Plateau Goldeneye and Other Fall Blooms

My family and I enjoy visiting Walnut Creek Park here in Austin with our dogs and friends all throughout the year. This beautiful 300-acre woodland park is busy with strolling families, determined trail runners, frolicking leash-free dogs, and trail-riding, hill-leaping, rock-jumping cyclists. The biggest draw of all is nature, with woods, grasslands, crisscrossing streams, and abundant wildlife. This fall, the park has been adorned with spectacular blooms and berries, perhaps thanks to the well-timed rains we’ve had this season and earlier in the year.

FYI, these photos were taken with my smart phone over a three-week period.


Just three weeks ago, Maximilian Sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) brought bright sunshine to line the trails.


While many sunflowers are annuals, Maximilian Sunflowers are perennial members of the aster family, and while they wait all year until fall to finally show their true colors, the pollinators are grateful once they do. 


Tucked into shadier areas, Calico Asters (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) offered a subtle but happy fall presence.


Calico Asters are so named because their disk flowers offer yellow centers that age to a darker red. The plant can have both colors on display at the same time.


But the woodland areas also have their own yellow sunshine in the fall — Plateau Goldeneye (Viguiera dentata). This lovely aster is a prolific reseeder, but it is easy to manage. I have some special Goldeneyes in my backyard that were given to me by a dear woman who passed away this spring. They can reseed in my yard all they want, for each one is a memory of a wonderful environmental steward and friend.


Plateau Goldeneye is not only beautiful, it is the host plant for Cassius Blue and Bordered Patch butterflies.


Apparently some grasshoppers find it tasty, too. This photo actually is of a muncher I saw at the Wildflower Center a couple of weeks ago. It didn’t bother to stop eating while I took its picture.


Above, Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) had a determined showing at Walnut Creek Park despite the abundant presence of Plateau Goldeneye. No worries, for it knows that its seasonal blooms will outlast the yellow ones of its aster companions.


The berries of American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) gave a pleasantly shocking contrast of magenta. It’s hard to keep jogging or walking when these beautiful colors beckon you to stop. Mockingbirds would rather you keep going, however. Once you are out of the scene, they’ll get to work eating those beautiful berries.


Clusters of Prairie Flameleaf Sumac (Rhus lanceolata) berries ripen in the fall to a dark red color. These tart berries can be soaked to create a lemonade of sorts, high in Vitamin C.


A few weeks later, the berries are shriveled, and the foliage changes to vibrant fall colors, well deserving of its Flameleaf name.


Sometimes the Walnut Creek woods open up to sudden pocket meadows, giving romping dogs opportunities to bounce above the grasses, chase rabbits, and collect many seeds in their fur.


Those grasses, catching sunlight with their wispy seedheads, have their own seasonal value, for they give wildlife an important food source throughout the cooler months ahead.funnelspiderl10-19-14

Not so much a bloom, this funnel weaver spider did at least come out of its cozy hiding spot to say hello as we traveled by.


Beautiful park, worth visiting if you are in Austin. Dogs, worn out and happy. Dog points earned for the family.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).

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


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.


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


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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


Pretty spectacular.

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.

The Beautiful Yet Notorious Guadalupe River

During spring break, my parents came down for a visit, and we took a trip south to the Guadalupe River. It still being March, at temperatures in the 50s (degrees F) the water was far too cold for tubing, so this was more of a driving tour down River Road. The plant life was still in transition from winter, but spring buds on the trees marked the greenery soon to come.

guadalupea03-17-11.jpgWe started at the dam at Canyon Lake near Sattler and worked our way down River Road toward Gruene (pronounced “green”), a historic district located within New Braunfels (How’s that for multiple places mentioned in a single sentence?). I used to live in the Sattler area in my teenage years, as well as in New Braunfels — it was nice to return for a visit.


Around the dam outlet, spring was yawning and stretching, with new flowers, buds, and early wildlife. I didn’t realize these lovely white blooms were dewberry flowers until I got home and saw the same flowers in my side yard.


An oddity in nature, a tree burl prompted this week’s post at Beautiful Wildlife Garden, where you can also see some tree romance observed at the same river spot.


Here’s a taste of things to come — I caught so many pictures of pollinators visiting this beautiful Mountain Laurel in bloom that I’m devoting my next post to it:

bluebee03-17-11.jpgThe Canyon Dam outlet marks the beginning of the Lower Guadalupe, and people from all over come to enjoy the scenery and water recreation. In a couple of months, this river will be full of folks moving along the current in various floating crafts. 

huacosprings03-17-11.jpgAt low levels, the Guadalupe is popular for tubing, while higher levels bring out the canoers, kayakers, and rafting groups. But heavy rainfall can quickly turn the river to treacherous 
 whitewater conditions with potential for serious flooding. The picture above shows an area of rapids at Hueco Springs (sometimes spelled Huaco, pronounced “Waco” by the locals). The rapids look deceptively mild in the picture, and yet many deaths and near-drownings have occurred at this very spot, at both lower and higher water levels.

Back in my day (heh), there was a pool underneath the rapids that created a dangerous undertow that would trap people below the water if their tube flipped. I’ve personally been flipped and caught in that undertow and its washing-machine effect, and it’s easy to panic while you try to find a way to push out, even if you are a strong swimmer. I felt very lucky that I didn’t add to drowning statistics that day. Supposedly, they’ve made some changes to the spot to reduce drowning potential or at least guide tubes away from the pool. And in the rushing water of higher levels, inexperienced canoers have died when their canoe became wrapped around that large boulder seen in the picture. Sudden flash floods also have swept campers away. It’s a beautiful spot but one to approach with utmost respect for the power of water. 

Another word of caution if you are planning on visiting the Guadalupe. Water moccasins, or cottonmouths, are common along the river, particularly in warmer temperatures. I’ve seen them in the trees above the river, quite an alarming site when you are floating below them in a tube, and one time I almost stepped on one along a river trail. Given that these venomous snakes are most excellent swimmers and rather aggressive in nature (literally), it’s best to keep an eye out and avoiding aggravating one if you run across it. But don’t let fear of snakes keep you from visiting the river — in general, these snakes are as equally uninterested in being your friend as you are theirs, and most people never see one. I guess I’m just that lucky! Just be aware, that’s all I’m saying.

We finished up our driving tour with dinner at the Grist Mill in Gruene, a historic favorite for both tourists and locals. A fine day, with a promise of future and longer visits and fun.  


Upcoming Garden Symposium and New Blooms at Mayfield Park

Mayfield Park is holding its annual fundraiser, the Trowel and Error Garden Symposium on April 2, 2011, and I am honored to be one of the guest speakers. I will be discussing “The Wildlife Garden: Beauty and Function with Native Plants,” and I will be joined by Austin American-Statesman’s Renee Studebaker, who will be sharing her Bucket Garden List for easy container gardening, and by Cher Groody, who will be speaking about antique heirloom roses. In addition to the symposium lectures, there will be a tour of the restored cottage, a plant sale, and a garden goodie raffle. I do hope that you will come out and join us to help support Mayfield Park!

mexicanplumblooms03-11-11.jpgMayfield Park is one of Austin’s historic and most serene preserves. The 19th-century cottage and 23 acres of woodlands were purchased by the Mayfield family in 1909, and over the years daughter Mary Mayfield and her husband Milton Gutsch added onto the cottage and built the ponds and stone walls that characterize the park’s homestead and garden areas.

GSpeahen03-11-11.jpgMy family and I stopped by the park last week to visit the grounds’ peacocks and cottage garden. Much of the plant life was still waking up after its winter sleep , with just the tiniest of buds present during our visit, but early bloomers were kind enough to welcome us with color, including the fragrant Mexican plum above, and the vibrant redbud below. For more information on the delightful pink blooms around Austin, please visit my Redbuds post over at Beautiful Wildlife Garden.

The grounds include one of the largest stands of towering Sabal Mexicana palms north of the Rio Grande Valley, and in keeping with the way Mary Mayfield gardened, the caretakers and volunteers grow many bulbous flowers, including irises, tulips, lilies, daffodils, and snowbells. Blended with the Mayfield plants are native trees, understory plants, and perennials, which also line the woodland trails that take visitors down to the nearby lagoon.


Along with the beautiful gardens and woodland trails, Mayfield Park is probably best known for its plentiful peafowl. The Mayfields were given their first peafowl in 1935, and their birds’ descendants still grace the park.



This peacock was obsessed with his reflection in a truck’s bumper, attempting to thwart any potential threat, metallic or otherwise, to his chance with the ladies.

GSpeacockc03-11-11.jpgIn addition to the India Blues, Mayfield Park has several white peafowl, including these two white peahens taking a brief respite from insect hunting in order to groom one another.


What I think I love about this park so much is the tranquility it offers in the middle of an ever-growing, bustling city. One feels impelled to whisper rather than disturb the peaceful sounds of nature. Do visit when you have a chance, and if you can make it out on April 2, all the better!

An Autumn Hike Through Walnut Creek Park

We regularly join up with friends of ours to take a weekend hike with our wolf pack (five dogs between us) and all our kids (as of this week, five kids between us — congrats, Stepan and Jen and family on your new baby!). Last weekend, a few days before baby came, we ventured to our very favorite Walnut Creek Park, a 300-acre wooded habitat in north Austin. A mockingbird greeted us along the way.

mockingbirdb11-14-10.jpgNot only is Walnut Creek Park beautiful in all seasons, it’s a leash-free zone, which means that all our dogs except our obnoxious husky get to run free (the husky gets to hike but must be attached to a human at all times). It’s also a great place for beginning to advanced mountain bikers, being covered in a maze of criss-crossing trails and creeks. In fact, there are so many trails that it’s easy to get somewhat lost if you are new to the park. Fortunately, there are usually plenty of visitors to point you in the direction you need to go.

walnutcreekd11-14-10.jpgOh, and it’s a great place to break your arm, as two of the four people in my family have done, along with countless mountain bikers at the park, I’m sure. At least there’s a hospital close by, if you do manage to get hurt.  🙂

Right now, it’s autumn at its finest at Walnut Creek.


All around, the leaves of Red Oaks and other decidious trees are turning red among the evergreens.

I’ll admit that I was a bit slower than usual on the hike — there were a lot of other natural beauties that I just had to capture a picture of.

Along one trail, the branches of dead snags poked out among younger Ashe Junipers and created an ominous effect. I so wanted a group of vultures to fly down and let me take their picture.


Agaritas could be found among the understory plants. This sharp-leaved shrub offers protection to young fauna, earning it the nickname, “Babysitter Bush.”

The beautiful blue berries of the evergreen Ashe Juniper made a striking color combination with Red Oak leaves. The berries are a favorite of local birds.


I also love the exfoliated bark of old Ashe Juniper trees, as do birds for their nests (me, I just enjoy cool-looking bark). For more information on the wildlife value of Ashe Junipers, please enjoy a read of my most recent post at Beautiful Wildlife Garden.

The spiny Prickly Pear had a soft green look against the autumn foliage.


And the petal-less remains of spent flowers made dried-flower bouquets along pathways.


All around the woods, Flameleaf Sumac was changing from green to red foliage.


Its bright-red fall foliage proves that Flameleaf Sumac is very aptly named.


Will this be the year I give in and plant Flameleaf Sumac? I’ve been hesitant in the past, because I know it can make a thicket — but maybe it will be the key to preventing my neighbors’ nandinas and chinaberries from taking hold in my yard again. Plus the sumac berries are high in Vitamin C — might be worth a try! You know, I think I just convinced myself… if I can find it available at a local nursery.


flamesumacd11-14-10.jpgThe hollies were showing off their red berries, Yaupons and Possumhaws alike.


If there’s a downside to the park, other than the breaking of arms, it’s that there’s quite a lot of poison ivy around — vines and bushes alike. There unfortunately is also a serious invasion of invasives, such as evergreen Ligustrums, all the more noticeable in the fall. I tried to do my best to ignore them on our hike, but I pretty much failed, as they were everywhere. I’ll take poison ivy over Ligustrums any day, as long as I don’t have to roll in it. 


And here’s one of our favorite areas of all — Walnut Creek itself. We call this particular spot along the creek “Broken Arm Crossing” because it’s where I broke my arm on one fateful dog walk. I hold the area no ill grudge, as it is such great gathering spot for water-loving doggies. The other spot in the park where my husband broke his arm during a bike ride is now nicknamed “Michael’s Folly,” or “Michael’s Fall-ee.”


My oldest son was particularly fond of the colorful moss along a section of the creek.


I don’t know what the name of these next plants are, but the seedheads made a gorgeous scene along a few prairie paths.


They might look soft, but don’t be fooled.


 And one of my favorites, Wafer Ash (Hop Tree) is in full seed mode, as well.

waferash11-14-10.jpgI looked everywhere on the Wafer Ash trees for Giant Swallowtail caterpillars, but alas not a bird poop-looking cat was to be found.

Oh well, it was a wonderful hike all the same. One can’t always find bird poop caterpillars, you know.

Trekking Through the Roughs

roughse09-05-10.jpgYesterday morning our hiking crew of friends and family visited McKinney Roughs Nature Center, an LCRA park near Bastrop in Central Texas. Not to be confused with McKinney Falls State Park, the Roughs is home to 18 miles of pleasant hiking trails that take one through peaceful woodlands, past wildflower meadows, and along the scenic Colorado River.

The park is located where four distinct ecological regions converge: East Texas Pineywoods, Riparian, Blackland Prairies, and Post Oak Savannah, and these regions can seem to suddenly switch on you as you walk along the trails. I think of three words when I picture my time at McKinney Roughs — “beauty,” “solitude,” and “wildlife.” Birds, butterflies, bees, lizards, spiders, turtles, mammals — everywhere you turn, you either see wildlife, or you see evidence of it. Wildflowers line the paths, vines climb the trees, and sunlight filters through the trees to highlight shrubs or snags or other interesting elements of nature.

A little anole welcomed us at the front gate, though he did hang out among some thorns. Good for him.


Up at the visitor’s center, spectacular flowers and berrying-plants provide a colorful scene, alive with zooming hummingbirds, busy bees, and fluttering butterflies. The building in the photo is the Natural Science Center, closed except for educational purposes, but all about the grounds, demonstration gardens teach visitors about native plants, wildscaping, and water conservation through rain collection. There’s even a tepee to sit in. And the visitor’s center itself holds large aquariums and terrariums, with all sorts of live creatures inside. So much to do, and so much to learn.


If all that wasn’t enough, McKinney Roughs offers even more– nature programs for youths, dorms for groups, stargazing and kayaking programs, and vertical challenge courses, including a climbing tower.

roughsr09-05-10.jpgBut the park trails are truly the “diamonds in the Roughs.” They are well made and easy to traverse. Dogs on leashes are allowed, as are horses. It says something good about a park when people bring their horses from across the state to take them on the trails.

roughszd09-05-10.jpgWe chose about a 5-mile route, traveling on several connecting trails. The paths took us through all four ecological regions, letting us see quite a variety of plant species and terrain. Pine needles in portions reminded us when we were in the pocket of isolated hardwoods known as “Lost Pines.”


The paths took us to overlooks and valleys, dry creek beds and the river, and through woods and meadows, but always the trail was well defined and constructed, particularly whenever a slope was present.

roughszm09-05-10.jpgAnt lions left little pits in the sand along the paths.

roughszc09-05-10.jpgAll around were plants I’d never seen before, and I realized that while I can identify many native species, it was clear I had a lot more to learn. But many of my favorites were around.

Like American Beautyberry…


Texas Persimmon, with its beautiful peeling bark…


Inland Sea Oats, with seeds in transition from green to brown, and so many others.


While I could identify this next plant as a bird-friendly Pokeweed due to its very dark red berries, I didn’t know much about it, so I looked it up. Turns out it’s very dangerous to mammals, sometimes even lethal — so don’t eat it. This is a time where the saying “You eat like a bird” best NOT apply.


Another new one for me — this appears to be Tall Gayfeather, also known as Tall Blazing Star, Liatris aspera. The stalk was indeed so tall that it needed the support of a younger plant.


And this is Coral Bean, Erythrina herbacea. Thank goodness it didn’t have different colored seeds — I might not have ever identified it otherwise. Not surprisingly, those beans are toxic.


It was hard to resist taking pictures of all the wildlife we saw. And ohhhh, we saw a lot. What a joy to experience nature at its best.

Near the visitor’s center, this Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly worked really hard to make it as difficult as possible for me to take a picture of it, but I finally got one. It’s on Pride of Barbados — not a true native, but a sun-loving wildlife-friendly neighbor from the south. 


Well, actually I did get two photos. I believe this is another Pipevine Swallowtail, though its markings are less vibrant. It’s on Tropical Milkweed.

roughsv09-05-10.jpgIt was pretty neat to see so many different species of Swallowtails all in the same vicinity. Here’s an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.


And a good old-fashioned Black Swallowtail on Texas Lantana.

roughsz09-05-10.jpgNearby, a Gulf Fritillary drank from a Turk’s Cap.

roughsq09-05-10.jpgOff in the woods, a pollinator favorite was Shrubby Boneset, or White Mistflower. Bees and butterflies all flocked to it.


Here’s an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Female, a dark morph.


And, of course, the Mistflower-loving Queen.

roughsu09-05-10.jpgBut Mistflower wasn’t the only plant the pollinators loved.

roughsf09-05-10.jpgSolitary wasps collected nectar and pollen, as well. This digger wasp is a wonderful predator of grasshoppers and katydids. I wish it lived at my house.

This black-and-white wasp is a Mason Wasp, Monobia quadridens.

roughsh09-05-10.jpgDown at the river, we soaked our feet in the cool flowing waters.

roughsza09-05-10.jpgWe weren’t alone — fishing birds fished, bumblebees bumbled. And damselflies joined us at the water’s edge, often resting on our feet and toes. This American Ruby Spot stood out among the more common blue-bodied damsels.

That’s just the perfect shade of green on its body to go with the red on its wings.

roughszb09-05-10.jpgA water bug army showed off surface tension physics at its finest.

roughsb09-05-10.jpgWe lingered awhile at the river, taking the time to rest and eat a few snacks. Then it was back on the trail.

Occasionally we had to dodge and duck under cobwebs that stretched across paths. But with them we sometimes found beautiful spiders, many of them orange Spiny-Backed Orb Weavers. But the larger garden spiders stole the show, I’m afraid. Big, beautiful, and very, very still. This lovely lady is an Argiope aurantia. She posed for many views. Interestingly, her web also held a male spider (missing one leg) and several baby Argiope spiders. It really surprised me that she would be so tolerant of other spiders on her web. Well, perhaps not so tolerant of the male, obviously…


The view of her underside looks enough like the parasitic Alien facehugger to give even me the creeps. But she’s utterly fascinating — look at the way she positions herself on her own web strands. Do you see the tension she holds on select threads? Poised and ready to nab any creature who foolishly gets too close to her web…


Argiope aurantia has another name than just Garden Spider. It’s also known as the Writing Spider, named for the zig-zags it makes in its webs, seen in this view of a different female.

roughsl09-05-10.jpgNot to be outdone, other spiders at the Roughs created spectacular tunnel webs and dense webs that seemed almost like blankets.


At last we made it back to the visitor’s center, finishing our trip with a tour of the aquariums and terrariums. And after our hike, we enjoyed a late lunch at the Roadhouse in Bastrop. Great food. I had to skip dinner, I was so full. 

McKinney Roughs has become one of my favorite parks in Texas. I’m so glad it’s close to Austin, as I know we’ll enjoy going back. Next time we’ll be sure to take our dogs with us. If you are in the vicinity, it’s a trip worthwhile.


There and Back Again: AZ, NM, TX 2010

For the final leg of our westward journey, we left behind Colorado and ventured to Arizona. Our goal was the Grand Canyon, something brand new for everyone in our family. From what we read, being committed to getting up early (very, very early) for sunrise and staying late for sunset is perhaps the best way to see the canyon. So that’s what we did. And we took a nap in between. Bonus is that this way we avoided both heat and crowds, so win-win.

There’s something very powerful about having never seen the Grand Canyon before and watching the sun come up to shine upon and give shape to the red cliffs and valleys and exposing the great depths below, like turning the lights on a stage.


AZgcb07-10.jpgIt touches the soul of the visitor, and the visitor in turn feels in touch with the soul of the canyon and connected to the souls of all those who have been there in the thousands of years of human existence.

AZgcc07-10.jpgI understand the desire of those who ventured to outcroppings to watch the sunrise without fence or rail, to feel on top of the world and take in the full expanse of the canyon. (On the other hand, these people are perhaps a little crazy, too — that’s a long drop to the bottom.)


We walked along the rim for awhile, but the morning rains nudged us to move back toward the main visitor area lest the gentle rains turn to thunder and lightning. But the effects of the rain on the canyon were breathtaking. Totally worth letting the camera get a little wet.


We followed the eastern drive for awhile before returning to our hotel for a nap. After a late lunch, however, we headed right back to the canyon for a longer hike along the South Rim.

The colors of the canyon were overall muted, even when it wasn’t raining or misty. Despite the canyon’s clean air, particles from air pollution caused by local car and factory emissions and that of smog drifting east from Los Angeles and southern California create an unfortunate haze over the canyon. I imagine it gets particularly bad when wildfires are out of control in California.

AZgcg07-10.jpgEven with the muted colors, the Grand Canyon is without a doubt one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever seen, and it has earned its spot as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. My tendency to feel wobbly near cliff edges was not really an issue this visit — somehow the great expanse and soft colors made me feel like I was walking along a beautifully painted backdrop rather than a canyon 1-mile deep. In contrast, I was exceptionally wobbly at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, where views of narrow canyons, sheer walls, and vast depth really affect one’s stability– overlooking the edge is much more startling.

AZgci07-10.jpgWildlife abounds at the canyon — coyotes, deer, rock squirrels, birds, and more. We saw a condor drifting lazily in the air between two edges, but as soon as I got my zoom lens on the camera, it ventured too far away for a picture. The mule deer and elk seem comfortable around humans — probably not a good thing for either party. 

AZgcmuledeer07-10.jpgAZgcfemaleelk07-10.jpgThe ravens are huge and very, very black. They are considered some of the most intelligent birds, and you can tell that in the way they look at you and ponder how best to deal with you and/or your food. It amazes me that these heavy birds can even fly, and it amuses me further to see them hover against a breeze mere feet from the human watching them.


You can also see why they are so often portrayed in literature and movies as something dark, sinister, evil. They are eaters of carrion, too — among other things.

The mountain chickadees are just as feisty as their more urban counterparts — they even look the more rugged part.


My husband, by the way, was quite amused by this sign.

AZgcsign07-10.jpgIf I were to really suggest a time to visit the Grand Canyon, I’d have to say that you should stay for sunset. The red colors of the canyon are enhanced by those of the disappearing sun on the horizon, and you can see the canyon like no other time of day allows. We walked the elevated distance out to Hopi Point, and we oohed and aahed with the crowd. It was worth it.

AZgck07-10.jpgOh, and bats took care of any bugs flying around us on the long walk back (there are buses available, but we had our dog with us). I can’t say I’ve ever had that many bats so close to my mass of hair before, but they took care not to get caught in it. I’m glad the coyotes we saw in the dark didn’t attack our dog, either. The bats didn’t faze us, but we certainly picked up the pace when we saw the coyotes, since they actually were a potential danger.

The next morning we packed up and officially headed east — time to head toward home, Texas. We stopped at the Petrified Forest National Park, the upper portion of which is part of the multicolored badlands known as the Painted Desert. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about visiting — the pictures I’d seen online looked like a vast, gray empty dead zone. But the truth is, I loved it. I’d never seen anything like it.

Does it seem odd to find this beautiful? These rocks represent the petrified remains of a forest from 225 million years ago, in the Late Triassic period — a time when giant crocodile-like phytosaurs ruled the land. Just imagine the difference; imagine the world long, long ago. Wow.  

AZpetrifiedd07-10.jpgThe silica-filled petrified logs are like rock rainbows, colored by iron and manganese.

AZpetrifiedf07-10.jpgThe national park is rich in human history, as well. We saw hundreds of petroglyphs in close proximity, as well as evidence of ancient pueblo villages and homes. Visiting the national park was a step back in time, and I felt the spirits of the ancient peoples around me as they hunted, fought, raised families, and wrote their stories on the rocks around.


AZpetrifiedh07-10.jpgI’m certain that at particular times of the day or in different seasons, the spectacular beauty of the Painted Desert really shines through, but even on the overcast rainy day we had, the uniqueness of the geology around us was apparent.

AZpetrifiedi07-10.jpgThe banded hills and badlands are known as Chinle Formations, formed by the processes of massive erosion and deposits in harsh seasons. The effect is powerful, and the colorful scene that arises is suitably named the Painted Desert.


AZpetrifiedl07-10.jpgThe rain fell as we were leaving. We were amused at how much of our time in the desert had rain either falling on us or falling near us in the distance. But no complaints from us — since we’d expected crazy hot temperatures in the 3-digit numbers, we happily enjoyed temperatures in the 80s instead.

We had a pleasant dinner with friends in Albuquerque then continued on our journey the next morning, admiring the rugged New Mexico shrubland as we headed southeast to Carlsbad. There we visited the giant and very impressive caverns. This is yet another place where you need to see it to believe it — photographs can’t capture its magnificence and magnitude, especially because lighting is such an issue for the average photographer.


NMcarlsbadb07-10.jpgThe final part of journey brought us to Davis Mountains State Park in southwest Texas, not too far away from Big Bend. Ahhh, home in Texas at last. The Texas shrublands made me smile, and they were especially green due to all the recent rains. We took a short hike to observe the wildlife and surroundings, and we made a quick trip over to the famous McDonald Observatory before beginning the last long stretch home to Austin.

Nothing like multiple carcass-hungry vultures to welcome you back to Texas.

TXDavisc07-10.jpgAnd a giant Texas- sized millipede…

TXDavismillipede07-10.jpgIt made me happy to see so many of my favorite Texas plants in their native environment — several cactus species, yuccas, agaves, grasses, Esperanza, Chocolate Daisy, and more. And the Davis Mountains is one of the best birding spots in the nation — some 15 species of hummingbirds visit or reside there, along with hawks, Montezuma Quail, grosbeaks, towhees,and my ol’ pals the white-winged doves (were they waiting at the Texas border to tell me that they missed eating all my birdseed?). Many of the birds that reside in the Davis Mountains are found nowhere else, and the range of elevation attracts many migratory species as well.

TXDavisbird07-10.jpgSome birds make their nests in the cholla cactuses, which are abundant and beautiful (and a little hazardous on a hike).

TXDavischolla07-10.jpgA long trip, but one made of many memories and new experiences for our family. It’s good to be back home, too, though.  🙂


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!

Nature Walks, Part 3b — A Tour of McKinney Falls State Park

Down in southeast Austin along Onion Creek lies a somewhat tucked away state park called McKinney Falls State Park. The wealthy Thomas F. McKinney was one of the “Old 300” original settlers who received land grants in Stephen F. Austin’s colony back in the 1820s (McKinney actually moved there around 1850), so this park definitely has its history. Now, some of that history sadly includes McKinney’s use of slaves, the clearing of acres and acres of precious woodland, the racing of horses, and aid to the Confederacy — but this post isn’t about all that! What it is today is a state park filled with walking and biking trails, with waterfalls, creeks, and historical buildings mixed in. And that’s what this post is about.

The main areas of McKinney Falls State Park are divided into the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls. We visited the Upper Falls first. When rain is plentiful, the falls are much more substantial, but at least water was flowing. What I was particularly drawn to, and you’ll see this in many of my pictures, is the erosion power of the water, shaping beautiful curves and channels into the rock.


Below the falls is a larger pool in which people sometimes enjoy swimming. However, often the pool is closed to swimming because of high fecal counts due to runoff from upstream areas and flooding. During our visit, the pool was open for swimming, but given that it was December, it wasn’t so surprising that no one cared to swim in the cold water. Bald cypress trees, complete with twisted roots, line the pool’s edges. 

Dogs are not permitted to swim at the state park, but the headquarters said it was ok to let them take drinks. Of course, leashes are also required at all times. 

The Upper Falls trail is actually paved and seems a great place if you have young kids who like to ride their bikes while parents walk along. For adults on bikes, the distance is probably on the short side.

We visited in winter, and there were few leaves left on the trees, except for the annoying occasional invasive ligustrum which just thrived; its dark-green foliage really stood out when we ran across it.


The path travels along Onion Creek, which Austinites know is the area most prone to serious and dangerous flooding during heavy rains. You can see evidence of flooding in the images below, though the results seemed to be to the basking turtles’ favor.


To get to the Lower Falls, you have to drive to a separate parking area, then walk for awhile across exposed rock. I imagine during floods that this whole area gets quickly covered in water. Again you can see the result of water erosion — broken limestone slabs and large pools carved out in the open rock, as seen below.

2mfspl12-24-09.jpgThe Lower Falls look different from what I remember from years ago — presumably this is a combination of water erosion at work and current flow of the creek. To cross to the other side, where the old homestead is, one has to jump across a channel just large enough to be risky for an adult and way too dangerous for children to safely cross.


So we, the ever-adventuring gang, decided to take advantage of the fact that this was an ON swimming time for MFSP, and we crossed the creek higher up. Yep, in our tennis shoes. Well, except for me, who was clever enough to wear my Keens. Though the water was plenty shallow, the carved channels in the creek bed (the always-occurring water erosion still at work) were hidden by long strings of algae, so we still had to be careful in our endeavour.

2mfspq12-24-09.jpgBut we wanted to see the homestead and grist mill, and crossing the falls was simply too hazardous for my youngster. It would be nice to have a bridge built someday, one safe from the effects of flooding, if that’s even possible.

2mfspr12-24-09.jpgYeah, I think the boys will be getting new shoes for when they go back to school.

2mfsps12-24-09.jpgOn the other side of the park, we could really envision the McKinney ranch of old. The McKinney homestead was built around 1850 and stayed relatively intact until a fire in 1943.

2mfspt12-24-09.jpgIt’s easy to picture horses pulling a wagon under the trees along this wide road.

The trails were lined with yellow flowers and a variety of shrubs and grasses.


Little remains of the grist mill, once used to grind flour. It was destroyed by a flood in 1869.


There are other remnants to be found along the Lower Falls trails, but we had to get home. So we followed the trail back to the creek for another adventure in crossing. We enjoyed a different view of the falls from the other side, but the muck we found in the creek was pretty much the same!

2mfspy12-24-09.jpgWhile waiting for the kids to cross, I snapped a close-up of our husky. He’s a handsome brute, isn’t he?


McKinney Falls is a lovely state park, but it’s difficult to see all of it, especially the historical structures on the Lower Falls side, unless you are agile and have good balance, or are otherwise determined, and large enough to safely cross. Parents would have to carry their children across, or wade the way we had to. The Upper Falls trails are pleasant, though paved. In other words, it’s a pleasant place to visit, but not a park for everyone.