Walden West ~ December

Walden West ~ November

My decision to visit the place I dubbed ‘Walden West’ each month in 2022 may be the first New Year’s resolution I’ve actually kept. In the beginning, I had few expectations and no plan; I only intended to visit on a monthly basis, recording whatever seemed interesting.

I certainly didn’t expect to find such variety in such a small spot; over the months, I learned far more than I could have imagined. From the names of unfamiliar plants to the intricacies of spider web construction, it seemed there was no end to the discoveries.

There were surprises, too. By early summer, the water in the vernal pool had evaporated. While I assumed it would fill again by fall or winter, it’s still quite dry. Thanks to recent rains, the hard earth has turned spongy and much plant life remains green, but as we make the turn into spring, the absence of water is perplexing. Clearly, additional visits to check the water level will be in order.

The biggest surprise of all was the sadness I felt as I approached the end of the project. I never expected to become attached to the spot, and yet I had: so much so that I briefly considered continuing the project for another year. In the end, I decided against that, but I did find myself appreciating in a new way some words from Joan Didion’s collection of essays titled The White Album:

A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.

Here, then, are a few images from a place I claimed for myself over the course of a year: not re-making it, but appreciating it in a new way. 

While the pool remains dry, there is evidence of water here. If you compare this photo, taken in December, with the November photo above, you can see that the large log has been moved some distance. Not only that, all of the loose limbs and twigs shown in the second photo have been piled together. Perhaps the force of water running through the area during last month’s flooding rains was responsible.

Walden West ~ December
Branches swept along by water

The large log, whose patterns I explored in a previous month, had been rolled over, and decorated with a leaf.

Having sighted a raccoon in November, it made sense that fur would be added to the feathers occasionally found among the leaves.

As I wandered the area, changes wrought by falling temperatures, less light, and the natural progressions of the seasons became apparent. The pretty poison ivy triplet I’d admired in November had shriveled and become less attractive.

November poison ivy
The same poison ivy in December

Both the Climbing Hempvine and the cattail it climbed for so many weeks turned from bloom to seed, completing their cycle for the year.

Climbing Hempvine and cattail in August
The same hempvine and cattail in December

Poison ivy, still colorful in last February, declined quickly as fall approached, perhaps because of the droughty conditions.

Last year’s poison ivy, lingering in February
December’s poison ivy, nearly gone

None of the Yaupon or Possumhaw trees produced prolifically this year, but by December only a few berries lingered: thanks, perhaps, to hungry birds or other creatures.

November Possumhaw
The same branch in December

This small collection of Silverleaf Nightshade fruits had disappeared: perhaps at the hand of land managers who had done some trimming in the area.

Silverleaf Nightshade fruits in November

Where similar fruits remained, they had begun to shrivel and dry. Rarely eaten, they often can be found even as new flowers begin to form on the next year’s plants.

A December decline for the Nightshades

A short distance from Walden West, the ascendance of winter became even more obvious. Leafless trees, sere grasses, and silence marked a world grown fallow.

But here and there, buried life emerged. Wild onions lay scattered on the ground, the result of foraging by feral hogs or other creatures.

A trailing vine, perhaps the non-native Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) crossed through fallen leaves.

Possibly Japanese honeysuckle

And during my last, New Year’s Day visit to Walden West, a cluster of Violet Wood Sorrel bloomed near the edge of the path leading to the clearing.

No doubt Thoreau was right when he wrote, “No mortal is alert enough to be present at the first dawn of spring.” But if the pretty wood sorrels weren’t the first sign of spring, they surely were a sign: a fitting reminder that, even as my human project ended, Nature’s projects continue on.

Violet woodsorrel ~ Oxalis violacea

Comments always are welcome.
For an overview of my Walden West year, please click here.

Walden West ~ November

By mid-to-late November, Walden West remained dry, and the butterflies that provided so much delight during October’s visit were gone: vanished as completely as the spiders that  preceded them in leave-taking. In their wake, a few flowers lingered, as well as a pretty mushroom that signaled our recent rains.

Blue Mistflower can spread aggressively, and large colonies of the plant exist within the San Bernard refuge; perhaps those plants had sent their seed to the edge of Walden West.  Closely related to white-flowered bonesets (Eupatorium spp.), mistflower can be distinguished by its colorful flowers, relatively short stature, and broad, heavily veined leaves. Like bonesets, its flowerheads contain only disk florets.

Blue mistflower ~ Conoclinium coelestinum

With eleven species of aster listed for our coastal counties, and even more for Texas as a whole, identification can pose a challenge. These belong to the genus Symphyotrichum, and probably are dumosum: the pretty ‘rice button,’ or bushy aster.

Rice Button Aster ~ Symphyotrichum dumosum

If rains come, can fungi be far behind? Despite a lack of standing water, the soft and sometimes muddy ground gave rise to this pretty pleated mushroom.

Possibly a brittlestem mushroom ~ a member of the Coprinaceae

Despite the delicate lavenders and whites displayed by fungi and flowers, Walden West’s November displayed a subtle golden glow: an unexpected wash of autumn color.

Poison ivy ~ Toxicodendron radicans
Goldenrod ~ Solidago altissima,with paper wasp
Hairy cowpea ~ Vigna luteola, with friend

By November, fruits were as common as flowers. The pretty Silverleaf Nightshade, a member of the same family as tomatoes (Solanaceae) produces fruits that resemble cherry tomatoes in shape, if not in color.

Silverleaf nightshade fruit

The berries of Possumhaw, a native holly, shine against the golden glow of Winged Elm leaves. Possumhaw is deciduous, and the loss of its leaves in autumn makes the berry-and-stem combination even more striking.

Possumhaw ~ Ilex decidua

A golden-leaved Honey Locust (Gleditsia spp.) caught my attention, but left me puzzled. Every characteristic of the tree, from leaves to bark, seemed typical of Honey Locusts, but the tree lacked thorns: a feature of the tree often described as “particularly nasty.”

In time, I learned that a natural hybrid between Gleditsia triacanthos and G. aquatica exists. First recorded in Brazoria County bottomlands in 1892, the tree was introduced to cultivation in 1900; the BONAP map shows the limits of its distribution. While its foliage is similar to G. triacanthos, the Honey Locust known as Gleditsia x Texana has no thorns.

Last February, I found a single leaf of a Winged Elm clinging to its branch.

This November, the full glory of the Winged Elms was impressive. Their golden leaves, draped with Spanish moss and glittering in the sunlight, seemed a fitting end to this penultimate visit to Walden West.


In our most trivial walks, we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and head-lands.
If we go beyond our usual course, we still carry in our minds the bearing of some neighboring cape; and not till we are completely lost, or turned round, do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of Nature.
                              Walden: or a Life in the Woods ~ Henry David Thoreau

Comments always are welcome.

Walden West ~ October Fauna

Walden West in October

Attributed to everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Valerie Jarrett, the well-known phrase — “You can have it all: just not at the same time” — seems first to have appeared in print in Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. In time, a corollary emerged: “You can do it all: just not at the same time.”

During the recent holiday season I continued to visit Walden West, but time dedicated to writing for The Task at Hand meant less time for sharing photos. Now, it’s time to play ‘catch-up,’ rounding out my year with a series of three Walden West posts from the end of 2022.

In October, fauna outshined flora as I wandered through the woods. Birdsong continued to be scarce, but a trio of Crested Caracaras perched among the trees. Because they tend to seek prey in more open areas, these may have been resting after a morning of foraging.

Crested Caracara ~ Caracara plancus

At the edge of the woods, one of the most widespread damselflies in North America was at rest: the Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile). The insect thrives in residential water gardens as well as near lakes, marshes, rivers, and wetlands.

The male displays two blue, tear-shaped eyespots on the top of its head, while its predominately blue abdomen is marked with matching small black areas on segments 3, 4, and 5.

Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile)

Despite the disappearance of orb-weaving spiders, a large web had been stretched along one edge of the pond. Known as a ‘mesh web,’ it’s typical of work done by spiders in the Dictynidae: a family known for webs made of tangled, irregular strands.

An untidy but typical mesh web

Large numbers of migrating butterflies in mid-October suggested I might find  some at the pond; what I didn’t expect was to find one in extremis.

When a fluttering caught my eye, I assumed a butterfly had become entangled in a spider’s web. Instead, a Western Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium exilis) was being carried off by a scourge of fire ants. 

The smallest butterfly in North America, the Western Pygmy-Blue’s wingspan averages only a half-inch. Its coppery-brown wings, touched with iridescence and fringed with white, are especially attractive. Naturally the ants were less interested in the butterfly’s appearance than in its usefulness as food. While I watched, they carried their meal-to-be toward a hole in the surface of the ground, then pulled it out of sight. How long the entire process took I can’t say, but from the time I spotted the butterfly until it disappeared into the larder was only a minute or so.

Down the hatch, so to speak

In time, I found a variety of living butterflies, including some I’d never seen. The Question Mark, Little Yellow (or Little Yellow Sulphur), and Checkered Skipper were ones I recognized.

Question Mark ~ Polygonia interrogationis
Little Sulphur ~ Eurema lisa
Common Checkered Skipper ~ Burnsius communis

The Southern Emerald moth is less common. Years ago, I found one resting on a dock in a local marina; this was only the second I’ve seen. Small, with a wingspan of about an inch, its color evokes celadon. According to Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA), it flies from March to October, so this one was right on schedule.

Southern Emerald ~ Synchlora frondaria

Hackberry trees serve as a host plant for Hackberry Emperor butterflies, as well as for Tawny Emperors and American Snouts. The Hackberry Emperor prefers wooded streams, forests, and riparian corridors: just the sort of environment found at Walden West.

Hackberry Emperor ~ Asterocampa celtis

 The most unexpected sight of the day was this weirdly impressive Gulf Fritillary caterpillar.

Gulf Fritillary caterpillar ~ Agraulis vanillae

The fleshy knobs called tubercles on its body, together with the obvious black spikes protruding from them, help to provide protection from predators. Like most caterpillars, Gulf Fritillaries also have setae, or short hairs, on their bodies; their black spikes are covered in tiny setae.

Obviously, it had been a good year for Gulf Fritillaries; large numbers of them fluttered everywhere. Monarchs may be the most publicized, but I think these butterflies are equally lovely.

Numerous as the Gulf Fritillaries, Salt Marsh Caterpillars (Estigmene acrea) were everywhere. Named for a presumed preference for grasses in salt marshes near Boston, Salt Marsh Caterpillars actually prefer herbaceous and woody plants as hosts. Variable in color, their grayish larvae darken over time to yellow, brown, or black, with yellow markings and long black or reddish hairs.

Master defoliators, the young larvae feed close together on the lower side of leaves, skeletonizing them in the process. Older larvae are solitary, and eat large holes in leaf tissue.

Salt marsh Caterpillar

Salt Marsh Caterpillar

The day’s most unusual find was an Eight-spotted Forester Moth caterpillar (Alypia octomaculata). Its striking black, white, and orange rings are accented by small black tubercules, and it has a cute spotted orange head. When I noticed this one, it was patrolling an area filled with peppervine: one of its favored host plants.

Adult Forester Moths act much like butterflies: flying during the day, sipping nectar, and displaying antennae thickened at the tips. Primarily black, the moth’s wings are marked with pale yellow and white spots. Although I’ve never seen an adult, this photo makes clear its attractiveness.

Eight-spotted Forester Moth ~ Alypia octomaculata

The day’s final treat was this little fellow. After months of following raccoon tracks through sand and mud, one of Walden West’s four-footed furry ones decided to introduce himself. The Algonquian Indian word for the animal, arakun, meant ‘he scratches with his hands.’ During the 1700s, American colonists dropped the initial vowel, and the name became ‘raccoon.’

Raccoon ~ Procyon lotor

Almost exclusively nocturnal, raccoons live almost anywhere and eat almost anything. Intelligent and curious, they’re perfectly able to pull a crawfish from its hole or dislodge the lid on a suburban garbage can.

Anyone who’s lived around raccoons has stories. My personal favorite involves the raccoon who broke into a Parks & Wildlife building on Matagorda Island some years ago. After removing a screen from the kitchen window, the critter found peanut butter on the kitchen table, opened the jar, and happily scooped out pawsful of its treat until rangers discovered it and put an end to the shenanigans.

Even at Walden West, it’s a lesson worth remembering: never underestimate the cleverness or persistence of nature’s creatures.


Comments always are welcome.

Walden West ~ October Flora

In October, Walden West’s vernal pool looked almost exactly as it had in September. A few more leaves had fallen from the trees, and most of the surrounding growth showed insect damage, but no visible water had collected.

On the other hand, my feet could feel what remained invisible to my eyes. Enough rain had fallen that the ground had grown soft if not spongy, and the pleasant scent of rotting leaves hung in the air. An assortment of logs showed the effects of weathering, including the intricate patterns etched into this large log lying in the middle of the dry pool.

Deeper in the woods surrounding the pool, a different log displayed hard, brittle chunks where the wood had fractured and broken. This type of decomposition results when mycelial networks digest cellulose, leaving the wood’s lignin intact.

One of the oddest sights I encountered suggested that someone armed with a can of spray paint had been at work. Given the log’s location away from a trail, the absence of any other signs of human presence, and the perfectly even, glowing color that didn’t rub off, some sort of fungus seems the most likely explanation. If a graffitti artist with a quirky sense of humor had been at work, that artist deserves kudos for both patience and skill, since the ground on which the log lay and the surrounding vegetation showed no signs of color.

Other changes had taken place. A single orchard orb weaver (Leucauge venusta) lingered in the branches of a yaupon tree, but the huge webs of orb-weavers like Argiope aurantia no longer shimmered across every opening, and those large, dramatically patterned spiders seemed to have disappeared.

Many flowers I’d grown accustomed to seeing were gone as well, in part because of significant clearing done by refuge staff. Here, climbing hempvine continued to climb, despite losing some of its support.

The most brilliant color belonged to this standout in the midst of a patch of blooming dayflowers (Commelina erecta). The flowers are highly variable in color; this was the most deeply saturated blue I’ve encountered.

Perhaps encouraged by rain, a saltmarsh mallow (Kosteletzkya virginica) had put on a new bud.

Some distance away, another saltmarsh mallow, having bloomed, slowly faded away.

The pretty red Turk’s caps had nearly stopped blooming, but some fruits still were available. Many of their leaves, covered with small grasshoppers, showed signs of nibbling, but the fruits remained undamaged.

A few stems of Gulf vervain (Verbena xutha) lingered at the sun-dappled edge of the woods. The tallest I’d seen, I assumed their height was due to a stretch toward sunlight, but according to Eason’s Wildflowers of Texas, they can grow to a height of six feet.

A common sight in our area, the hairypod cowpea (Vigna luteola) is the only native Vigna species in Texas. Depending on conditions, it can bloom nearly year-round; here, an early-opening flower is decorated with dew.

It’s said that nature leaves clues, but in the case of this Osage orange (Maclura pomifera), one clue wasn’t enough for me to solve the mystery of its appearance. Also known as Bois d’Arc or hedge apple, the trees usually produce a number of fruits, and yet only one lay on the ground. When a search of the area turned up not a single tree bearing Osage oranges, it seemed reasonable to assume that some creature — human or otherwise — picked it up elsewhere and dropped it at Walden West.

Speaking of creatures, I’ve split this October visit into two parts because of the wealth of creatures I encountered. The next post will show some of them, including my first encounter with a mammal.


Comments always are welcome.

Walden West ~ August

Climbing hempvine ~ Mikania scandens

By the time August ended, the area around Walden West had become overgrown and overrun with biting flies: so much so that swatting and sweating through the late summer heat were a considerable part of the day’s fun.

That said, there was no overlooking the climbing hempvine (Mikania scandens) that had burst into bloom since my last visit. A member of the Asteraceae, or sunflower family, its blooms lack ray florets; the clustered white to pinkish disk flowers resemble those of Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).

Found in a variety of moist environments — swamps, bottomland forests, sloughs, pond margins, and ditches — the pretty white-flowered vine clambers over, under, and around anything in its way, including the occasional cattail, as it winds in a clockwise direction around supporting host plants.

Occasionally, its progress is supported not by plants but by insects: specifically, by spiders. When I noticed a bit of hempvine rising straight up into the air, it seemed odd.  Then, I saw the spider silk attached to it: a single slender strand strong enough to support the weight of the plant. Orb weavers begin their webs by establishing anchor lines, and it seemed a spider had chosen a bit of hempvine as one anchor point.

Following the silk’s path, I found its creator in her web: a Golden Silk Orb-weaver (Nephila clavipes) dining on one of the deer flies that had been annoying me.

Not far away, a colorful Spiny-backed Orb Weaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis)  lurked in its own web. About a half-inch wide, these small spiders attract notice because of their colors: in addition to orange, they may be yellow, or white with black markings. The presence of six ‘spines’ indicates that this is a female. Males are even smaller, with four or five spines.

Growing as enthusiastically as the hempvine, Annual Marsh Elder (Iva annua) already stood four or five feet tall. Also known as sumpweed, this member of the sunflower family produces copious amounts of air-borne pollen;  like all species in the genus Iva, the plant afflicts allergy sufferers throughout the fall. In August, buds still were forming; in time, greenish-white flowers would emerge.

The introduced Indian Heliotrope (Heliotropium indicum) I’d found a month earlier at Walden West still lingered: now turned from white to pale lavender.  I recently came across our native Salt Heliotrope (H. curassavicum) at Brazos Bend State Park, with several Gulf Fritillaries nectaring on its pretty white flowers, but I never saw a native species at Walden West.

I never tire of ironweed; in past years I’ve been lucky enough to come across three of Texas’s species. Here, what I believe to be Missouri Ironweed (Vernonia missurica) adds a splash of color to the late summer landscape. The common name ‘ironweed’ has been attributed to a variety of iron-like qualities in the plant, including tough stems, flowers that appear to rust as they age, and rusty colored seeds.

Ironweed flowers ‘rusting’ away

Another prolific bloomer, Turk’s Cap continued to fill the August woods with both flowers and fruit.

According to various foraging sites, the plant’s marble-sized fruits taste a bit like apples. Their seeds can be eaten raw or toasted, and the fruits also can be made into jelly, jam, or wine.

Turk’s cap fruit

Butterflies and hummingbirds favor the flowers, especially during mid-morning and mid-afternoon when their nectar is said to be sweetest. While I can’t identify this hummingbird, no matter: it was enough to manage a photo as it hovered around the plant.

Despite occasional rains, we’ve moved into another dry period, and the Walden West pond remains empty. Still, a few nearby areas contained enough moisture for saltmarsh fleabane (Pluchea odorata) to offer its pastel accents; also a member of the Asteraceae, it’s found throughout Texas, along the Gulf coast to Florida, and up the eastern seaboard.

As we move deeper into autumn, marsh fleabane will continue to bloom: certainly in October, and perhaps even into early November. With luck, coming rains will encourage it — and fill the vernal pools.


Comments always are welcome.