Our Owl Parents Return

Our Eastern Screech Owl mama and papa are raising more babies this spring to join our wildlife family! I believe this is Papa — his darker coloration is the clue. 20140327-80owl

We’re a little worried because we’ve been hearing a Great Horned Owl most evenings lately. Normally this would make me happy, but Screech Owls are sometimes on the menu for Great Horned Owls. I’d be so sad if anything happened to our little owl family — they’ve been with us for a few years now.

Cheers to my husband for the great photo!

 

Red-bellied Woodpeckers Make Their Home

Why, hello, Spring! Between holidays, work, presentations, and a slight obsession with chickens, I’ve woefully neglected my blog. But ever does the wildlife habitat continue. I thought I’d venture back to blogging with our newest family in the making — a pair of Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are working on their nest in a dead tree behind our fence, happily situated so we can manage to watch them from our yard.

RBwoodpeckermalec03-22-14Here is the male. He frequents our birdfeeder, which we keep amply supplied with peanuts for him. Well, he does have to share with other visiting woodpeckers, blue jays, and other feathered friends who also love peanuts. That was the deal we made.

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The female is rather shy and elusive, but I managed to capture her (along with her partner) in the image above. While males have red across their head from the bill to the nape, females have red on their nape only.

RBwoodpeckermaled03-22-14It’s hard to tell whether the birds are actually nesting right now or still excavating their cavity, but if the latter, they’ve been working on it a long time. I do know they are working hard.

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In this image (above), you can see the blushing belly that gives Red-bellied Woodpeckers their name. It’s a common mistake for people to call them Red-headed instead of Red-bellied, but Red-headed Woodpeckers are another species entirely and have red feathers over their whole head, not just in faux-hawk fashion.

Along with their vast assistance in controlling insect populations, the fact that Red-bellied Woodpeckers make nesting cavities like this is very important in nature. Abandoned cavities become potential homes for other cavity-nesting animal species, such as Screech Owls, Bluebirds, Wrens, Chickadees, Nuthatches, and small mammals. On the other hand, invasive European Starlings, who also use cavities, are a threat to any native species in a cavity, because the Starlings often don’t hesitate to kill adults or young inside the nests in order to gain occupancy. I’m hopeful that our Red-bellied family will be safe, though.

We’ll stay on the lookout for signs of young in hopes of sharing an update in the near future.

Beautiful Ice Sculptures of Frostweed

In all the world, there are only a few species of plants that form rather remarkable ice sculptures when the air outside drops to sub-freezing temperatures. Of those, I’m lucky enough to grow one species, Frostweed (Verbesina virginica), in my garden.

frostweedg12-7-13There were two reasons I started growing Frostweed in my wildlife garden. The first is that it is a valuable nectar source for pollinators, especially migrating Monarchs, during its bloom time in the fall. The second is that when conditions are right in the late fall or winter, beautiful curling ice ribbons might exude from the stem’s outer layers.frostweeda12-7-13As temperatures drop, supercooled sap increases the pressure between the stem’s secondary xylem core and the epidermis. When the epidermis can no longer withstand the pressure, it splits open. The emerging sap produces the start of icy creations as the water cools quickly and begins to freeze. Then, because the internal pressure was reduced with the split of the epidermis, water from the plant’s roots moves upward and outward toward the split, contributing to the spectacular sculptures.

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When the water first emerges where the epidermis splits, it does so at right angles to the core, because it exits from single rays which move water peripherally from the pith (center core) toward the living cortex and outer cells, the epidermis.

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The beautiful ice ribbons form as water touches adjacent ice crystals and freezes, a repeating process.

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The ribbons are thin and delicate. They melt almost instantly when held.

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In this image, note the living cortex just inside the epidermis, easily seen where the split starts to taper.

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Ice sculptures from Frostweed typically appear at the plant’s base, close to the roots, but this isn’t always the case. Above, the ribbons begin appearing about an inch off the ground. They continue emerging for much of the plant’s stem. As you can see from the plant’s green leaves, the plant was not in a dormant state at the time of the freeze, and water existed well up the stem. This allowed for a particularly impressive ice creation. An unusually hard freeze early in the season might provide the conditions for such a tall sculpture.

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frostweedk12-7-13The stem itself does not split. In fact, it can produce additional formations as freezing temperatures occur again in the season. Subsequent formations will usually move lower to the base of the stem, near the roots.

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Higher up the stem on a Frostweed plant, decreased pressure might allow the epidermis to split but not emerge forcefully enough to create ribbons.

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Why is Frostweed able to do this, while most other plants cannot? A closer study indicates that during freezing temperatures, water must be present in the cortex and tissue just inside the epidermis; typically in Frostweed this occurs at least near base of the plant. Also, the secondary xylem of Frostweed is woody, which allows a framework against which internal pressure from the supercooled sap will push out and lead to the rupture of the epidermis. Additionally, Frostweed’s xylem rays allow water to flow laterally at right angles to the transport tissues, a big factor in the creation of the ice ribbons.

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The above image shows the blooms of this excellent wildlife plant. Frostweed grows readily in shade from seed, looking its best in natural woody settings. It can reach heights of 6-8 feet, with clusters of white blooms opening up with copious nectar in fall. I find it a beautiful plant most of the year, but as it grows big, it might flop over, and as the seasons turn cool the foliage admittedly will become less attractive.

Rockin’ On

The day after Thanksgiving, our family joined friends for a trek to Enchanted Rock, one of Central Texas’ most unique natural gems. Enchanted Rock is a large batholith, an underground rock formation exposed by erosion. enchrockk11-29-13

To visitors, it appears as a giant dome of protruding pink granite, though in reality Enchanted Rock and its nearby sister domes are together only a small part of a much larger globe of granite formed a billion years ago. Humans have been visiting the ancient rock for an estimated 11,000 years.

Enchanted Rock beckons hikers to trek up the slope to get a 360° view of the beautiful surrounding Texas Hill Country. The elevation sits at a mere 1825 feet above sea level but only rises about 425 feet above the soil. That might not sound like much, but the slope is just steep enough to make many hikers pause periodically to catch their breath, and it’s worth cautioning folks with bad knees that going up and back down again can take its physical toll.

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Weathering and other types of erosion over geologic time have given the rock its curved shape. Visible exfoliation on the rock’s flanks shows this work still in progress, with thick slabs sliding downhill. Elsewhere on the rock are mushroom-shaped blocks, formed over time by additional weathering.

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Many blocks invite climbing, and advanced rock climbers scale the larger domes with ropes and carabiners. For those who don’t mind narrow spaces, there’s a cave on the northeast side, close to the top — flashlights are recommended, or even better, headlamps (or a phone app, but be careful not to drop your phone in there!). Be sure to look for the arrows that are in there to guide you, and seriously don’t attempt traversing the cave if you are claustrophobic — be prepared to crawl and maneuver through small holes in full darkness. That being said, it’s fun.

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Along the surface of the dome, one might spot long linear lines called dikes. These formed long ago, when magma rushed to fill cracks along the granite.

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From the top of Enchanted Rock, you can pause and reflect on the beauty of the surrounding hill country, enjoy a picnic, or just enjoy breathing the fresh air. Adventurous souls might seek out the northeastern caves at this point.

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From the eastern side of Enchanted Rock, you might catch sight of visitors choosing to trek up a sister dome called Freshman Mountain. As you can see by the elevation difference, it’s much smaller but still quite impressive.

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There’s plenty of plant and wildlife on Enchanted Rock. Plants grow where they can, in depressions and where eroded debris and blown-in soil accumulate in cracks and under boulders. In shallower soil, one might find ferns, cactus, tiny daisies, stonecrops, and other tough survivors. Where deeper soil has filled in cracks and depressions, trees and shrubs can grow. Lichen and mosses blanket many rocks.

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Vernal pools, sometimes called weather pits, are depressions that temporarily store rainwater and other moisture. During such times, some of the pools support tiny invertebrates called fairy shrimp, whose life cycle allows them to survive desiccation. Other pools become islands of plants. Above is Texas Sacahuista (Nolina texana).
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Despite the cold temperatures during our visit, hoverflies came out in multitude to visit the Eupatorium, or boneset, plants on top of Enchanted Rock.

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After spending some time on the top and in the cave, our group decided to head back down via the eastern slope rather than returning to the main trail. It’s rather steep, as you can see above, and not for those with knee troubles. I recommend good hiking shoes if you are going this way. Note the dike visible in the rock. FYI, the view of Freshman Mountain shown a few photos above was taken from this slope.

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Here’s a view from the lower portion of the eastern side of the dome, looking up.

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Down below, there are trails one can following around and through the park, all with outstanding scenery.

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A natural bridge of sorts can be seen just off the Loop Trail on the north side or the rock.

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Some trails follow or cross over creeks. Along the way, you might spot coyote scat, many a bird, and more of Enchanted Rock’s most beautiful native Texas plants.

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Blackjack Oaks, known for their tri-lobed bell-shaped leaves, are actually members of the Red Oak group. While the trees are found through the southeastern United States, there are only a few places farther west than Enchanted Rock (and the surrounding Gillespie County) that can boast Blackjack Oaks among their native plants. The oaks’ foliage turns a beautiful red in the fall.

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Browning grasses, decorated with seeds, will provide food sources for wildlife throughout the cold months ahead.enchrocka11-29-13This dead yucca plant surrounded by its living family brings to mind Cousin Itt.

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Of course, we can’t forget our dear prickly pear cactus.

Enchanted Rock is a state treasure, and one we love to visit whenever possible. I especially appreciated being there on the day after Thanksgiving, with other like-minded folks who wanted to get out to nature and avoiding the chaotic sales and ill-tempered crowds that take the “thankful” out of the holiday.

fredericksburg11-29-13 I will say that another treat in visiting Enchanted Rock on the day after Thanksgiving was getting to enjoy the beautiful holiday lights (and delicious food) in Fredericksburg (above) and in Johnson City (below).jcity11-29-13

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Pretty spectacular.

Flower Crab Spiders Watch and Wait

Among the trees of our backyard, a giant Chile Pequin shrub faithfully continues to provide blooms for little pollinators and ripening peppers for the birds. But it also provides something else — potential food sources for beneficial garden predators, in this case crab spiders.
crabspiderb11-03-13These little 8-eyed wonders do not spin webs like orbweavers do but instead are ambush hunters. They position themselves carefully on a flower then wait with the utmost patience for an unsuspecting bee or fly to land.crabspiderg11-03-13

Typically they keep their longer front legs outstretched, ready to snap closed if their prey comes near. Those front legs are one reason these arachnids are commonly called crab spiders, but another is that the little spiders can scuttle backwards and sideways in the manner of a crab.

crabspiderc11-03-13While this white crab spider (genus Mecaphesa) waited on the back of the flower, a little fly landed for some nectar, completely unaware of the danger it was in.crabspidere11-03-13But I questioned the spider’s position on the back of the flower, thinking a more frontal position would be more strategic, until I saw the spider close its strong front legs in a flash. The fly did get away, but I consider it lucky.

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A few branches over on the same shrub, a yellow crab spider (also Mecaphesa genus) lurked on its own flower. Some crab spiders have the ability to change colors over a period of several days, either secreting or excreting yellow pigment to help it match the flower it is on. This spider would do well to change its color, or it should move over to a nearby Goldenrod flower, where it would blend in superbly.
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But I guess it’s content where it is for now. The Chile Pequin’s flowers are quite busy with pollinators, so I imagine the crab spiders are getting plenty to eat. Good luck, little spiders!

Edit: Thanks to Spider Joe for helping identifying these two spiders as Mecaphesa genus. Reading a little more, I see that two identification factors have to do with the size and position of the eyes and the hairiness of the spiders. Also, per Joe on Mecaphesa spiders, “Some of them can also turn red. They can also have not only changes in their overall color but major changes in the patterns of color on them, though those major changes typically occur at molt.”  I so love to learn something new! Thanks, Joe!

A Handful of Wiggling, High-Protein Bird and Turtle Food

It’s amazing how not visiting your veggie garden for a mere three days can be long enough to let naughty little critters establish a hold on your precious edibles. I went out among the raised beds and found near skeletal broccoli and cauliflower plants.

11-03-13cabbagelooperLifting the remaining leaf bits, I discovered the culprits. Cabbage Loopers — argh! I love caterpillars, seriously I do, but I have to draw the line on those that would eat my veggies down to nothing. Time to hand-pick them off! The total on all the plants: 37 cabbage loopers plus 4 salt marsh caterpillars and possibly 1 banded woolly bear. I moved the fuzzies to other sections of the yard — I know they’ll find plenty to eat over there, such as horseherb. The cabbage loopers, on the other hand — they get to do their part in the ecosystem as food sources for other critters. Originally I planned to put them in the bird feeder trays, but my friend Jan raises turtles, and they LOVE wiggling little caterpillars and itty bitty little wormsies. Perfect.

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My son headed over to Jan’s to watch the happy turtles and snap a couple of pictures. Here are two of Jan’s turtles beginning to feast.

turtles11-04-13Sorry little caterpillars, but I need my broccoli and cauliflower! I’m hopeful that the plants will recover — they already have new leaves forming.

Water, Water Everywhere

Let me start by saying that we are still in a drought here in Central Texas. But tonight we’ve been experiencing another round of flash flood-producing heavy rains, a product of the particular weather systems and geography of the area. While folks in low areas face dangerous rising waters regularly (when there actually is rain, mind you), we’ve been fortunate to live in a house that really hasn’t had a problem, knock on wood. However, with the clouds dumping inches of rain in mere minutes — after having a few substantial rains over the past few weeks — for the first time in the 18 years we’ve been in this house, our house is in danger of flooding.

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That’s the front of the house.floodb10-30-13

The entryway pond is underwater, too. Good thing we don’t keep fish in that particular pond.

I don’t think we’ll flood — the slope of the land sends most of the water toward the backyard. I’m worried about our neighbors, however, and I’m a little worried that I’ll have new trenches washed out in the back. I know many low-water crossings are deep in water, so hopefully other folks are driving safe. Tomorrow morning will be interesting!

Edit: Our garden rain gauge stops measuring at 5 inches, but our closest two “official” rain gauges in the city report that we’ve had 6-7.5 inches of rain in the past 12 hours, much of which was dumped all at once. I hear rain still outside, with more storms on the radar. It’s both wonderful to have all this rain and so interesting that for once our NW part of Austin is getting serious flooding. Usually central and south Austin spots get that main experience. I sure hope this means that Lake Travis is rising — it’s been depressing how low it has been during the drought.

Dawn in the Fall Garden

As the sun peeked up over the trees this morning, I stepped outside to take delight in the dew-covered garden. The rains this fall have brought about a colorful wave of blooms and greenery.

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It might not look like it, but this area of my garden gets the worst of the summer sun, with rarely any water from me. This is why I love native Texas plants! They know how to conserve their energy in the summer heat. Then when fall rains come around, they perk up and smile (well, bloom).

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In fact, it’s Texas Native Plant Week right now (October 20-26, 2013). I started the week by getting the rest of my natives planted in the ground, all purchased from the fall Wildflower Plant Sale. I’ve been adding new species to further increase the biodiversity, including Chickasaw Plum, Wild Blue Indigo, Cardinal Catchfly, Foothill Beargrass, Paleleaf Yucca, Green Sotol, Desert Honeysuckle, and others. Above, I’ve planted more Golden Groundsel, a favorite.

The rest of the week, I’ve been helping get lots of native plants to schools in the Austin area. The students are learning about natives such as Flame Acanthus, Skeletonleaf Goldeneye, Purple Coneflower, Shrubby Boneset, Engelmann’s Daisy, and many more. They are also learning about why all these plants are so important for wildlife and for Texas.

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I’ve been spreading the Bluebonnet love, too. So many seedlings are cropping up this fall, far too many for my garden. I’ve given away more than a hundred little transplants already, and I’m helping others give away their excess seedlings, too. The 2nd graders I’m working with absolutely loved planting a bluebonnet garden at their school.pyramidbush10-25-13

One of my favorite native plants is Pyramid Bush (Melochia tomentosa), a sweet little shrub I purchased at the Wildflower Center last year. In the early morning, the flowers are all closed up.pyramidbush10-13

But in the warmth of the day, the blooms open, proving a touch of pink to the garden.pyramidbushb10-13

Don’t let the dainty flowers fool you — this plant is a hardy survivor, taking on the full summer sun without needing much water.evergreensumac10-25-13

Elsewhere on our property, the Evergreen Sumacs are in bloom. Berries will soon follow.

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The Frostweed is tall and in full bloom, too, looking extra lovely when backlit by the morning sun.

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The sun’s early morning lighting also highlighted another tall flower, a Silverleaf Sunflower.beemealybluesage10-25-13

This little honeybee was the first pollinator of the cool, early morning. First come, first served! Clever little bee… or at least a very hard worker.gulffrits10-25-13

The Gulf Fritillary caterpillars are hungrily eating up the Passionvine. We have chrysalises all over the stone on the back of the house, and more can be found on vines, trellises, and trees. I’ve been providing caterpillars to the school teams I’m working with. It’s nice to be able to share this amazing life cycle. At the rate they are going, though, my vine is going to be a skeleton before long. But that’s how the cycle goes — it will be bigger than ever next year.

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Surprisingly, one caterpillar wandered all the way to the front yard before making its “J” and chrysalis. Of all things, it chose a dead little sunflower as its chrysalis spot. Lucky for it, I noticed it while planting and weeding — I almost yanked the plant away! But I left the caterpillar and the plant, and by next morning, there was the chrysalis. Do you see it in the image above?

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There it is!

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Way back in the backyard, a Cow-itch Vine (Cissus trifoliata) is growing, presumably planted by some bird. While I’m neutral about the vine in general, it turns out that it is the host plant for a couple of special moths found here in Texas, including the Vine Sphinx Moth and Wilson’s Wood-nymph Moth. So of course, I’m letting it stay.

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Nearby, Tropical Sage (Salvia coccinea) is king of the woodland area, being allowed to reseed freely. The hummingbirds love this area.

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Under other shady trees, I was pleased to see that the Yellow Passionflower (Passiflora lutea) has finally found the cedar trellis we made for it.

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Not to be outdone by the natives, the veggie garden is looking great, too. Fall is so very much my favorite time to plant in Texas. We’ve had to cage a few newly seeded areas, as some nocturnal culprit has been digging into the beds a bit. Luckily, the garlic above does not find a cage an obstacle. This year’s garden includes cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, garlic, shallots, snap peas, strawberries, lettuce, kale, spinach, and carrots, as well as many, many herbs. Loving it.

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An error in measuring out garden fabric for one of the veggie beds proved to be a timely mistake. We turned our boo-boo into ghostly decorations. Boo! Boo! Get it?

Wonderful fall. Happy gardener.

Toadstools Dot the Backyard

All the rain we’ve been having lately has brought opportunities to see a huge variety of mushrooms all over the property, in all sizes, shapes, and colors. I love mushrooms. I see them as a sign of a functioning ecosystem and good soil.

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Back in the wooded area near where we hope to build our new shed soon (and I actually mean soon), we were wowed by almost a dozen giant toadstools dotting the ground. They were huge, about the size of my husband’s hand. Definitely “wow” fungi, I have to say.

We’ve had even more rain this week. Now I’m noticing other fungi but the toadstools have gone. Fascinating how mushrooms come and go — you never know what species will pop up next.