Saturday, May 31, 2008

Call it a succulent...

That's the thing about being an outdoor writer and someone who loves to learn learn learn about nature–you've always got questions.

And somehow, answers and further observations lead to more questions.

For instance, when I recently posted photos of the anole hiding in my potted succulent, I honestly didn't know whether to call the plant a succulent or a cactus. And I want to ALWAYS write accurately, whether it's here on my blog or for a magazine article. I've had that thing for six years, and it's grown taller than me. My uncle, Dudley R. Dobie Jr., gave it to me after I moved into this home. When I asked him if he knew what it was, he said no but to let him know if I found out.

Well, I did. Today.

I posted a question and photos on and got a reply right away.

It's a succulent: an African milk tree (Euphorbia trigona). So called because it releases a sticky, milky-white fluid when cut. I can vouch for that. It grows tall like crazy, and I've cut off limbs to give to people so they can start their own. It "bleeds" white stuff every time.

No, my succulent's not part of our Wildscape, but I wanted to know what to call it. Now I do!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Friendly bug

Yesterday in the back yard, when I went out to check on some seedlings I have going in three little pots, I spotted a funny-looking grasshopper or cricket. I wasn't sure which. So I ran inside and grabbed my camera. I snapped off lots of shots. Then the little guy jumped on my camera! I carried him inside the house, and then he jumped on ME. So James shot photos of both of us. As I was carrying the bug in my hand, back outside where I found it, the thing chomped on me. Didn't hurt, but I felt some jaws!

I emailed some pictures to TPW biologist Mike Quinn, who sent me to a bug site on the Internet (Bug Guide). I'm guessing that my overly-friendly friend is a juvenile katydid.

Too much excitment...

Man alive, it's getting a bit too exciting around here.

Just now, I was in the garage, going through mail, tossing stuff in the recycling bin, when I heard a terrible ruckus out front. I dropped everything and RAN. My first thought was CORRAL THE CATS! They were already on alert on the front porch, trying to figure out what was making the noise. Me, too. I assumed another bird. Wrong! Something furry hid behind the potted succulent.

It was a black rock squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus), screaming bloody murder.

I grabbed the cats, tossed them in the garage, and closed the doors. Then I ran around to the front yard again. The squirrel had dashed along the house and stopped in front of the chain-link fence near my window.

"You can't stay here," I said, "go across the street or over there." I motioned to some nearby oaks in our adjacent lot. Like it was gonna understand me. But I do that–talk to animals, bugs and spiders. I crept a little closer. Then it sped through the fence. I tore back around to the back yard, just in time to see the little guy scamper across the field to the neighbors' woodpile. I sure hope it fares well. We've got PLENTY of eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) around here, but I'd never seen a rock squirrel in our yard before. Another first.

Back to how exciting it's been lately in our Wildscape.

Yesterday, I returned home from running some errands and spotted Gabe, one of our two boy cats, eyeing something in a front planter box. I thought UH OH, THE ANOLE! Then I glimpsed a bird in the garage window. Dang. Another one got stuck in there!

So I rounded up the cats, opened the second garage door, and grabbed a towel. The bird–a juvenile white-winged dove–had flown into another window and sat dazed on the garage floor. I was just gonna reach down and gently pick it up, but then it came to and flew out the garage door. Thank goodness!

That's the fourth bird to get stuck in the garage. We've had two hummingbirds and one wren. About two weeks ago, I nearly didn't get the wren out. We have a high ceiling in the garage, and it was TOUGH to catch it. I finally got it to grab onto the net I was borrowing, and then I walked it to an open back door. Off it flew, into the trees. Talk about relieved–we BOTH were.

I've lived in this house six years and never had a bird get into the garage. The first one was a hummer last year. James says that's because we have more feeders and bird baths in the yard now to attract birds.

And squirrels, too, it seems.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Secret resident

For the past few weeks, I've noticed a green anole, living within a potted succulent (Euphorbia trigona) we keep on our front porch. I love these guys. I had a baby one as a child that I kept in a jar. Until I accidently killed it. I cried about that for years. However, this fellow is well protected, as long as he stays within the succulent's bristly arms. Because, alas, we do have three cats who would just love to do him in, if they could. I've sworn NO MORE CATS after these three pass to a better, higher place. Called cat heaven.

Anyway, today I looked and look, then found him hiding in back of the succulent. So I got some photos. Aren't they intelligent-looking creatures?

Green anole (Anolis carolinensis)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

More blooms

Volunteer Indian blankets

Gaura (we have a pink variety, too)

Gold columbine

Passion from a different angle...

One of our two passionflower vines is busy blooming. Actually, these are photos of the same bloom I shot today...

Pretty, eh?

Lantanas in our Wildscape...

Lantanas grow wild in Central Texas. You'll see them along fence lines, in fields and in yards. When I moved into this home in 2002, the yard came with four VOLUNTEER lantanas–three orange (Lantana urticoides) and one yellow/pink (Lantana camara). They're super hardy and bloom prolifically. The butterflies love them, too.

This year, we planted several hybrids–white trailing lantana, 'New Gold' and 'Irene.' Check'em out below. 'Irene' is my favorite with its bright, BRIGHT pink flowers. So far, they're all doing well in a front-yard bed.

Lantana urticoides (native)

Lantana camara
(Don't plant these! They're considered to be a naturalized but invasive plant
in Texas that was originally brought from the West Indies. )

White trailing lantana (hybrid)
Planted this season

'Irene' lantana (cultivar)
Planted this season

'New Gold' lantana (cultivar)
Planted this season

Dove dove dove

Just now, I counted five white-winged doves at the bird bath (when I should be working). A few days ago, I counted AT LEAST 21, either sitting on the chain-link fence or scavaging on the ground under a bird feeder. Too many! When one had the audacity to land on a nearby hummingbird feeder, I knocked on my window and scared EVERYONE off.

I recently researched a magazine article on white wings (Zenaida asiatica), which historically occur in the Rio Grande Valley. They really shouldn't be in the Hill Country, but loss of their natural habitat over the years has pushed them further and further north. Thanks to an abundance of bird baths and feeders (like in our Wildscape), they now flourish in cities.

Last summer, we found a nestling in the back yard. I knew I couldn't keep it alive so I drove it to Lynn Cuny's Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation Inc. near Kendalia. A young staff member took the little bird, identified it as a white wing, and then carried it to a rehab room. He said I could check back later on its health status, but I never did. I just assumed it grew up fine and was released back into the wild. Lynn and her organization do amazing work with wildlife. I've written about her in years past and am so glad we have someone like her in our area. Periodically, we contribute to her center, which it needs to keep operating.

At any rate, we could do with a few less white-winged dove around here, but that's OK. They gotta make a living, too.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

In bloom...

This morning, our heartleaf hibiscus bloomed for the second time this season.

We planted it last summer, and it overwintered just fine. So did the blue anise sage (also pictured). From now on, I'll make sure we get the IDs on plants whenever we bring new ones home to plant. It took me awhile to figure out a common name for the blue sage (Salvia guaranitica). There are several other names: Brazilian sage, black and blue sage, blue majesty sage. I settled on the blue anise name because that seems to be the most generally one used. It also spreads, which is a bonus.

I'll be researching salvias later for a magazine article. The salvia family is huge. Sometimes they're also called "sage." I got so confused about what's what when it comes to salvias that I thought an informative article on them would help me and other gardeners, too. Stay tuned.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Waiting game

As part of our backyard Wildscape, we have an owl nesting box that James hung up March 27. It's attached to an ABANDONED utility pole near our chain-link fence. We measured precisely....the roof marks 10 feet above the ground, the recommended minimum height. By April 2, we spotted a pair of owl eyes peering at us from the box. A tenant!

Within a few days, the owl roosted regularly and didn't seem to care when anyone walked up to get closer looks at him. Thus, I shot a lot of photos. We've since assumed that was the male, whom we named Prince Albert in a Box, aka "Al." He's an eastern screech owl (Megascops asio).

A few weeks went by with little activity. Then we spotted an owl roosting again in the late afternoons. We'd walk out to get a better look, and the owl would just disappear, kinda like actor Don Adams used to do in the elevator scene on "Get Smart." My theory: that was Agatha, Al's mate, who was likely sitting on eggs. Like all mothers, she needed a break now and then; hence, her brief respites in the doorway. (During our recent HOT weather, she's taken longer breaks and doesn't mind visitors. That's her in the photo.)

This past week, I visited Cliff Shackelford, who builds Owl Shacks like ours in the carport at his home in Nacogdoches. He told me that he thinks I'm right. Any day now, he said we should be seeing little heads popping up in the doorway. Two or three probably. For seven days, the owlets will poke their heads out, then–poof!–fledge. No more owls in the nesting box. At least, not until next fall, when cold temperatures send Al and Agatha looking for a warm place to roost.

So we're waiting waiting waiting....

In the meantime, I brought home another owl box, which we'll hang on an oak tree on our property. So then Al can have his own digs.

For more information, Owl Shack prices, and bird advice, check out Cliff's website:

P.S. June 12: The last time we saw Agatha was May 27. We never did see any little heads pop up. Cliff said that's unusual. We're hoping the kids fledged completely at night.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Meet Agatha

This is Agatha. At least we're assuming that to be true. A female, that is. She's an eastern screech owl who's nesting in a box in our back yard. Her mate's name is Prince Al in a Box, aka "Al." She was out roosting this afternoon and let me get close for some good photos.

More on them and their special box later....

Bird behavior

From my window, I can see a white-winged dove, circling the green ceramic bird bath by the oaks. The dove sat a moment, circled some more, then leaned down to take a sip. Unlike most birds, white wings don't have to tilt their head back to swallow. They can drink through their bill like a straw.

Actually, a blue jay arrived first. It was about to indulge in some water when the white wing plowed in. The blue jay fluttered to one of the oaks, then jumped back on the bird bath. Amazingly, the two shared space for a few fleeting moments.

White wings brow beat most of the other birds that visit our yard. But then the grackles come along and push them aside. At first, we appreciated having the grackles around to help eat the tent caterpillars and other pests. Now we're ready for them to move on. They make a huge mess at our bird baths and splash out much of the water.

Awhile ago, I stood in our driveway and watched our neighborhood raven getting chased and smacked in midair by three grackles. Sometimes mockingbirds and blue jays go after him, too. It's rough being a raven, from what I can tell.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Getting certified...

Golden columbine, salvias, Texas betony,  firebush, rock rose....

The more natives we planted, the more fun James and I had watching nature respond. One day last spring (2007), I read up on Texas Wildscapes, a program sponsored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Hmm. We sure seemed to meet the qualifications: a landscape must be planted with at least 50 percent native vegetation, provide year-around food and water for wildlife, and offer shelter, such as rock piles, nest boxes, and toad houses. 

Well, we certainly had most of that in our yard. Why not?

James liked the idea, too. So I mailed in our application and the modest $15 certification fee. A few weeks later, a big envelope arrived in the mail with the news: our yard had been accepted as an official Texas Wildscape. Cool!

To read more about our Wildscape experiences, surf over to my cover story in the March 2008 issue of Texas Co-op Power: "Texas Backyards Gone Wild." 

Learn all about about Texas Wildscapes on TPW's website.

P.S. Another $15 buys a cool Wildscape sign, like the one above (provided your yard is certified). We still haven't put ours up yet.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


Well. Ok. I've finally joined the blog club. 
This past week, as I'd sit here at my desk, writing, getting stuck, then looking out my window, and watching all the birds sit on the chain-link fence, I thought how neat it'd be to document what I see, month by month, season by season. A blog? Ok, maybe so. But what in the world would I call it? You've got to title your blog, you know. It's the rules. So I thought and thought...window window window. Heck, we've got a certified Texas Wildscape. Why not weave in our observations on our whole yard, not just what I see from here at my desk?

Good idea, Sheryl!

Thank you. Now and then, I'm good for something.

At any rate, here goes. I've already been busy, thinking of all kinds of things I'd like to share.... Maybe starting with our pair of eastern screech owls, Al and Agatha. 
Stay tuned.