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

screechowl05-04-14

 

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.

screechowlb05-04-14

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

frontyardG04-20-14

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.

frontyardF04-20-14

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.

frontyardD04-20-14

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.

frontyardE04-20-14

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.

RBwoodpeckerpair03-22-14

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.

RBwoodpeckermale03-22-14

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.

frostweedj12-7-13

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.

frostweedc12-7-13

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

frostweedb12-7-13

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

frostweedm12-7-13frostweedf12-7-13

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

frostweedh12-7-13

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.

frostweedl12-7-13

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.

frostweede12-7-13

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

frostweedd12-7-13

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.

frostweed10-25-13

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.

enchrockj11-29-13

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.

enchrocki11-29-13

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.

enchrockn11-29-13

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.

enchrocko11-29-13

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.

enchrocke11-29-13

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.

enchrockl11-29-13

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.

enchrockm11-29-13

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).
enchrockf11-29-13

Despite the cold temperatures during our visit, hoverflies came out in multitude to visit the Eupatorium, or boneset, plants on top of Enchanted Rock.

enchrockg11-29-13

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.

enchrockpb11-29-13

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

enchrocks11-29-13

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

enchrockr11-29-13

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

enchrockh11-29-13

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.

enchrockb11-29-13

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.

enchrockd11-29-13

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.

enchrockc11-29-13

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

jcityb11-29-13

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.

crabspider11-03-13

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.
crabspiderf11-03-13

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.

turtlesb11-04-13

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.

flood10-30-13

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.