Hey, There, Bright Eyes!

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

As winter-weary humans begin roaming parks, cemeteries, and back roads in seach of spring wildflowers, the creatures who call those places home watch attentively. Cautious, perhaps even a little bemused, they’re keeping an eye on us, and the sense of being watched can be strong. 

Not far from the Rockport, Texas cemetery, this pied-billed grebe floated in solitude and perfect serenity at the edge of human activity. Surprised to find it there, I was even more surprised to find it willing to endure my attention. Shy and given to diving at the slightest provocation, grebes can be hard to photograph, but this one seemed willing to pose. “Hi, there, Bright Eyes,” I said as I snapped away. “I’m happy to see you.”

At the cemetery itself, another pair of bright eyes watched from a hollow limb high in a tree. Fox squirrels create two types of shelters, leaf nests (dreys) and tree dens, and often use natural cavities as dens for winter shelter or raising young. Given the apparent depth of this cavity and the obvious unwillingness of the squirrel to move as I walked closer, I suspect I’d found a mother with babies in a nest.

Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger)

Two hundred miles away and a week earlier, I found another fox squirrel watching from high in a different tree.  On the old Varner-Hogg plantation in West Columbia, this little sweetheart remained equally motionless and attentive. In a few weeks, I suspect youngsters will emerge from this hollowed limb to begin exploring the world around them.

The squirrel mama needs to be attentive, since being in a tree isn’t necessarily a defense against another plantation resident — the Texas rat snake. This one, over four feet long, is typical; the snake is among the largest in the state, reaching as much as six feet in length, and it’s known for its tree-climbing abilities.

Texas rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri )

Finding it among some flowers was appropriate, since the specific epithet lindheimeri honors German-American naturalist Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer. Better known as a botanist, Lindheimer collected the first specimen of this non-venomous snake in New Braunfels, Texas.

When I found a yellow-bellied water snake curled up at the base of a tree on this same plantation, it seemed somewhat apprehensive. But this sweet creature appeared to be more curious than fearful. Eye to bright eye, we regarded one another for a few minutes, and then went about our business. Whether the encounter delighted the snake I can’t say, but it certainly delighted me.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Beauty, Times Two

 

Week after week, I watched this pair of yellowlegs as they foraged back and forth across a shallow, grassy mudflat that developed after weeks of unusually heavy rains. I never saw them fly, and I never heard them call; they were too busy plucking indeterminate creatures from the sandy mud.

While they fed, I amused myself by trying to decide if they were greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) or lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes). There are ways for an experienced birder to distinguish between them — body size, the length of the bill, the nature of their call — but I never was certain which species I was seeing until the day something startled them. Calling to one another, they flew up and away from their buffet table.  A later comparison of yellowlegs calls convinced me they were Lesser, not Greater — but no matter which species, I found them a great delight.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Winter Blues ~ and a Bit of Orange

Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis)  

It would seem that a flower known as the scarlet pimpernel should be red, but this pretty little introduced flower that can bloom throughout the year has an interesting secret. Sometimes, it’s blue.

The phenomenon known as color polymorphism isn’t uncommon, but it usually involves blue, purple, or red-flowered plants that become white because of their inability to produce anthocyanins: the pigments that give those flowers their rich coloring.

Both scarlet pimpernel morphs — the red/orange and the blue — contain anthocyanins, but they differ among the plants. What determines which color will appear is somewhat mysterious. There are suggestions that climate is involved, since the best predictor of flower color seems to be hours of sunshine. In England, red pimpernels predominate; in sunnier Spain, blue is more common.

The red version, of course, is indelibly linked to one of the more well-known novels in English literature, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Its hero, Sir Percy Blakeney, disguises himself as a hapless playboy, while also devoting himself to rescuing aristocrats from the French revolutionary guillotine.

Given to leaving a card with an image of the red flower at the scene of his rescues, he becomes known as the Scarlet Pimpernel. Given the pimpernel’s ability to change its own appearance, a card showing both blue and red flowers might have been equally appropriate.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Photos of both red and blue pimpernels were taken at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge on January 27.