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.

Gaillardia, Too

Lanceleaf blanketflower (Gaillardia aestivalis)

One of our most widespread and beloved wildflowers, Gaillardia pulchella — commonly known as Indian blanket or firewheel — isn’t the only Gaillardia species abroad in the land.

During my recent visits to the Attwater Prairie, I found no firewheels, but Gaillardia aestivalis, the lanceleaf blanket flower, or prairie Gaillardia, was plentiful. Its distinct ray flowers surround a center that becomes even more striking as the plant matures, suggesting a floral version of a geodesic dome.

Seeing a lanceleaf blanket flower, it’s impossible to miss its resemblance to the rare Winkler’s blanket flower (Gaillardia aestivalis var. winkleri), a plant limited to the sandy soils of Tyler, Hardin, and Newton counties in the Big Thicket.

A purple version of Winkler’s blanket flower known as ‘Grape Sensation’ was developed by Dawn Stover at the Pineywoods Native Plant Center in Nacogdoches. It does resemble the color of grape soda, and has its fans, but for me these two natives far outshine the various cultivars.

A developing Winkler’s blanket flower seedhead

 

Comments always are welcome.

Flowers, with a Friend

 

More than wildflowers caught my attention on my first visit to the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge. Here and there, signs of a different form of life appeared: a pond, a working windmill, a well-trod trail snaking through the landscape.

On my second visit, I met the creatures whose presence I suspected: some of the prettiest cows I’ve seen, and some very handsome steers. Grazing, along with fire and mowing, is a useful method for restoring and preserving prairies; these cattle were doing their part to help out, munching their way through some tasty-looking grasses and forbs.

Given the number of milk-heavy cows in the herd, there surely were calves around, but most remained hidden or away from the road. Fortunately, this one had chosen an especially photogenic spot to rest. When I stopped for a closer look, it raised its head as though posing, and graciously accepted my compliments.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more on grazing as a management tool, this post by Chris Helzer, the Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science in Nebraska, is a good one. For Chris’s entertaining post on the cattle vs. bison debate, click here.

No Building Permit Required

 

While visiting the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge, I found this bit of complexity at the intersection of two trails.

Lincoln Logs hadn’t come to mind in years, but that’s exactly what the construction resembled: an oddly designed but well-built home made of tiny logs. In fact, it is a home: one belonging to a member of the Psychidae, or bagworm family. 

Bagworm moth caterpillars weave silk cocoons around themselves, and then reinforce the silk with bits of twigs, leaves, or stems. The construction materials determine the final appearance of the houses, which also are called ‘cases.’

Bagworm moth cases can be attached nearly anywhere; this one dangled from a substantial sunflower stalk. Oddly, the cases more closely resemble RVs than suburban homes; the caterpillars are mobile, carrying the case with them as they hunt for food. They feed from a hole in the top of the case, and expel waste from a smaller hole in its bottom.

Growing bagworms expand their home by adding more twigs, leaves, or stems. Emerging from the top of the case to collect building material, they cut it to size before attaching it to the top of the case.

Both males and females spend most of their lives living inside their cases as caterpillars. After pupation, females remain in the case, while males leave to seek females with which to mate. After mating, females lay their eggs in the old bag. Once the larvae have hatched, they leave the case, seeking a suitable spot to build their own home.

Whether Einstein ever found himself contemplating a bagworm case, I can’t say, but his words ring true as I contemplate this one:

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Sunnyflowers

 

Specifically established and managed to provide native coastal prairie habitat for the endangered Attwater’s prairie-chicken, the 10,541 acre Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge is home to a wealth of other birds and plant species.

Driven away from the coast by a wealth of newly hatched and unbearable mosquitoes, I decided on Saturday to make a first visit to the refuge. Yesterday’s relatively long drive was worth it; the entire refuge was aglow with a variety of sunflowers, partridge pea, bitterweed, and a yellow ‘something’ that I’ve not yet identified.

From my vantage point on one side of the refuge’s lake, this flower-covered bank — no doubt a combination of species — shimmered in the high noon sunlight; its reflection in the water was lagniappe.

 

Comments always are welcome.
As always, you can click on the image for a larger and more detailed image.