Here Comes Summer!

 

It’s sometimes frustrating, but true: none of us can be in more than one place at a time. This past weekend I discovered that, while I was prowling our Piney Woods looking for orchids and other east Texas delights, the prairies have been busy exchanging spring for summer.

Heading west rather than east, I found sunflowers, bee balm, and prairie parsley in full flower, while bee blossom (Gaura lindheimeri), snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata), and an assortment of morning glories  and mallows are beginning to appear.

A few of our so-called Texas bluebells (Eustoma exaltatum) now are blooming in both the San Bernard and Brazoria Wildlife Refuges. Also known as prairie gentian, the flowers generally are purple or lavender, although small colonies of white ones exist both on Galveston Island and in the Brazoria refuge.

Masses of blooms appear to be a week or two down the road, but I’m more than willing to wait for the chance to enjoy this favorite flower.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Gathering of Ladies

Spring ladies’ tresses orchid (Spiranthes vernalis) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

On Saturday afternoon, this unusual sight greeted me at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge. A spring ladies’ tresses orchid, taller than I’d ever seen, reached a full twenty-six inches into the air, swaying in the winds that were helping to form the clouds behind it.

Dark and wave-like, the clouds (Undulatus asperatus) were less dramatic at the refuge than in Houston proper, but they were noticeable all over the area. These ‘agitated or turbulent wave’ clouds form when rising air with some moisture content initiates widespread cloud cover, and wind shear blows across the rising air.

As for the orchids, a much smaller and differently-formed version growing nearby also seemed to be S. vernalis. Joe Liggio, an expert on our native species, writes in his Wild Orchids of Texas:

Several species of Spiranthes are so similar in appearance that either a hand lens or a microscope is sometimes required to distinguish one from another.

In truth, even with a hand lens these orchids can be immensely confusing. Still, between iNaturalist reports, various maps and descriptions, and others’ photos, I’m fairly certain these are the spring ladies’ tresses. There’s quite a history packed into this  single sentence from Liggio’s book:

The spring ladies tresses was first described in 1845 by George Engelmann and Asa Gray, based on a specimen collected on Galveston Island, Texas, by the German botanist Ferdinand J. Lindheimer.
S. vernalis seen against storm clouds ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

I’m less certain about this beauty, one of a pair found along the edge of a pine-hardwood mix at the Watson Rare Plant Preserve on Sunday. Obvious green lines inside the flowers suggest Spiranthes praecox: a spring orchid common to east Texas and distinguished from all other Spiranthes orchids by those same lines.

Spiranthes praecox

Finally, there’s this little oddity: a Spiranthes orchid without a spiral. It seems to meet all the qualifications for S. brevilabris var. floridana, a variety found in both Hardin County and Tyler County, where the Watson Preserve is located. According to Liggio:

[The Florida variety] is hairless, and its flowers scarcely spiral at all. [It] also lacks the pronounced fringed margin on the lip. It grows in wet, sandy soil in wetland pine savannahs, pine-hardwood forests, and prairies of East Texas.
This orchid, rare throughout its range, is represented by only five known herbarium collections from Texas.

Whatever its true identity, its one-sided flowering makes for a beautiful and eye-catching curve.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

 

When a Little Distance Makes Sense

 

As if to emphasize the appropriateness of the sign’s message, this American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) had decided to take its ease on a nearby bank at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge.

From a slightly different perspective, its size was impressive, and its awareness of its human visitor detectable in a just-barely-slitted eye. (If you enlarge the photo, the slit in its eye will become detectable.)

As I moved around for a slightly better view of the impassive reptile, its eye finally opened, and it seemed to be running through a mental checklist. Even though it didn’t stir, I decided I would, and I made for the boardwalk.

From my new vantage point, I discovered that the alligator wasn’t alone. Obviously a female, she was surrounded by youngsters whose size suggested they still were less than a year old.  Able to explore the world independently, they remained young enough to crave their mother’s considerable protection; a dozen or so were staying close by her side.

After watching my movements for a few minutes, one youngster decided to snuggle up even more closely to its mother’s foot: for all the world like a human child running back to its parent for security.

Its braver siblings seemed eager to move around at the pond’s edge, perhaps hunting for insects, tadpoles, frogs, or small fish for their afternoon snack.

Despite their size and reputation for ferocity, mama alligators are diligent and loving parents. For at least the first year of her babies’ lives, she protects them as fiercely as she protected her nest, and juvenile alligators will call to her for protection when they feel threatened.

About six to eight inches long as hatchlings, the young often ride on their mother’s back as she swims, or sun themselves there when she’s at rest.

A different mother and babies, seen from the same boardwalk

Once young alligators reach 4 feet in length, they’re considered virtually invulnerable in the wild, except to humans and larger alligators. Separating from their pods, they begin to live independent lives.

This one, which had retreated to a spot beneath the Brazoria refuge’s pavilion during a time of especially high water, was almost exactly four feet long. His (?) willingness to pause beneath the pavilion steps made his size easy to determine.

There’s no question he was the most beautiful alligator I’ve seen. Free of mud and more colorful than older gators, he was easy to photograph from above as he moved farther onto the land. It was an unusual opportunity, and a memorable one.

 

 

Comments always are welcome.
Click any image for greater size and detail.