To the Coast and Back

My oldest son had a swim meet in Corpus Christi this weekend, and I was happy to get to head down there to watch (he did great!). Of course, he had to be at the team bus by 4:30am, which meant I was on the road in my own car in the wee hours of the morning. That part was less wonderful than wonderful, admittedly, but at least I had company — I got to migrate south with several flocks of birds.


American White Pelicans in V formation

And when I arrived, my father-in-law treated me to a morning of coastal birding before the swim meet began. What a wonderful way to start the day, at least if you exclude having to get up before 4am to get out there, mind you.


A boardwalk at the Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge let us walk fairly close to birds gathered in a small inlet. The Great Blue Herons commanded attention, of course, and ducks and White Pelicans were plentiful in number.

While we watched, a Great Egret speared and flew off with a fish. It had to get away from the other nearby Egrets lest they ask for  demand a share.


The Egret walked for a short while keeping the fish speared through its beak, and then it released it, grabbed hold again, and swallowed it headfirst to make sure the fish bones were in the proper direction.


Ducks in flight — always breathtaking to watch

blackneckedstilt11-17-11.jpgBlack-Necked Stilt


I think my favorite birds of the morning were the Black Skimmers, which flew low to the water’s surface while letting their lower mandibles dip into the water. Somehow they manage to catch fish this way, apparently.

leasttern11-18-11.jpgA Least Tern periodically hovered in the sky near us. It was quite vocal, too.

whitepelicanandducks11-18-11.jpgDucks don’t seem that small until you compare them to an American White Pelican, which can have a wingspan of up to about 9 feet across.

Walking back, we saw a Yellow-Rumped Warbler, which completely ignored us from the boardwalk until we got a little too close.

Guess how I knew it was a Yellow-Rumped Warbler?


The butterflies were numerous, especially the Queens, Monarchs, and Sulphurs. Above, a White Peacock rests on Trailing Lantana.

Just to prove that we did manage to stop birding and get to the pool in time to watch my son swim, here’s a photo of our family fish.

swimmeet11-17-11.jpgI told him he better swim extra fast if he didn’t want a Giant Egret to catch him.

A big thanks to my dad-in-law for a very pleasant visit in Corpus Christi!

The Skeleton Vine

My poor Passionvine looks like a skeleton. Originally I thought it had something to do with the drought, and that probably was the actual start of it, but now it seems to have more to do with this guy… and all its brothers, sisters, and cousins. Dozens at a time, all different sizes and instars — munching and munching and munching.


It’s all good — after all, I planted the Passionvine FOR the caterpillars. However…

 gulffritcatd11-17-11.jpgMy poor plant, formerly known as “quite large,” has very few leaves left on it! Now I have to worry about the little caterpillars running out of food. My babies!

But I’m having fun. The stone of my house is covered in chrysalises. So are the trellis around the A/C unit and the Mexican Redbud growing nearby.


This caterpillar ventured several feet along the stone of the house, looking for prime chrysalis real estate.


Soon it will make a “j” shape, and soon after that it will begin to transform.


What I find utterly fascinating is that some Gulf Fritillary chrysalises are positioned at very odd angles.


These two are showing off an apparently poorly mortared portion of my house. What creatures lie within that dark crevice, I wonder?


I guess if the previous tenant liked this spot, it was good enough for the next caterpillar. Either that or it’s becoming a suburb.

I didn’t get any pictures of actual butterflies today, but just to complete the picture, here’s one of my favorites from last year:


I guess I’ll be knocking on the door of gardeners with ample Passionvine soon. Caterpillar rescue time approaches.

A Walk in the BCP Woods

With so much going on this weekend, somehow I still managed to sneak out with my son to enjoy a lecture by notable botanist Bill Carr. He was speaking about rare native plants of Travis County, and I’m happy to report that even my son took notes, a rare occurrence of its own (his middle-school teachers would be proud).

bcpconcordia11-12-11.jpgAfterwards, we took a short hike through part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. This small portion of the preserve happened to be owned and managed by Concordia University under the guidance of Travis County Parks and Wildlife. We didn’t find any of the rare plants Bill mentioned during his lecture (it’s okay, because we weren’t expecting to). But we did see some other plants special for reasons all their own.

It being fall, and fall after a drought at that, many plants were in various stages of winter prep. As such, when we happened upon a beautiful bloom, it stood out all the more. Here’s the lovely Plateau Goldeneye (Viguiera dentata), a member of the Aster family. That means it’s related to sunflowers, artichokes, and lettuce, of all things. I just love taxonomy.


In several areas along the modest trail, the five-leaved vine Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) was showing off its red fall colors.


virginiacreeperb11-12-11.jpgIt can grow remarkably high in a tree. Berries of this plant are an important winter food source for birds.

Another vine abundant at the preserve was Alabama Supple-jack (Berchemia scandens). Commonly known as Rattan Vine for its wicker-like properties, Supple-jack was easily located thanks to its remarkably thick, twisting vines.


If it looks wickedly strong, that’s because it is.


supplejackb11-12-11.jpgThe bluish fruits are popular with birds and small mammals, and as you can tell from the numerous berries in the image above, it’s got a pretty good chance for making more little Supple-jack babies. That’s a pretty good thing if you are a bird or a small mammal — not such a good thing if you are a tree that has to support one or more of the vines.

Below, Late Boneset (Eupatorium serotinum) is showing off its striking profile.


latebonesetb11-12-11.jpgIt likes more moisture than its cousin Shrubby Boneset (Ageratina havanensis) requires, but it’s just as great a nectar source. Guess what? Like Plateau Goldeneye, it’s in the Aster family.

shrubbyboneset11-12-11.jpgShrubby Boneset was also at the preserve, growing farther back in the woodlands. A distinguishing characteristic is that its floral disks are less clumped than those of the Late Boneset.

How about a plant that actually has “aster” in the name? Here’s Texas Aster (Symphyotrichum drummondii var. texanum).


It’s always such a pretty sight when walking in woods of the Edwards Plateau.

moss11-12-11.jpgEvery once in a while, if you are really, really, lucky — or at least somewhere that happens to have water — you get to see moss in Texas. We need more water here so that we can have more moss. I declare it.

American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), as seen below, is such a pretty tree. The fruits are the oddest little round balls.


In the spring when these balls first form, they are covered with little individual flowers, each of which eventually forms an individual seed. So a seed ball is made of many seeds, not just one big one that can whack you on the head when it falls after winter passes.

billcarr11-12-11.jpgHere’s our guide, botanist and author Bill Carr. As we were walking along, he’d suddenly stop to show us an obscure little plant and tell us many wonderful things about it. Needless to say, those of us who walked with him didn’t manage to walk as far as the other group — there were too many plants to stop and admire! But oh did we learn a lot. If you have a chance to take a hike with a botanist, especially one as knowledgeable as Bill Carr, I highly recommend it.

I’m Back!

 I’m going to be a little wordy today. I haven’t had a chance to post in a while, so my fingers felt like they had a lot to say.

I’m back. I didn’t actually go anywhere, no getting whisked away on a dreamy vacation, not even any sort of business trip anywhere cool or even not so cool (though I have been spending a whole lot of time in awful traffic– yuck). But I have been insanely busy, so much so that my poor blog has been crying out in neglect. Neglect! I’ve missed it so. I tried several times to get a new post up, but alas — something would pull me away and by the time I returned, days would have passed. I’m hoping I’ll be back on track, starting today! I’m sad, however, to report that today I announced that I will no longer be a regular team author at Beautiful Wildlife Garden. It was a tough decision, but I’ve got to pull back to take better care of an enormous load of responsibilities, and with it I hope to be able to give Great Stems better attention once again.


Sunrise gleaming on Almond Verbena

I can, at least, say that I’ve been gardening. I managed to get to the fall plant sale at the Wildflower Center last month, and from it I brought home several native plant varieties I didn’t have. I even managed to get most of them in the ground, believe it or not. I bought nifty vines like Berlandier’s Trumpet, Star Milkvine, Maypop Passionflower — also a few trees and shrubs, and lots of miscellaneous. As they grow, I’ll give them their own spotlight here at Great Stems.

limepricklyash11-10-11.jpgMy prize was this: Lime Prickly Ash, Zanthoxylum fagara. Just check out the thorns on this baby! You know me, I love plants that threaten to maim passersby. Of course, when I got home, I found out that Lime Prickly Ash tends to grow a little more in the southern part of the Hill Country, which says to me that a harsh winter might not be its favorite thing. Alas, it will need some extra care come winter, and I will do my best. But I love it, and despite its thorns I’ve given it a nice spot right up near our main garden. This wonderful tree has the nickname Toothache Tree, because when you chew its very, very, very bitter leaves, your mouth goes numb. You also salivate a lot because, again, those leaves taste really nasty. I wish they tasted like lime, but no — they only smell like lime.

The Lime Prickly Ash went into the fenced backyard, because I read that deer love to munch on it. Now, one of my other prized purchases was an Escarpment Black Cherry tree. In this case, I read that most every part of the plant was toxic, so I decided it should go in the front yard so that my dogs wouldn’t accidentally ingest anything bad and throw it up all over my carpet, or worse, you know, die. Surely the deer would leave it alone. Ha. Had I been clever enough to visit more than one website for information, as I usually do, I would have read that deer also love to eat Escarpment Black Cherry, despite the fact that other mammals suffer ill effects from it. Needless to say, our neighborhood deer found it on the second night it was in the ground, munched off almost every leaf except one, and now it looks like Charlie Brown’s pitiful Christmas Tree. All I need is an ornament on top to make it droop right over. At least it still seems to be alive, so I have hope that it might recover. I’d show you a picture, but my camera couldn’t seem to take a decent picture of the twig formerly-known-as-a-tree-trunk.


The drought continues, but we have had a touch of rain. Not much, mind you, but we don’t complain when the sky sends a little moisture our way. The garden responded immediately with a bloom explosion.

greggsmistflower11-10-11.jpgAlso, I’m seriously overdue on giving my annual garden update. Pending, pending, pending! But I’m happy to be back at my beloved Great Stems, blogging once again! I know I only disappeared for a couple of weeks, but it felt like an eternity!