While We Weren’t Looking

It was little more than a hunch, but I sensed a change. The wind had been brisk, the temperature change sharp, and the nights cool enough to require jackets. It might have happened, I thought.

And so it had. From refuges to farms, across windbreaks and fencelines, color had come: wild, exuberant, and as glorious as in any remembered autumn.

Unfortunately, the color was gracing the despised and denigrated, cursed and criticized abomination known as the Chinese tallow tree. As ubiquitous an invasive as can be found, it creeps across prairies and sneaks toward woodlands,  displacing native grasses and forbs as it goes.

Still. For a very few days in autumn, its colors — yellow and taupe, pumpkin-rich orange, burgundy, the almost unearthly saturated red shown above — arrive to gladden the heart. Today, the weekend’s color surely is gone, thanks to the winds of our first strong cold front. But I was there to see it and, seeing it, to remember Emily Dickinson’s own paean to the colors of autumn.

The name of it is “Autumn”
The hue of it is Blood
An Artery upon the Hill
A Vein along the Road
Great Globules in the Alleys
And Oh, the Shower of Stain
When Winds upset the Basin
And spill the Scarlet Rain
It sprinkles Bonnets far below
It gathers ruddy Pools
Then eddies like a Rose away
Upon Vermilion Wheels

 

Comments always are welcome.

Snowy Flurries

For some, changing colors on trees or shrubs provide a first hint of the coming fall. Here on the upper Texas coast, autumn arrives differently, flying in on the wings of migrating birds.

Teal arrive first, followed closely by peripatetic mallards. Last week, the calls of returning osprey began echoing across Galveston Bay. Yesterday I realized the swallows had flown away, but their space soon will be filled by an assortment of geese, raptors, and cranes.

A snowy egret (Egretta thula) shows off its ‘golden slippers’ as it prepares to land

While snowy egrets stay with us throughout the year, their numbers increase in the fall as birds return to their favored coastal marshes, inland mudflats, agricultural land, and drainage ditches.

Like the proverbial birds of a feather, they roost and nest together; last weekend I found a large flock hidden away along a canal in the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge.

Touching down

Sometimes referred to as ‘Golden Slippers’ because of their yellow feet, egrets also have yellow lores (the area between their bill and their eyes), which change to a deeper salmon or pinkish-orange during the breeding season.

Showing off, perhaps?

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, their plumes sold for nearly twice the cost of gold, and were used to decorate women’s hats. Inevitably, they were hunted nearly to extinction, but after the passage of laws meant to protect them, their numbers increased. Today, they’re a common sight: their golden slippers worth as much as any gold, and their developing plumes a hint of courtships to come.

 

Comments always are welcome. Click any image for a larger, more detailed view.

 

Gulf Coast Autumn: Red

Carolina wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum)

As if trying to make amends for our relative lack of autumn color, the vibrant fruit of Carolina Wolfberry shines among Gulf coast ditches, ravines, swamps, and marshes. Also known as Carolina desert-thorn, creeping wolfberry, or Christmas berry, the plant is found from Texas to Georgia: one of several salt and drought resistant plants known as halophytes that thrive here.

Its rounded, succulent leaves serve as a clue to its identity, as does the fruit’s resemblance to a cherry tomato. In fact, Carolina wolfberry is a member of the potato-and-tomato family, the Solanaceae. Its flowers recall the various nightshade species, although the plant is distinguished by having only four petals rather than the five common to nightshades.

Once recognized, the plant seems ubiquitous, appearing even in urban ditches and sometimes in standing water. Its toughness is important to over-wintering whooping cranes at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge, which depend on its fruit for energy restoration after their migration. Although the bulk of their winter diet is comprised of blue crabs, Carolina wolfberry can contribute 21–52% of crane energy intake early in the wintering period.

Attractive and nourishing, the fruit is a delightful addition to the landscape, and a reminder that not every bit of autumnal red needs to hang from a tree.

 

Comments always are welcome.