Nature’s Wind Vane

Folk weather forecasting has been around as long as there have been folk to scry the signs. My grandmother depended on rain ravens; my grandfather preferred caterpillars.

Non-believers tend to poke fun at such convictions, and their amusement may have contributed to the fad known as ‘weather rocks.’  A staple of my childhood, weather rocks offered tongue-in-cheek forecasts: wet rocks indicated rain, dry rocks meant sunshine. Fog meant an invisible rock, and if the rock was gone? A tornado had passed by.

Decades later, I discovered Cajun rope barometers. The object may differ, but the same principles apply.

Like that rope, the Spanish moss draping the oaks at a neighborhood nature center serves as a fine weather indicator, particularly when it comes to wind. On Saturday afternoon, in the calm preceding tropical storm Beta, it hung motionless toward the ground.

Eventually, it began to stir, indicating both the direction and speed of the wind.

Two hours later, swirling winds had taken hold, bringing clouds and, at last, rain.

Comments always are welcome.

Life Among the Lotuses

A familiar sight at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, the Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) is popularly known as the Moorhen. Thanks to its red bill and shield, it’s an easy bird to spot, and it clearly finds the lotuses at Brazos Bend State Park as congenial as the reed-covered banks of Brazoria ponds.

Wading in lotus-leaf ponds seems equally appealing to Purple Gallinules (Porphyrio martinica). The chicks can walk quite soon after hatching, but depend on their parents for food during the first few weeks of life.

While they aren’t as colorful as adult Purple Gallinules, hints of the color-to-come are obvious, and their seemingly oversized feet allow them to range easily and quickly through the vegetation.

Adult Purple Gallinules have quite a limited range in the United States, but their vibrant colors make them welcome residents wherever they appear.

Gallinules aren’t the only species that appreciate the advantages of a nice lotus pad. Green herons (Butorides virescens), one of our smallest herons, will secret themselves among the leaves while fishing. Stealth isn’t their only weapon, however. The Cornell birding site notes that:

The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It often creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, and feathers, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.

Perhaps because of its tool-using abilities, it’s equally willing to wait in the open for its next meal. Green herons are quite common even in our marinas, where they perch and wait just above the water on dock lines.

While the thick covering of duckweed might seem to be an obstacle to waterbirds in search of a meal, this Great Egret (Ardea alba) plucked two  fish from the water while I watched. In addition to fish, they’ll willingly consume frogs, snakes, birds, small mammals, and invertebrates such as crawfish.

This Yellow-crowned Night Heron was especially well-hidden at the edge of Elm Lake: the yellow feathers atop its head an almost perfect match for the flowers of the rattlebush (Sesbania drummondii).

Like the Green Heron, the Yellow-crowned is accepting of human company; I often see them fishing in the median of South Shore Boulevard, one of the most heavily traveled thoroughfares in my neighborhood.

Soon enough, the lotuses will decline and winter birds will join these year-round residents. It’s another reason to welcome the turning of the seasons, and a reason to return to Brazos Bend.

Comments always are welcome.

A Fifty Mile Difference

Hurricane Laura western eyewall damage south of Sulphur, Louisiana
Photo courtesy Houston meteorologist Jeff Lindner

Approximately fifty miles to the west-northwest of Sulphur, Louisiana lies Silsbee, Texas. Ten miles past Silsbee you’ll find the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary and, if you travel on to Kountze and Warren, you’ll enter the Big Thicket: home to an assortment of trails, the Solo tract, and the Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve.

When it became apparent that Hurricane Laura would make landfall south of Sulphur, my concern extended beyond the people living along its path. East Texas wasn’t at risk from Laura’s significant surge, but wind damage to the area’s natural treasures could be extensive. The prediction for sustained tropical force winds in East Texas worried me, and I was eager to make a trip into the area to see what damage might have occurred.

When I finally made that trip on September 6, my sense of relief increased with each passing mile. There were no topped trees, no stripped bark, no missing limbs. At the Sandyland Sanctuary, the only evidence of Laura’s winds was an occasional leaning pine. The storm had tightened at landfall, passing far enough to the east for its northeast winds to leave a mark, but little serious damage.

One of Sandyland’s out-of-plumb pines

Wandering through Sandyland, I was pleased to find several of my favorites. This delicate palafox (Palafoxia reverchonii) was one of a few still in bloom.

Somewhat uncommon, the pencil-flower (Stylosanthes biflora) often appears in sandy soils; its membership in the Fabaceae — the pea family — is hinted at by its flower.

The deeply saturated red of the Louisiana catchfly (Silene subciliata) glows in the sunlight, and finding it always is a special treat. In Wildflowers of Texas, Michael Eason writes that the flower is “rare, but can be seen in the Big Thicket National Preserve, in sandy soils” — precisely where I found it.

In my absence, the smooth and silky buds of snake cotton (Froelichia floridana) had become more cottony, and the plants themselves had grown substantially taller.

Sandyland is one place to find the rare and beautiful Winkler’s blanket flower (Gaillardia aestivalis var. winkleri). Laura’s rains seem to have encouraged this flower, and I expect its season will extend into October.

I did manage a brief stop at the Solo Tract in the Big Thicket, and was rewarded with something I’d hoped to find: a newly-emerged flower of yellow-eyed grass (Xyris ambigua).

Of course, one visit never is enough. I returned to the area this past weekend to photograph other treats: some quite unexpected. Hurricanes will come and hurricanes will go, but nature continues to produce her treasures.

Comments always are welcome.