Playing in the Rain and Walking with the Birds

rain02-18-12.jpgThe rain was awesome this past weekend. That was the most pitiful excuse for an umbrella, though.

Nolan and I had a great time with kid and adult bird lovers at the Celebrate Urban Bird Festival this weekend (which conveniently shares the same weekend as the Great Backyard Bird Count). It rained — nay, it poured — for part of the time, affecting overall turnout, but you won’t ever catch me complaining about rain.

rainb02-18-12.jpgDuring the festival, I got to help kids “dig” up plastic worms with chopsticks (like an Ibis), pick rice “insects” from a log with tweezers (like a Wren or Warbler), strain duckweed from the surface of water (like a duck or shoveler), and experience other bird bill adaptations. I also helped kids discover what it’s like to be a migratory bird, facing all sorts of dangers to (hopefully) get to safe habitats. Some of the other activities at the festival included birding (of course), hiking, live bird demos, bird feeder projects, and bird drawing. My son drew me a picture of a most wonderful cardinal and waterfowl scene, but alas, he won’t let me share it online. But he spent an hour on it — believe me, it’s excellent.

gtgrackleb02-18-12.jpgAfter the festival, Nolan and I toured the Austin Nature and Science Center, one of my absolute favorite places in Austin. At last I was able to bring out the camera, and waiting to pose for me (or to see if I’d be silly enough to drop food) was one of our most successful urban birds, the Great-Tailed Grackle.

gtgracklec02-18-12.jpgGrackles aren’t everyone’s favorite bird, but I actually like them (provided I’m not walking or parking under a giant flock of them). For one thing, they actually are quite striking, especially the large males with their dark iridescent blue feathers.

gtgrackle02-18-12.jpgSee that bill? It’s a generalist shape — not too long, not too narrow, not too flat, not too curved. That means it’s multi-purpose, letting a Grackle eat just about anything it wants — grains, insects, slugs, worms, small mammals, fish, frogs, eggs, pizza, popcorn, hamburgers. And that’s a big reason why Grackles have adapted so easily to an urban environment. They particularly appreciate sloppy humans.

The Austin Nature & Science center is actually home to a variety of Texas birds, reptiles, invertebrates, mammals, fish, and amphibians. Many are orphaned or injured animals that would not survive in the wild, and they are lucky to have a safe haven at the center. Whether you love wildlife, fossils, dinosaur exhibits, and ponds, or are just a naturalist at heart — this is the place for you. Bring your kids, grandkids, and the kid in YOU! Clearly I need to do a full post on the center. Someday soon!

Murchison Middle School Creates a Habitat

I’m honored to have been a witness to the transformation of an ordinary, high-traffic area of an Austin schoolyard lawn to a most outstanding wildlife habitat, and I just have to show it off.


The Murchison habitat, with the school’s greenhouse
and solar panel in the background. Temporary fencing
helps discourage deer while young plants are growing.

The habitat team at Murchison Middle School, led by science teacher Bret Korba, had the opportunity to participate in a small grant program being offered by National Wildlife Federation to several Austin-area schools. In order to receive the grant, each habitat team had to fulfill multiple requirements, including providing a detailed habitat design and implementation plan.


All the basic elements of a habitat are provided:
food, water, cover, and places to raise young.

The Murchison team hit the ground running, starting right away to make their project a reality. They selected a site near their school’s existing greenhouse and vegetable garden, they studied student traffic and water run-off across the site, and they contacted the district grounds department for project site approval. Throughout the process, they kept their administration and PTA informed and involved, soliciting assistance when needed.

Here’s the area before any work was done:


A blank slate, if ever I saw one!

Dedicated parent volunteer Narda Fisher created a beautiful design and wildlife-friendly plant list, and the team moved ahead with planning workdays, ordering materials, and gathering volunteers. The goal, aside from creating a functional outdoor learning space, was to have a successful wildlife habitat filled with almost all native Texas plants.




What I love about this design is that it shows how easily a colorful visual of a habitat plan can be created using just a simple program like Paint. The advantage to making a colorful representation of a school’s future garden is that you can share it with students, parents, and the community to encourage their enthusiasm and volunteerism, and you can also show it to local businesses and organizations to help solicit donations of materials or funds.

murchisonprogressb2011.jpgRight away, students became a part of preparing the beds, digging out grass, moving rocks, and marking pathways. Some of the students were members of the school’s Green Team, a large afterschool club that takes care of Murchison’s vegetable garden and sometimes other areas of the school grounds. Take a look at the thriving vegetable garden the students have been working on:

My stomach still growls with hunger as I remember the delicious smell of eggs and fresh herbs that teacher and habitat team member Benjamin Newton was cooking in the greenhouse for the Green Team students one day when I stopped by with some native seeds — yum. FYI, this student club meets twice a week, and their dedication and active involvement really shows. 


View of early progress

During school, several Murchison teachers brought their classes out to help with the garden. Additionally, a couple of volunteer Saturday workdays brought rapid progress to the final bed preparation and planting.


Same view, after habitat completion

In order to provide well-drained soil for the native plants, volunteers and students utilized some of the soil dug out from pathways and combined it with supplemental soil, the excellent Thunder Dirt from GeoGrowers.

A simple unmortared retaining well keeps the mounded soil in place while allowing lizards and other small wildlife to seek shelter. The rocks were collected from a school neighbor who was having construction done on her house. The single-shred mulch used to protect the plants and suppress weeds was donated by a school parent.

murchisonf02-03-12.jpgWhile the team sought out donations where they could, part of their grant funds went to purchasing plants, soil, decomposed granite, bricks, and the stock tank. The PTA assisted by paying for someone to level and lay down the brick path that guides most of the daily student traffic between their classes. For the interior habitat pathways, the habitat team chose decomposed granite.


Little touches really enhance the garden. A tall birdbath within the pond makes it easier for birds to drink, and rocks within the pond offer an escape route for any animal that might accidentally slip in. Ongoing residents of the pond include Gambusia, or mosquito fish. 

murchisonk02-03-12.jpgmurchisonl02-03-12.jpgBroken pots create perfect little toad shelters, and there’s even a solar-panel water wheel in the pond. Nearby, birdfeeders and birdhouses adorn large trees.

murchisoni02-03-12.jpgAlready, Murchison’s habitat team and Green Team are prepping new habitat beds and an area for a large rain tank. With such a variety of elements, Murchison teachers will be able to take their classes outdoors to utilize the new habitat for countless curriculum applications.

Schoolyard habitats like this are so critical for our children who, in a world of technological dependency and urban concrete, often do not have much direct exposure to nature. Studies have shown that outdoor time helps reduce childhood obesity and helps increase emotional health, academic success, and creativity. Their health and Earth’s future are dependent on kids spending time outdoors, connecting with nature.

murchisonj02-03-12.jpgIt takes a team to create a new schoolyard habitat, whether it be small or large. The team can be made of teachers, students, parents, school staff, and/or community members, and working together, they can change the world, so to speak. But for a schoolyard habitat to be the most successful, it’s also imperative that the school’s administration offer positive support, that many teachers get involved, and that the school district help open doors to allow change and outdoor learning time on school grounds. 

But every school’s situation is different, and sometimes volunteers have a big role in helping a project like this succeed. If you have a chance to be a part of helping design, build, or maintain a school habitat or vegetable garden, I do hope you’ll jump at the chance and help kids have an outdoor space they can learn and benefit from.

I commend the Murchison habitat team and administration for sharing their love of nature with their students and getting them outdoors, and for creating a beautiful habitat that will help provide for wildlife for years to come. Murchison Middle School, congratulations!


If you are interested in creating an outdoor learning space at your local school, visit NWF’s webpages on schoolyard habitats for excellent resources such as how-to guides, lesson plans, and more.

Happy Hearts Day

heartofTXleaves.jpgThis Valentine’s Day, I completely failed at making my heart healthy but I did make my heart happy. One word: chocolate. Actually, two words: Chocolate Cheesecake. How about three words: Chocolate Coffee Cheesecake. Said utterly divine cheesecake was shared with my husband, and I even generously let him have the larger portion. This generosity on my part might not have happened on any other day of the year, mind you — I am, in fact, a fan of chocolate — and nevermind the fact that a delightful 2nd-grade class shared with me a piece of Tres Leches cake just prior to the lunchtime date. Needless to say, I best plan lots of veggies for dinner tonight. And no one tell my kids how much dessert I’ve had today. Tell them instead that lots of veggies = lots and lots and lots of love.

I looked back at various heart pictures I’ve posted in the past, and I decided my love of native Texas plants just had to be shared again. All natives, all different plants. Can you ID them all?

Texas’ Oldest Mammal Species

So I finally got a picture of one of our friendly neighborhood opossums. It likes to visit the sideyard pond for a drink from time to time. I’m thrilled, because in one week’s time, I managed to get three wildlife photos I hadn’t had before — a rattlesnake and scorpion last Saturday, and now an opossum!

opossum02-08-12.jpgNow there’s a face only a mother could love (well, and me — but then again, I’m technically a mother, so I guess it counts).

Since Virginia Opossums are the only opossums living in Texas, there’s no question what species we have in our neighborhood. Virginia Opossums are our one North American marsupial. The young are born about the size of a bean, and they immediately crawl up to mama’s pouch to nurse and continue growing. When full grown, they will be about the size of a housecat. And then they’ll eat all sorts of anything — insects, fruits, berries, and even small mammals, birds, and reptiles. Perhaps that’s one reason why opossums do well in an urban environment (that and the fact that so many people still feed their cats outdoors, and opossums are big fans of cat food).

Opossums are sometimes called “living fossils” because they haven’t changed much in the past 50 million years. Here in Texas, they are our oldest mammal species. What’s nifty is that their lower body temperature makes them highly resistant to rabies and rattlesnake venom. 


Aside from that adorable nose, whiskers, and grin, check out the feet. Strong claws and opposable thumbs make opossums great climbers. They’ve even got a prehensile tail.

If frightened, an opossum might hiss at you before running away, quite an alarming sight if you get a good glimpse of its 50 teeth.  But when truly scared, an opossum can go catatonic for many minutes to a few hours (hence the term “playing possum”). Its heartrate and breathing slow down dramatically, so it is actually more in shock than just feigning death. 

Opossums are some of our most misunderstood urban animals. They are shy and non-destructive, and they are unlikely to carry rabies, but they will visit your patio if you leave cat food out. They might even share the cat food bowl with your pet. Sometime I might tell you the giant-rat story from my youth, but today I’ll just spoil the surprise and tell you that it turned out to be the most adorable juvenile opossum hiding in our curtains and not a giant rat at all. Ever since then, I’ve had quite a fondness for opossums. Just look at that cutie!

Uncommon Commons and Other Things

You know you are with a bunch of naturalists when everyone in your group sighs in amazement at giant oak roots, gets down low to study and photograph tiny blooming flowers, and oohs and aahs over rattlesnakes, fungus, and scorpions. That was our day at the Commons Ford Ranch, a beautiful 215-acre former Hill Country ranch located in the outskirts of Austin. I can’t resist sharing a few pictures.


When our CAMN group arrived at the ranch, we were mesmerized by the massive root system on this stunning live oak tree.


That’s one giant and very old tree, so big that it needed a little bit of support. But if you think you are seeing the full size of this tree, think again.


I backed up as far as I could and still couldn’t get the whole tree in the picture.

Though you can’t see it, I’m standing next to the old Commons Ford ranch house, one of those old-timey houses filled with wooden ceilings and wooden floors. Inside, I rushed off to explore room after room, each of which has nifty little built-in closets and cabinets and bookshelves — even a built-in ironing board that reminded me of my grandmother’s house. I was so delighted that I took not a single picture — shame on me.


Thanks to the work of dedicated staff and volunteers, Commons Ford is undergoing a massive prairie restoration in order to provide habitat for bird species that should be present but have long been missing. And so the field has been cleared of its invasive KR bluestem and Johnsongrass, as well as overabundant mesquite, and is ready to be seeded this week with a carefully selected variety of native seeds appropriate to the area and the soil type.


Down by the creek and elsewhere in the park, some 600 tree saplings have been planted by volunteers.


These little protectors will help people notice and hence avoid damaging the young trees.

camn02-04-12.jpgIn a field up at the house, we got up close and personal with nature, studying assorted winter annuals (which seemed to be mostly non-native Shepherd’s Purse, Henbit, and Pin Clover in that particular area).

shelffungus02-04-12.jpgShelf Fungus.

shelffungusb02-04-12.jpgIt’s appropriately named.

Of everything we saw, I’m fairly confident that the highlight for everyone that morning was this gorgeous creature:


Yes, it’s a young rattlesnake, specifically a juvenile Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. We were amazed to see it on a chilly February morning, but there it was coiled up on a stone step of all places. Because it was cold, we were able to get a little closer than we would normally have done, and between all of us, I think hundreds of pictures were taken. The little snake was certainly watching us, but the only movement it made was the occasional flicking of its forked black tongue (eventually the snake did retreat to the safety of a crevice, and it was reported that the snake had one cute little rattle).

wdbrattlerb02-04-12.jpgLook closely, and you’ll see what makes rattlesnakes so easily recognizable. Don’t focus on the pattern — aside from the fact that there are lots of variations among a single species, many other snakes share a somewhat similar coloration and pattern. This has led to perfectly harmless snakes being killed by people who just didn’t care to take a better look. You also can’t go just by the sound of a rattling tail — many species of snakes rattle their tail as a warning sign, whether or not they even have an actual rattle. Your best bet is to study the head.

Remember that a rattlesnake is a pit viper. It has heat-sensing organs between its eyes and nostrils (look for the dark spot to the right of the snake’s nostril above). It also has very cool vertical, elliptical pupils, and its head is spade-shaped. Compare it to corn/rat snakes and you’ll notice a vast difference.

I particularly like the angry look its supraocular scales (effectively eyebrows) give it — the resulting expression is one that says, “Don’t mess with me.”

Inside the house’s kitchen, we discovered another guardian against all things pest-like. 

scorpion02-04-12.jpgHow appropriate that this scorpion sits surrounded by the words “Texas…Wildlife” (it’s sitting on a booklet from Texas Parks and Wildlife). Despite the alarm scorpions bring people, they are actually beneficial little creatures. Yes, they can sting (it’s described as “moderate”). I’ve experienced it, as has my husband, and one of my sons did, too, when he was a toddler. For each of us the sting only lasted a few hours at most — to me, fire-ant bites are far worse. Sensitivity varies with each person, of course, and there’s always the risk of anaphylactic shock. But overall, scorpions are good guys and worth being given a chance. Among their dietary favorites are cockroaches. While I personally feel that’s all I need to say to prove their value, I’ll point out that they also eat crickets, grasshoppers, ants, beetles, spiders, even other scorpions.


Though Texas has 18 to 20 species of scorpions, only two are found are in Central Texas. This little scorpion is a Striped Bark Scorpion (Centruroides vittatus), the most common. It is easily recognizable by its two dark stripes down its back and the dark triangular mark on its head. Our other Central Texas scorpion is the Texas Cave Scorpion (Pseudouroctonis reddelli).

It’s important to be tolerant of nature and recognize the role that different animals have in their natural habitat. That doesn’t mean you have to accept a rattlesnake in your backyard, but rather than rush to kill such a valuable predator, investigate whether a skilled wildlife person or snake expert can remove it for you. Be kind to ordinary garden snakes, too — you don’t have to do a happy snake dance like I do (more like rush to get the camera and take a thousand pictures) — but do be glad if they do come visit to help balance the creatures in your garden. Scorpions, too — let them do their job outside. If you find them inside the house, just scoop them into a cup and take them to the backyard.

So this topic of scorpions led to an online chat I had with my husband. I’ll just post it word-for-word here.

Meredith: I wonder if we can thank our scorpions for being a reason why we have very few cockroaches and crickets.

Michael: I think that’s a reasonable guess.


Meredith: I think we can — scorpions and lizards and snakes, too.


Michael: All our little friends.


Meredith: “Scorpions have tiny mouths, so they do most of their digesting externally by coughing up digestive fluids onto their prey and then sucking up the liquefied remains. If it helps, you can think of it as akin to drinking a nutritious smoothie.” [description by Alex R. at EarthSky].


Michael: Mmmm….


Meredith: If you’re still hungry, you could try that technique. Got a nearby coworker?


Michael: In fact I am still hungry. AFK a moment to try.


Meredith: lol


Michael: I’ll have to come up with an explanation for Lee as to why I’m coming over to throw up on him.


Meredith: Oh wait, you don’t have a tiny mouth. Perhaps the throwing up isn’t necessary.


Michael: Well, it’s kind of tiny compared to the rest of me.


Meredith: True, and since you don’t have a tail stinger full of venom to help you subdue your prey, you might try farting.


Michael: Oh, how I do try that! They never get subdued, though. Quite the opposite.

What does this have to do with the Commons Ford Ranch? Pretty much nothing.

Planting Sticks

Yet more trees and shrubs in the ground — I wanted to take advantage of the fact that it is still winter, a great time to prune woody plants and plant woody prunes others. Of course, it being winter means that I mostly planted sticks.

texasash02-01-12.jpgSticks are not the easiest to take photographs of — and not the easiest to admire in photographs, for that matter. But there is something remarkably fun in having your neighbors walk by as you dig a big hole in the ground and then put in… a stick.

texasashb02-01-12.jpgHere’s my Texas Ash stick. We (and by we I mean my husband) dug a hole among the roots of one of our ancient Arizona Ash trees, the idea being that the Texas Ash will one day take the place of the non-native, way-past-mature Arizona Ash trees that were probably planted the same year the house was built. My job was dealing with the Texas Ash’s encircling roots, which I discovered upon removal of the plastic planter. What a tangled, sad, sad mess. I ended up having to cut quite a few of those roots so they wouldn’t lead to the tree strangling itself. I’m counting on the hardiness of the Texas Ash to recover.

redmulberry02-01-12.jpgFor the birds, I chose a Red Mulberry tree. Plant in hand, I walked around the yard looking for a perfect spot. It turned out that the perfect spot was near our yard’s other Mulberry tree, which I’d apparently forgotten we’d had. Ah well, the more the merrier!

redmulberryb02-01-12.jpgThe Red Mulberry already has just a few leaves showing themselves, and a bug nymph stopped by for a visit.

mexbuckeye02-01-12.jpgAnd who wouldn’t want this adorable Mexican Buckeye? The challenge here is not stepping on it. I’ll need to put a cage around it else I manage to do just that.

Aside from budgetary reasons, the reason I plant small trees is that they have a better chance of adapting to Texas’ inconsistent water conditions and extreme temperatures than larger trees do. Their roots will grow where they find nutrients and space, instead of circling around each other because of forced confinement, like the Texas Ash we bought rescued.

Sticking with small plants also allows me to increase native diversity while keeping costs low. And I’m patient, knowing they’ll take a while to grow. I’m mostly patient, that is.

mexolive02-01-12.jpgThough I primarily grow natives from Central Texas, of course, I’m experimenting with a couple of species that belong more in southern Texas, mainly because global warming is affecting our hardiness zone. A hard freeze might cause some dieback, but as I said, it’s an experiment. Mexican Olive is one I’m very excited about, if it makes it.

Among other Texas plants new to the yard, we added American Smoke Tree, as well as the shrubs Berlandier’s Wolfberry (it has thorns!), Coralbean, Narrow-Leaf Forestiera, and probably a couple of others I’m forgetting.

I keep saying that I have no more room for trees, and I really do think that if all these trees grow as planned, I’ll likely be at that point almost officially (I have one or two more remaining on my wishlist). Well, there’s always room for more understory trees….