Walden West ~ March 5

When I arrived at Walden West for a third visit on Saturday, March 5, a number of changes greeted me. Any remaining autumn color had disappeared, and an occasional bird could be heard for the first time. Most obviously, the water level in the pond had risen substantially: so much so that it covered nearly all of the broken limbs that had been visible in February.

The pond’s greater depth provided my first opportunity to play with reflections stretching across the water.

Little rain had fallen in February, so there had to be another explanation for the water’s rise. It occurred to me that the area’s low elevation, marshy nature, and high water table often lead to water-covered roads and full ditches, especially when high lunar or wind-driven tides occur. Given days of strong southerly winds and water-filled ditches, it seemed reasonable to assume that the ‘pond’ had been similarly affected.

The first appearance of fresh crawfish chimneys around the pond’s edge certainly supported that explanation. There are at least 36 species of crawfish in Texas, and a half-dozen of those are burrowing crawfish, which rarely visit open water. They prefer water-filled chambers three to six feet underground; their  chimneys typically signal wet ground and a water table very close to the surface.

A camouflaged chimney

As they dig, they use their legs and mouths to create pellets of mud, then build chimney-like structures around the entrance to their burrows with the pellets. The burrows themselves may be as much as three feet deep, and often have side tunnels extending in different directions. It’s hypothesized that the chimneys allow for better oxygen flow into the burrow; during droughts, the crawfish use mud to seal the burrow’s opening, preventing evaporation.

A well-landscaped chimney

A plant that adapts well to moist conditions had begun appearing close to the crawfish chimneys. Large colonies of Wild Onion (Allium canadense) can be found in the refuge; by now, some may be blooming.

The initial bud is beautifully sculptural.

If you look closely, you can see the outline of the tiny bulblets (or bulbils) encased in the papery covering.

In time, the plant will produce both bulblets and flowers, with the flowers emerging between the bulblets. Aerial bulblets help to distinguish Allium canadense from other native onions such as Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum); this plant tends to spread through offsets and bulblets, and often fails to produce viable seeds.

Bulblets and a first flower

Now and then, one of the plants seems to struggle with the process of opening. In this case, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower wasn’t quite up to the task.

While I heard a bit of chirping and twittering, the only birds I saw were a pair of Cardinals and a lone woodpecker. The woodpecker attracted my attention with its hammering on a dead tree; it flew off as soon as I appeared, leaving these holes behind.

Near the tree, a very young palmetto shoot — only four inches tall — had emerged.

In February, this doughy fungus had attracted my attention.

A month later, several of these ‘lumps’ on the same log had grown and taken on new form. I thought the second looked rather like a butterfly.

Throughout the woods, slender orange bush lichen (Teloschistes exilis) seemed especially vibrant. Lichens typically are categorized by growth habit, and this branch-dwelling lichen is considered ‘tufted’ and ‘fruticose.’ When fertile, the thready branches of the lichen itself form orange apothecia: small cup-shaped structures that release the plant’s spores.

Fewer flowers were in bloom than in January or February; most of those winter flowers had lingered from the previous fall, and the spring flowers are just beginning to emerge.

On the other hand, I was delighted to find my first Texas violet. Violets hybridize freely in nature, so species identification is difficult. Still, sources suggest the Missouri violet (Viola missouriensis) could be the one I encountered. It has the largest range of any Texas violet, and usually is found in partial shade in forested or riparian woodland areas, which is exactly where I found it.

Dewberries (Rubus trivialis) were coming into bloom as well, despite leaves turned red by recent cold spells. Extraordinarily thorny, the plant tends to creep along the ground rather than producing upright canes, and it’s quite common along roadsides and railroad tracks.  The appearance of the first blossoms means that dewberry cobblers, pies, and jams are on the horizon; unlike blackberries and raspberries, dewberries produce their fruit in spring.

Drummond’s Hedgenettle (Stachys drummondii) already was blooming in February, but on March 5 this female Guinea Paper Wasp (Polistes exclamans) had chosen to make her own visit to the plant. Had it not been for the good people at BugGuide, my description would have been far more basic.

Still, even if I’d known her only as ‘Wasp,’ she would have been equally charming: a lovely harbinger of pollinators and flowers to come.


Comments always are welcome.

65 thoughts on “Walden West ~ March 5

    1. You say crayfish, I say crawfish; other people say crawdads, but they’re generally the same creature. None of your seven species are burrowers; that’s why you don’t see the chimneys. You do have a Maine crayfish project that’s trying to keep tabs on them all. It never occurred to me there could be invasive crayfish, but why not? The most interesting bit of advice in the project pages was never to relocate even a native crawfish, because some of them may be native only to certain rivers and streams.

  1. When you take the time to look, there is a lot to observe in a small area. I have not seen any crawfish chimneys in my yard, which may be due to dry weather. Your wasp photos are fantastic. The wasp is so beautiful and maybe if we saw bugs in enlarged photos, we would not hate them so much.

    1. I was thinking today that I’ve not seen many chimneys lately, and I suspect you’re right that the dry weather’s the reason. So many people who’ve commented here never have seen a crawfish chimney; if we get a good rain and they start popping up everywhere I may do another post dedicated just to them.

      I was pleased with the wasp photos myself. It was such an attractive thing, and being able to study all the details in a photo is great fun.

  2. Fascinating post, I learned a lot from your commentary and lovely photos. We have crawfish here and I have photographed a Great Blue Heron catching and eating them whole, live, but have never noticed their chimneys. Will need to become as attentive as you are next time.

    1. Your species probably aren’t burrowing crawfish: hence, no chimneys. We have about 40 species in Texas, but only nine of them burrow; the others live in streams, bayous, or swampy areas. In North America, there are around 400 species. You might check your area on iNaturalist to see which species your Great Blues are snacking on!

      1. Thanks, there you go again teaching me more things I didn’t know. Great suggestion to reach out about what kind(s) we have in my lake. Thanks!

  3. Those two sharp closeups of Polistes exclamans deserve an exclamation.

    The word fruticose is unintentionally misleading. People are likely to think it in involves fruit, whereas the term comes from the unrelated Latin noun stem frutic-, which designated a shrub or bush.

    1. I was pleased that the wasp was willing to pause and pose. We seem to have been equally curious about one another.I wish the second photo had turned out as sharp as the first, but it did capture the creature’s attentiveness nicely.

      I came across your portrait of Teloschistes exilis while I was in the process of trying to identify it. Lucky you, to have such a nice image of the apothecia.

      Did I ever tell you about Alexey Sergeev? He has thousands of photos online, beautifully catalogued: wildflowers, lichens, fungus. Most seem to be from Texas, although he also has quite a few photos from Russia. I used his section on lichens for an initial ID on this one.

  4. The pictures of the Paper Wasp are fabulous, Linda. Thanks for the enlightining text and all the great pictures.
    Have a wonderful week,

  5. It’s such fun to see the changes and those lovely new blooms, just in bud. I’ve never seen a crayfish chimney before or had any idea how they really lived. I love how you see absolutely everything, even the tiniest bits. And that color is so welcome! Love the reflections of the green in the water in that first photo. My favorite shade of green!

    1. Not every crayfish builds those chimneys. The so-called ‘burrowing crayfish’ are the ones responsible. We have about forty crawfish species here, but only nine or so make those burrows. The chimneys are such a common sight around here — even in lawns! — that it never occurred to me that they weren’t common everywhere.

      I found this neat field guide to Michigan crayfish, with great photos. You have ten species, and on page three of the guide, it notes that three of those species are “primary burrowers” — the sort that sometimes leave chimneys around their holes. So: you might well see one someday!

      I’m was so glad to play with the reflection of the grass; I love that particular green, too.

  6. Truly a joy to amble along with you in Walden West, Linda. Very enchanting to hear and see the activities of the crawfish, the beautiful wild onion, fungus and lichen. And the Texas violet is gorgeous. I especially liked those delightful photos of the paper wasp. Cheers and thanks for this woodsy walk.

    1. When I arrived on March 5 and found all of the reds, yellows, and oranges gone, I wondered what I might find. It’s a lesson I learn again and again: there’s always something to see. What has surprised me for three months now is the variety that I discover on every trip — not to mention the joy of finding things I’ve never before seen. The highlights for me on this trip certainly were the violet and the wasp, although it was nice to see more water in the pond, and to notice the number of tracks in the mud.

  7. You managed to get a good image of a crawdad tower! (Know it’s a good camera, but I think your eye has something to do with it. All I ever get is a muddy splotch)
    The pond is looking pretty impressionistic here. The white flower is pretty painterly, too. Nice
    My little East TX transplanted wild violets really started putting on a show this weekend. They always do look so cheery.
    Looks like a good week. (A bit of rain wold be welcomed and not really spoil things)

    1. Those chimneys were fresh as could be, and that helped with the photos. When they dry, the sometimes collapse a bit, and they can grow splotchy. I still laugh when I remember my early days in Texas, when I came upon my first ones and thought they were the very strange excrement of some animal I was sure I didn’t want to meet.

      I read that most of our native violet species do live in east Texas. I know some have been spotted along the trails at Armand Bayou, but I don’t know if those arrived on their own. You probably did the same thing my friends and I did when we were young: made bouquets and filled Easter and May baskets with violets for our mothers.

  8. There is no end to the wonders and mysteries to be found in a pond and its surrounding vegetation, and you have captured the sense of it very well, Linda.

    1. Many thanks, David. It’s such fun to head off to a place with nothing in mind but a question: “What will I see today?” There’s always an interesting answer, and sometimes a real surprise.

  9. Wow, I enjoyed “visiting” this place with you. The crawfish chimneys were something new to me — never realized they burrowed like that. The wasp photo is also amazing, although with my fear of stinging insects, I don’t think I would have ventured so close to it. Especially when it looked directly at you!

    1. Here’s my little secret: for some time, I thought all crawfish made chimneys, but they don’t. Some burrow down into the ground, but others tend to frequent streams and such, hiding under rocks or other detritus. Even here in Texas, where we have about 40 species of crawfish, only a few burrow like this.

      As for the paper wasp, I read that they’re most aggressive in fall, and if they feel their nest is being attacked. All the males and the old queens die in fall, while new queens wait out the winter. Who knows? Since it’s spring, and this was a female, I might have photographed a queen! That could explain her regal appearance.

  10. P. S. I have a small branch from a crepe myrtle that has been “lichenated.” I keep it in the kitchen in a carafe. I ordered a book about the wonderful world of lichens because of it. May such wonders never cease. Perhaps I will see orange bush lichen someday too.

    1. Lichens always have been confusing to me, but learning about some of their parts, like the little cup-like apothecia, helps a bit in figuring them out. They’re really quite interesting, and they can be quite pretty, although most of the ones I see around here tend to be gray and ruffly rather than colorful. The one I showed here seems to be quite common; maybe this is its ‘colorful season’ and I’ve missed it in the past.

  11. Excellent album, and those wasp shots in particular are great! I enjoyed this detailed vicarious visit! And learned something new, those crawfish chimneys are interesting .

    1. Those crawfish are quite the construction artists. I began wondering how long it takes to complete one the chimneys, and then I started thinking about the fact that I’ve never seen a crawfish working on one. It seems they’re nocturnal, leaving their burrows at night to forage or party or whatever. So, if I want to sneak up on one, I’m going to have to turn into a creature of the night myself.

      The good news is I wouldn’t have to head out to the pond. When we get a good bit of rain, these chimneys pop up in everyone’s lawns, including the nursing home across the street. I might try finding one of those crustacean contractors!

  12. So much here to love, Linda! It’s encouraging to find the pond teeming with life. I’ve seen crawfish chimneys before, of course, but I’m fascinated by the female wasp and the delicate violets. Does the onion have an onion-y scent?

    1. The onion not only has an onion-y scent, they taste like onions. In fact, foragers’ guidebooks say the onion scent and taste is the best way to distinguish these from other little plants that can look much the same but which aren’t edible. If they don’t smell like onions, it’s best to leave them alone.

      The wasp and the violet were my prizes of the day, just because I’d never seen either of them. The crawfish chimneys are so common I almost didn’t include their photos. It never occurred to me that other people might never have seen one.

    1. I always wonder how creatures like the crawfish learned the skills they have. Instinct surely plays a role, but that’s some sophisticated building. They can pop up overnight, too. I’d love to find a crawfish in the process of building its home.

    1. The big billboards for a local crawfish fest appeared just today, and the Breaux Bridge festival is ON! When I saw the musical lineup, I was sorely tempted, but I think I’ll get my crawfish here and make another visit to Breaux Bridge when there aren’t thousands of people around.

  13. I will be quite happy to peacefully coexist with crawdads. I feel not the slightest bit predatory toward them. I have not had the opportunity to predate upon dewberries, though. This is mostly due to a lack of proximity, for I prey quite readily upon anything involving pie crust.

    1. Can it be? Surely you’ve had dewberries — or perhaps not. They do have a short season, and unless someone puts them up in jam or freezes them, they’re a fleeting pleasure. Personally, I think they’re best right off the vine on a warm late spring day. They’re often a little seedier than I like in a berry pie, but to eat out of hand? Perfect.

  14. You captured so much life and beauty in this visit. Those Monet-like photos of the trees and reflections are awesome! My dewberries aren’t anywhere near blooming, but have plenty of thorns!! In your last photo, the wasp looks like its challenging you to a duel!

    1. I would have liked a little more sunshine and bluer skies for those reflective photos, but we take what we get. I was pleased to be able to catch the glow of the grass; it was so pretty.

      The wasp’s willingness to linger surprised me. I learned tonight that the old queens and male paper wasps die in fall, while new queens emerge in spring to form a new colony. Since this was identified as a female, she might have been a new queen with no consorts! That could explain the lack of aggressive behavior.

  15. What a wonderful way to spend some time! I loved the second photograph of the wasp, it certainly looks like it’s looking at you! The wild onion curves are very appealing also. Nature is full with wonders and we only need to pay attention.

    1. I have no doubt that the wasp was looking at me: no doubt as curious about me as I was about it. It’s always fun to make eye contact with a wild creature, although it’s a little harder with most insects. I’m eager now for the onions to come into flower. They can be more colorful then, and their structure is just amazing. I’ll bet by my April visit they’ll be blooming everywhere: at least, I hope so.

    1. When I arrived for my March visit, it was so much less colorful I wondered what there would be to see. You’d think I would have learned my lesson by this time! I hadn’t thought of the violet as having 3D characteristics, but you’re right that it pops a bit! I certainly counted myself lucky that the one example I found was so fresh and vibrantly colored.

    1. You would love this place: not just the pond and its immediate area, but all of the woods, prairies, and ponds. I just found another long trail that I need to walk before the alligators get really active. We’ve stayed cool enough that I’m only seeing an occasional one along the bank, but mating season is coming. I’m fairly sure I’ll not come across one at Walden West; snakes are more likely.

    1. It amuses me that, when I was looking for a spot for a year-long project, I didn’t have a place like this in mind. I’m glad I found it, and I’m glad it appealed. I suspect it won’t be as flower-ful as the prairies when summer comes, but I really don’t know — and that’s a good bit of the fun!

  16. What a satisfying ramble!

    You have such a wonderful eye for finding something interesting. Take a step or two, look, listen, smell. The essence of discovering nature. Not being content (or selfish) to just observe, you take the time to share your discoveries!

    We are thankful.

    I am in agreement that the Violet and the Wasp (oooh, a story title!) are absolute highlights!
    Excellent photography!

    1. “The Violet and the Wasp” does have the feel of a nascent plotline, doesn’t it? I wonder if it’s because we were raised on stories like “The Ant and the Grasshopper”? In any event, both were complete delights. I’m not even sure I realized I’d found a wasp at first; “big enough to photograph and holding still” came to mind! It certainly was a beauty.

      It took days after I’d posted this to realize something else: the reason crawdad chimneys popped up so soon after a prescribed burn on the Brazoria refuge. Those critters survived underground in their damp burrows. I was so intrigued by other things I didn’t make much of it at the time, but I did take photos, and I believe another crawdad post is in order — particularly since so many peole didn’t know about, and were intrigued by, those chimneys.

  17. I really enjoyed reading about the crawfish chimneys. I’d not been familiar with that. I’m always curious about little burrows I find while out hiking. I usually assume some insect when the holes are small, but this shows that’s not always the case. And I absolutely love the photos of the paper wasp. Such a beautiful species and so beautifully portrayed. I enjoy viewing and photographing their nests, especially when there’s a little activity around them, as well as those of mud wasps.

    1. Can you believe I didn’t know paper wasps until I came across this one? I suppose I’ve seen then in the past, but in my earlier years my tendency was to turn and run the other way as quickly as I could. I’ve read they can be quite aggressive, but usually in the fall, after the nests are completed and protection of it — and the queen — is a priority. The most amazing detail I came across is this: when one wasp is attacked, the others sense it and come to its defense, even from some distance away. Lesson: don’t swat at that single wasp! It has friends!

      I’m even more intrigued by the burrows than I was before posting about them. I’ve learned a good bit; it’s amazing how many species there are, and how varied their habits.

        1. No, not at all. We had a good bit of smoke in the air yesterday, but there was enough of a wind shift that it’s west of us now. The fires themselves are about 350 miles away — that’s about a Massachusetts and a half!

  18. I learned something new, well several new things, in this post but the crawfish chimneys were a revelation. And it got me to wondering, as I read about the side tunnels if Tolkien was aware of them when he dreamed up his Hobbit homes. As you’ve shown, wasps are beautiful creatures and most are not a threat to us. A friend of mine is an author of entomological books and has written one about wasps. Of course a few are quite scary and to be avoided.

    1. I’m digging around in my archives for some other crawfish chimney photos from years ago; clearly, another crawfish post is needed. I’m learning new things about them, too — including about sorts of ‘burrowing’ that don’t involve chimneys at all. They’re interesting critters — and quite tasty! We’re moving into crawfish season here, and everyone’s hoping for a good crop from the farms. You can order them by the hundred pound sack if you’re having a lot of friends over!

      I know so little about wasps. My basic relationship with them always has been “see wasp, run away from wasp.” I’m learning to appreciate them!

      1. The number of wasp species in the U.S. is large…around 18,000 or so I think…but very few are actually stinging threats to humans. Quite a number are predatory, laying their eggs in other species of insects, some burying them underground. What goes on in the insect world is truly astonishing.

        1. The one that fascinates me is the cicada killer. Two years ago, after watching a couple of them for weeks, I finally spotted one carrying a cicada back to its nest. What a system!

  19. So many great pictures. My neighbor’s grandgirls were fishing for crawdads after a few days of rain with a piece of bacon on a string in the ditch in front of the house. And, oh those walking onions. They are all over my yard in the back which has also been colonized by woodland violets. I have a couple of areas where they are near solid and blooming profusely, more than I’ve ever seen them bloom, but mine are a paler variety.

    1. And two weeks later, those onions were everywhere at the San Bernard refuge — at least, in every spot that was either shady or damp. They really are pretty, and so odd when they begin putting out their flowers. I’m wondering if I might find some swimming crawfish in the shallow waters at the refuge. Maybe I should take a string and bacon with me and do a little trolling!

    1. Not all crawfish build this way. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but we have about 32 species of crawfish here, and maybe eight or nine are chimney builders. There are other species farther north that do the same thing: such clever creatures! I hardly can believe it’s time to make another trip to Walden West; the past month certainly has gone quickly. I wonder what I’ll find this time?

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