The Beasties and Their Besties

Cattle egret ~ Bibulcus ibis

I’d never seen a cattle egret until I moved to Texas in the 1970s, and the reason’s quite interesting.

Unknown in North America prior to 1940 (or 1952, or ‘the 1950s’, depending on which source you choose) the so-called ‘cow bird’ spread via natural migration from Africa to northeastern South America in the 1870s and 1880s. Eventually, it reached the southern United States and began spreading northward. By the 1960s, it had appeared in California and Canada; presumably, today’s children in Iowa are familiar with the bird.

Often found on the backs of cattle, like these I photographed near a water tank on the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge, the birds will pluck ticks and other insects from the backs of cattle, but they feed primarily on grasshoppers and crickets disturbed by grazing livestock.

If no cattle are available, the birds are happy to follow anything capable of stirring up the insects they favor: plows, tractors, or even a homeowner mowing the lawn. They often collect around prescribed fires, feasting on insects escaping the flames.

Smaller than other herons and egrets — less than two feet tall — and rather nondescript even in breeding plumage, cattle egrets do offer some advantages for beginning birders: they tend to flock, and they’re easily observed.

I assumed four birds were lurking around this handsome black steer, but when I stepped out of the car, five took off.

Then, out of the grasses, the rest of the group appeared. Missing so many birds gathered around a single steer would seem unlikely, but there they were; no doubt they were hidden at ground level, enjoying a grasshopper brunch.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Lagniappe for Lagniappe

Home of Ferdinand Lindheimer ~ Father of Texas Botany
New Braunfels, Texas

In 2017, as my interest in native plants and prairies began to develop, I created this second blog as a place to share images of the flowers, grasses, and creatures that increasingly intrigued me. Meant only as ‘lagniappe’ — a little something extra for myself and for interested readers of The Task at Hand — it became much more: a tool of discovery; a way to hone photographic skills; and a way to satisfy my own curiosity about the new worlds I’d begun to encounter.

When I announced my intention to begin a new blog to readers of The Task at Hand, one commenter wondered how maintaining two blogs would go for me. How it’s gone, at least from my perspective, is wonderfully well. It’s been a good bit of work –especially if you include travel time! — but the knowledge I’ve gained from my readers and from others has equaled the enjoyment my explorations have brought.

What I never expected was that Lagniappe would be gifted some lagniappe of its own. When I learned this blog would receive the Native Plant Society of Texas’s Digital Media Award for 2021, it would be an understatement to say I was shocked.  Only the arrival of my plaque** made the award seem tangible and real.

During the awards ceremony on October 9, another surprise was yet to come. A yearly photo contest invites entrants to submit one photo from each of Texas’s twelve ecoregions. In 2019, I sumitted three photos; last year, I submitted four. This year, having traveled more extensively, I was able to submit photos from five regions; of those five, four were declared winners.

Once the awards ceremony was over and the excitement had died down, a friend asked if I was going to set any new goals for myself. Laughing, I told her I planned only to continue as I have in the past: traveling the state, learning more about our native plants, and becoming more skilled as a photographer. Then, I paused. “Maybe next year,” I said, “I’ll be able to submit photos from seven ecoregions.”

 

Comments always are welcome.
** Observant readers may have noticed that the title on the plaque isn’t “Lagniappe,” but the blog’s tagline. A new, ‘edited’ plaque is on its way, and I’ll update the image when it arrives.

Down By the Waterside

Climbing Hempvine ~ Mikania scandens

It’s not a river that runs through the San Bernard Wildlife Refuge, but Cocklebur Slough. In drought or in flood, it’s an interesting place: a sweet tangle of growth buzzing with the sounds of insects and tiny tree frogs as well as the calling of well-hidden birds.

On September 26, the heart-shaped leaves and pretty white flowers of climbing hempvine were flourishing: even taking advantage of supple tree limbs to arc out over the water. Despite being a member of the Asteraceae, the family of sunflowers and daisies, this flower lacks the ray flowers commonly called petals; its disk flowers resemble those of plants like shrubby boneset (Ageratina havanensis).

At the water’s edge, I found my first cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis). I was surprised to find the plant in standing water, but that was due only to my own ignorance; I’ve since learned that its preferred habitat includes ditches, woodland edges, stream banks, swamps, and areas near lakes or ponds.

Cardinal flower ~ Lobelia cardinalis

Another surprise was this pair of pretty white fungi. Having associated mushrooms with rotting wood and wet lawns for most of my life, I wondered: had these grown up around the tree before it fell into the water, or had the rising waters of the slough surrounded them?

Eventually, I learned that different marine habitats also support fungal communities. Fungi can be found in ocean depths and coastal waters as well as in mangrove swamps and estuaries with low salinity levels, like Cocklebur Slough. Whether this species prefers a watery environment I can’t say, but even without certain identification, it’s possible to enjoy their unexpected presence.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Big Bird, Helping Endangered Birds

During a visit to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge last fall, I was surprised to see a small plane passing repeatedly over areas of the prairie. Its color — yellow — is one I usually associate with crop dusters, but I couldn’t imagine dusting refuge prairies with herbicides. Mosquito-spraying was my next guess, but there was no one around to ask, so I went on my way.

Early yesterday morning, I happened to be in the neighborhood, and took time for a quick drive around the auto loop. While I was busy stalking a Crested Caracara on the road, a low hum in the distance made me look up. It was the same yellow airplane, and a quick change of camera settings allowed me to catch an image of it.

I had been headed out of the refuge at the time, but curiosity demanded that I turn around, go back to the refuge headquarters, and look for an answer. The visitor center has been closed for months, but eventually a ranger spotted me nosing around the outbuildings, and came to see what I was up to. Her explanation of the work being done by the plane was both fascinating and wonderful.

The plane wasn’t spraying; it was dropping fire ant bait. [NOTE: after talking with a refuge employee this morning, I learned that the product being used is called Extinguish Plus, and it’s commercially available.] Fire ants are immensely annoying to humans, but they’re lethal to hatchlings. The young woman explained that, since the bait-dropping project began, the number of other insects on the prairie has increased, and so has the number of ground-dwelling birds. I didn’t see any of the prairie chickens during my visit, but an exceptionally large covey of quail crossed in front of me on Sunday: a visible token of the project’s success.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Sleek, Silky, and Semi-Spiky

Canna glauca buds ~ Brazoria County

Water Canna (Canna glauca), sometimes known as Louisiana Canna, is native to only a few southern states: Brazoria and Matagorda counties in Texas, several Louisiana parishes, and single counties in Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama. Found primarily along the margins  of marshes, swamps, and ponds, it’s an impressive plant that can attain a height of six feet.

The genus name is rooted in the Greek word kanna, meaning reed. The specific epithet also comes from the Greek; glaukos gave rise to glauca, which refers to the grayish-blue color of the leaves. 

One of several September-blooming plants at the San Bernard Refuge ~ Brazoria County

Cannas commonly are propagated by dividing their underground rhizomes. Some gardening sites note that the rhizomes can be overwintered in the ground if the temperatures remain above 40F (or 50F, depending on the website). They’ve been described as temperamental, easily lost if not kept in perfect conditions, but these plants seem to have weathered last February’s freeze perfectly well.

The plants can be grown from seed. Once the flowers are spent, clusters of green, spiky pods that remind me of dog chew toys develop. The pods usually contain one to three large, black seeds which can be harvested after the pods become dry.

Fresh and dried Canna seed pods ~ Brazoria County

The transformation of the plant from one stage to another is remarkable and interesting to witness. In mid-September, I found buds galore still emerging; with luck, more photos of the flowers themselves will be possible before their season is ended.

 

Comments always are welcome.