Thursday, June 26, 2008

No rain in sight

Once again, today's forecast looks to be the same as it's been for months–no rain.

We're keeping our plants alive with daily dousings. But not whatever grass is left in the yard. We just can't justify the use of water (or the expense) to keep it green. However, at least the native plants serve some purpose, like attracting occasional queens (butterflies) and our summer hummingbirds. We keep our five bird baths filled, too, for the birds.

Other animals, like squirrels, also frequent the bird baths. Sometimes at night.

We had suspected something bigger than a squirrel because the bird bath I can see out my window would be mysteriously dry by morning. For several nights, James would get up and peer out the windows, hoping to catch the culprit in action. One night he did.

"Sheryl, Sheryl!" he whispered excitedly, "there she is!"

Groggily, I got out of bed and padded over to the window, where James stood holding the blinds open. Sure enough, there she was–a doe, moving through the dark, munching on our trumpet vines.

Lately, she's been browsing our vegetable garden. At least, what's left of it. Because of the heat and lack of rain, our plants–tomatoes, squash, zucchini, bell peppers–have barely produced anything this summer. We're about ready to quit watering it. But I figure we might as well keep it green so the deer can finish it off. At least it will benefit someone!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Noisy intruder

So you've met Gladys. Who, by the way, is still residing on our dining room table, joining us for meals when she feels so inclined.

After her noonish fly yesterday, she still looked a little hungry. So last night, I left the back porch light on, in hopes of luring a moth or other unsuspecting insect. Finally, I did nab a moth and brought it inside. But alas, it flitted away from me...just when I heard a commotion in the corner of the dining room. I peered toward the noise and saw....

"James!!!!!"

Between the two of us, we captured the fellow–a rather large, robust Mediterranean gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus).

This afternoon, I spoke to a group of high school students who are taking a creative writing class through Texas State University in San Marcos. My main focus was outdoor writing and how much I love learning about nature, then sharing what I learn through my writing–magazine articles and now this blog. When I mentioned photographing and capturing the gecko, Trinity–a young lady–raised her hand and said she'd read about how geckos can climb walls and ceilings. I said I'd read up on that and try to come up with an answer. I found this great webpage on our nocturnal visitor, posted by the Galveston County Master Gardeners. Evidently, geckos have sticky toe pads that enable them to magically scale vertical surfaces and even ceilings. Check out this close-up photo here of the bottom of their feet.

Mediterranean gecko
Hemidactylus turcicus

Wildscape sign UP


Today we found a neat trellis that we thought might work as a sign holder. It does! James attached our Texas Wildscape sign to it, then he set in a front bed next to the turk's cap, blue mist and butterfly weed.

We're official now.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Lunch!


James and I sat down at the table to eat our sandwiches for lunch awhile ago. Naturally, our jumping friend was on hand to join us. She seemed a bit puny, though, and I wondered if she was getting ready to curl up and leave us for spider heaven. I told James that if we caught her a fly, and she showed interest, then she's still good to go.

Amazingly, he stunned a victim in the garage, and I brought it in the house. I dropped the fly on the table in front of her, and she instantly perked up when it wiggled its legs. I ran for my camera but missed her pounce because I forgot to put in my memory card. Oh, well. But I did get plenty of shots of her eating the fly (see insect's red eyes?).

She's definitely enjoying her meal at our table. As for James and me, it's back to work!

P.S. My mother thinks our dinner mate looks like a "Gladys."

So Gladys it is!



Thursday, June 26, 2008–UPDATE– We tried offering Gladys a second fly a day or two later, and she wasn't interested. Instead, she was starting to curl up in a spider fetal position. Sure enough, she had passed on by the next morning.

We still miss our dinner companion at the table. However, on the dining room curtain, we're monitoring a silky nest, which contains an egg sac and dozens of tiny jumping spiderlings. I can't tell yet if they're of the jumping variety, but I suspect they are. We could have LOTS of little Gladys-es dispersing soon.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The spider that came for supper...

Bold jumping spider
Phidippus audax
Honest!!

James and I were finishing supper at the table, talking, discussing, trying to sort out the week's events. All the sudden, he stopped and pointed across the table. "Look!" he exclaimed.

There she perched, atop the wooden chair's back, intently staring at James, like she was absorbing everything we were saying.

"She wants to help us figure out everything!" I said, laughing. Then I ran for my camera.

Bold jumping spiders (Phidippus audax) are my absolute favorite spiders. I've loved them since childhood. In fact, they triggered my lifelong interest in spiders. Don't they just LOOK intelligent with their big round eyes and fuzzy face? All of the spider species, jumping spiders have the best eyesight. That's because they hunt their prey; they actually stalk insects sometimes like a cat. They have four pairs of eyes. Two pairs are located on the sides of their head. Next time you're behind one, wave and see what happens. Most likely the rear eyes will catch the movement. Then the spider will swivel around and focus its big primary eyes on you. Like I tell kids, jumping spiders–like moms–have "eyes in the back of their head" so they don't miss a thing!

Look closely, and you'll see metallic green or blue below their big eyes. Some folks mistake the markings for more eyes. But actually, they're part of the spider's "chelicerae" (jaws).

And, yes, this jumping spider is a female. I know the secret to telling the difference. :-)

Sunday, June 15, 2008–UPDATE–She's still on the dining table and chair today. Guess she's waiting around to see what we talk about tonight....

Monday, June 16, 2008–UPDATE–Our jumping spider friend returned for breakfast this morn. We sat down, and she showed up, crawling down the side of the table where I sat. She went under my elbows, then headed over for James. She seems to prefer James, for some reason.....

Beetle from the past...

Placosternus sp.

Lindsey, my daughter, this morning reminded me of a bug photo she took awhile back. The actual date: Feb. 10, 08. I looked at it and thought of the bumelia borer we just met this week. There's a resemblance so her bug must be a beetle of some kind.

Pulled my reference book out, A Field Guide to Common Texas Insects, and also got back on BugGuide.net. (I love to figure out what things are...) Could it be a mesquite borer (Placosternus difficilis)? That's my guess. Another pretty bug, eh?

Trapdoor spider


This morning, THIS is what I found, clinging to our back screen door. Isn't she pretty? Yes, it's a SHE. That much I know for sure. I've got a query out right now on her. She's some spider species of Mygalomorph, like tarantulas and pursewebs. My guess: she's a trapdoor spider.

Isn't she striking?


Monday, June 16, 2008– UPDATE–Allen Dean, a research assistant in the Texas A&M University Insect Collection, replied to my inquiry and confirmed my guess: "That is a trapdoor spider and a nice looking one. I suspect it belongs to the family Cyrtaucheniidae."

That night, I released her back outside, along the house, not too far from where I found her on the door.

Friday, June 13, 2008

What's blooming...

Turk's cap
Malvaviscus
arboreus


Salvia coccinea
'Coral Nymph'


Salvia coccinea
'Lady in Red'


Golden shrimp plant
Pachystachys lutea


Butterfly weed
(Asclepias tuberosa)

Name that bug!

So last night, there we were, sitting in our back yard, relaxing, when a HUGE bug came barreling through the air, right toward us. James jumped up and ran. So did I. It landed on the chair I'd been in. Naturally, I had to get a closer look.

"WOW!" I exclaimed. "It's BEAUTIFUL!"

I dashed into the house, switched out lenses on my camera, and ran back outside. Just in time to snap off one shot, and that was IT. The thing took off and landed in an oak branch. Then it flew up and over the house. Dang. I really wanted more pictures. The one I managed to get isn't that great, but at least you can see the bug's metallic green. (Yes, that's my wine glass. Drats, caught!)

Texas bumelia borer
(Plinthocoelium suaveolens plicatum)

Today, I did a little looking around on BugGuide.net, hoping that I could figure out the name of our visitor. (What'd we ever do without the Interet??). First, I found an image of one that looked like ours, then I got a genus name and Googled that. It's a Texas bumelia borer. Mike Quinn, a biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, has a nice page about the longhorned beetle on his website, Texas Entomology.

Next, I had to find out...what's bumelia? I'd never heard of it. A Google search led me tothe Texas Native Trees database, hosted by the Texas A&M Agriculture Program. There I found a link to chittamwood, also known as gum bumelia, gum elastic, false buckthorn and a host of other common names. The evergreen tree is found all over Texas, except the High Plains. "Children of early pioneers sometimes chewed the sap that oozed from cracks and wounds in the bark," according to the site. It has white flowers in the summer and blue-black berries in the fall. The larvae of Texas bumelia borers feed on bumelia root crowns, hence their name.

I just love to learn new things.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Morning guests




In the mornings, when I'm out watering our little vegetable garden, I usually spot three or four black-bellied tree ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis), hanging out in our live oaks in the front yard. Occasionally, they practice their acrobatic skills and wobble on the utility lines. Like some did this morning. It's really funny to watch. With their big pinkish feet, they balance and sway on the line, trying to keep their balance. But they're very shy. As soon as a car zips by on the street below, they take off.

Which they did this morning.

In the evenings, right around 7:30 or so, we usually hear the ducks before we see them. They twitter in a loud, high-pitched call as they flap overhead. After circling a few times, they land either back in our front live oaks or in oaks across the street. As I mentioned before, they seem to be very nervous birds. They'll perch on a limb awhile, twitter back and forth, then take off. Sometimes they return.

Sometimes they don't.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Anole again and bats, too

Every day, I check out the African milk tree, looking for my "friend." He's usually there, hiding among the limbs. This morning, he was extra bright green so I ran for the camera. (Actually, to be honest, I don't know whether it's a him or her. I just think of it as a "him.")

Yesterday, he sashayed over to the front porch screen door, which was quite a long trip in anole miles. Lindsey spotted him there. Guess he was hunting up a meal. By evening, he'd returned home.

Today, we're trying to get a bat house up, which has turned into quite a project. A friend gave it to us. He'd had it awhile and never hung it up. It has three chambers and is constructed of cedar. As for putting it up, I spent some time researching the process online at Bat Conservation International. Houses should hang at least 12 feet above the ground (that's measuring from the house's bottom, not top) and be at least 20 feet away from branches and utility lines.

Finally, after reading and reading, I decided that we do need to stain the house, which will strengthen its durability and help it last longer, too. So now we've got to buy some stain. I've already caulked seams along the roof, which is recommended.

Wish us luck!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Toad haven

So tonight we sat on the front porch until late. Nearly 10:30. That's LATE for old folks like us. For the first time this summer, we spotted lots of Mexican free-tailed bats flitting about in the darkening sky. I'm sure they've been around....we just haven't been out that late in the evening.

While we were sitting there, we heard a commotion behind us. So did Abe, one of our boy cats. James dashed into the garage for a flashlight. When he returned, we found a big toad in the corner in between the bromeliad and the African milk tree. Then I found a dish to set out near him with water. Alas, the lid had holes (a lady had brought me a huge wolf spider in a coffee container), and I had grabbed that lid. (The spider died soon thereafter, much to my dismay.) So I went inside the house and found a plate that I could trade out. As you can see, the toad found the water and had a nice time. Last summer, when we had so much rain, we had lots of toads. We kept plates filled with water in a wild area in the back yard. We hadn't done that this year 'cause we hadn't seen any toads.

Until today.

This morning, I rescued a toad, treading water in a container we keep under the a/c drain in the back yard. He looked a little bloated but alive. So tonight's amphibian was our second today!

We decided we'll start filling those plates again regularly with water.

Isn't he cute?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Skin-y evidence

Yesterday late afternoon, I stood in the garage and looked across our front yard. Up in one of our huge live oaks, I noticed a long strand of tissue paper, fluttering from a branch. Tissue? How'd it get way up there, I wondered. Then I looked again, and I realized what it really was....

...a snake skin.

I meant to ask Lindsey, the teen daughter, to shoot a photo for me. But I forgot. And a couple of hours later, the skin was gone, likely whisked away by these gale force winds we've been having lately.

So that meant our resident rat snake still lived up there! Last summer, James and I watched it slither out of a woodpecker's hole and meander further up the branches. It was amazing to watch. Back in May 2005, a rather long snake appeared on our front porch and wrapped itself around the light fixture. (See photos) My former husband identified it as a Texas rat snake. I'm betting it's the same fellow (or gal), and it moved from the porch into the oak trees, where it's still hanging out. Cool.

Check out my article on rat snakes (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimerii) in the February 2008 issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine. They're non-venomous but can be very aggressive and will strike if threatened. They can also climb anything, including trees and walls. The article explains how...


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Roadside rescue

This isn't related to our Wildscape, but I thought it warranted telling since the story is very nature related.

Yesterday, on our way north to Dallas via U.S. 281, I spotted what I thought was a dog in our lane of traffic, apparently trying to cross the highway. (We were just south of Hamilton.) The animal was still pretty far away. Naturally, I slowed down. As we got closer, I realized it was a FAWN! A tiny one, tottering on its little legs. I veered off the highway, pulled to a stop, punched on my emergency lights, and jumped out of the car. There was a vehicle coming up behind me but no oncoming traffic. I waved and motioned to the van to drive around, then I shooed and corraled the baby back onto the shoulder and into the grass. It stumbled up the slight incline toward a fenced pasture. But as it attempted to climb through some shrubs and under the barbed-wire fence, its hoof got stuck. I tried to untangle it but could see it was going to take a little more effort. So I ran back to the car and told my daughter, Lindsey, to turn off the motor. She ran back with me. I think it was a small hackberry tree that was growing in the fence. Lindsey held down limbs, and I reached down and gently picked up the fawn. It bleated and hollered. I carried it further down the fence line, lifted it over, and set it gently on the ground. It toddled over a few yards, then stopped. We ran back for our cameras. By the time we returned, it had plopped down in the grass and could barely be seen. I snapped a picture, but I don't think the fawn shows up much.

Anyway, that's our "roadside rescue" story. Typically, white-tailed mothers leave their babies hidden during the day. I'm just hoping so much that she heard this little one holler and found it after we left. I knew we had to let Mother Nature take it from there after we left.

Just the day before, I'd seen a dead fawn on Highway 46 near New Braunfels. It had been about the same age of this one we saved today. Each and every dead animal I see on the highways just breaks my heart. Today, I'm so glad and grateful that we came along when we did. Or this deer child would have been just another road kill.