The Little Blue Slow Change Artist

Juvenile Little Blue Heron ~ Laffite’s Cove Nature Center, Galveston Island

It’s taken time, but eventually I came to understand that not every smaller, white wading bird I encountered at the edge of ponds or on the tidal flats was a Snowy Egret. In the first year of its life, the Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) is white, showing no more than dusky blue or gray shadows on the tips of its feathers.

Greenish-yellow legs and feet, together with a bill that tends toward pale gray rather than black also helps with identification. The Sibley guide mentions that many immature Little Blue Herons show a short pointed plume or two on the back of their heads; I may have captured that feature in the first photo.

As the bird matures, it takes on a mottled, or piebald, appearance as white feathers are replaced.

Maturing Little Blue Heron ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Adult birds may seem uniformly dark at a distance, but in fact their feathers present a pleasing combination of maroon and a dark slaty-blue. Their legs remain green; combined with their yellow eyes and a pale blue bill tipped with black at the base, they’re fairly easy to identify.

In the past, I sometimes confused adult Little Blue Herons with Reddish Egrets, despite their color differences; Reddish Egret feathers have been described as cinnamon and steel.

Apart from those color differences, behavior helps to distinguish the birds. The Reddish Egret is a frenetic forager: chasing fish by running back and forth, opening and shutting its wings, and stirring up sediment with its feet. The Little Blue is a sedate stalker: as elegant on the hunt as in moments of rest, and equally beautiful.

An elegant pair at the Brazoria refuge

 

Comments always are welcome.

Autumn Snow

Snow-on-the-Prairie

As summer begins to ease its grip on Texas, a lovely floral ‘snow’ suggests the coming of autumn. In the western two-thirds of the state, Snow-on-the-Mountain (Euphorbia marginata) covers much of the land. In the Eastern third (and north into Oklahoma), Snow-on-the-Prairie (E. bicolor) holds sway.

Snow-on-the-Prairie can grow to a height of three or four feet, and often forms dense colonies. Its long green and white bracts, open and airy, offer a pleasing counterpoint to surrounding grasses and forbs.

The plant’s long, slender bracts sometimes are mistaken for petals, but they’re actually  modified leaves. The flowers of Snow-on-the-Prairie are quite small, and exceptionally interesting.

Plants in the genus Euphorbia possess a unique structure called a cyathium (plural, cyathia) which contains both male and female flowers, as well as small structures known as bractioles, and nectar glands. Surrounding the flowers, bractioles, and glands, small bracts called cyathophylls — which superficially resemble the petals of a flower — provide additional color.

Here, the white cyathophylls of E. bicolor add to the plant’s ‘snowy’ appearance. Since the snow is only metaphorical, the sight is entirely pleasurable; it’s possible to admire this plant on the prairie without getting frostbite.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Seventy-Seven Minute Wonder

8:06 a.m.

On September 19, five days after Hurricane Nicholas made landfall, waters in the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge ponds had receded somewhat, but this water lily still wore the necklace of detritus it had collected as it pushed its way through the water’s surface.

Other lilies already had opened, but the loop of grasses around this one’s top had prevented it from joining them. Its slightly odd shape brought to mind a garlic clove, and I paused to photograph it before continuing along the boardwalk.

After a mosquito-shortened visit to a nearby trail, I passed the lily again, forty-one minutes later. Despite impediments, a single petal had worked itself free.

8:47 a.m.

In little more than another half-hour, only two or three petals still were impeded by the grasses.

9:23 a.m.

Witness to such an opening, I couldn’t help wondering if Dylan Thomas’s famous lines were rooted in a similar experience:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Nettled by Nature

Nascent Bull Nettle buds

Another name for Texas Bull-nettle (Cnidoscolus texanus) is ‘Tread Softly,’ and there’s no question that treading softly and carefully is good advice if Bull-nettle’s in the neighborhood. The inattentive or inexperienced risk discovering why the plant sometimes is called Mala Mujer, or ‘bad woman.’ Its stem, branches, leaves, and seed pods are covered in stinging hairs; when the hairs come into contact with human skin, the results can include intense pain, burning, itching, or cellulitis.

Several years ago, entranced by the sight of a field of white prickly poppies and eager to photograph them, I met my first bull-nettle by sitting on one. I don’t recommend the experience, any more than I recommend kneeling in a spot where the highway department has mowed them down, leaving invisible hairs strewn across the land.

A member of the Spurge family, bull-nettles produce several stems from a single taproot; the plant thrives even in the hottest and driest parts of the summer. Its lovely flowers, five to seven white, petal-like sepals surrounding ten or more stamens and a three-lobed pistil, bloom from early March through July across a large swath of the state.

Aransas Wildlife Refuge

Oddly, the stinging hairs don’t seems to bother the plant’s many non-human visitors. Here, a common green bottle fly (Lucilia spp.) pauses on bull-nettle flowers mixed with colorful Indian Blankets.

Willow City Loop, Fredericksburg

A Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) sips nectar, heedless of the hairs.

El Capote Ranch ~ Guadalupe County

Perhaps sensing an opportunity for camouflage, this Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans) holds its hairy legs next to the plant’s hairs, while it assumes its characteristic prey-catching posture and awaits its next meal.

Tres Palacios Bay

The number and variety of creatures that can be found on and around the Bull-nettles is remarkable. Just don’t get too close while admiring them!

 

Comments always are welcome.

Those Unpredictable Rain Lilies

Eleven lilies and a bud

 

On July 4th, I found the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge nearly deserted; only a few birds and even fewer humans stirred in the heat. In some areas, a different sort of emptiness prevailed. Since my last visit, mowers had been at work, cutting wide roadside swaths, as well as entire fields, neatly to the ground.

Since the refuge is managed for wildlife, particularly waterfowl, it makes sense that wildflowers might not be the first consideration, but it was disappointing to find stubble where I’d hoped to find flowers.

On the other hand, an unexpected treat awaited me. Rain lilies (Zephyranthes chlorosolen) decorated the road leading into the refuge, and had spread throughout the refuge itself. Despite our consistent rains, it hadn’t occurred to me that they might be appearing, but hundreds already had bloomed, rising from bulbs undisturbed by the mowing.

Despite being so numerous, the flowers were too scattered for their fragrance to be detectable. Still, the occasional clumps of fresh, white flowers were delightful, and even a single rain lily pleases the eye.

 

Comments always are welcome.