Switching to Native Grass

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassF Our backyard has been a challenge from the start, which for us was in 2008 when we began building our wildlife garden. The majority of the yard, filled with Bermuda grass, received the full effect of the Death Star (the sun) every day. Every step we took to convert our backyard to a habitat began with the removal of that Bermuda from rock-hard clay soil.

Our wildlife garden is quite well established now, but we kept putting off tackling the remaining (and still large) “lawn” of Bermuda. The reason simply was the amount of effort involved, but this year I decidedly to make the process simpler by working small areas at a time, seeding them and letting them get established while protecting them from potential encroachment from Bermuda still around.

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Area normally in sun — picture taken late in the day. This photo shows the area after it rested under cardboard for several months.

Shovels, cardboard, and time were our tools. In the spring, we dug out a reasonable section of Bermuda completely by hand, taking care to get all the roots. Next, we covered the area with cardboard. Then we waited. I didn’t intend to wait for several months, but that’s what happened, and it worked out for the best. Sometime over the summer, I pulled off the cardboard to let rain soak the ground and see whether any Bermuda would reemerge. Hardly any did, thank goodness.

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassESeptember brought promise of rain for us this year, and it was a fine time to go ahead and seed the Habiturf, a mixture of Buffalo Grass, Curly Mesquite, and Blue Grama seeds. The idea of the three grasses is that diversity of acceptable species has a better chance of crowding out any weeds or Bermuda that might try to establish there, and that diversity helps provide protection from diseases or pests that might otherwise cause problems in a traditional turf lawn.

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassBFirst, we used a dirt rake and shovel to loosen up any compacted areas (necessary after months of dogs and people trampled the cardboard and soil).

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassCThen we added a light layer of compost and raked it in. The chickens did a better job of mixing it than we did. I highly recommend them as garden helpers and tools.

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They would have particularly loved to find these beneficial rhinoceros beetle grubs that we found in the compost. The grubs were as big as a human thumb — you can see my husband’s thumb in the photo for comparison. But the chickens uncover enough of those grubs in the actual compost bin — the 5 or so we found during the grass process were rescued and delivered to secret places in the yard.

After mixing in the compost and rescuing giant beetle larvae, it was time for the seeds. I sprinkled them by hand — I opted for dense coverage until my husband complained about the cost of the seed. So I lightened up the coverage for the remaining portion. (Guess which section looked the best upon germination? Winner!)

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassGWe tamped the seeds into the soil simply by walking on the area. Then I watered thoroughly. The soil had to remain moist for days in order for seeds to germinate — in Texas, this could be the biggest challenge for many would-be native grass gardeners. Fortunately, we had a spell of rain to help.

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassGBTo help keep the dogs and chickens out, we created two barriers — one was chicken wire around the border, and I also laid down a sheet of light row cover, both for protection and as a way to help keep the soil moist for longer periods. FYI, the light row cover was more effective than the chicken wire at keeping the chickens out — chickens can both fly over and crawl under things quite easily. Fortunately, they were mostly interested in catching worms that were emerging from the rain, not eating the grass seed or seedlings. Mostly.

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassHGermination was remarkably quick, thank goodness. The plentiful rain helped with that. Once the seedlings were about an inch or so long, I removed the light row cover and stopped worrying about the chickens getting in there. As the grass grows longer and fills in, I’ll share an updated picture.

I’m not looking forward to dealing with the rest of the Bermuda, but I feel better knowing the process has begun. It won’t be easy and it won’t be fun, but it will be worth it.

Rescuing Bees

Over the summer we discovered that we had unexpected residents in our second owl box, the one occasionally used by owls but more often by squirrels and then suddenly by honeybees.   beerescuec09-07-14While I prefer the bees to the squirrels, we knew it was best to rescue them. For one, it was supposed to be an owl box, even if it was the “extra” one the owls didn’t typically choose. Two, the chances of the bee colony making it through the winter in that box were slim. Three, my husband is allergic to bees and worried that he’d be at risk anytime he worked in the vicinity of the hive.

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Here you can see the bees are staying cool by collecting on the
outside of the box. This effect is called “bearding.”

It’s important to do everything you can to protect pollinators, whose decline is becoming more critical every day. We do our part by keeping an organic wildlife garden that has a diversity of colorful native flowers of all shapes and sizes, as well as water sources that allow insects to safely drink. We also have several bee boxes and even an insect hotel that welcomes nesting native bees. So while we knew we needed to let these precious pollinators go, we wanted to do so in a way that would protect the queen and colony. Time to bring in a bee rescue team!

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We decided to call Bee Friendly Austin. Tanya and Chuck rescue bees, and they also have a working apiary and teach beekeeping classes. They arranged to arrive just before dusk, when the majority of bees would be back at the hive (and hopefully sleepy).20140907-IMG_1496beerescueb

Chuck and Tanya donned their bee gear and planned to use only a drill to unscrew the owl box from the tree and a sheet to cover the bees. Chuck did not smoke the bees first, as some might expect. He prefers to avoid that method.beerescuecb09-07-14

The act of removing the first screw with the drill was enough to disturb a handful of bees. Better to be safe than sorry — Chuck opted to get the sheet to cover the hive.

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Definitely the way to go.

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Three screws undone, and the hive was ready to come down. Chuck made it look so easy.

Meanwhile, our neighbors Jan and Gerry had their own bee colony in one of their owl boxes. How convenient for Chuck and Tanya to pick up two colonies during the same trip. And so they did.beerescued09-07-14 beerescueda09-07-14

It must get fairly warm inside those boxes, even in the shade. Here the bees are bearding again.

beerescuedb09-07-14Chuck used the same technique with the sheet, as it had worked so smoothly at our house. It worked just as smoothly the second time.

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You can see that a few bees were agitated by the process, but only a few. The sheet did a great job keeping the majority of the hive calm and together.

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There they go, off to their new location. Tanya and Chuck will transfer them to new hives, taking care to locate and protect the queens.

FYI, Bee Friendly Austin coordinates Austin’s annual Tour De Hives. This year’s tour is coming up soon — September 20, 2014. If you are interested in beekeeping, or if you just enjoy seeing one of the events that make Austin special, check it out!

 

Art Comes to the Wildlife Garden

Over the past several weeks, we’ve been upcycling metal scraps (leftover from a roofing project) and turning them into art. It’s been fun, to say the least, and I’m thrilled for the variety of whimsical creations that now dot the perimeter of our yard. Check out, for example, my son Logan’s Steampunk chicken.paintingsA08-31-14

While the hot Texas summer bakes, wilts, and withers plants right and left, we still get to enjoy bursts of color from different viewpoints around the yard.paintingsG08-31-14

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My mom thought the idea sounded grand, so we brought some metal sheets out to her house in Nacogdoches. There, she whipped up some beautiful masterpieces of her own, including surprise portraits of our three dogs, Loki, Grover, and Sheba. My aunt Marilyn then brought them back to Austin for us during her own travels back and forth to Nacogdoches. We love the painting — how very special it will always be to us!

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Mom’s other painting was equally fun and delightful, and we love it just as much. Knowing our fondness for Screech Owls, she painted an owl that would stay in our backyard year-round (whereas our real Screech Owl family always departs in May when the fledglings leave the nesting box). Guess where in the yard we placed this wonderful art? Yep, near the owl box.paintingsH08-31-14

 

My son Nolan brought more whimsy to the yard with his mystical, magical chicken art. I’m proud of him for jumping into the project.paintingsF08-31-14

Above is my take on a Painted Bunting, and while I love our compost bin for many reasons, including aesthetics (believe it or not) and functionality, now it’s even more pleasant to look at for the painting that sits above it.

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Even our sweet chickens got in on the act — the six young girls contributed their own art for their backyard haven. It was a little messy, admittedly, but they were good sports.

There’s one more I haven’t mentioned — the one that started them all. It resides in the beautiful coop we built this year. The coop’s roof is the reason we have the extra pieces of galvanized steel in the first place.

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I painted it while home miserably sick one weekend. It didn’t make my cold improve, but it made me feel better in other ways. Plus, it looks great in the chicken run. It’s called “Bawk.” :)

Most of the above paintings are done with acrylic on galvanized steel. For the ones my mom made (the dog portraits and the owl), Mom used spray paint leftovers to first create a background, then used acrylic to paint the main images. I sealed all of them with a low- odor spray varnish designed for outdoor use (then I sealed them again — I was a little paranoid that Texas weather was going to be rough on them).

We still have a few pieces of metal left over — more art to come!

 

Good Morning, Texas Persimmon

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I don’t remember which year we planted our first Texas Persimmon (Diospyros texana), but I estimate it’s about 7-8 feet tall now. So maybe about 4 years ago? It’s a female Persimmon, as the species has male and female trees, and only the females produce the flowers and fruit. Our little tree didn’t start producing fruit right away, of course, and when it did a couple of years ago, it started out with 2 fruit total on the entire tree. I eagerly waited for them to ripen, but one fell off and got yucky, and the other disappeared. I’m guessing squirrel or opossum. Last year, the tree produced 12 fruit total. Not many, perhaps, but a reasonable increase from the previous year — after all, it was 6 times as many! Once again, the fruit disappeared just as they began to ripen. Those wonderful wildlife, birds and mammals and whatnot, I enjoy attracting were not being fair and sharing the bounty!

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This year, the Texas Persimmon is so loaded with fruit that it’s leaning way over. Most of the fruit are still green, but a few are changing color. In fact, when I approached this morning, one dark beauty stood out in front and caught my eye.

20140821 txpersimmonb1251Within a flash it was in my hand. MINE, you squirrels and birds! I was so astonished that I got it first that I almost didn’t know what to do with it. Well, really, there was only one option.

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One little persimmon isn’t enough for a recipe. So, after giving it a rinse (and taking the time to get my camera), I bit into the juicy persimmon. Delicious and naturally sweet… and loaded with big seeds. Five of them, to be exact. Ah yes, I seem to recall that persimmons invite a little extra work in preparing them for cooking.

If I manage to collect enough ripe fruit before the wildlife find them, I plan to make some Texas Persimmon jelly. I’ll share the recipe when I do, of course. YUM.

 

 

If You Have to Look Down on Someone, Be an Owl

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Mama Owl is ever used to us wandering around the yard. It used to be that she’d mostly ignore us — we were just big, talking, moving, non-flying creatures (along with four-legged furry ones that accompanied us) that really had nothing to do with her family up high. But now that we have chicks (technically pullets now) that get daily time roaming the yard and garden, she has free daily entertainment. The six pullets are much, much bigger than a screech owl is — we’re confident she wouldn’t attempt to go after one — but she certainly watches them with great interest.. like a hawk, if you will. That’s how my husband managed to get the photo above — I suspect she expected to see a chicken when she looked down to check out the noises below.

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Mama and Papa Owl are fantastic parents and don’t seem to mind us taking a few annual pictures as they feed their young. We try not to disturb them too much, staying out only a few minutes to get some images and then letting them enjoy the rest of their nightly hunts.screechowlc05-04-14

Above, Papa Owl has arrived with a house gecko. Mama Owl had just delivered food to the babies and was still at the nesting box, so we assumed she’d leave for another hunting trip and he’d bring the food in to the wee ones.screechowld05-04-14

Surprisingly, that’s not what happened. Mama Owl flew over to Papa and got the gecko and brought it to the babies herself (Papa Owl is still visible on the left in the image). Very, very interesting.screechowle05-04-14

At one point she landed on the limb above our heads, in just the right spot — a gap among the branches — for a clear view of her. I love the image, as it reminds us just how small Eastern Screech Owls really are. They are at most 10 inches high and weigh 1/2 pound or less. Their wing span is up to 2 feet, however.

We’re expecting to catch glimpses of the fledglings any day now. Mama still hangs out in the nest, so they’re not big enough to squeeze her out yet, but most likely soon. Can’t wait to see those adorable Muppet-like faces!

 

Transforming the Front Yard

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Our front yard has been a bane of my gardening existence for a while, primarily because of two trees and a lack of desire to put down a chunk of money necessary to achieve the vision we have for said yard. The two trees are fully mature Arizona Ashes that provide extensive shade for our yard. We expect them to start dropping limbs any year now, but still they live on. However, we want to put in a walkway and retaining wall along the front of the house, but to do so means slicing through major roots of those trees, which would speed up the process of their demise before we’re ready (certainly before they are). So we’ve held off on that big project. It’s why the front hasn’t been as much of a focus for us as has been the backyard.

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But we’ve been doing some front-yard work just the same. We’ve planted trees (Anacua, Texas Ash, and Escarpment Black Cherry) that will one day take the place of the Ash trees and provide their own shade to the yard and house. We also turned an ugly trench into a lovely dry creek bed with a flat bridge. You’ll see current photos of that former trench in some of the images that follow. frontyardH04-20-14Additionally, for a couple of years now, we’ve been nurturing a natural growth of Cedar Sedge in a portion of our yard, knowing that we wanted to see it spread across the yard in lieu of turf grass. In the back of the image above, you can see the patch of sedge we’ve been taking care of, as well as scattered clumps as new sedge fills in empty spots.

The Cedar Sedge has been enjoying its coveted status and has obliged us by reseeding itself nicely across half of the yard. Now it’s time to give it a helping hand and shape the yard a little. frontyardB04-20-14

With that, we’re providing some mulched pathways, transplanting sedge clumps from some areas to others, and giving the sedge a major push for its takeover of the other half of the yard. The above image shows some of the sedge clumps we moved from the new pathway to the freshly-bare, weed-free areas. On the other side of the path are Inland Sea Oats and other shade-loving plants.

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A mulched pathway isn’t really my first choice for the front yard, but it’s what we can afford right now and it will handily deal with the weeds. Actually it looks lovely under the trees, and we might line it with rocks as we collect them. We dug out all the weeds by hand, then lay down cardboard before putting down the mulch. Once we dig out the remaining weeds, the pathway will continue and curve around to make a complete half-loop along the front of the house.

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What I love about Cedar Sedge is its gentle presence. It’s easy to move about, it spreads without being obnoxious, it only needs a bit of water now and then in the heat of the summer, and it’s easy to remove for creating beds or planting new perennials. It’s not trying to take over the world — it just wants to be subtle, pretty, and set a zen-like mood. I’m so glad I realized the sedge was there in the yard. Once I stopped mowing it over, it had a chance to shine.

frontyardA04-20-14 The plants along the dry creek bed are quite happy, without a doubt the bluebonnets most of all. What a beautiful mass of bluebonnets — seed pods are already forming.frontyardC04-20-14Other perennials and wildflowers are in bloom, providing lovely contrast to the blue of our state flower.

I’m quite thrilled to see long-desired improvements to our front yard, especially ones that will take away any need to mow the front yard ever again. We’ve got a small area left to weed, and then no more mowing (at least in the front)! YAY. Still can’t do the retaining wall, but we can wait — shade is more important in Texas.

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.