Walden West ~ February 1

Since the first day of February fell on a Tuesday, I made my second visit to the spot I’ve come to call ‘Walden West’ on January 30 and 31. Tucked between freezes, the days were sunny and mild, with sunlight emphasizing the green of emerging grasses; although the water had receded somewhat, enough remained to reflect the clear, blue sky.

At first glance, I thought a turtle was lounging in the middle of the pond, but I discovered it was only a turtle-friendly log. Perhaps one day in the future I’ll find an actual turtle there.

Many of the trees surrounding the water had lost their leaves, making the details of their trunks even more interesting. This trunk, which I take to be a Dwarf Hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia), had been split along its length, giving it a scroll-like appearance.

Nearby, a Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia) still held a few leaves.  The most common elm in Texas, the tree often is found near streams, in flatwoods near rivers, or on dry limestone hills.  Its seeds ripen in fall, helping to distinguish it from other native elms.

Cedar Elm

Winged Elms (Ulmus alata) have larger leaves and seeds that mature in the spring. Its leaves also provide a bit of color, but its most distinguishing feature is the wide, corky ‘wings’ on either side of its branchlets; the specific epithet alata is from the Latin word meaning ‘winged.’

Described as a “small and slender component of the understory in the wild,” the Winged Elms at Walden West fit the description perfectly. The examples I found were relatively small:; none reached more than six or seven feet.

Winged Elm

Among the insects that feed on the foliage, wood, or plant juices of Winged Elm are caterpillars of the Question Mark butterfly and the Giant Walkingstick. If I keep an eye on the elms, I might find another walking stick in the coming year.

Winged Elm leaf and ‘wings’

In nature, change is constant, and I found quite a change when I sought out the pretty, algae-decorated tree that caught my attention in early January.

January 1

On this visit, the obvious damage wasn’t particularly deep and it was limited to one side of the trunk, but it pointed to the presence of another creature in the woods.

January 31

Since the mud surrounding the pond was covered in tracks made by white-tailed deer, it seems reasonable to assume that one of the deer visiting the water also had damaged the tree with a ‘buck rub.’

Before and during the rut, or breeding season, bucks rub trees with their antlers as a way of marking territory, working off aggression, and intimidating other bucks.

But the earliest rut in Texas occurs in the Gulf prairies and marshes: an area which happens to be home to Walden West. Since the breeding season is well over, and since buck rubs also serve to communicate a buck’s presence to other deer by scent left on trees, brush, and saplings, it’s entirely reasonable to assume the damaged bark was the result of a buck attempting to establish his territory or dominance.

Dwarf Palmettos

Scattered among the elm, hackberry, yaupon, and oak, Dwarf Palmettos (Sabal Minor) add an interesting accent to the land surrounding the pond. Slow growers and usually stemless, the leaves arise from underground stock and are especially attractive when young.

One of our most cold-hardy native palms, dwarf palmetto can be found in a variety of habitats, including maritime forests, swamps, and floodplains. Its fragrant white flowers are followed by clusters of small black fruits that are enjoyed by a variety of birds and small mammals.

The palmettos also provide a hidden-in-plain-sight napping spot for the Green Tree Frog (Dryophytes cinereus). This is the third such frog I’ve found at the San Bernard Refuge; each had chosen a palmetto blade for its spot. If you look closely at the second photo, you can see the reflection of the inch-long frog on the palmetto’s stiff and shiny leaf.

In the grasses surrounding the palmettos, a Milkweed Assassin Bug (Zelus longipes) was busy preparing its dinner. Using its long mouthparts, it had captured and immobilized its prey with a paralyzing toxin. In time, it would ingest the creature’s dissolved body fluids through those same mouthparts in the same way that we use a soda straw.

Looking upward, I found the trees hosting a variety of vines. Colorful Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) encircled many of the trunks.

Equally attractive but less bothersome Greenbrier (Smilax bona-nox) twined through trees and shrubs alike.

Its fruits, said to be favored by opossums, raccoons, squirrels, and songbirds, must be tasty; very few remained on the vines.

The most exciting discovery of the day involved Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides). Neither a moss nor a parasite, Spanish Moss is an epiphyte: a plant that absorbs nutrients and water through its leaves from the air and the rain. Like Ball Moss (Tillandsia recurvata), it’s a flowering plant, but I’d never found evidence of its flowers.

When I decided to try a backlit photo of its tangled strands, I discovered something odd. Rust-colored bits were everywhere. At first, I assumed they were insects; looking  more closely, I discovered they were seed pods.

A tangle of Spanish Moss
Opened Spanish Moss seed pod

At the edge of the woods, Early Buttercups were blooming: their waxy leaves reflecting the light.

Early Buttercup (Ranunculus fascicularis) with hoverfly

Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos) seemed to find them equally attractive.

Drummond’s hedgenettle (Stachys drummondii), a member of the mint family, contributed a lavender accent.

The first Ten-petaled Anemone (Anemone berlandieri ) I’d seen this year was a bit worn around the edges, but still delightful. Named for French naturalist Jean Louis Berlandier, its common name is misleading, since the plant has no petals, only petal-like sepals, and their number can range from seven to twenty-five.

Even at the beginning of February, signs of impending spring were everywhere. Seedlings of the Cedar Elm ringed the pond.

Basal leaves of the native Dwarf Plantain (Plantago virginica) were less common, but more obvious.

And finally, shrugging off the cold, new Turk’s Cap plants (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) were thriving.

In time, their vibrant flowers will ring the edges of the pond: a sign of spring arrived.

Turk’s Cap


“Is not January the hardest month to get through?  When you have weathered that, you get into the gulf stream of winter, nearer the shore of spring.”
~ from Winter:  The Writings of Henry David Thoreau


Comments always are welcome.
For an introduction to the Walden West project, click here.


65 thoughts on “Walden West ~ February 1

    1. When I came across that line from Thoreau, I just grinned. It’s such a familiar and human response, although more elegantly phrased than most of our grumping. I loved the frog: so tiny, and so green!

  1. What a cascade of lovely images. You are and have been very busy. We are facing autumn but a late summer is still possible. I can’t wait to see my small garden turn silver, gold and auburn.
    The Milkweed assassins’ bug sucking its pray through a straw like gadget conjures up some images that doesn’t really fit with my past fondness of milkshakes.

    1. I pondered including so many images, but decided that, given the purpose of documenting changes over the year, and given the variety of life there, it seemed reasonable. Beyond all that, I’ve certainly learned a good bit over the past month, especially about trees and vines.

      Isn’t that assassin bug something? Back in the 1950s and very early 1960s, the height of young love often was symbolized by a girl and boy sharing a milkshake: one shake, two straws. I’m not sure the assassin bug would be so willing to share.

  2. That’s quite a compendium of pictures and observations you gathered from your visit last week. You’ve got an excellent close-up of the opening Spanish moss seed pod. And now we’ve both shown a tree frog on a palmetto.

    I’ve been at a loss to distinguish cedar elm from winged elm, as both have flanges. Here’s what Bill Carr says about winged elm: “Frequently reported from Travis County but perhaps based on specimens of Ulmus crassifolia, particularly of young growth in which stems are commonly winged and leaves are often broader and longer than in mature growth. The two differ in flowering periods, with Ulmus alata blooming in the spring (Feb-Mar) and Ulmus crassifolia in the fall (Jul-Oct). So the identification of a particular young specimen seems to require observing when it flowers.

    1. It may be too many pictures for some folks; on the other hand, I excluded as many as I included. Pondering Walden West, I keep remembering the great line from the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz: “I spent the summer traveling; I got halfway across my back yard.”

      As for the elms, it does seem that flowers and seeds are the most dependable clue to separating them. Winged elm flowers appear before the leaves in March or April and then produce the fruit, a very short orange samara that disperses by the end of April. Cedar Elm flowers emerge as small clusters about August or September, and the fruit, notched at the end, is mature by October.

      Since I began this little project in January, I showed up between flowerings. I’ll have to watch for the Winged Elm flowers in the next month or so.

  3. A wonderful walk beautifully recorded in photographs and prose. The two tree frog pics vie with each other for their patterns

    1. There’s a difference between photos taken to document and those meant to be more artistic. I certainly was intent on artfulness when I photographed the little frog, and I was glad it had chosen such a perfect leaf for its perch. Once I began looking around, I hardly could believe the variety I found.

    1. Your second sentence sounds as though it could be a sequel to Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go! We could call it Oh, The Things That We’ll See!, and follow up on these wonderful lines:

      “You have brains in your head.
      You have feet in your shoes.
      You can steer yourself
      in any direction you choose.
      You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
      And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”

      I’m already looking forward to March; there’s no question there will be new things to see.

    1. It was fun to go back after a month and see the changes. Some flowers I found in January were gone, no doubt nipped by the cold, but new ones were emerging. And there were mysteries to be solved, like the identity of the plantain and the elm seedlings. I’ve been accustomed to looking at flowers in full bloom, unlike you gardeners who know what various plants look like in their earliest stages.

    1. As I mentioned to Steve, I began this series between the elms’ flowerings: winged elm in spring, cedar elm in early autumn. Knowing that, I ought to be able to identify at least those two elms with more certainty in a few weeks. The frog is adorable, and its photos may be my favorites in the group. On the other hand, photographing a Spanish moss seed pod in a brisk wind was the biggest challenge. This was my best photo — the other hundred or so went in the trash.

  4. All of this in a couple of days? It’s extraordinary — so much green (amidst the browns) and the beautiful blooms. I love the walking stick and the ferns. Fabulous images. I love the name (and image of) the milkweed assassin. What a wonderful walking journal, Linda. Thoreau would be proud.

    1. I think it’s going to be great fun to see the changes month to month. Some things, like the palmettos, will stay the same. New flowers will bloom, but the spring ephemerals will disappear — or not, depending on conditions. I’d love to discover some animal life, too. There clearly are deer and raccoons, but there must be snakes, lizards, and such as well. I’ve not seen any evidence of feral hogs, and it’s not alligator-friendly territory, so we’ll see. Maybe the pond will disappear in summer — or fill with flood waters. The good news is that whatever I see, you’ll see!

  5. Show ten randomly selected people your first image and ask them to join you in walking around that scene for two or three hours on a winter’s day, getting down on hands and knees, touching the lichen on a tree trunk, fingering through Spanish moss to see if those are really bugs or buds …
    How many would raise their hand and shout “Me, pick me!”?

    This post is simply outstanding. Discovery begins with observation. The more we observe, the more we want to learn. The more we learn the more we appreciate our subject. And when our subject is Nature, well, the possibilities for discovery are infinite.

    Thoreau would be astounded that you ventured out in January and jealous of all that you observed.

    As are we.

    More than one of us is thankful you ventured out and are gracious enough to share!

    1. Your second paragraph reminded me of a fine passage from physicist Richard Feynman. He said:

      “I have a friend who’s an artist .He’ll hold up a flower and say ‘Look how beautiful it is.’ Then he says ‘I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,’ and I think that he’s kind of nutty.”

      “First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people, and to me too. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty.The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. All kinds of interesting questions emerge, [which is why] the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

      Isn’t that just the truth?

      When I found the Spanish Moss, I remembered a study from Southeastern Naturalist that confirms what my Cajun friends always told me: there are plenty of insects in that stuff, but no chiggers! Pull that pillow stuffing down from the trees, and don’t let it touch the ground!

      It’s been great fun reading Thoreau in tandem with my exploring. I don’t think he’d fuss at me for being so slow!

    1. I suspect you noticed what’s missing in my report: there aren’t any birds. In fact, I neither saw nor heard a single bird those days. When I left the area of the pond and stopped by a large slough, I found some Pied-billed Grebes, Northern Shovelers, and Blue-Winged Teal, but not a single songbird announced its presence in the woods. I suspect that my March report will be different. I heard a dove cooing this week, and watched a White-winged Dove displaying its tail feathers in a platform feeder yesterday. It won’t be long until they make their presence known.

  6. What a wonderful walk in the woods! Just what I needed, what with the weather we’ve been having and dealing with things here at work.

    Love the little froggie.

    I’m surrounded by Spanish Moss here but never had any idea that it bloomed. Nor have I ever noticed seed pods. I’ll be looking a little closer from now on.

    1. The story of how I came to learn that the mosses flower is amusing. At one of our yacht clubs, they’d been cleaning ball moss from the oaks, and I found one ‘ball’ in a parking lot. I noticed one of the tiny blue flowers, so I took it home for a little photo session. Once I realized it was related to Spanish Moss, I wondered that I’d never seen that plant blooming — it took all this time for me to finally come across it. Even now, I was too late to see the flowering; all I got was the seed pod. I’ll keep looking, and look earlier next year.

      I suspect that little froggie might have a magic twanger! (Kids today wouldn’t have a clue.)

  7. Wow, what an interesting visit, with so many things to enjoy. Lovely photos throughout. I especially like the section on Spanish moss and who could resist a cute tree frog? Deer damage of that kind is all too common in our garden. Shame to have lost the lichens though. Were they part of the attraction do you think?

    1. Without any basis at all for my opinion, I’d say the lichens weren’t the attraction; more likely it was the straight, nicely-sized, healthy tree that invited the rubbing. On the other hand, they do eat various lichens, but I’d bet they prefer the more substantial, ‘leafier’ varieties.

      I recently learned that the Cajun way of constructing buildings using Spanish moss and mud (bousillage) is related to the half-timbered construction in England and France which used wooden wall framing — studs, cross beams, and braces — with the spaces between the wooden timbers filled with plaster, brick, or stone. An old technique, adapted to a new country.

      Clearly, the frog has turned out to be the star of the show — with good reason!

    1. I loved finding the frog, especially since I’ve been whining to Steve Gingold for months that I never get to see one. Usually, all I get are the ‘ker-plunks’! I confess to being proud of the Spanish moss seed shot, though. It was a windy day, and if there’s anything that likes to swing in the wind, it’s Spanish moss.

      1. In summer, I hear the little tree frogs in my back porch and garden but have never seen one. Yours was so adorable, all scrunched up and comfy ( and maybe a tiny bit nervous) !

        1. I don’t think he was nervous at all. I kept walking around him, looking for just the right vantage point, and the most he would do is open one eye, give me a look, and then close it again. Wonderful!

  8. Excellent album, it would be great to have it as a pamphlet at the park. That tree frog is pretty cute! And your “Winged Elm leaf and ‘wings’” looks like a neat modern sculpture, a great shot.
    The only plant I can remember seeing with wings like that is “Burning Bush” which a lot of people plant at their houses, for the red leaves in fall.

    1. I remember you mentioning Burning Bush in the past, and when I looked it up, it was obvious why people would like it. Too bad that it’s invasive, like our Chinese Tallow trees. They can produce glorious color in the fall, but the rest of the year they’re busy running native plants out of the neighborhood.

      There is a pretty fall-red plant that’s native in the eastern third of Texas, parts of New York, and in some parts of Wisconsin: the Winged sumac. It’s ‘wings’ aren’t as noticeable as those of the elm, but what it lacks in wings it makes up for in color.

      1. I don’t think the Burning Bush is too successful as an invader, at least in central NY, I’ve never really noticed it growing wild. The multiflora rose, on the other hand, seems to be everywhere in the woods and overgrown pastures, and it’s a thorny pain.

  9. Part of me agrees with Thoreau, but I’m more inclined to attribute the sentiment to February. Fortunately, it’s the shortest month! What a cute little frog, and I do love the saplings that indicate Spring isn’t far off (at least where you are — here, we still have snow!)

    1. I’ll have to look for Thoreau’s opinions of February. I’m sure he had some; we’ll see if he might agree with you! We’re still in our up-and-down pattern, but once we settle into 40s at night and 60s during the day, it’s nice. I do get tired of the jacket-on-jacket-off routine, but it still beats hats, gloves, and multiple layers. The way the squirrels have begun chasing one another, I’d say spring’s closer than it seems.

    1. Every now and then I think about how nice it must be for the critters when things warm up and life gets easier. Frogs find a leaf, snakes crawl out onto the sand dunes or rocks, and the gators take to their banks. I’ll bet if our hearing was sharp enough, we could hear them sighing with contentment.

    1. Aren’t they cool? I’ve known Winged Sumac, but never realized there’s a Winged Elm, too. Now, I’m going to have to watch for its flowers and fruits. Apparently those are one good way to distinguish between the Winged and Cedar Elms.

    1. Thanks, Pit. I suddenly can’t remember — do you have trouble with your deer rubbing your trees, as well? That behavior does help to explain some of the fencing I see around trees from time to time.

      1. Yes, Linda, we do have trouble. They have ruined a few trees, because I didn’t put fences around soon enough or thought, as in the case of one juniper, they would not rub their horns at that at all. Some of our trees are fenced in, and for some I have just some chicken wire around the trunks. I need make sure that’s not becoming too tight with the trees growing.

  10. What a rich area for wildlife! It makes a wonderful place to explore nature and I enjoyed being able to share in tour discoveries. It will be fascinating to follow along with this during the year.

    1. What’s surprised me so far is the absence of wildlife. It may be that my presence is keeping some creatures hidden, or it may simply be the season. On this visit, I didn’t see or hear a single bird, but there is a ‘quiet season’ that I’ve noticed in the past. I suspect by March 1 the breeding season will have begun, and bird song will be plentiful. There may be more frogs and turtles around, and it’s entirely possible that a deer is watching from the shadows. We’ll see!

  11. I found that Winged Elm fascinating. I’ve seen trees like that here but haven’t done any research yet so I was completely unsure what was up with the wings. At one point I wondered if it were some strange disease but saw it enough to be relatively sure it wasn’t. And what a disease that would be. I can certainly imagine myself wanting to catch that one if I’d grow some wings.

    1. Here’s another view of the elm’s ‘wings.’ I like it more than the one with the leaf, but I thought it was better to show the leaf as well as the wings. Since the cedar elm seems to have wings, too (albeit smaller and less noticeable) I need to get back to the spot when the winged elm is flowering this spring. I hope I can, since that may happen before March, depending on the weather.

      I must say, the thingies sticking out from the winged elm twigs seem more like aelirons than wings, but perhaps the common name was applied before airplanes!

  12. So much. Spring is trying but these pesky freezes keep interfering. No buttercups here yet but anemones, woodland violets, dandelions of course, henbit is trying, should have bluebonnets soon unless we get another freeze.

    1. It’s interesting that we’re awash in buttercups, but not anemones. Even at Brazoria, where I usually see them first, they’re not yet appearing. I do think part of the reason is that their favored spots have mowed. It will slow them a bit, but they’ll be back.

      At first, I thought the Drummond’s Hedgenettle might be Henbit: an easy confusion, since the color and family is the same. Henbit even shows up at the marinas here — provided the yard crews fall far enough behind to give it a chance to bloom.

    1. In all my years of seeing Spanish moss, I’ve never before seen the flowers. Small as the seed pods are, the flowers are even smaller, so that probably accounts for it. It’s hard to miss a sunflower, after all! That little frog is a darling. Maybe this will be the year I finally get to see a bullfrog.

  13. Thank for taking us on this hike as it feels like we tagged along. Only thing missing was the smell of the earth. I always like the way it smells on hikes like that. There’s freshness over everything.

    1. That combination of damp earth, rotting leaves, and general mossiness is as appealing to me as the fragrance of flowers. The time will come when I make my visit after rain; it will be interesting to see if the ‘pond’ collects and holds water then, and whether the scents of the place will change. I did smell mown grass last week for the first time this spring, and it was equally luscious.

    1. I’m a great fan of the slow approach to nature. And sometimes I think the appeal of blogging over social media for me is that the process itself is slower. There’s time to think before commenting, rather than just reacting, and real conversations can develop. Not only that, the existence of our archives, combined with search engines, has brought people to certain of my posts years after they first were published. The algorithms may exclude as many people as they bring in, but it still can be interesting to see who pops up.

  14. You’ve really whetted my appetite for a similar project at the defunct but soon to be town conservation spot golf course that I mentioned a while back. Lots of good discoveries there and, of course, you can guess my favorite…the tree frog. Over time you will become quite familiar with your personal Walden…as shall we.

    1. I’ve been waiting for you to stop by and see my little froggie. I was so happy to see him, and I must say, he couldn’t have chosen a more congenial resting spot. Photographically, the larger image of him on the leaf is my favorite of the bunch, although the Spanish moss seed pod comes a close second. If that moss seed hadn’t been such an unusual sight, I might have given up. Photographing that hanging thread was a bit of a challenge in that day’s stiff wind.

      Just today, catkins appeared on our cypress trees. I’m thinking a month will be too long to wait for another visit to Walden, especially if I want to see the elms in bloom — and the willows.

      1. I’ve always thought Spanish Moss to be a Bromeliad with feathery soft growth so didn’t expect to see woody stems and thought they only flower once…at least the ones I have grown only do once, so think it nice that you happened upon a seed pod meaning there had been a flower recently.

        If there is anything resembling wisdom I can share with you it would be…don’t wait. Sometimes Nature passes us by so quickly if we don’t act fast. You may have set a “rule” about once a month but rules were made to be…well, you know.

        1. Even on this day, in this particular spot, there were hundreds of seed pods. I remember that the single ball of ball moss I photographed in the past had at least a dozen flowers; these things are nothing if not prolific. The seeds distribute by air, and lodge in the bark of trees where they land, or other crevices. Since they’re not parasitic, but only require sunlight and moisture, they can set up shop nearly anywhere. I just learned that each bloom lasts about four days, but their flowering lasts for about three-four months, so I may still be able to find the flowers.

          I hadn’t thought of visiting this spot once a month as a rule; it only seemed a reasonable framework. For one thing, a month is long enough for changes to appear, and for another, the time it took to put together this post — visiting, sorting photos, researching — is something I can’t imagine managing more than once a month. Besides, if I were to visit more than that, I’d have to cut out visits to other places I enjoy.

          Still, your point is well taken. The other side of that coin, of course, is that nature is doing wonderful things everywhere, and we can’t see it all. Longer days will help, of course — as would some lower gas prices!

          1. Lower gas prices would be nice. Maybe the Ukraine thing will ratchet back a few hundred thousand soldiers and the eased tensions will allow prices to drop a little. After every price rise though, the drop back is never quite to where it was. I am lucky to live in a small state and 50 miles pretty much covers everywhere I want to go aside from trips to Maine. Even with my three or four day weekends of travel I can basically make a tank of gas last for a week.

            I know what you mean about missing something. Once our flower season begins I struggle with choosing wisely because there is always something I’ll happen upon too late and it’s a little withered. And I understand about your challenge to do more than one of these a month. Too much time in front of the computer when being in a grassy meadow would be more enjoyable. I envy your ability to write and expand on things. Otoh, I can put together a post in a few minutes since I don’t often have much to say which is why you have dozens of commenters and I have just a few.

            1. The one thing I do have working in my favor is a minimal commute every day. The last time I looked, the average daily round trip commute in our area was 26 miles, but I suspect that was increasing prior to the pandemic. Now, I suppose working from home has affected the number. Of course, for good or for ill, I can’t work from home!

              I suspect our computer time might be comparable. After all, you spend a good bit of time processing photos, and I do almost none. I sure could stand to spend a little more time organizing my photos, but that’s one of those things I fuss over from time to time — and then I head back outdoors, and it goes to the bottom of the list again. The day will come when I can’t get out into the refuges; I can organize things then!

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