Four Years and Counting

In the opening scene of the popular and long-running Music Man, critics of con man Professor Harold Hill agree: he doesn’t know the territory. 

Knowing the territory can be as important for a flower seeker as for a salesman. Four years ago, when I found a substantial number of white spiderworts (Tradescantia spp.) blooming in a vacant lot, I was surprised. The following year, I returned to that bit of neighborhood territory to find an equal number of pretty white blooms, and the next year brought even more white flowers.

This year, I expected to find the flowers again, and I wasn’t disappointed. But this time, I wasn’t their only visitor. A variety of small bees, beetles, and hoverflies had gathered around them: perhaps engaged in their own process of getting to know some new territory.


Comments always are welcome.

Steering Toward Summer

On May 1, a small clump of Coreopsis blooming at the edge of a Brazoria County ditch brought an immediate smile. The combination of flower and buds looked remarkably like a ship’s binnacle, with its compass in the middle and correcting balls at either side.

Binnacle on the 1885 cargo ship Wavertree ~ South Street Seaport Museum

Local distortions of the earth’s magnetic field can make a compass inaccurate for navigational use, but some of the distortions, particularly those caused by the ship itself, remain fairly constant. Those errors are corrected by using small adjuster magnets, iron rods, or compensating balls incorporated into the binnacle, like those shown above. While the devices themselves also distort the local magnetic field around the compass, they’re arranged in a way that corrects compass headings.

The process of correcting a compass using various devices, called ‘swinging the compass,’ is complex. Even after adjustments are made, residual errors exist. So-called ‘deviation cards’ record known compass errors for all headings of the ship, and help to make accurate navigation possible.

Given our current conditions, I’d say this Coreopsis compass was perfectly adjusted; we’re making way, and the shore of summer is in sight.


Comments always are welcome.

Barefootin’ Into Summer

This Aardman Animation of Robert Parker’s classic song
is filled with delightful visual puns ~ can you find them?

Dry sand, asphalt, concrete, and teak decks are baking in our current August-like temperatures, making one of summer’s greatest pleasures — barefootin’ — a sometimes painful proposition.

But at the water’s edge, barefootin’ birds have taken Robert Parker’s soulful advice; they may not have shoes to kick off, but they’re on their feet, dancing into summer despite the heat. Scroll through the photos while listening to the song, and tell me they’re not!

Kildeer (Charadrius vociferus)
Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea)
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis)
Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)
White Ibis (Eudocimus albus)
Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla)


Comments always are welcome.

Say Hello to the Newest Neighbor

Two years ago, this creature began showing up at my bird feeders just before sunrise. It is, of course, a Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana): the only marsupial found north of Mexico. Shy and not at all inclined to socialize, it declined most photo sessions, preferring to scoot off into the shrubbery as soon as I appeared.

I wondered for some time about its tail; the white portion shown in the photo extended to its tip, and I wasn’t sure whether injury or disease might have caused it. I didn’t pursue the issue, and didn’t discover the answer until a month ago, when this second opossum came into my life.

Such a cute baby!

The baby was tennis-ball sized when I first noticed it under some bushes. I saw it only once, until last week; doubled in size and far more agile, it had learned to climb up to snack on some peanuts left for the squirrels. With its pink nose and pink toes, it was adorable — and it had the same white tail as my first visitor.

Finally doing some research, I learned a few interesting facts. Our ‘Opossum’ and ‘Possums’ are quite distinct creatures. The Virginia Opossum is found on the North American continent; the Possum is native to Australia, New Guinea, and China, and it has been introduced to New Zealand. Our Opossum has that hairless, rat-like tail which I noticed, while the Possum has a bushy tail much like a squirrel’s.

North American opossums typically have pointed white faces with black eyes; their body fur is coarse and usually dark gray, while the possums of Australia have rounded bodies, softer features, and generally golden or brown fur.

The tendency of North Americans to shorten our creature’s name is widespread; I’ve never heard anyone say “I saw a Virginia Opossum in my yard,” and everyone calls the Virginia Opossum’s defensive maneuver ‘playing possum.’  That said, a Virginia Opossum by any other name is just as cute — unless it’s denying your squirrels their peanuts or gorging on the fruit of your persimmon tree.


Comments always are welcome.

The Caterpillars Who Ate Dessert First

One of our prettiest Texas wildflowers is the Skeleton Plant (Lygodesmia texana), so-called because its leafless, oddly-angled stems resemble a collection of bones. It’s attractive to a wide variety of insects; in the flower below, a skipper sips nectar while a beetle — a Spotted Flower Buprestid (Acmaeodera ornata) — prepares to nibble on the ray florets.

In early May, Skeleton flowers blooming on the fringes of Cost, Texas were hosting innumerable caterpillars which might have belonged to the genus Pontia, since Checkered White butterflies (Pontia protodice) also were present. The caterpillars’ behavior seemed a little odd, so I began watching one of the creatures.

Rather than eating the plants’ basal leaves or stems, it made tracks for the flower heads, moving straight up the stem at quite a good clip. Once at the top, it peered into the flower, grabbed one of the stamens, and proceeded to munch. 

Caterpillar on a mission
Mission accomplished!

While I watched, it worked its way from one stamen to the next, seeming to enjoy the taste.

In ten minutes or so, it had consumed every one of the stamens. At that point, I expected it to begin eating the plant’s ray flowers. Instead, it turned, climbed back down the stem, and headed for another Skeleton Flower, where it repeated its climb to the top.

With at least three caterpillars engaging in the same behavior, I couldn’t help tasting one of the stamens. It wasn’t sweet as pie or ice cream, but it certainly wasn’t bitter; perhaps there was a bit of nectary sweetness that appealed to the insects.

Whatever the taste, I couldn’t help wondering if the caterpillars might have adopted the approach of some humans: life is short, so eat dessert first — and pity the poor ant who’s late to the table.

No more stamens ~ the pollen jar’s empty!


Comments always are welcome.