Recently the Texas Ramblin’ Roses (the TX chapter of RVing Women) had a rally in Aransas Pass, TX. A group of us went birding one morning and we were rewarded with about the most perfect birding day one could hope for. The winds were calm, the weather was cool, mosquitoes were rare, and birds were in abundance. I’ve never had a bad birding trip to the Texas Coast and this trip netted me 13 life birds! I should mention that I’m still a novice, having just recently returned to birding after a decades-long absence from the field.
We started out near the RV Park where we saw, among other birds, Roseate Spoonbills, Tri-Colored Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Great Egrets. We then drove to Port Aransas (saw dolphins from the ferry) to see what we could find at the Birding Center.
We saw two alligators!
Upon entering, we immediately identified a variety of warblers, vireos, and Empidonax flycatchers in the brush right by the trail to the boardwalk. We eventually tore ourselves away to go to the boardwalk for waterfowl watching. We were incredibly lucky to see a Least Bittern and a mother Pied Billed Grebe feeding her two babies. This inspired us to have some seafood of our own and we headed over to Fin’s for a meal and brewskis.
The next day several of the group headed back to Port Aransas to check out Paradise Pond, which had been recommended by a birder we met at the Birding Center. There we saw more warblers, including an abundance of American Redstarts, along with water thrushes. We think we saw both the Louisiana and the Northern Waterthrush but only the northern was listed on the chalk board at the entrance.
On the third day – this is beginning to sound biblical – we drove to Rockport to see the nesting black skimmers. By then the wind had really picked up and the birds were hunkered down out of sight. We did find a rookery in Rockport where we watched herons and egrets moving around in the treetops.
My last two birding trips have rekindled the excitement I had when I first began birding back in the 80s. It feels new and fresh to me and I’m astounded at the variety of birds in Texas, especially along the coast. I’m cementing what I’ve learned by reading, searching the web, and using iBird Pro, the cool app on my Droid.
Here are photos of our brief spring. Yes, I know it’s May and spring is still officially ON, but the heat, drought, and winds seem to have baked, sucked, and blown away spring. Yet we still have some cool mornings out here in the country and, regardless of the vicissitudes of nature, rural life is a source of new found wonder for this long time city slicker. At dusk and dawn the cottontails taunt the dogs by grazing just outside the small fenced in yard. The bird feeders offer a dazzling assortment, including Painted Buntings in full breeding plumage. Hummers fight over their feeders and the Carolina Wrens have already had one brood in a hanging paint bucket – moved to hanging position after they began their nest. We didn’t want some critter to get them.
Living in a rural area, it figures that vultures would be in abundance. But I didn’t count on the pair of black vultures who have nested right along the dog-walking route. I managed to get a picture of their babies.
Baby Black Vultures
All these birds and bugs have rekindled the lens envy I’ve had for awhile. I would like better closeups of the insects and I want to be able to capture the birds from a safe distance. What I really wish I had a picture of are the Texas Spiny Lizards in the tree where the hummingbird feeders hang. One afternoon two of them tried their best to capture hummers as they buzzed about and roosted briefly in the same tree. Of course, the things that stand still are the easiest to capture and nothing says spring in Texas better than blooming prickly pears.
About a month ago I moved from the city of Austin, TX to my partner’s acreage in Kingsbury, TX. So, calling it my acreage is a bit inaccurate but, since I’m in charge of the landscaping, it feels like mine. We live on about 2.5 acres here in Guadalupe County. I’ve never lived in the country before but, so far, I love it. The night sky is free of light pollution and coyotes can be heard yipping in the distance. Walking from the main house to the little one I use for my office, I’ve startled rabbits out of the brush and I’m told I should be careful of copperheads as the weather warms. Our nest boxes are full of bluebirds, chickadees, and wrens. The red Drummond phlox attracts at least two kinds of swallowtails – the pipevines and the giant (at least that’s what I think it is). The wildflowers are in bloom all around us. Life is good out here and I’ll write more as the season moves from spring to summer and as my landscaping projects get underway. This evening when it cools down a bit I’ll put the flame acanthus in the ground. It miraculously survived the winter in pots.
It has been a summer of challenges, well, mostly one challenge – getting my elbow to move. I had a second surgery two weeks ago and I’m making incremental progress. An interesting side effect is that I am living local. I am not commuting to work, unless you count walking down the hall to my office is a commute. I am fortunate that most of my needs can be met within a 5 mile radius. Driving with one arm is a bit of a challenge so I try to limit my freeway driving since doing something dangerous is even more dangerous at high speed. This whole thing has slowed me down quite a bit. I am someone who enjoys a project and a challenge. Grabbing some power tools and putting something together is my idea of fun. But this physical limitation has resulted in a messier house, fewer projects, and more time to read and think.
I start every day with a cup of coffee and an exploration of my backyard. I have an average sized backyard but the diversity is amazing. I have always enjoyed watching butterflies but this summer I have been fortunate to observe lots of larval and butterfly activity. My vegetable garden attracted horn worm caterpillars. (These turn into a moth, not a butterfly.) I went out one day to discover this one covered in these little white things.
A little research turned up some info. The wasp, Cotesia congregata, lays her eggs in the caterpillar (Manduca sexta). The caterpillar is a food source for the larvae. After a while the larvae emerge and continue their transformation, metamorphosing into pupas, and then flying adults. I learned that the tomato plant, or any plant under attack by the horn worm caterpillar, sends out a chemical message which attracts the wasp. This symbiotic relationship – caterpillar, plant, wasp – has gone on at least since the Jurassic period. That’s a hell of a long time.
All around the yard volunteer sunflower plants sprang up in the spring and are now all in bloom. They have attracted some butterfly larvae that I believe to be some sort of checkerspot. They all feed together in a mass and completely skeletalize the leaves.
I was keeping a close eye on these, checking a couple of times a day, watching as they went from small black caterpillars to these more colorful varieties.
But life isn’t easy for them either. One day I went out to the plant they were working on. I had been out a couple of hours earlier but on this second visit, they were completely gone. Circling the plant was a paper wasp. The female paper wasp creates a paper nest and lays an egg in each cell. She feeds the young larvae pieces of chewed caterpillar. In my backyard it appears these checker spots were the victims. I think if I find some more I’m going to learn how to isolate them so that at least a few survive.
But here’s a happy story. When I put in my square foot gardens I planted some dill and parsley. I’m not wild about cooking with either but I remembered that the last time I grew parsley I wound up with swallowtail caterpillars. Growing these plants was all it took to attract them and I’ve been rewarded with several generations so far. Here are a couple of larvae chomping on dill and parsley:
I read that when it is time to pupate, the larvae will travel some distance to find a suitable location. I was fortunate enough to discover one tethering itself to a post I am using to prop up a tomato plant. I didn’t get a picture of the caterpillar pre-chrysalis but I did manage to photograph the chrysalis. Before the chrysalis forms, the caterpillar attaches itself with these two little guy lines that are shown in the chrysalis photograph. The larva sits very still and is slowly transformed into a chrysalis.
And, all I can say is that I must be living right because when I did my little yard tour this morning this black swallowtail butterfly was emerging:
After this last photograph she flew off. I hope she’s able to mate and come back to late more eggs on my herbs.
There are lots of other butterflies in the yard but I haven’t been able to photograph all of them. Here’s a bordered patch butterfly.
I’ve learned a lot about butterflies this summer. It has only whetted my appetite for more information. I want to research and add more butterfly-attracting plants to my yard. If I can get some help with the labor I want to create another bed in the front yard filled only with plants for butterflies.
I just realized that I never posted this blog entry. The season is different but here is the entry:
Square foot gardening and the promise of abundance
I haven’t had a vegetable garden in probably 20 years, so when I purchased the Square Foot Garden book by Mel Bartholomew, I was cautiously optimistic. Why cautiously? Because every garden I’ve ever had resulted in wimpy plants. But following on the success of the accidental greenhouse tomatoes, I felt empowered.
I sprouted a bunch of things in those little jiffy pots you can buy everywhere around springtime. My back yard was a mess of bedstraw and fescue – AKA weeds and trash grass. My nephew promised to come over and mow it for me but blew me off. That set me back a week. My seldom used lawnmower needs carburetor work so it sits idle until I can get it over to the repair guy. Finally, my enterprising son managed to borrow the neighbor’s lawnmower and get the yard cleaned up for me. Then came the drilling of holes in the 4’ X 6” x 2” foot wood planks. A trip to the Natural gardener resulted in several bags of their brand of “Mel’s mix”. That made life so much easier. Otherwise I would have had to mix 5 kinds of compost with the other ingredients. This way I just poured the stuff in the big squares.
I got one of the square foot gardens set up over the weekend and put in the second one last night. After sitting all day at the computer, it was so refreshing to be outdoors working with living things. Thankfully, the mosquitoes haven’t hatched yet. Clumsy crane flies loped around and Scrappy, the only cat allowed outdoors, did her best to catch them. After about an hour of work, I felt a little sweaty and slightly itchy and then I remembered that feeling. It was the same one I used to get when I was kid. After school, I would play outside until dark, running around with the neighborhood kids. The world smelled like earth and green, growing things – 50 years ago and last night.
Zoom out, zoom out and I am a tiny dot on the planet. Zoom in, zoom in and I am a human, living in Kingsbury, TX, trying to make the world a little better by doing my part for the environment and the animals that share my space on the planet - that space? 2.5 acres of land in Guadalupe County. Me? A technical writer in my day job; a TX Master Naturalist by nature; a pet lover; nature lover; invasive species stalker. Julia (AKA jewel)