Walden West ~ May 2

The first Turk’s Cap bloom of the season

When I visited Walden West on February 1, only a few Turk’s Cap leaves had managed to sprout. At the time, I predicted their vibrant flowers would begin appearing at the pond edges in a few weeks, and it seems my prediction was right.

On May 2, although only the single flower shown above had emerged, buds were forming everywhere. When I make my June visit, I suspect many more Turks’ Caps (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) will be shining in the woods.

American Germander

By early May, as fields of Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush began to fill the roadsides and fields, less noticeable but equally attractive flowers were emerging at Walden West.

American Germander (Teucrium canadense), a member of the mint family often found at the edges of ponds and marshes, clearly had been blooming for some time. Like Coastal Germander (T. cubense), a smaller plant with pure white flowers, American Germander flowers have a greatly reduced upper lip and a long lower lip. That long lip doesn’t mean the flower is pouting; it’s simply providing a landing pad for insect visitors.

Water Hyssop, or Herb-of-Grace

The solitary, bell-shaped flowers of Water Hyssop (Bacopa monnieri)  were new to me. According to Shinners & Mahler’s Flora of North Central Texas, the genus may carry a South American aboriginal name; the specific epithet honors Louis-Guillaume Le Monnier (1717–1799), a French natural scientist.

A mat-forming aquatic or semi-aquatic perennial, its small, white flowers sometimes are tinged with pink or blue. Also known as Herb-of-grace, the plant is a larval host for the White Peacock butterfly.

Now considered a member of the Plantain family, Water Hyssop formerly was included in the Figwort Family, and still is listed there in many sources. At Walden West, I found only a few plants, but it may be that as the summer progresses they will multiply.

Small Venus’s Looking Glass ~ Triodanis perfoliata

I’ve never found more than three or four stems of Venus’s Looking Glass in one location, but they do appear in every refuge I visit and at several locations on Galveston Island. Two were blooming at Walden West in early May; this one, and a second, shabby example that had been nearly nibbled to extinction by some insect.

Two other bits of lavender — Texas Vervain and Slender (or Rigid) Vervain also put in an appearance. Neither was abundant, but it may be that these were among the first to bloom.

Texas Vervain ~ Verbena halei
Slender vervain  ~ Verbena rigida (an introduced species)

As I looked past the vervains, a flash of white led me to a small stand of Whitetop Sedge.Their brilliant white bracts sometimes are confused with petals; they certainly are as attractive as any white flower. A somewhat showier species, Rhynchospora latifolia, is taller, with wider bracts; in Texas, it appears in the far eastern portions of the state.

Whitetop sedge ~ Rhynchospora colorata

Sedges tolerate shade, grow in a wide variety of soils, and occasionally can be found submerged in shallow waters. When they fill roadside ditches, the effect is remarkable.

Despite a relative absence of birds, increasing insect activity was obvious. This web, constructed only inches from the ground, indicated the presence of a very busy, if invisible, spider.

Say hello to the WWW ~ a Walden West Web

High above the ground, a Spiny-backed Orb Weaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis) went about her work. The six abdominal projections resembling spines give the spider its common name. It’s colors can be quite variable; I’ve seen orange spiders with black spines, white ones with red spines, and now this lovely yellow creature with black spines.

Spiny-backed orb weaver 

Conspicuous tufts of silk scattered about on this orb-weaver’s web are especially interesting.  They appear primarily on the foundation lines; it’s been suggested that the tufts make their webs more visible to birds that might otherwise destroy them.

Perhaps this bee didn’t notice those tufts of silk; he certainly didn’t notice them in time to avoid becoming entangled. While I couldn’t find the spider responsible for the web-work, the tufts do suggest a spiny-backed orb weaver had caught iself a meal.

Even dragonflies aren’t immune to capture. This one may have surprised the spider lurking below one of its wings at the bottom of the frame. If that tiny spider set out the web, it may have gotten more than it bargained for.

Come into my parlor, said the spider to the dragonfly

Other, luckier dragonflies flitted over and around the water,  including a female four-spotted pennant and the easily recognizable Halloween Pennant.

Four-spotted Pennant ~ Brachymesia gravida
Halloween Pennant ~ Celithemis eponina

While the dragonflies flitted and perched, a pretty snail paused on a convenient branch. Whatever its identity, it provides a fine model for moving through nature: slow and steady is the way to go.

 

And so the seasons went rolling on into summer, as one rambles into higher and higher grass.
Henry David Thoreau ~ Walden

 

Comments always are welcome.

Caught Up in Her Work

Orchard Orb-Weaver (Leucauge venusta)

 

Even people who fear or dislike spiders often admire the beauty of their dew-covered webs. For the spiders themselves, the web’s purpose is more practical than aesthetic — a way of sensing predators, or catching dinner — but it’s fun to imagine them stopping to admire their handiwork from time to time. 

Finding a web isn’t difficult, but surprising a spider in the process of building or repairing a web is less common. On a late, cloudy afternoon, this colorful orb-weaver was putting her practical skills to use in an especially pleasing way.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Blue, Too

While the monarch butterfly I discovered sipping nectar atop a fading blue sage was lovely, the flower itself deserves a second look. Blue sage (Salvia azurea), a tall, vibrant prairie plant, pleases the human eye as surely as it attracts pollinators.

The monarch, it seemed, wasn’t alone in being attracted to the flowers. A  bend atop a still-fresh spike of flowers revealed threads of silk attached at several points along the stem. While monarchs and fritillaries stopped and sipped at nearly every blue sage, I never saw a butterfly approach this flower-laden stalk. Perhaps they saw the silk, assumed a spider, and chose to avoid the complications they might present.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

When Spiders Write

 

I don’t often encounter the fancy web decorations of Argiope aurantia, the so-called ‘writing spider,’ but when I do, they always transport me back to penmanship classes in grade school: hours of Palmer Method exercises that eventually resulted in legible cursive writing.

An example of a first Palmer exercise from Boston public schools

Unlike our horizontal scribblings, the web decorations of the writing spiders are vertical. (Other spiders create different shapes, such as circles, and the image at the top has been rotated ninety degrees.) Known as stabilimenta, their purpose isn’t well understood. As the name suggests, they may contribute to increased web stability. Other researchers suggest prey attraction, defense, and the expulsion of excess silk as possibilities.

Piney Woods Native Plant Center, Nacogdoches, Texas

Despite their size and somewhat fearsome appearance, these orb-weavers aren’t harmful to humans.

Here, the attractive yellow and black pattern of the spider’s body competes with the stabilimentum for attention.

Waiting for dinner at Armand Bayou

I used to assume the black and white spiders that look so much like the yellow and black Argiope aurantia were another species. Not so — they’re youngsters who managed to survive predation and other ills of spider life.

This juvenile A. aurantia clearly has graduated from web-weaving school

Like all spiders, these delightful orb weavers have had some bad publicity over the years. One of the first nursery rhymes I learned — long before I could write — still may be a childhood staple:

Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

After years of disdain, it may be time for spiders to be honored with a different kind of verse: particularly when they can be so obviously creative.

Little Miss Muffet,
bemused on her tuffet,
had no way a message to send.
Along came a spider —
an old-fashioned writer —
who spun her words into a web.

 

Comments always are welcome.