Hey, There, Bright Eyes!

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

As winter-weary humans begin roaming parks, cemeteries, and back roads in seach of spring wildflowers, the creatures who call those places home watch attentively. Cautious, perhaps even a little bemused, they’re keeping an eye on us, and the sense of being watched can be strong. 

Not far from the Rockport, Texas cemetery, this pied-billed grebe floated in solitude and perfect serenity at the edge of human activity. Surprised to find it there, I was even more surprised to find it willing to endure my attention. Shy and given to diving at the slightest provocation, grebes can be hard to photograph, but this one seemed willing to pose. “Hi, there, Bright Eyes,” I said as I snapped away. “I’m happy to see you.”

At the cemetery itself, another pair of bright eyes watched from a hollow limb high in a tree. Fox squirrels create two types of shelters, leaf nests (dreys) and tree dens, and often use natural cavities as dens for winter shelter or raising young. Given the apparent depth of this cavity and the obvious unwillingness of the squirrel to move as I walked closer, I suspect I’d found a mother with babies in a nest.

Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger)

Two hundred miles away and a week earlier, I found another fox squirrel watching from high in a different tree.  On the old Varner-Hogg plantation in West Columbia, this little sweetheart remained equally motionless and attentive. In a few weeks, I suspect youngsters will emerge from this hollowed limb to begin exploring the world around them.

The squirrel mama needs to be attentive, since being in a tree isn’t necessarily a defense against another plantation resident — the Texas rat snake. This one, over four feet long, is typical; the snake is among the largest in the state, reaching as much as six feet in length, and it’s known for its tree-climbing abilities.

Texas rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri )

Finding it among some flowers was appropriate, since the specific epithet lindheimeri honors German-American naturalist Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer. Better known as a botanist, Lindheimer collected the first specimen of this non-venomous snake in New Braunfels, Texas.

When I found a yellow-bellied water snake curled up at the base of a tree on this same plantation, it seemed somewhat apprehensive. But this sweet creature appeared to be more curious than fearful. Eye to bright eye, we regarded one another for a few minutes, and then went about our business. Whether the encounter delighted the snake I can’t say, but it certainly delighted me.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Lindheimer’s Star

Lindheimer mural, New Braunfels, Texas

Political refugee, explorer, diplomat, newspaperman: all these aspects of his life help to make Ferdinand Lindheimer one of the more interesting early Texans. But it was his life as a botanist that most firmly secured his place in history.

After settling in New Braunfels, Texas, he began building his reputation as the “Father of Texas Botany” by collecting, categorizing, and sharing hundreds of plants. Taxonomic changes over the years make it hard to pin down exactly how many bear his name today, but at least thirty seems a reasonable number, and there may be more.

A mural on the west side of the Hoffman Building in New Braunfels, completed in 2001 by San Antonio artist Alex Brochon, shows Lindheimer holding a small bouquet of flowers: Lindheimera texana, or Texas yellowstar.


Lindheimer originally named the plant Lindheimeria texensis,  but referred to it affectionately as his “little asteroid.”***

In a May, 1842 letter written to George Engelmann, another German-American botanist, his association of botanical immortality with the flower becomes clear: 

Did you write my name among the stars with this little Asteroid? Did I serve botany in that way? Not by knowledge of it, but by love of this sleeping, dreaming daughter of Flora?
Epaminondas died childless, and when his friends complained to him about this, he said, “I leave two little immortal daughters, the battle of Leuctra and the battle of Montinea.” So, if I die childless, then I shall nevertheless leave a little immortal daughter, the Lindheimeria texensis.

A particularly delightful aspect of Lindheimer’s star is its ability to shine on even after its vibrant yellow petals have faded away. Its gone-to-seed structure is so pleasing, so appealing in its own right, I’ve often wished one or two had been included in Lindheimer’s mural bouquet. I’ve no doubt he loved even these dimming little asteroids.

 

 

Comments always are welcome.

***Note: Since posting, I’ve discovered that George Engelmann proposed the name Lindheimeria texana to Asa Gray, and told Lindheimer about that in March of 1842. In her book, A Life Among The Texas Flora, Minetta Altgelt Goyne ascribes the naming to Lindheimer, but that seems not to be so. More details can be found in comments to WOL and Steve Schwartzman, below.