Trouble in Paradise?

While I’ve been focused in recent weeks on our sudden profusion of spring wildflowers, that doesn’t mean the birds — interesting, funny, inscrutable — haven’t been providing their own sorts of pleasure. 

When I found these birds standing atop a small mud island in a Brazoria Wildlife Refuge pond, my first thought was that a double-date might have gone wrong. Perhaps the male Northern Shovelers on the left had decided to seek out more congenial companions, while the birds on the right — which might be young Northern Shovelers, or some other species entirely — were left to ponder their options.

In any event, the amusing scene is worth enlarging for the sake of a closer look at the birds’ expressions. Sometimes, it’s impossible to avoid anthropomorphizing; feel free to write your own story!

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Rain Lilies’ Country Cousins

On impulse, I decided to forgo a return to Galveston’s Broadway cemeteries to check on developments in the small patch of rain lilies I’d found there on April 29. Instead, I traveled to the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, where rain lilies also appear from time to time.

I sometimes have difficulty distinguishing our native rain lily species from one another, but these Brazoria blooms seemed to be the same Cooperia drummondii I’d found in Galveston. Their long floral tubes and the preference of the so-called Prairie Lily (Cooperia pedunculata) for more open spaces certainly suggests that, and the USDA map doesn’t show C. pedunculata in Brazoria County.

Regardless of the species, there was no questioning the source of the heady fragrance that hung above the flowers. In Galveston, strong winds had blown away the scent; here, a perfectly still morning allowed it to linger.

A special treat was finding this native thistle (Cirsium spp.) blooming next to the lilies. I tend to think of thistles as plants capable of thriving in dry conditions, so this one’s juxtaposition with floral evidence of rain made me smile.

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.

The Case of the Curious Killdeer

A delightful shorebird, the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) ranges far beyond the shore. Common enough in open grasslands or on sandbars and mudflats, it’s as likely to show up on lawns, golf courses, or parking lots. Usually solitary or part of a mated pair, its call is clear and unmistakable: one of spring and summer’s beloved sounds.

I’d never seen a Killdeer stirring the water with its foot to bring up bits of food until I noticed one doing just that at the edge of the Brazoria Refuge’s Big Slough. Unperturbed by my presence, it stirred its way down the shoreline, occasionally casting a glance toward the sky at the sound of a passing bird.

Once reassured, it continued to stir the water, bobbing its head down from time to time to snatch a treat.

Suddenly it stopped, and turned away from the water. Climbing onto piles of dead reeds lining the shore, it began a purposeful walk toward a different section of water.

As I watched, it crept closer to the object of its curiosity: a Wilson’s Snipe perched at the edge of the reeds.

For a few minutes, nothing much happened. The Snipe sat; the Killdeer watched.

Eventually, I crept closer and the Snipe turned toward me, showing the neatly patterned feathers at the top of its head.

Then, it settled down again on its reeds, while the Killdeer, its curiosity apparently satisfied, continued its journey down the shoreline, stirring and bobbing as it went.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Where Soil Meets Salt

The freshwater ponds, sloughs, and prairies of the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge may be its most popular attractions, but its easily accessible mudflats hold treasures of their own.

Rich in food, they attract a variety of creatures. In the photo above, fresh tracks of feral hogs cross those of deer, coyotes, raccoons, and birds. Occasionally, leftovers from their meals lie scattered about, like this sun-bleached crab claw.

Occasionally, a living crab appears: I watched what appeared to be a juvenile land crab (Cardisoma guanhumi) for some time, perplexed and amused to see it blowing bubbles. Later, I learned the reason for the bubbles; they occur when a crab that lives both on land and in water breathes air.

All crabs have gills, located beneath the top shell, near the front. For their gills to work properly, eliminating carbon dioxide and bringing in fresh oxygen, the gills need to be wet. The crab draws in water or air with little ‘paddles’ near its front claws, extracts the essential oxygen, then pushes the water or air past its gills and out through two holes, one on each side of its mouth.

Because its gills are wet, if it’s taken in air as well as water, the exhaled breath comes out in bubbles. Our children blow bubbles for fun; the crab blows bubbles to live.

Most plants found on the flats have succulent or semi-succulent leaves. The saltwort (Batis maritima) that threads its way across the flats is a halophyte: a salt-tolerant plant that thrives in soil or waters of high salinity. I’ve yet to see its tiny white flowers; perhaps this will be the year.

Saltwort

Another interesting and quite common plant on the flats is the Annual Seepweed (Suaeda linearis). Several Suaeda species grow in Texas, but they’re relatively easy to distinguish from one another by color, growth habits, or location.

Seepweed ~ pretty in its autumn pink

Although it tolerates tidal flooding and often is found in mud, Virginia (or American) Glasswort (Salicornia depressa) obviously tolerates drier conditions.  A member of the goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae), it’s related to such garden vegetables as beets, Swiss chard, and spinach.  While it blooms in late spring, it begins to take on autumnal colors as the weather cools.

Once I tried photographing the plant with backlighting, the name ‘glasswort’ seemed particularly appropriate. In fact, the common name ‘glasswort’ first appeared in the 16th century; it described English plants whose ashes could be used for making soda-based glass.

Virginia Glasswort taking on autumn colors

Nature as ‘glassmaker’

At the edge of the flats, I found an odd little ‘something’ that I assumed I’d never seen. In fact, I had encountered the plant, but at a different time in its life cycle.

These emerging leaves and fluff-surrounded seed pods belong to a native version of a familiar garden plant known as Moss Rose (Portulaca grandiflora). I’d come across the flowers of this smaller Pink Purslane (Portulaca pilosa)  in summer, but it took some research to associate its different stages. Here, too, the fleshy leaves are obvious; the Latin name, Portulaca, or ‘little gate,’ refers to a sort of ‘lid’ on the fruit capsule.

Portulaca pilosa in bloom

Pretty in bloom and even more colorful when bearing its red, berry-like fruit, Berlandier’s Wolfberry (Lycium berlandieri) seemed surprisingly prolific this year; I found great numbers distributed along the edges of the mud flats, in washes, or in areas of dry, gravelly soil. Wolfberry flowers appeal to a wide variety of insects, and its fruit is especially important for early-arriving Whooping Cranes.

Even fading flowers of the Wolfberry are attractive

Given its fruits’ color, Wolfberry sometimes is described as Christmas berry

TheSea Ox-eye or Seaside Tansy (Borrichia frutescens ) is an easily recognized and common plant along the flats and salt marshes. A member of the Aster family, it’s remarkably salt-tolerant, as is our Firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella). A summer bloomer, it sometimes flowers even in January, and its seed heads will persist throughout the winter.

Seaside Tansy seed heads

Despite its somewhat over-the-top scientific name, the Camphor Daisy (Rayjacksonia phyllocephala) is the Crow Poison of the mud flats; however, scraggly, it can be found blooming in every month. It’s so beloved by insects it deserves its own post; when nothing else is abloom, this daisy provides pollen and nectar galore.

When I was a child heading out to play, my mother always reminded me to “stay out of the mud.” Every time I throw my mud-caked jeans and shirts into the laundry, I remember that advice and smile. Clearly, she was focused on the practical advantages of avoiding mud; I’ve come to prefer the pleasures of a muddy afternoon.

 

Comments always are welcome.