Walden West ~ March 5

When I arrived at Walden West for a third visit on Saturday, March 5, a number of changes greeted me. Any remaining autumn color had disappeared, and an occasional bird could be heard for the first time. Most obviously, the water level in the pond had risen substantially: so much so that it covered nearly all of the broken limbs that had been visible in February.

The pond’s greater depth provided my first opportunity to play with reflections stretching across the water.


Little rain had fallen in February, so there had to be another explanation for the water’s rise. It occurred to me that the area’s low elevation, marshy nature, and high water table often lead to water-covered roads and full ditches, especially when high lunar or wind-driven tides occur. Given days of strong southerly winds and water-filled ditches, it seemed reasonable to assume that the ‘pond’ had been similarly affected.

The first appearance of fresh crawfish chimneys around the pond’s edge certainly supported that explanation. There are at least 36 species of crawfish in Texas, and a half-dozen of those are burrowing crawfish, which rarely visit open water. They prefer water-filled chambers three to six feet underground; their  chimneys typically signal wet ground and a water table very close to the surface.

A camouflaged chimney

As they dig, they use their legs and mouths to create pellets of mud, then build chimney-like structures around the entrance to their burrows with the pellets. The burrows themselves may be as much as three feet deep, and often have side tunnels extending in different directions. It’s hypothesized that the chimneys allow for better oxygen flow into the burrow; during droughts, the crawfish use mud to seal the burrow’s opening, preventing evaporation.

A well-landscaped chimney

A plant that adapts well to moist conditions had begun appearing close to the crawfish chimneys. Large colonies of Wild Onion (Allium canadense) can be found in the refuge; by now, some may be blooming.

The initial bud is beautifully sculptural.

If you look closely, you can see the outline of the tiny bulblets (or bulbils) encased in the papery covering.

In time, the plant will produce both bulblets and flowers, with the flowers emerging between the bulblets. Aerial bulblets help to distinguish Allium canadense from other native onions such as Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum); this plant tends to spread through offsets and bulblets, and often fails to produce viable seeds.

Bulblets and a first flower

Now and then, one of the plants seems to struggle with the process of opening. In this case, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower wasn’t quite up to the task.

While I heard a bit of chirping and twittering, the only birds I saw were a pair of Cardinals and a lone woodpecker. The woodpecker attracted my attention with its hammering on a dead tree; it flew off as soon as I appeared, leaving these holes behind.

Near the tree, a very young palmetto shoot — only four inches tall — had emerged.

In February, this doughy fungus had attracted my attention.

A month later, several of these ‘lumps’ on the same log had grown and taken on new form. I thought the second looked rather like a butterfly.

Throughout the woods, slender orange bush lichen (Teloschistes exilis) seemed especially vibrant. Lichens typically are categorized by growth habit, and this branch-dwelling lichen is considered ‘tufted’ and ‘fruticose.’ When fertile, the thready branches of the lichen itself form orange apothecia: small cup-shaped structures that release the plant’s spores.

Fewer flowers were in bloom than in January or February; most of those winter flowers had lingered from the previous fall, and the spring flowers are just beginning to emerge.

On the other hand, I was delighted to find my first Texas violet. Violets hybridize freely in nature, so species identification is difficult. Still, sources suggest the Missouri violet (Viola missouriensis) could be the one I encountered. It has the largest range of any Texas violet, and usually is found in partial shade in forested or riparian woodland areas, which is exactly where I found it.

Dewberries (Rubus trivialis) were coming into bloom as well, despite leaves turned red by recent cold spells. Extraordinarily thorny, the plant tends to creep along the ground rather than producing upright canes, and it’s quite common along roadsides and railroad tracks.  The appearance of the first blossoms means that dewberry cobblers, pies, and jams are on the horizon; unlike blackberries and raspberries, dewberries produce their fruit in spring.

Drummond’s Hedgenettle (Stachys drummondii) already was blooming in February, but on March 5 this female Guinea Paper Wasp (Polistes exclamans) had chosen to make her own visit to the plant. Had it not been for the good people at BugGuide, my description would have been far more basic.

Still, even if I’d known her only as ‘Wasp,’ she would have been equally charming: a lovely harbinger of pollinators and flowers to come.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Into the New Year

Bryan Adams Memorial Sculpture ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

 

If this life of ours
Be a good glad thing, why should we make us merry
Because a year of it is gone? But Hope
Smiles from the threshold of the year to come,
Whispering, “It will be happier,” and old faces
Press round us, and warm hands close with warm hands,
And thro’ the blood the wine leaps to the brain
Like April sap to the topmost tree that shoots
New buds to heaven; whereon the throstle** rock’d
Sings a new song to the new year—and you?
Strike up a song, my friends, and then to bed.
                             ~  from The Foresters: Robin Hood & Maid Marian ~ Alfred Lord Tennyson

 

** ‘Throstle’ is an older word for song thrush.
About the sculpture:
Bryan Adams served as Environmental Education Coordinator for the Mid-coast Wildlife Refuge Complex: the Brazoria, San Bernard, and Big Boggy refuges. He was dedicated to educating people — especially children — about the wonders of nature; each year, the refuge programs provide learning opportunities for up to three thousand elementary and secondary students from local school districts, the Houston School district, and Rice University. After his death, the bronze sculpture of the children was selected as a fitting memorial. A dedication for the sculpture and a new pond is planned for January.

Enough, Already!

When it’s hot and droughty on the Texas coast, freshwater ponds begin to dry, and wading birds that have nested along their edges sometimes find life complicated by the vicissitudes of nature.

This baby black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), one of three being led across a desolate mud flat by its mother, finally tired of the heat and exertion and just sat down — unwilling or unable to go on.

After only a minute or two, the mother realized one of her brood was missing, and came back to have a little talk with the tired one.

I couldn’t hear the conversation, but I suspect she sounded like any mother: “If you want some shade, some water, and something to eat, you’d better stick with us.”

Whatever she said, it was enough to get the baby on its feet again, ready to rejoin the family.

Despite the distance across the dried-up pond, they were fast walkers. One of the other chicks tended to dawdle and missed being included in this photo, but it wasn’t far behind. Even at the time, the well-camouflaged chicks were hard to pick out against the mud.

(Click to enlarge the image, for a better look at the chicks)

Soon, all three were tucked away in a safer location. As they disappeared into the small thicket of broken reeds and vegetation, I wondered which of us was more relieved.

In time, wings will grow and rain will come. They’ll begin enjoying life as the graceful beauties that they are, and I’ll be glad to enjoy them again.

Adult black-necked stilt foraging at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Water Colors

View from the Big Slough boardwalk ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

When August-like heat, typical Houston haze, and Saharan dust combine to create nearly-unbearable days and uncomfortable nights, a trip to the water is in order.

Some prefer Gulf beaches, but for those whose taste runs to fewer people, less traffic, and fewer beer-fueled antics, one of the area’s wildlife refuges can be the perfect destination. A new boardwalk over the Brazoria refuge’s Big Slough provides occasional glimpses of alligators and birds, while inviting admiration of aquatic plants thriving there in the summer’s heat.

Water lily (Nymphaea spp.)

With blue sky above and clear water below, this lily’s  reflection couldn’t have been more refreshing. 

At first, I assumed it to be our native white water lily — Nymphaea odorata — but that plant floats on the water and closes by noon or early afternoon. These flowers stood well above the water, and continued to bloom until late afternoon. The spots on their sepals suggested they might be dotleaf water lily, but the leaves didn’t seem quite right.

Whichever species they might be, their afternoon display was lovely.

Here, a flower and bud are surrounded by a combination of duckweed and Carolina mosquito fern: velvety green fronds that turn reddish in full sun. A staple in still or slow-moving waters, the fern sometimes is confused with the so-called red tide: a microscopic algae (Karenia brevis) that occasionally appears in Gulf waters. But this plant is harmless unless it completely covers a pond, when it can reduce the water’s oxygen content.

Water lily and bud surrounded by Carolina mosquito fern (Azolla caroliniana)

Like blue water, these tiny red plants provided a fine backdrop for the white lilies. Elsewhere, a more subtle green was the order of the day, as a different sort of bud — still unidentified — rose from the water.


Lovely as red, blue, and green might be, no summer is complete without a bit of yellow. Only two hours after I arrived at the boardwalk, several of these gorgeous native water lilies began to open. The common name ‘banana lily’ hardly fits such a beautiful flower; another common name — ‘sun lotus’ — seems more appropriate.

Yellow water lily (Nymphaea mexicana)

The Saharan dust is moving on and rain is in the forecast, but there are weeks of heat ahead. I can’t think of a better way to cope than by revisting this slough, and these lilies.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Earth, Wind, and Fire

Scorched but resolute after a prescribed burn, broadleaf cattails (Typha latifolia) stand tall in a Brazoria Wildlife Refuge slough, their fluff a token of the regeneration and new life to come.

 

 

Comments always are welcome.