A Patient Poser

Perched alongside a Brazoria County road, this Crested Caracara (Caracara plancus) had chosen to survey its territory from the tallest tree in the neighborhood: typical behavior from a bird that’s equally willing to walk a country mile in search of grasshoppers or lizards. A large bird, caracaras in the open are hard to miss, so I stopped for a closer look.

Despite being classified as a falcon, caracaras often are mistaken for eagles; in Texas, it’s not uncommon to hear them called ‘Mexican eagles.’ That said, their flight differs from that of an eagle. Rather than soaring high in the sky, caracaras tend to fly low across the land, wings flat and nearly motionless as they search for prey.

One of their most delightful characteristics is their occasional willingness to tolerate human presence. After a few quick photos taken from inside the car, I decided I had nothing to lose and stepped out onto the road. The bird, seemingly impervious to my movements, never stirred. Finally, I called out to him. In response, he stopped staring into space and turned to look at me while the wind ruffled his head feathers.

On a whim, I continued the conversation. “You know you’re handsome, so how about a better view of that shiny blue beak?” Why he raised his head I can’t say, but it’s fun to imagine that he knew he was being admired, and wanted to show off one of his most unique features.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Incredible Lightness of Gaura

Lindheimer’s Beeblossom (Gaura lindheimeri) ~ Galveston State Park

One of the prettiest plants still blooming on the late October prairie was the Texas and Louisiana native known as Lindheimer’s Gaura, or Lindheimer’s Beeblossom. Often achieving a height of four or five feet, its loose sprays of flowers give the plant an especially airy appearance; the tendency of the flowers to sway and hover in the breeze have led to yet other names, like butterfly Gaura or whirling butterflies.

Its flowers, which open a few at a time from pinkish buds, are visited by long-tongued bees and bumblebees, as well as by butterflies.The genus name Gaura, derived from the Greek word gauros, or ‘superb,’ refers to the flowers. The specific epithet honors Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer (1801-1879), an extraordinary early Texan now known as the father of Texas botany.

The plant’s narrow, lance-shaped leaves can be tinged with red throughout the year, but autumn increases their color, making the leaves as appealing as the flowers.

In the early 2000s, taxonomic research led to Lindheimer’s Beeblossom and other Gaura species being moved into the genus Oenothera. Today, the plant is known formally as Oenothera lindheimeri, although that name has not been adopted in the horticultural industry. Both the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Missouri Botanic Gardens still list Gaura lindheimeri as a valid name. 

Frustrating as such changes can be, one indication that the change was warranted is visible even to those without access to an electron microscope or knowledge of DNA analysis.

When Lindheimer’s Gaura is compared to other Oenothera species such as the Pink Evening Primrose, the Beach Evening Primrose, and Sundrops, one obvious similarity is the flower’s stigma.

Beach evening primrose ~ Oenothera drummondii

Oenothera stigmas are divided into four branches which form the shape of an ‘X’ — easily seen in the shadow on the Beach Evening Primrose above. Whichever scientific name is used for Lindheimer’s Gaura, one thing is certain: ‘X’ marks the genus.

The X-shaped stigma of Lindheimer’s Gaura

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

The Boys (and Girls) Are Back in Town

 

Dry conditions have meant fewer birds in spots that I normally visit, but last Sunday there was activity at the San Bernard refuge. A small flotilla of what appeared to be Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors) was accompanied by a pair of American Coots (Fulica americana)  and — to my amazement — a single Scaup: the bird with the solid brown head on the right.

The Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) and Greater Scaup (Aythya marila) are easily confused. One field mark is the shape of the head; after much pondering, I decided this one’s head is more round than peakèd, indicating a Greater Scaup. Clicking to enlarge the photo will provide a closer view of these beautiful birds.

The Coots, easily recognizable by their black bodies and white bills, are a common winter bird that sometimes appear at the refuges in great numbers. With a strong front predicted for this coming weekend, I expect to see many more. Other species — Gadwall, Bufflehead, and Pintail — are arriving now, and the unmistakable sound of Sandhill Cranes filled the air as I watched these ducks. The season is turning, indeed.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Meanwhile, On a Different Field

 

I’ve never been a baseball fan. To be honest, I’ve lived with only a rudimentary knowledge of the game through most of my life. But an occasional peek into the goings-on during the Houston Astros’ run toward the American League championship meant that I saw Yordan Alvarez’s walk off homer in game one of that series. Like much of Houston, I couldn’t stop watching the next game, and the next, and the next.

This morning, one of the most elderly residents of my complex was out walking her dog as usual, and we greeted one another as we usually do. But this time, when I said, “Good morning!” she replied, “How ’bout them Astros?” Today, even supporters of other teams are saying the same thing.

In the grand scheme of things, a World Series title may seem unimportant, but a happy city isn’t the worst thing in the world, and down at the local café the happiness was palpable. Everyone — Black, White, Hispanic, male and female, young and old — was talking about only one thing, and perhaps remembering what it felt like to live beyond divisions.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Importance of Names ~ The Flowers

The Nature Conservancy’s Love Creek Preserve near Medina

After poetic reflections on the importance of names for the natural world’s trees, birds, and rocks, it seemed fitting to end the series by considering the names of the flowers that surround us.

When I began roaming in nature, I often was confused by names given to the plants I encountered. In the photo above, the red flowers — a species of Gaillardia — were introduced to me as Indian blanket, blanketflower, firewheel, and brown-eyed Susan. On the other hand, some people called the yellow flowers blooming among the Gaillardia coneflowers; others called them brown-eyed Susans.

It’s a common problem. For two years, I assumed a friend meant a certain spring-blooming yellow wildflower when she mentioned her love of ‘buttercups.’ In fact, her ‘buttercup’ was my ‘pink evening primrose,’ a flower also known as showy evening primrose, Mexican evening primrose, pink ladies, and pink buttercup. Eventually, we sorted out our confusion: learning in the process that using the flower’s scientific name, Oenothera speciosa, could have eliminated hours of good-natured argument.

Oenothera speciosa ~ aka pink evening primrose, aka buttercup

Scientific names can be long, difficult to spell, and harder to pronounce, but the two-part naming system formalized by Carl Linnaeus serves an important purpose. His system categorizes plants by genus and species, and every two part name, like Oenothera speciosa, refers to only one plant.

Eventually, as I became more comfortable with the system, the thought of having a little fun with binomial nomenclature — those two-part names — occurred to me. When the phrase “the naming of plants” came to mind, it evoked T.S. Eliot’s wonderful poem, The Naming of Cats, and a parody was born.

If you’re not familiar with Eliot’s poem, you can hear a recording of him reading it here. If you’ve long enjoyed the poem, you’ll hear it echoing below. Whether Linnaeus would approve, I can’t say, but I’m sure that Eliot would. If nothing else, it makes the world of binominal nomenclature less intimidating, and much more fun.

The naming of plants? It really does matter.
It isn’t correct to think all are the same.
You may think at first I’m indulging in patter,
but I tell you — a plant must have four different names!
First comes the name that tells us its genus —
Gaillardia, Ilex, Solanum, or Phlox;
Clematis and Salvia,  Silphium, Quercus —
the Latin is easy, not hard as a rock.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
some for the cactus and some for the canes —
Monarda, Justicia, or even Lantana
make lovely and sensible Latinate names.
And then, every plant needs a name more particular,
a name that’s specific and quite dignified;
else how could it keep all its stems perpendicular,
spread out its anthers, or blossom with pride?
For namings of this sort, I ‘ll give you fair dozens:
lyrata, drummondii, frutescens, and more —
crispus, limosa, punctatus, texensis —
those names help describe what we’re all looking for.
Of course, there are names by which most people call plants,
like violet, hollyhock, iris, and thyme;
there’s nothing more common than sweet dandelions,
or peaches, or rhubarb for making our wine.
But above and beyond, there’s one name left over,
and that is the Name that you never will guess;
the Name that no researcher ever discovers —
which the plant itself knows, but will not confess.
When you notice a bloom in profound meditation,
its rays sweetly folded, or its leaves well-arrayed,
its mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
of the seed of a thought of a thought of its Name:
its sturdy and windblown,
sunkissed and shadowed,
deep and firm-rooted most singular Name.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For an extraordinarily useful and detailed exploration of scientific names, please click here.