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