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.

Walden West ~ April 2

By the first week of April, much of Texas was abloom with vibrantly colored bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, and coreopsis, but in the deeply shaded woods surrounding Walden West, no dramatic sweeps of color had emerged. There, more subtle changes were marking the turn of the season.

For the first time since January, the sound of birds filled the air. The clatter of woodpeckers at work and the delicate chirps of chickadees were everywhere, although only the cardinals were singing and calling. Most of the birds remained hidden, but it’s hard for a cardinal to hide; even the swing of an unfocused macro lens can catch a flash of its color.

Other bits of red roamed the woods in the form of spotless lady beetles (Cycloneda spp.) I’d never seen so many: there might have been hundreds of them flying, crawling on plants, and landing in my hair. Perhaps I’d encountered a ladybug bloom: an aggregation of insects so large it sometimes shows up on National Weather Service radar.

For the first time, the woods were filled with the froth of spittlebugs. Spittlebug nymphs — small, yellowish-green, wingless insects resembling leafhoppers — create the bubbly mass as protection from predators and harsh weather.

To create the bubbles, air is mixed with a substance secreted by the insect’s epidermal glands. As the mixture is forced out of the abdomen through the anus, the bubbles form: sometimes as many as 80 bubbles per minute. Then, the insect reaches back with its legs, pulls the bubbles forward, and surrounds itself with its own protection.

Other insects roamed the grass, like this katydid, and a tiny grasshopper nymph perched on a pink evening primrose petal.

A rise in the water table had led to even more crawfish chimneys, although, in one instance, I paused to note different moisture levels in the mud surrounding the hole.The lightest mud was entirely dry; the bit in the center still was malleable;and the darkest mud at the top left seemed quite recent.

I imagined several explanations for the phenomenon: most of them quite fanciful. Could this have been the work of a young crawfish-in-training who hadn’t quite mastered the technique?

At the edge of the pond, a number of moisture-loving plants were flowering: particularly Allium canadense, variously known as wild garlic, wild onion, Canada onion, and meadow garlic. Its combination of flowers and bulblets is unusual; while it spreads readily through offsets and bulblets, it often fails to produce viable seeds.

While not in the pond itself, a few wild iris grew along the edge of the road leading to the pond; their buds were as pleasing as the blooms.

When I photographed one of the flowers, no filters or processing techniques created the gray background. A few months earlier, the tall, slender stems behind the iris had supported a mass of tiny white asters. As the flowers aged and faded away, the stems turned to gray, providing an interesting contrast to the emerging spring flowers.

Closer to the pond, an unusually colored vetch caught my eye with its pure white accents.

In more sunlit areas, a pretty pink flower known as Lady Bird’s Centaury (Zeltnera texensis, previously Centaurium texense) had grown up. While similar in appearance to mountain pinks found on the Edwards Plateau, this centaury has a more open appearance than the bouquet-like mountain pinks. The flowers are less than a half-inch wide; their early buds are especially small and delicate.

Other new growth edging the pond included Cherokee sedge (Carex cherokeensis). An important cover plant for waterfowl, this clumping sedge does well in the sandy loam soils found in east, southeast, and north central Texas. A southern species, it also ranges through the Gulf states to Georgia and north to Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri.

Cherokee sedge

In January, I showed some of the purple leatherflower (Clematis pitcheri) seed pods dangling from trees and shrubs.

Clematis pitcheri seed pods

By April, their cycle was beginning again and their first tendrils were beginning to climb. I’d never seen their early growth; now, I’m looking forward to the appearance of the flowers.

Clematis pitcheri vine

The biggest mystery of my April visit appeared just as you see it here: a single, unidentified object I assumed to be a flower lying on a leaf that had fallen onto palmetto fronds. It was so artfully arranged, I wondered if someone had placed it there.

Looking around, I found a similar flower, caught by spider webbing and suspended in midair.

After finding more floral remains hanging from a tree that I recognized as yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), things began to fall into place.

I usually notice yaupon in the fall, when its bright red or orange berries adorn the woods, but I’d never seen it blooming until that day. Its lush display of flowers didn’t seem particularly fragrant, but they were exceedingly lovely.

Yaupon in bloom

Eventually, the rest of its blooms will fall; berries will begin to form, birds will come, and the cycle will have been completed for another year. This time, I will have seen it all.

Yaupon berries

 

Comments always are welcome.

From Roadsides to Woodlands

Fleabane in a clearing near Walden West

While the Deer-pea Vetch I featured in my previous post spreads its purple glow closer to the ground, a common spring companion plant rises above it, catching the eyes of motorists passing on the road.

Philadelphia Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus), our most common Fleabane species, received its common name because of a presumed — though unproven — ability to repel fleas. Its thread-like ray flowers, numbering in the hundreds, are the most slender among the Erigeron species.

Common as the flower is in open areas, particularly along roadsides, it also appears in woodland clearings. Each of these photos was taken in locations where I wouldn’t have expected to find these sun-loving flowers, but it’s obvious that full sun isn’t necessary for them to bloom.

Along the Red Buckeye Trail, Brazos Bend State Park

I’ve been puzzled for some time about field guides and websites that describe Philadelphia Fleabane’s ray florets as being either pink or white. I’d never seen a hint of pink on fleabane until I found several blushing buds at Brazos Bend State Park, and remembered; when it comes to nature, ‘expect the unexpected’ is good advice.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Walden West ~ March 5

When I arrived at Walden West for a third visit on Saturday, March 5, a number of changes greeted me. Any remaining autumn color had disappeared, and an occasional bird could be heard for the first time. Most obviously, the water level in the pond had risen substantially: so much so that it covered nearly all of the broken limbs that had been visible in February.

The pond’s greater depth provided my first opportunity to play with reflections stretching across the water.


Little rain had fallen in February, so there had to be another explanation for the water’s rise. It occurred to me that the area’s low elevation, marshy nature, and high water table often lead to water-covered roads and full ditches, especially when high lunar or wind-driven tides occur. Given days of strong southerly winds and water-filled ditches, it seemed reasonable to assume that the ‘pond’ had been similarly affected.

The first appearance of fresh crawfish chimneys around the pond’s edge certainly supported that explanation. There are at least 36 species of crawfish in Texas, and a half-dozen of those are burrowing crawfish, which rarely visit open water. They prefer water-filled chambers three to six feet underground; their  chimneys typically signal wet ground and a water table very close to the surface.

A camouflaged chimney

As they dig, they use their legs and mouths to create pellets of mud, then build chimney-like structures around the entrance to their burrows with the pellets. The burrows themselves may be as much as three feet deep, and often have side tunnels extending in different directions. It’s hypothesized that the chimneys allow for better oxygen flow into the burrow; during droughts, the crawfish use mud to seal the burrow’s opening, preventing evaporation.

A well-landscaped chimney

A plant that adapts well to moist conditions had begun appearing close to the crawfish chimneys. Large colonies of Wild Onion (Allium canadense) can be found in the refuge; by now, some may be blooming.

The initial bud is beautifully sculptural.

If you look closely, you can see the outline of the tiny bulblets (or bulbils) encased in the papery covering.

In time, the plant will produce both bulblets and flowers, with the flowers emerging between the bulblets. Aerial bulblets help to distinguish Allium canadense from other native onions such as Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum); this plant tends to spread through offsets and bulblets, and often fails to produce viable seeds.

Bulblets and a first flower

Now and then, one of the plants seems to struggle with the process of opening. In this case, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower wasn’t quite up to the task.

While I heard a bit of chirping and twittering, the only birds I saw were a pair of Cardinals and a lone woodpecker. The woodpecker attracted my attention with its hammering on a dead tree; it flew off as soon as I appeared, leaving these holes behind.

Near the tree, a very young palmetto shoot — only four inches tall — had emerged.

In February, this doughy fungus had attracted my attention.

A month later, several of these ‘lumps’ on the same log had grown and taken on new form. I thought the second looked rather like a butterfly.

Throughout the woods, slender orange bush lichen (Teloschistes exilis) seemed especially vibrant. Lichens typically are categorized by growth habit, and this branch-dwelling lichen is considered ‘tufted’ and ‘fruticose.’ When fertile, the thready branches of the lichen itself form orange apothecia: small cup-shaped structures that release the plant’s spores.

Fewer flowers were in bloom than in January or February; most of those winter flowers had lingered from the previous fall, and the spring flowers are just beginning to emerge.

On the other hand, I was delighted to find my first Texas violet. Violets hybridize freely in nature, so species identification is difficult. Still, sources suggest the Missouri violet (Viola missouriensis) could be the one I encountered. It has the largest range of any Texas violet, and usually is found in partial shade in forested or riparian woodland areas, which is exactly where I found it.

Dewberries (Rubus trivialis) were coming into bloom as well, despite leaves turned red by recent cold spells. Extraordinarily thorny, the plant tends to creep along the ground rather than producing upright canes, and it’s quite common along roadsides and railroad tracks.  The appearance of the first blossoms means that dewberry cobblers, pies, and jams are on the horizon; unlike blackberries and raspberries, dewberries produce their fruit in spring.

Drummond’s Hedgenettle (Stachys drummondii) already was blooming in February, but on March 5 this female Guinea Paper Wasp (Polistes exclamans) had chosen to make her own visit to the plant. Had it not been for the good people at BugGuide, my description would have been far more basic.

Still, even if I’d known her only as ‘Wasp,’ she would have been equally charming: a lovely harbinger of pollinators and flowers to come.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Walden West ~ February 1

Since the first day of February fell on a Tuesday, I made my second visit to the spot I’ve come to call ‘Walden West’ on January 30 and 31. Tucked between freezes, the days were sunny and mild, with sunlight emphasizing the green of emerging grasses; although the water had receded somewhat, enough remained to reflect the clear, blue sky.

At first glance, I thought a turtle was lounging in the middle of the pond, but I discovered it was only a turtle-friendly log. Perhaps one day in the future I’ll find an actual turtle there.

Many of the trees surrounding the water had lost their leaves, making the details of their trunks even more interesting. This trunk, which I take to be a Dwarf Hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia), had been split along its length, giving it a scroll-like appearance.

Nearby, a Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia) still held a few leaves.  The most common elm in Texas, the tree often is found near streams, in flatwoods near rivers, or on dry limestone hills.  Its seeds ripen in fall, helping to distinguish it from other native elms.

Cedar Elm

Winged Elms (Ulmus alata) have larger leaves and seeds that mature in the spring. Its leaves also provide a bit of color, but its most distinguishing feature is the wide, corky ‘wings’ on either side of its branchlets; the specific epithet alata is from the Latin word meaning ‘winged.’

Described as a “small and slender component of the understory in the wild,” the Winged Elms at Walden West fit the description perfectly. The examples I found were relatively small:; none reached more than six or seven feet.

Winged Elm

Among the insects that feed on the foliage, wood, or plant juices of Winged Elm are caterpillars of the Question Mark butterfly and the Giant Walkingstick. If I keep an eye on the elms, I might find another walking stick in the coming year.

Winged Elm leaf and ‘wings’

In nature, change is constant, and I found quite a change when I sought out the pretty, algae-decorated tree that caught my attention in early January.

January 1

On this visit, the obvious damage wasn’t particularly deep and it was limited to one side of the trunk, but it pointed to the presence of another creature in the woods.

January 31

Since the mud surrounding the pond was covered in tracks made by white-tailed deer, it seems reasonable to assume that one of the deer visiting the water also had damaged the tree with a ‘buck rub.’

Before and during the rut, or breeding season, bucks rub trees with their antlers as a way of marking territory, working off aggression, and intimidating other bucks.

But the earliest rut in Texas occurs in the Gulf prairies and marshes: an area which happens to be home to Walden West. Since the breeding season is well over, and since buck rubs also serve to communicate a buck’s presence to other deer by scent left on trees, brush, and saplings, it’s entirely reasonable to assume the damaged bark was the result of a buck attempting to establish his territory or dominance.

Dwarf Palmettos

Scattered among the elm, hackberry, yaupon, and oak, Dwarf Palmettos (Sabal Minor) add an interesting accent to the land surrounding the pond. Slow growers and usually stemless, the leaves arise from underground stock and are especially attractive when young.

One of our most cold-hardy native palms, dwarf palmetto can be found in a variety of habitats, including maritime forests, swamps, and floodplains. Its fragrant white flowers are followed by clusters of small black fruits that are enjoyed by a variety of birds and small mammals.

The palmettos also provide a hidden-in-plain-sight napping spot for the Green Tree Frog (Dryophytes cinereus). This is the third such frog I’ve found at the San Bernard Refuge; each had chosen a palmetto blade for its spot. If you look closely at the second photo, you can see the reflection of the inch-long frog on the palmetto’s stiff and shiny leaf.

In the grasses surrounding the palmettos, a Milkweed Assassin Bug (Zelus longipes) was busy preparing its dinner. Using its long mouthparts, it had captured and immobilized its prey with a paralyzing toxin. In time, it would ingest the creature’s dissolved body fluids through those same mouthparts in the same way that we use a soda straw.

Looking upward, I found the trees hosting a variety of vines. Colorful Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) encircled many of the trunks.

Equally attractive but less bothersome Greenbrier (Smilax bona-nox) twined through trees and shrubs alike.

Its fruits, said to be favored by opossums, raccoons, squirrels, and songbirds, must be tasty; very few remained on the vines.

The most exciting discovery of the day involved Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides). Neither a moss nor a parasite, Spanish Moss is an epiphyte: a plant that absorbs nutrients and water through its leaves from the air and the rain. Like Ball Moss (Tillandsia recurvata), it’s a flowering plant, but I’d never found evidence of its flowers.

When I decided to try a backlit photo of its tangled strands, I discovered something odd. Rust-colored bits were everywhere. At first, I assumed they were insects; looking  more closely, I discovered they were seed pods.

A tangle of Spanish Moss
Opened Spanish Moss seed pod

At the edge of the woods, Early Buttercups were blooming: their waxy leaves reflecting the light.

Early Buttercup (Ranunculus fascicularis) with hoverfly

Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos) seemed to find them equally attractive.

Drummond’s hedgenettle (Stachys drummondii), a member of the mint family, contributed a lavender accent.

The first Ten-petaled Anemone (Anemone berlandieri ) I’d seen this year was a bit worn around the edges, but still delightful. Named for French naturalist Jean Louis Berlandier, its common name is misleading, since the plant has no petals, only petal-like sepals, and their number can range from seven to twenty-five.

Even at the beginning of February, signs of impending spring were everywhere. Seedlings of the Cedar Elm ringed the pond.

Basal leaves of the native Dwarf Plantain (Plantago virginica) were less common, but more obvious.

And finally, shrugging off the cold, new Turk’s Cap plants (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) were thriving.

In time, their vibrant flowers will ring the edges of the pond: a sign of spring arrived.

Turk’s Cap

 

“Is not January the hardest month to get through?  When you have weathered that, you get into the gulf stream of winter, nearer the shore of spring.”
~ from Winter:  The Writings of Henry David Thoreau

 

Comments always are welcome.
For an introduction to the Walden West project, click here.