toting the camera, lenses, drinking water and such is enough. It can be challenging when I’m after something like those mushroom gills; that thing’s stalk was only 2″ high. No matter — there’s usually no one around to see my contortions anyway.

  7. A gorgeous set of photos and such a variety. I really am taken with the C. pitcheri seed pods because I’m trying, so far without success, to find one to plant. Your fly shots and that spider are exquisite. What a place to visit!

    1. I was surprised when I found so many flies out and about, and I thought about you when I came across the metallic blue fly. I was so afraid it would disappear, I just dropped everything on the ground and shot without even checking my settings. Since I’d been shooting the last hoverfly, the settings were ok — and that little gem flew off in an instant. That’s the only photo of it I managed.

      Would you like to try starting the C. pitcheri from seed? I know of a couple of places along the banks of the Brazos where there are huge stands of it climbing over everything. If you’d like to go that route,I’d be happy to see what I can do.

      1. You’re sweet to offer and if you find yourself that way, sure, I’ll take some. Barton Springs Nursery is supposedly growing some specimens in gallon pots, it’s just a matter of getting there when the plants are ready to be sold. I need to get on their list and maybe they’ll give me a call. They used to do that, not sure anymore. Another thing to add to my to-do list this week.

        Your flies reminded me that earlier last week, I was busy mulching my front garden…or something. Anyhow, the pathway is adjacent to a row of Burford holly, which I planted many years ago. They’re nice shrubs, though not native. They have berries in the winter (not this one, unfortunately) are evergreen, so the birds like them, and bloom tiny little white flowers in winter/early spring which the honeybees love. I heard buzzing as I passed by and finally stopped to see who was making the racket. It was a gaggle of flies! Or is it a herd? There must have been about 20 and I think they were paying attention to some of the tiny blooms. It was odd, I’ve never seen that before. I didn’t get a photo and certainly didn’t try to id them–I’m impressed with your id! I find flies tricky and there are so, so many in that category.

        1. I don’t know a thing about gardening, but I did find this, from Mr. Smarty Plants: “Gather seeds when they are no longer green but before the cluster of achenes completely dries and drops the seeds to the ground. Remain viable up to two years without refrigeration.” That’s good; even if I find some too late for planting this fall, they’ll stay viable.

          Do you think your flies were hoverflies? Maybe not. I can’t remember ever hearing them buzz. Whatever they were, hooray for you for still having something for them to feast on. BugGuide helped me out with two IDs for this post, as well as giving me some tips for how to post there. I was more than appreciative, believe me.

          1. No they weren’t hovers, though I saw some before the freeze. They were run-of-the-mill flies. I should have grabbed th camera, but mulch all over, y know. I like BugGuide. I find it more useful than INaturalist. As for the seeds, it’s good to know they last a while.

    1. Give my regards to Sr., and tell him ‘thanks.’ It was a great day, and I was pleased to find such a mix of flora and fauna. No one’s mentioned something else that caught my eye; as soon as I saw the Clematis seed heads, I thought, “Medusa!” I’m glad I decided to try for a couple of more abstract images. This isn’t Biology 101, after all!

  8. It is so fascinating to experience your exploration as Walden West yields its treasures.

    Despite Thoreau’s “seasons in a day” description, it will be interesting to see what the actual seasonal changes will be like in your own Walden pond.

    As I savored the flowers, insects, fungi – I was struck by the fact that this is all happening on the first of January. Dead winter. Hopefully, your fans in cooler climes will derive a bit of warmth from your post.

    The tree trunk lichen brings to mind abstract art. I may not be able to define it, but I know what I like!

    Thank you for sharing your new playground!

    1. I agree; each month is going to have something new to offer, and not knowing what it will be is part of the fun. I certainly didn’t set out on this little venture thinking, “Gotta find a blowfly!” And yet, that was one of the most interesting discoveries of the day.

      I saw the lichen-covered tree trunk as you did, and I debated how to present it. Differently cropped, it makes a beautiful abstract image. Still, I wanted the quality of ‘tree-ness’ to be there, so I held off on the cropping. There’s no question that lichens lend themselves to abstraction — and that opens up a whole new way of looking at the hill country.

  9. I loved the zipper analogy, Linda. And I found the information on the halteres serving as gyroscopes one more proof of just how wondrous nature is. As always, your photographs provided excellent examples for your written commentary as well as adding a touch of beauty. –Curt

    1. It’s hard not to see a zipper in that photo, isn’t it? I wonder if one blowfly ever has said to another, “Zip it, buddy!”

      As for those halteres, they’re just amazing. I read a few articles about them that I barely could understand, but I got the basics. Now I know that all flies belong to Diptera — ‘two winged’ — and they all have halteres. Some scientists suggest that houseflies and blowflies make use of their halteres in another way: they help those flies take to the air up to five times faster than other flies. That’s why a housefly’s so hard to swat.

      1. “A group of flies known as Calyptratae, which includes houseflies and blowflies, rhythmically move these wings when standing.”

        Maybe its like revving your engine. Or maybe they can note a difference in wind current. Whatever, it’s fascinating. Their awareness and speed is an incredible defense mechanism. –Curt

  10. I love this post. The images are so well taken. Here I see the reason why we should take thorough walks in the woods. All the beauty goes unnoticed if we walk too fast.

    1. Simon and Garfunkle got it right when they sang, “Slow down, you move too fast — got to make the morning last…” There’s a lot to see in every part of the day, if only we take the time. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post; I certainly enjoyed every part of putting it together.

  11. Linda, you’ve been as busy as Nature has! I learn so much from your explorations. I’ve seen those colorful flies before but always found myself repelled by them. Here, they tend to gravitate toward decomposing animal poop! But that mushroom makes up for such ickiness in its delicacy, and I’m fascinated by the patchwork quilted tree trunk!

    1. Believe it or not, butterflies will gravitate toward animal droppings, too; it’s one way that they get needed minerals like nitrogen and sodium, which are necessary for reproduction. As with all foods, fresh is best, so who knows? Monkey may be helping out the butterflies in your neighborhood!

      I really enjoyed finding that mushroom, and being sharp enough to realize that its gills would make a good photo. The tree trunk might be my favorite; you can expect to see that again some time, re-cropped into abstract art.

    1. The gray, cool day helped, I think. I was most surprised by the blowfly’s willingness to stay put. I wondered if it might have come to the end of its life cycle. It was tending to go in circles, like the solitary bees I find on boats sometimes. In any event, I was more than pleased with the photos, and the nice people at BugGuide gave me its name.

  12. Fantastic photographs! It’s great to see what a variety of life there is around the pond – and the detail when you look closely. The name ‘Hairypod Cowpea’ made me smile.

    1. Isn’t that a great name? Some common names make no sense to me, but ones that are perfectly descriptive often are a delight. I did make another run at figuring out ‘cowpea,’ and found this: “Cowpeas, including black-eyed peas, are native to the Old World, primarily Africa and Asia, and were brought to this country as food for humans, but hairypod cowpea is a not an import. The word, ‘cowpea’ is American in origin, however; its usage first appeared about the time of the Revolution.”

    1. Now, there’s a phrase I’ve not heard for a while: “Far out!” I love it, and I’m glad you found the post worthy of that accolade. In one way or another, the land around my little wet spot in the woods supports quite a diversity of life; it’s going to be interesting to see what else appears throughout the year.

  13. I really like lichens and I have a piece in progress, very slow progress, but that picture of the mushroom gills is awesome. I may have to use that. So much here. Your photographs are amazing. Insects are amazing. Nature/life is amazing. Thank you for documenting it, the small things often overlooked that make it all work.

    1. When I saw that mushroom, I wanted a side view to go with the one taken from above, but nothing really seemed appealing. Then, I decided to focus on the gills: voila! Of course you know you’re welcome to use it. I’ve never paid much attention to lichens; they seemed confusing. But now that I’ve done a bit of reading, and seen photos of ones I’ve encountered, things are beginning to sort themselves out — at least, a little.

  14. Such rich imagery in a single post! I love the iridescent glimmer of the hoverfly’s wings, that particular angle of the spider’s web, the curves on the flutes of that mushroom.

    1. I was surprised by the variety I found; there were so many things to admire, like those you mentioned. Every time I look at the group, I find myself favoring something different, and yet they’re all part of the same, glorious world.

    1. When I decided to do this, I wasn’t sure how it would work out, but this certainly has been an auspicious beginning. It occurs to me it will be a little like watching Lil’Urchin grow. We don’t see her every day, so every new glimpse is surprising. Returning to the same spot every month should provide the same sense of surprise — and delight. At least, I hope so!

  15. It’s always a joy to see just how much an area has to offer when you have the time to look for it. I love the diversity of your findings. Those Orchard Orb Weavers are amazing and glow in some interesting colors when light hits them the right way. And what a fortunate find in the form of the two hoverflies. Beautiful photos!

    1. After posting this, I learned that the silvery-white patches on the Orchard Orb Weaver is due to thin platelet-like guanine crystals that reflect light, while the reddish-orange and yellow areas are due to overlaying pigments in the epidermis. I tried to figure out ‘guanine,’ but got lost in the science pretty quickly, so I’ll just remember that they’re designed to reflect light.

      I found so much on this day, I’ve wondered what will be there in a month. Of course, some things go and others appear — that’s the point of returning to the same spot, time after time. I enjoy truly ‘knowing’ a place, and that’s not possible with only one quick walk-through.

  16. WOW. Talk about teeming with life and color! Your personal Walden is a good example of what you can see if you just take the time to LOOK.

    1. And the best thing is that it’s only two hours away, rather than three days, like the real Walden would be. (I don’t drive straight through, or do long days, like I used to.) I’m trying to decide now whether I should explore my little place on the first of every month, regardless, or perhaps stick to the Sunday nearest the first. That makes more sense, because of work constraints — and on Sundays, the traffic’s much lighter than during the week: leaves more time for looking!

  17. Spectacular fails to capture your images! What word goes beyond that? I feel that some of these images will visit me in my dreams. One image in particular, of what you described as “seed pods dangled, spider-like, from red-berried Yaupon trees”: I have never seen its equal, not even when searching for Yaupon trees, though I’ve seen plenty of photos of the red berries. It is eye-catching, unique, and magnificent. At what stage do those seed pods get produced? Is that the first time you’ve seen them at that stage?

    1. The seedpods belong to a species of clematis often called purple leatherflower. You can see three stages of it here, including early development of the sort of seed pod I included in this post. This clematis is a vine that climbs over, under, and through other shrubs and shrub-like trees; that’s how it got tangled up with the yaupon. It’s a beautiful flower, and people sometimes plant it on trellises or fences. I usually come upon it on riverbanks, or at woodland edges, although I’ve also found it in unmowed ditches. I’m hoping to come upon more of these seedpods this year so I can collect some seed, but I may be a little late.

      1. Thank you so very much for the detailed and informative response! When I saw that breathtaking photo, it looked like something that is more likely to come out of a fantasy book/movie than reality. The right eye, the right focus, can clearly expand the imagination, and your words, the mind.

        Again, thank you for both!

  18. A most interesting wander, with lots of great spots and shots! My favourite is the Clematis pitcheri seed pods against Ilex berries (nice species name). After reading this, I am beginning to think that I need to find out more about flies!

    1. Here’s what the Wildflower Center has to say about that specific epithet:

      “The leaves and twigs contain caffeine, and American Indians used them to prepare a tea, which they drank in large quantities ceremonially and then vomited back up, lending the plant its species name, vomitoria. The vomiting was self-induced or because of other ingredients added; it doesn’t actually cause vomiting. Tribes from the interior traveled to the coast in large numbers each spring to partake of this tonic, and it was also a common hospitality drink among many groups.”

      I’ve had yaupon tea from this company, and it’s quite good. Cat Springs isn’t so far away; now and then I think I ought to make a journey to the place.

      As for the flies: yes. I’ve been astonished by the beauty of the ones I’ve managed to photograph. Who knew that a carrion feeder could be so gorgeous? So much for assumptions!

    1. That’s happened to me recently. If it happens again, here’s what I do: I refresh the page, and look down below. Sometimes the comment is still there, unposted but in a plain text box. I copy it, then refresh the page again, then paste. It’s a whole lot of work, but it’s the only way I’ve found around it.

  19. That’s quite a great start compiling a natural history inventory of Walden West. So many interesting creatures and organisms. Possibly your unidentified ball-shaped mushroom could be a red-banded polypore or Reishi, or not, that start looking like that and eventually turn into bracket fungi with a “furry” border and red woody flesh inside that.
    In most flies the haltere is my favorite feature but, of course, with hover flies those stained glass window wings take the prize. Your secondary screwworm fly is a cutie and hooray for metallic sweat bees.

    1. In other years, January 1 would have looked quite different. This year, the day fell at the end of an extended warm spell, which accounted for some of those flowers — and the insects visiting them. Now that we’re into the thirties and forties, with highs in the 50s, I suspect February will look a little different. On the other hand, February usually is the beginning of our spring, with an assortment of early flowers beginning to appear, so who knows.

      I had one other photo taken of a mushroom growing from the same log as the baby ‘whatevers.’ It was quite large, about 12″ across: maybe more. I didn’t want to put too many photos in the post, so I left it out, but I had a sense that it might have been a grown-up ‘whatever.’ Do you recognize it, or at least have a family where I could begin looking? One thing I know for sure is that using a term like ‘white mushroom’ will bring up thousands of images, and my eyes start to glaze over after a couple of hundred.

  20. I’ve neglected commenting, and this page has remained on the browser.. Ah, Walden! Years ago (a lifetime ago?) I named our little cabin on the ‘chute’ ‘Walden’ – and people would look at the name and ask, “Did you sell your place to the Waldens?”
    It happened enough that I put quotes from Walden through the cabin, so that maybe they would – or would not- grasp or make the connection.

    What would we do without our connections with nature? Some of us would slowly wither away, like an orphaned animal in a cage!

    I’d best get ‘out there’ and check on the mud!

    1. That’s amusing: having to plaster your place with quotations so others would understand that it wasn’t the result of a recent real estate transaction. Sometimes I wonder what Thoreau would think of our society today, not to mention what he’d think of his own place in history. Ah, well. The fact that he’s still remembered and honored probably would be enough for him.

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