Those Family Ties

While the Horseshoe Lake trail looping through the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge can be rich in wildflowers, the lake itself attracts a wide variety of birds.

During my visit on March 19, I found this group of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis) cruising the lake. Watching them, I began to suspect I’d come across  a mother and her grown-up ducklings enjoying the spring day. The behavior of the group of six — following their mother in a single line, or surrounding her in a group when she called — was what I would have expected from a group of fresh-from-the-egg hatchlings.

Last September, I found a Whistling Duck mother teaching her six ducklings how to navigate Horseshoe Lake. While I can’t prove that the ducks I found last weekend are the same — albeit all grown up — no one can convince me they aren’t. In any event, they certainly seemed to be enjoying one another’s company, and I enjoyed theirs.

 

Comments always are welcome.

March-ing With Emily

One of our most well-known American poets, Emily Dickinson, also dedicated herself to the extensive gardens she tended alongside her mother and sister Lavinia.

A serious student of botany, the creator of an extensive herbarium, and an enthusiastic propagator of plants, Dickinson necessarily became attuned to the weather, the changing seasons, and the innumerable pollinators that frequented her plants; observations about her roses, lilacs, peonies, daisies, foxgloves, and zinnias fill her poems.

She also lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, where winter tends to linger; her longing for the transition from snow to spring blooms sometimes is palpable. Her poetic celebration of the changes wrought by March’s arrival pairs wonderfully well with this assortment of photos from my wanderings on the weekend of March 19-20 .

DEAR March, come in!
How glad I am!
I looked for you before.
Put down your hat—
You must have walked—
How out of breath you are!
Baby Blue Eyes ~ Nemophila phacelioides
Dear March, how are you?
And the rest?
Did you leave Nature well?
Oh, March, come right upstairs with me,
I have so much to tell!
Pink Evening Primrose ~ Oenothera speciosa
I got your letter, and the bird’s;
The maples never knew
That you were coming,—I declare,
How red their faces grew!
Indian Paintbrush and Butterweed ~ Castilleja indivisa, Packera glabella
But, March, forgive me—
And all those hills
You left for me to hue;
There was no purple suitable,
You took it all with you.
Downy Phlox ~ Phlox pilosa
Who knocks? That April!
Lock the door!
I will not be pursued!
He stayed away a year, to call
When I am occupied.
Texas Dandelion ~ Pyrrhopappus pauciflorus
But trifles look so trivial
As soon as you have come,
That blame is just as dear as praise
And praise as mere as blame.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Our Glorious Grasses ~ Gulf Muhly

Gulf Muhly in the city

A favorite of both residential and commercial landscapers, Gulf Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) sometimes  is known as pink or purple muhly because of variations in its natural color. The species name capillaris, which means hair-like, gave rise to other common names that reflect the plant’s delicacy: hair grass, or hair-awn muhly,

The genus name Muhlenbergia honors Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg (1753-1815), an American born and German-educated Lutheran pastor who returned from Germany to live in Pennsylvania. Forced to flee Philadelphia ahead of British forces during the War of Independence, he hid in the countryside, where he became interested in the plants that surrounded him. He began collecting; by 1791 he had the nucleus of his Index Flora Lancastriensis, a work containing descriptions of 454 genera and over a thousand species of both native and introduced plants.

Muhlenberg was particularly interested in the grasses, so it’s fitting that a species should be named for him. Even the plant’s common name, ‘muhly,’ points back to that early botanist.

For years, I came across the grass only in urban areas: in home gardens, parking lot dividers, and hotel landscaping. I’d occasionally see a pink fringe running down a fenceline or a small patch of pink decorating a forest’s edge, but substantial stands of the colorful grass evaded me.

This year was different. While visiting the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge  in mid-October, I found rivulets of pink coursing through the land.

Light as it was, the grass bent easily before the persistent wind.

Sometimes, it mingled pleasantly with other plants, like woolly croton. Known scientifically as Croton capitatus var. lindheimeri, woolly croton is named for Ferdinand Lindheimer, commonly considered the Father of Texas Botany because of his own extensive collections. Finding the two plants nestled together was delightful.

Muhlenberg‘s grass and Lindheimer’s croton meet on the prairie

Nature planted this single bunch of especially pale pink grass in such a way that nothing obscured its beauty.

The fringes of the grass present a surprisingly different appearance.

When it comes to color, autumn Gulf muhly blooms like a spring wildflower, enlivening the landscape in a similar way.

Comments always are welcome.

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.

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.