Predator vs. Predator

spottedorb06-01-10d.jpgWinner: Spider

I’ve been talking a lot about the nature of nature lately, and yesterday the garden presented me with yet another example, again making me ponder my emotions in relation to what happens in “the real world.”


 As excited as I’ve been watching the dragonflies and damsels zoom about my garden, I had mixed feelings about seeing this Spotted Orbweaver, possibly a Western Spotted Orbweaver, with its captured prize, a female Common White dragonfly. Two predators, both beneficial in a garden, but only one could win. And the truth is, the dragonfly didn’t have a chance, with her wings caught in the spider’s web.


 Am I sad? Absolutely. But am I okay with it? Absolutely. I just wish the timing hadn’t been right after I happily followed dragonflies around for decent photos. I guess the spider was showing me how to really stalk dragonflies.


By the way, believe it or not, there is an animal in nature that does get me a little squeamish. But I’ll save that post for another day, hee hee.

Get Back! Or Rather, My Back Got Me

Ugh, this is how I feel today:

statue.jpgAll because of my back. I gardened Saturday morning too long in a flexed position (that would be hours) and moved heavy things I shouldn’t have, and now I’m hobbling around like I’m 90 years old. Completely aggravated my compressed discs. UGH, ugh, ugh.

My poor aching back is as stiff as this guy’s, and yet I bet I feel more pain than he does.

statueback.jpgBut here’s what I accomplished! A flagstone path to get us back to the A/C unit. Actually I did a lot more weeding and mulching than is evidenced by this single picture. You know how you work in one area and see other places to work on, so you move over there, and then to another spot, and so forth? Yeah, that was me. By the way, that little bit of cattle panel is protecting some Standing Cypress seedlings from the stampeding canines.

flagstones.jpgAnd drat, do you see the nutsedge that already poked its head up through the mulch after a single day? Grumble, grumble. Go back to Picture 1.

So what did I get up and do this morning? Climbed ladders and painted more of the outside of the house. No rest for the weary!

Dragonfly Stalker

Like a spy did I creep and stealth, and I finally (Finally!) captured close-up shots of a dragonfly in my garden. Let’s just say it’s been a rather frustrating frustration of mine that the little boogers would never sit still long enough for me to get a decent photo.

But today I summoned all my powers of camouflage (well, I did have on a green shirt), resurrected my seldom-used skills of painstakingly slow movements, instantaneously froze into a well-blended-in statue when I felt big little dragonfly eyes studying me, and — snap! — took a picture. Repeat. Repeatedly. 

roseateskimmera05-28-10.jpgI’m quite confident that this dragonfly is a Roseate Skimmer. Eventually the pretty skimmer got used to my weird stalking behavior and let me get fairly close. If it got worried, it darted away for about a second and landed back again. One of the cool things about getting to take lots of photos of this guy was getting to watch how it tilts its head as it’s looking around.


roseateskimmerc05-28-10.jpgI find it interesting that the damselflies linger around the pond far more than the dragonflies do. The dragonflies like to perch on branches, rocks, broken sticks, and the top of the cattle panel I use to keep the dogs off some seedlings. I don’t ever see them just resting around the pond.


roseateskimmerb05-28-10.jpgThe damselflies, on the other hand, find the pond their favorite resting spot, be it on lily pads, Horsetail, or the surrounding limestone. Here’s where my confidence in IDing the little but mighty predators goes to nill, other than to call them damselflies because their wings align with their body at rest.

damselfly05-28-10.jpgIs it a Bluet? A Dancer? I found many blue and black striped damselflies species photos, but I couldn’t narrow down the exact one to match mine.

damselflyc05-28-10.jpgWell, I’ll go out on a limb and declare this last one a Desert Firetail. And by little, I mean tiny. About an inch long. Despite its bright red coloring, it is hard to spot. My camera did not want to focus on it. It loved resting on the Horsetail in particular.


So there you have it. I get to officially check “get a photo of a dragonfly (and damselfly)” off my list. I feel so accomplished.

By the way, I’ve added a few resources to my sidebar that I sometimes use for IDing or learning about wildlife species I encounter. In this case, I used OdontataCentral. It doesn’t mean that IDing is ever easy, mind you!


I just couldn’t come with a title for this one. But I had fun taking photos!

The Cinnamon Sunflower is about 3 feet tall now, but still no blooms. Looking pretty snazzy even without the blooms, I must say.

I never realized how fun milkweed seeds are, fresh from a pod. Hopefully some of these will germinate — I need more milkweed!

Still damp from a gentle rain, the Passionvine is happily entwining along its trellis. With luck it will hide our A/C unit soon, at least until the caterpillars start munching!

Passiflora flowers just might be the most bizarre flowers out there. I mean seriously — how on earth did nature come up with that crazy design?

The tripod of a stigma at the top looks like some alien straight from a sci-fi movie.

The coneflowers are huge and teasing me with blooms to come.

I’m not sure whether it was the rain or the change in temperature, but I finally got a Checkered White butterfly to hold still for a photo.


And a Dainty Sulphur — both of these butterflies usually tend to dart around like mad if I get too close. Gotcha, little flutterbies!


I’ve been noticing more wasps visiting the dill lately, and the caterpillar deaths have increased, so I decided it was time to create a butterfly tent. Within a day we had our first swallowtail chrysalis. The tent is a collapsible $9 laundry hamper — much cheaper and much larger than the “butterfly kits” you can buy online and in various stores.


Okay, what’s this bug? Good guy? Bad guy? Found him on my native White Honeysuckle bush. I guess I could go look him up.


In other news, I found little slimy larval stuff eating one of my tomato leaves. I took a picture, but they’re gross and I decided that they messed with my pretty zen pictures, so I’m not posting it today. The slimy things are in the compost bin now. I don’t know whether they’re good guys or bad guys, but they were working as a team and my gut told me I didn’t want more of them around. And there was a leaf-footed bug on another tomato leaf. Little booger got away. Gah. But at least I’m onto him.

Above, Below, and Around the Hot Tub Pond

After doing a spring cleaning of the hot tub pond in April, I’m happy to report that plants and fish have recovered from winter well, and the pond life is thriving. I earlier had removed the overwhelming Dwarf Papyrus (when it eventually grew to cover the pond like a giant dome, I decided it had to go) and this spring added in some native plants that work so much better with their limestone pond setting.


ponda05-26-10.jpgThis includes Horsetail Reed, Cardinal Flower, Common Rush, two native water lilies, and this Lizard’s Tail, which is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine.


Of course, I still have Pickerel Weed and the almost native Texas Star Hibiscus, and a few non-natives. This little bud…


will become a beautiful Perry’s Baby Red bloom.


The Pink Sparkle is also blooming, but I missed the window on a good picture, so I’ll save it for another day. And the native lilies are about to bloom for the first time — I can’t wait!

Other non-native plant species include a small Taro, the submerged Hornwort, and probably still some submerged Anacharis — these submerged plants are extremely beneficial in oxygenating the water for da fishies and in using up excess nutrients in the pond that might otherwise encourage more yucky hair algae. In the falls, the Lemon Bacopa is finally having a chance to shine, having been overrun last fall by the Ruby Red Runner (appropriate name that). The Runner is trying to make a comeback. I’m sure it will succeed.


The pond has become a haven for a variety of wildlife. We added a few more goldfish in, trying to get an actual “gold” goldfish and some fun ones with black spots, but it turns out they are harder to see in the depths of the water. So we most often still see the orange ones, and they are getting big! Total count back up to about 10.


I’m just glad goldfish are cute and friendly, and nothing like this prehistoric-looking gar skeleton we saw at Lake Sommerville last weekend. Did you know gar can get 5-feet long?

gar05-26-10.jpgSomething has been munching a bit on some of my lily pads, and caterpillar poop all over them helped me know what to look for. It’s this armyworm caterpillar, so I’m back to another caterpillar dilemma. I know armyworms are considered crop pests, but it sure is taking a risk by eating leaves in my pond. So far I’m letting nature take its course, as I have to imagine that there are far better plants the moth should lay its eggs on. If this caterpillar makes it to adulthood, it probably earned it.


These little spiders are appearing all over the yard, but above the pond is a favorite spot. It seems a great place to build a web, but it comes with great risk, too. One of these days, I’ll find out what these spiders are called. (EDIT: It’s a long-jawed orb weaver — thanks, Joy!)

The recent nightly toad calls must have successful, because we’ve got lots of tadpoles again.

And how in the world did this water strider get here?

pondj05-26-10.jpgWe’re far enough away from any other source of water that I can only imagine some eggs came with my native water plant purchases back at the Wildflower Center sale.

And of course we are seeing more damselflies and dragonflies than ever. Welcome, little mosquito-eating predators!


Nearby, I’ve made the dog pond a little more pondlike. Thanks to a hole in our old pool, we now have a green one (and recycled the old one), and a few plants and rocks and a small pump leaves it dog-friendly, more attractive, and mosquito-free. The water is dark from gravel and soil from an overturned plant a few days ago, and when I have a chance I’ll clean it up a bit. It wasn’t really the dogs’ fault, but mine.


And around the pond, I’ve some small trees, shrubs, and a few perennials. Bit by bit, filling it in. This Sangria variety of Yellow Bells adds some orange to the traditional yellow.

And the fragrance of the Almond Verbena is welcoming to the senses.

We still have our disappearing fountain, and a new bamboo fountain, surrounded by native Wood Ferns, is a pleasant sound near our driveway. Anything to mask the sound of the highway cars nearby.


I’ll be adding in a plant or two to hide the pump tube and cord, and I might consider a fish as well, though it won’t be as protected in the winter as the fish in our deeper pond.

I’ll be updating the Pond Project page shortly. (EDIT: Done!)

The Wildlife Lover’s Moral Dilemma

In this amazing world, to me every creature is fascinating and beautiful in its own way. Nature has a way of showing off the remarkable, and it’s like an addictive thrill for me to find and watch nature in action — the way a tiny jumping spider stalks the much larger ant, the way a bird tilts its head to watch for predators while it eats, the different pitches of the mating sounds of the male toads croaking by the pond. I’ve been studying nature my whole life, and it never ceases to amaze me.

When nature is left to its own devices, a balance of predator and prey is the expected result, and the natural dynamics of an ecosystem in their own right are fascinating. Even now I feel the shock of climbing a ladder years ago to peer at new baby birds in a nest, only to discover a snake actively swallowing the last baby bird there. But it was nature in action, and while my heart was broken, I used it as an opportunity to teach my young children that the snake has a right to live as much as the little birds, and while we might not like what happened, it’s nature. And then we talked about the hinged jaws of a snake, and all was good.

spiderfirefly05-22-10.jpgSo what makes a wildlife lover become executioner, a god deciding who shall live and who shall die? How can one be absolutely dedicated to gardening for wildlife and seeking out the fascination that nature inspires, then cross the line to what feels like heartless murder?

I’ve already crossed the line to actively killing fire ants in my yard. Anyone who has ever been bitten and stung, especially repeatedly, knows why these invasive insects are such a serious danger and problem. For immediate control, we use the boiling water method, but I also use beneficial nematodes and organic bait to help control these aggressive and painfully fierce armies of ants. Not only am I doing this to discourage a rampant problem from growing worse, but I’m a mother protecting her family from danger. So, easy justification.

I also have crossed the line to removal by hand of spotted cucumber beetles, aphids, stink bugs, grasshoppers, and a few others. But now I face a new foe, and a new dilemma. My tomatoes are in danger… from a most beautiful pest.

This is my first year growing tomatoes — Romas, Brandywines, and Tomatillos– and so far so good. The bushes are outgrowing their cages and already need new support.

tomato05-22-10.jpgThe young Roma tomatoes are plentiful, and the flowers on the Brandywines let me know they aren’t far behind. The tomatillos are younger but well on their way.

tomatob05-22-10.jpgBut the other night, a friend came over to share a birthday key lime pie I’d made my husband, and we ventured outside in the dark with flashlight in hand to view my enormous tomato bushes. My friend had been talking about a little green worm he’d found munching on his tomatoes at home, and wouldn’t you know when he reached out to my tomatoes in the dark, he found a “squishy” creature on my tomatoes, too!


It was a hornworm — specifically a tobacco hornworm, designated by the red horn on its end. We brought it back into the house and watched it munch away on the leaf we’d brought back with it (there were actually two — see the small one there as well?). It became the table centerpiece and primary topic of conversation as we munched on key lime pie and it on its tomato leaf. We watched it munch and poop and munch some more — yes, now you know how far I’ll go to study nature. And we truly admired its beauty –a tobacco hornworm and its counterpart the tomato hornworm are gorgeous as far as caterpillars go, and the large sphinx moths they become are beautiful, too.


 But we also discussed the dilemma I was in. If I let it live and go back to feasting on my tomato plants, its voracious appetite would defoliate my plants in a flash and leave holes in my young tomatoes. But after an evening of studying the little guy, could I just brutally murder this lovely green caterpillar just innocently munching on the leaves its mama left it on? Was this the Last Supper?

hornworm05-22-10.jpgUltimately I decided not to dwell on the pending demise of this pretty caterpillar. I knew the outcome the moment we’d found it. The fact is, I have an investment in the vegetable garden, and while many plants elsewhere in my yard are chosen for the wildlife that depend on them, my tomatoes are there for my family. Hornworms have a history of being pretty terrible pests, and if I let this one live, more will come to my tomatoes.

I did give it a home for the night and a bit of breakfast (the Last Breakfast, as it were) while I looked for its siblings on my tomato plants. I couldn’t find anymore, but I suspect they are just quite adept at blending in. And in the morning daylight, the true beauty of the caterpillar was apparent. Look at how the lines on its body eventually converge to form the horn.

hornwormb05-22-10.jpgWith sadness, this morning the caterpillar will go to the bird feeder tray. I can’t bring myself to do the deed, but perhaps a bird will do the job for me.

hornwormf05-22-10.jpgAnd there is the wildlife lover’s dilemma. I’m having to send that which I admire to its doom, but maybe I can feel good that a bird will be happy. For what it’s worth, little caterpillar, I’m sorry.


Umm, yeah. I just went outside to the tomatoes again and found this monster. They get rather fat and a little more intimidating when they’re gigantic and practically bursting with your tomato plants inside them… And talk about the elephant of all caterpillar poop. I’m letting you imagine it rather than sharing a picture, but trust me, HUGE.


I saw this squirrel at the feeder when I put the caterpillars out. Think she’ll eat them?


My husband’s comment: Maybe the caterpillars will eat the squirrel.

Ssssimply Awessssome

Ok, I’m supposed to be painting and doing minimal gardening today, but first I have to show you this fantastic bike rack I saw at the Wild Basin Preserve last night at the Native Plant Society meeting.


I want one. It wouldn’t look strange in my front yard, would it? Sssssimply awesssome. Honestly, given my yard, it would fit right in.

There was a plant sale at the NPSOT meeting — I snagged another Anacua (Sandpaper Tree) and a Mexican Buckthorn, good size and only $10 each. Yay!

Up Close and Way Too Personal

Dude, where’s the food?


As part of my son’s birthday yesterday, he decided that we should go on safari. We visited the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch near San Antonio, a trip that’s always guaranteed to delight and sometimes alarm visitors.

safaric05-15-10.jpgConsidered a sanctuary for many endangered animals, the wildlife ranch allows native and exotic herbivores to roam freely around the park, and visitors get to drive through and feed the animals, which include Aoudad (shown above), Wildebeest, Cape Buffalo, Zebra, Barasingha, American Bison, Gemsbok, Ostrich and other flightless birds, Blackbuck, Giraffe, and many more species.

There were numerous babies around, as well — here’s a baby Aoudad.





Below is a highly endangered Blackbuck — according to the program, there are more Blackbuck in Texas than in their native homeland, India and Pakistan.


The animals are quite at home in the native Texas hill country, which provides a scenic habitat not too unlike the homelands of most of the deer and goat species.


For the most part, they get to roam freely, making it a habitat instead of a traditional zoo. There are some areas where animals are kept under closer supervision, including the rhinos and giraffes, most likely for safety and breeding purposes, and there’s also a walk-a-bout with caged lemurs and parrots, but the majority of the park is open hill country.

 What they say is to drop the food on the ground and let the animals pick it up. And that works for the most part. But realistically what happens is that some animals get in your face and car to get as much food as they can before the next group does.

The zebras were the most aggressive of the trip. They fight with each other to be the possessor of the car, and they’ll shove a sideview mirror aside for easier access, no problem.

And then they actively try to get the whole bag of food, not content to be fed a bit at a time, and forget about their willingness to pick up the food from the ground. Keep a close hand on the window controls, that’s all I’m saying!

Well, I’ll say this too, I got nipped twice by zebras in their zealous drive to obtain food — mostly my arm was in the way of their reaching the bag of food — my failed tug of war with one zebra meant that he got to eat the whole amount of food, bag included. We learned fast to keep our bags of food out of sight and not in our laps!


You have to watch out for these guys, too — the ostriches — if you value your bags of food and your eyeballs.

And with their long necks, they can reach all the way across the car to the person sitting opposite you.

Now isn’t this a cutie — a tiny Sicilian donkey.

He couldn’t reach the window, so apparently he and his buddies have trained visitors to just toss food into their mouths. How about a kiss?

 safariq05-15-10.jpgBack at the walk-a-bout, we were delighted to watch a mama lemur and her nursing twins, and the fun antics of the neighboring lemurs. All lemur species are considered endangered or vulnerable, so the wildlife ranch is very proud of their successful breeding program.


A fun place to visit. Just take care of your fingers!

Having a (Soggy) Ball

On this my son’s birthday, we’re having a ball. But for the first time ever, he’s not getting a party — instead we’re declaring this day his day, and he gets to dictate everything we do for the entire day. (Basically he gets to boss us all around, and that’s a dream come true for the youngest and smallest of our family.)

But outside, nature is still putting on a party!


The Goldenball Leadtree decided that this year it would finally show off the little yellow puffballs for which it was named. They are stunning against the darker green leaves.

But we’ve had a fair amount of rain the past 24 hours, and it turns out it’s become a bad hair day for the little goldenballs.

wetgoldenball05-15-10.jpgThe dill is putting on a spectacular fireworks display, both of seedheads and new batches of swallowtail caterpillars. I know I’m destined to have dill everywhere, but for all those wonderful butterflies, it’s so worth it. There are so many caterpillars, it’s too hard to count!

dillfireworks05-15-10.jpgThe caterpillars made sure to take a shower and get all clean for my son’s birthday.


wetswallowcatb05-15-10.jpgA monarch caterpillar munches on milkweed — our first of the season! Soon it will be dressed in chrysalis, a fine look for a birthday.

monarch05-15-10.jpgOver in the veggie garden, the green lacewings are lined up to join the party. One of them was already dancing — it might be a lacewing birthday, too!

lacewingeggs05-15-10.jpgBehind the lacewings, the tomato plants are growing like mad, just like our birthday boy. (Yes, Draco — I’m growing tomatoes — three different varieties! I’m officially a gardener!)

tomatoes05-15-10.jpgThe young Exotic Love Vine is stretching to the trellis — when it starts to bloom, it will put on its own spectacular fireworks show.

lovevine05-15-10.jpgAnd the hypnotic scent of the Chocolate Daisy — like a warm fudgy brownie or a steaming mug of hot chocolate — is our birthday cake of the garden.

chocolatedaisy05-15-10.jpgThe little hoverfly couldn’t resist partaking in the scent, either. I don’t blame it.

chocolatedaisyb05-15-10.jpgHappy birthday, my wonderful son!


I’m in love with my Wonderful pomegranate. No, really — the variety is called Wonderful. And it’s gorgeous. I planted it bare-root and leafless back in January, and now it’s loaded with dark glossy leaves and bright tropical orange-red flowers –mega color. Love love love.



It’s just as well that the second pomegranate tree I planted at the same time did not leaf out — that would have been a lot of pomegranates! It’s interesting that I planted that second tree where my Mexican Anacacho Orchid was struggling, and the orchid tree I moved over near the same area as the Wonderful pomegranate. Well, the Mexican anacacho is doing better than ever in its new spot, and the place where it once struggled and the second pomegranate died has now been leveled and is (at least for now) considered the dead zone.

Also wonderful in my yard, this time with the lower-case “w,” is my new Yarrow. I want more.


And the Winecups are putting on their spectacular (dare I say, wonderful?) show before the heat gets unbearable.


winecupb05-08-10.jpgThe Winecups always threaten to take over the world before the sun forces them back to a manageable size. Right now they are encroaching on the Texas lantana, and I love the combination of colors.

winecuplantana05-08-10.jpgIt’s just… wonderful!