We Be Monkeys

The boys and I are back from Arkansas — we had such a great time. One of the highlights on our trip was testing our nerve and strength of will in the canopy of the Ozark forests — a high-wire adventure in the trees at Loco Ropes.


There are three courses (you can do just Line 1, or sign up for all 3). Each course has around 10 rope challenges, all different, but every one of them 3-6 stories off the ground. You might have to balance and walk on a tight-rope, step carefully along swinging logs, traverse wobbly rope bridges, or maneuver in, out, over, or through ropes placed in such a way to test your bravery or flexibility. The biggest test of will for me was a leap-of-faith drop from a high platform, with the cable zip not engaging until you’ve fallen a few feet. I think I sat there for 2-3 minutes trying to silence my brain into nothingness in order to get my body to sneak off the platform before my brain stopped me again.


My sons had a blast, completing all three courses with ease. I did Lines 1 and 2 and was perfectly content to skip out on the third — hey, I’d already proven myself! (The picture above I took while up in the trees doing Line 1 — the others are of the boys doing Line 3).

locod07-26-11.jpgWas it Loco? Yes! But absolutely fun, challenging, scary, rewarding, and memorable, too. The boys are eager to go back, and so we will one day.

In Great Numbers

Last week I shared a video of our Austin Purple Martin Roost, where many thousands of Purple Martins soar together through the July sky before settling in for the night. These large flocks are called roosts, and eventually the birds will migrate together group by group to South America, where they will fatten up on insects during the winter before heading back to North America next year to nest once again. I went back a few days ago, this time with a functioning battery in my regular camera, to capture a series of images of the birds.

When we first arrived, the birds were still mostly in the sky.


But as the sky darkened, the birds began to come in to land. They had only a few trees, maybe three in all, that were the choice resting spot. Other trees nearby remained empty.


The sheer numbers of Purple Martins continue to astonish me, and the very loud zzzhhhhh sound of the birds in the trees could rival the worst summer cicada population.


It can be tricky to find for the birds to find a place to perch as they join their companions.

roostc07-17-11.jpgJust look at how many birds eventually gather together on each branch! It amazes me the trees manage to stay upright under all that weight.

This time, there was a crowd of bird watchers gathered in the nearby mall parking lot for the occasion. They oohed and aahed, too. Most of them stayed farther back, while a few brave souls joined me by the trees. For the sake of these pictures, I got pooped on three times — thank goodness for my giant floppy hat!

By the Light of Dawn

Out in the country near Nacogdoches, Texas, the birds stay busy all day at my parents’ house. When I visit, I always get up at the crack of dawn with the earliest bird songs of the morning, and I quietly tip-toe outside to watch the activities of my feathered friends.

The darkness and cool morning temperature last only briefly, and with the sun’s arrival, the garden lights up in color, and the romantic countryside can at last be viewed.





The cardinals were quite numerous this particular morning, with the males’ red coloration standing out against the green foliage nearby.


The females sported their crests tall and proud.

cardinalc07-10-11.jpgcardinald07-10-11.jpgcardinale07-10-11.jpgSuch personality on exhibit that morning!

rbwoodpeckerjuv07-10-11.jpgA juvenile Red-Bellied Woodpecker bravely followed its parents to the feeder. Its parents were pros, zipping in for food and flying off immediately. This little one took its time figuring out how to land and how to get seed. Once it got there, it stayed for a bit, enjoying its newfound source of food. Note that its head feathers are just starting to turn red.

A short while later, a Red-Winged Blackbird noisily announced its arrival. It reminded me of the way Blue Jays, Titmice, and Chickadees can be so bossy around other birds.

rwblackbirdb07-10-11.jpgWho would have thought Blackbirds could be so flexible? Check out that leg position.

A mockingbird periodically stopped by to take a drink, but it looked for breakfast in the field beyond.

The busiest birds of the morning were clearly the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds.


rthummerg07-10-11.jpgThere was definitely territory-defending behavior going on — the male hummingbirds would fuss at other males, and the females would fuss at other females.  This behavior wasn’t limited to gender, however — I didn’t get a single picture of a Tufted Titmouse this trip simply because the male hummers kept driving them off!

On the other hand, I felt lucky to catch a picture of another bird species.

I’m not sure of the exact ID, but I believe it is a type of Flycatcher. It watched me for awhile and took off before I could see its wing markings.

The bees were busy that morning, too, but I’ll save them for another post. And I’ll be heading back to East Texas in just a few days — who knows what other bird species I’ll get to see!

Tree Gate Says, Welcome!

Here I’ve been working on a new blog post for three days (you know me, lots of wildlife), and Bob shows up to install our new gate. So of course I couldn’t rest until I got pictures up of the gate because I just absolutely love it and can’t wait to show it off. So gate first, birds and bees later!


So I’ll tell you a little story of how this came to be. I had these two jutting walls at my house’s front that just screamed of needing a gate between them, and given how many times my dogs have escaped out my front door due to many a visitor innocently leaving the door open, I was screaming of needing a gate for a different reason. And then years went by, as they always seem to do.


See the cool shadows on the ground? Bonus!

But fortunately here in the Austin area, we’ve got Bob. He runs Draco Metalworks, and let me tell you, he is quite the talent when it comes to metal. He’s also a garden blogger and a man with many tales to tell. And when I said gate, he said yes.

The tree design is mine. I went through a number of sketches before the final concept — I’d considered tall grasses, sunflowers, vines. Then Bob sent me a picture of a gate with vines that had a few spirals, and those spirals sparked me toward a new idea, one still born of my love of habitat: trees, tall and understory, just the way nature does it. The background hills were born of necessity, both to fill gaps my dogs could potentially squeeze through but also to give stability to the gate.


To show you Bob’s talent, he cut the entire thing with a torch — giving it just the “made by hand” feel I was looking for. I had not a clue about hinges or latches, but Bob knew exactly what would be perfect, and he tied the latch in with a little spiral of its own.


GSgatec07-13-11.jpgAnd I love it, just love it. Much like the transformation our ranch-style house underwent with a new red roof, and then a new paint job, and then a new flagstone porch — the gate has transformed the house yet again, bringing art and function to our front door.

I decided to see how the dogs would react, and to my astonishment when I opened the front door, they strolled casually outside instead of charged.

GSgatef07-13-11.jpgClearly they recognized that they had a new barrier and there was no point in rushing.

Bob, masterful job — thank you so much. This gate is officially dog-tested and gardener-approved!

Purple Martin Party

Last night I piled my family into the car to partake in the social event of the summer season — the annual mass congregation of Purple Martins. The birds gather in numbers from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands in such roosts all over the eastern half of North America. The groups are so large that they actually can be monitored with Doppler radar. Austin is lucky enough to have a large roosting spot right here.

In a typical summer, the Purple Martins will start gathering in our area around mid-July, with birds migrating toward South America group by group, until by August they are gone, off to their winter home. However, with the extended drought we’ve been having, this is no typical summer. The birds are roosting earlier than usual, and I suspect they’ll leave earlier than usual, as well. Only the birds know how long they intend to stick around.

Most roosts can be found near water sources, as the numbers of insects are far greater there. I’m not sure why our Purple Martins roost near Highland Mall in the middle of urban central, but they’ve been going there for years. Of course, their roosting locale is also a favorite grackle and starling spot, contributing to many a person’s confusion about what kinds of birds they are seeing, especially because Austinites are used to the familiar gatherings of grackles and starlings each evening at dusk. However, the tell-tale graceful swoops and dives of the Purple Martins as they soar in the sky to find insects make them easy to distinguish from the clumsier flights of the larger dark birds, which instead forage on the ground for food.

If you watch the video above, you’ll get a sample of how utterly incredible the Austin roost is. Purple Martins, by the way, are North America’s largest swallow. And if you want to see some absolutely adorable baby Purple Martins, check out my previous Purple Martin post.

Creature Features

This drought has been crazy. Aside from birds, I’m just not seeing the usual wildlife species that hang around the garden — most notably butterflies are absent. I think it’s just too ridiculously hot. That being said, I’m seeing all sorts of other cool creatures around, and happily so.


We came home one day to a stick insect not-so-camouflaged on our garage door. I moved it over to a tree where it seemed much more at home. Pictures got harder, though.


Check out its scorpion-like display:


Clearly I liked it more than it liked me.

Our front pond has been busy with aquatic life. Apparently, it’s become THE place to lay eggs.

croakingtoad07-1-11.jpgThe male toads are singing each night, doing their best to entice a female for a dip in the pond.

Sometimes one even gets lucky!

Toad eggs are laid in long gel-like tubes. The eggs are laid in mass quantity.

Within just a day or two, the eggs become blobs, also known as embryos.

Here’s a closer view:


Soon the blobs/embryos become the tadpoles we know and love.

tadpoles07-01-11.jpgDespite the great numbers of eggs laid, very few make it to adulthood to live the life of a toad. They become food for other creatures, including the one below.

dragonflynymphb07-1-11.jpgEwww, you say? I say not! That, my friends, is a dragonfly nymph, and who doesn’t love dragonflies? Other than the bugs they devour, I mean.

dragonflynympha07-1-11.jpgWe find these nymphs — damselfly nymphs, too — in our ponds all the time. It turns out that dragonfly nymphs can play dead. They stay very still if briefly removed from the water, but –whoosh!– they’ll zip back to the water depths the moment they feel that water surround them again.


Here’s the exoskeleton left behind after an adult dragonfly emerged and flew away. Those weird-looking white strings are actually tracheal tubes that once transported oxygen. I’m so curious what kind of dragonfly completed its life cycle in our little pond. I’ll never know, I suppose, but I have seen a Neon Skimmer flying around the pond. Who knows… maybe!

Back in the back, our hackberry has these nifty little leaf galls. It turns out that these are caused by Celticesis midges.


The adult midges, which are little flies, lay eggs on the underside of a hackberry leaf, and the plant tissue forms galls around them. The larvae have a miniature habitat inside the gall, where they eat and develop.

In other news, we had an sssstupendous set of ssssnake sightings last weekend. On a hike at Walnut Creek park, we decided to take paths less traveled for a change. Within moments we discovered this beauty:


It’s an Eastern Hognosed Snake, flattening its head and hissing something fierce. While I didn’t disturb it more than to take a picture with my camera phone, if I’d gotten much closer, this snake would have flipped upside-down and played dead. Part of me wishes I could have witnessed that, but I just don’t like to stress out wildlife (more than is required for a quick photo op, that is).

In a different area of the park, we found a little snake traveling along dried-up sections of the creek.

racersnake06-11.jpgCamera phones and wild snakes just don’t work well together. I really should at least carry a pocket camera on these hikes. But I think this might be a juvenile Yellow-Bellied Racer. It was very small and quickly found a hole to curl up into.

Just seeing these two snakes had already made our day, but when we returned home, we found a little snake in our hallway!

tantillasnake07-1-11.jpgWe rescued it and took it outside. I tried to get a picture, but that little snake moved to hide in the leaves as fast as its little no-legs could carry it. The best I can tell you is that it is possibly a snake in the Tantilla genus (perhaps Flathead or Plains Blackhead), or perhaps it is a Rough Earth Snake.

Just a few days later, my friend Diane shared a picture of a molted skin left behind by a friend’s pet snake her family was snake-sitting. She didn’t know the species, but from her description, it sounded like it might be a corn snake.


Have you ever seen a snake skin include the head and eye areas? Holy moly, now THAT’S a creature feature.

And the harvestmen are back, this time congregating in the highest eave on my house, making it nearly impossible for me to (get my husband to) kindly move them back to the greenbelt behind the house. Hopefully visitors to my house won’t look up. I’m not taking a picture. Hey, even a wildlife lover can have something to cringe about! They’re good garden predators, so I don’t *really* mind them. In some ways, harvestmen, a.k.a. daddylonglegs, are even kind of cool. But they do creep me out. It has something to do with discovering thousands of them bobbing inches above my head (and my big mass of hair) when I was crawling through a cave.

Instead of harvestmen, I’ll end with a skipper, one of the few butterflies we do get to see from time to time even in this horrible drought.


skippera06-11.jpgNo legs, two legs, four legs, six legs, more — they put the wild in this wildlife garden!