Friday, January 30, 2009

The promise of spring

Ah, the blessings of another beautiful day. Temperatures warmed so I ventured outside this afternoon to replenish bird baths, refill feeders, and water plants. I just happened to think about checking on the daffodils, which grow along an old falling-down fence on our adjacent lot. Sure, enough, they're already busting up through the soil! In a few weeks, they'll be blooming.

They're not native, of course, but they've been residents here at the Pink House longer than I have. The former owners, the Bendeles, must have planted the bulbs years and years ago. We're only the second family to ever live in this little house, which was built sometime around 1956.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

When Nature moves in

This morning, we thought we might wake up to the remnants of an ice storm. No luck. Instead, we had a few icicles and lots of sunshine. So much that sunrays streaming into our dining room reflected off a messy cobweb hidden behind the window curtain.

Agelenopsis sp.
(That's a cast-off moth she's sitting above. Breakfast, maybe?)

Yes, messy–that's what most folks would say. Not me. It's COOL! It means we have a delightful funnel weaver spider living with us! With help from James (who held a mirror to reflect light onto her), I shot pictures of our eight-legged house guest. "Be sure and say on your blog that this isn't how we live! We're clean!" James exclaimed.

Sure, sure, sure, our home is very clean indeed. Except for patches of dust here and there, of course. And spider webs. I do NOT kill spiders. Never have. Never will. On occasion, however, I do wipe away their webs because they do tend to accumulate after a while. But I must say that this spider web was spectacular, especially back lit by the sunshine this morning. A masterpiece.

Typically, funnel weavers construct their webs on the ground in grassy areas. Not this one! She somehow found our dining room window and settled in there. Funnel weavers get their name from the funnel-shaped webs they construct. They lurk in the funnel opening and wait for an insect to bumble onto the sheet-like webbing, then they rush out and grab it.

Funnel weavers resemble wolf spiders, only they're smaller. Plus, wolf spiders wander around and hunt down their prey; they don't spin webs.

And yes, our funnel weaver is a she. I got up close enough to see the proof.

(It's a matter of knowing what to look for–that's all.) :-)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pruning dilemmas

We had beautiful, warm weather four days ago so I felt inspired to go outside and mulch. Which I did. One thing led to another, and pretty soon I found myself snipping away dead stems on the Salvia coccinea in a front bed. In the back of my mind, I kept wondering Am I doing the right thing? Should I be cutting this away? At the base of some, new growth was already sprouting up! (Left photo.)

I didn't touch the lantanas. Some definitely had dead branches. But upon closer examination, I could see tiny green buds on some. At any rate, I quit trimming and decided to even let the salvia just be.

Yesterday, while researching turk's cap, I ran across a Dec. 23, 2006, gardening column written by Brenda Beust Smith with the Houston Chronicle. In it, she debates the pros and cons of winter pruning. Many experts she spoke with recommended that gardeners leave dying plants alone so birds and insects have a place to hide. Dead foliage may also provide insects and seeds for hungry birds. One nature lover said he likes to watch for chrysalises and cocoons of butterflies and moths that overwinter in his area.

She also talked with John Ferguson of Nature's Way Resources, who said that insects chew on spent plant tissue all winter. "The bacteria and fungus become food for anthropoids, nematodes and other insects," he told Smith. "These in turn become food for birds and other wildlife. Chewing on these dead branches also helps smaller animals maintain good teeth. The more we copy nature, the fewer problems we have."

I'm glad I stopped pruning. Sure, the straggly bed around the bird bath sure looks better. But in this case, I'd rather the birds and bugs be happy, not me.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Winter dining on the feeder

Awhile ago, I had my binoculars focused on the feeder in our back yard (complete with a thistle sock), and–WOW!–three lesser goldfinches landed on the sock! Solid black and vivid yellow, they're stunning birds. I immediately ran for my camera and switched out the lens for a telephoto. By the time I ran back to the dining room, they were gone. Darn it. Oh well. I snapped a few photos of the other guys still eating. A house finch and an American goldfinch (top photo). The house finch took off and was replaced with a feisty chickadee (bottom photo).

I'd also been watching some pine siskins and chipping sparrows, hopping around on the ground, feeding, when the lesser goldfinches arrived. I'm going to keep checking. Maybe I'll get lucky, and they'll come back.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Stranded visitor

This morning on the phone, I visited with Mike Parwana and Jeanette Brandt up in New York state. They're the couple who rescued a Monarch last November, nursed it back to health (they even repaired its broken wing!), and then found a trucker, who later released the butterfly in Florida. It's an amazing story that went worldwide. (See "Rare rescue," my November 24, 2008, posting.)

Not more than an hour after we hung up, I was in our garage, putting wet clothes in the dryer when I spotted a bee, sitting on top of the machine. I nudged it, and it moved. Barely. Bet it's cold, I thought to myself. Maybe hungry, too? Gently, I picked it up and set it in the sunshine on a nearby potted tomato plant, one of two that we've managed to keep alive through the winter.

Then–remembering how Mike and Jeanette fed their butterfly honey and fermented pears–I dashed back inside the house and found a container of honey in the kitchen. I mixed a tad with some water in the lid of a water bottle. Using a toothpick, I applied some to the stem where the bee sat...

Right away, it began to sip!

In fact, for several minutes the bee drank the liquid while I snapped photos. Finally, it began to wash itself like a cat, a sure sign that it was done dining. I returned inside the house to work and eat lunch. Maybe a half hour later, I went back to check on the bee. It was gone. Hearing some buzzing, I looked up and saw a bee (my rescuee?), knocking against the glass window. Grabbing an empty plastic container, I corralled it, then carried the container outside. Right away, the bee flew away.

Where, I'll never know.

On the phone, I'd asked Mike and Jeanette if all the time and effort they'd put into one butterfly had really been worth it. Oh, yes, they said firmly.

Yes–I agree–because every creature that we help even in some small way in their journey on this earth makes a difference. Sometimes, too, one seemingly insignificant boost can ripple out and inspire someone else to do the same.

Most certainly, one lucky bee in Texas has a Monarch with a mended wing to thank.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dry as a bone but beautiful

I needed to get out of the house. James wanted to go artifact hunting. We agreed to make a day of it and hike the Blanco River east of town. With the ongoing drought, the river has gone dry in most places, which is great if you're into treasure hunting. Like James. Not so great if you're part of the natural habitat there. Like white-tailed deer and birds.

Along the way, I shot some photos of plants in the riverbed going to seed....

A few pockets of water still survive. Lower temperatures in winter months
slow evaporation, I guess.

I found this plant, blooming with yellow flowers. Gotta figure out what it is. A few butterflies flitted by and landed on the blooms. So did a ladybug I photographed and posted here. Speaking of butterflies, I saw several different species, including sulphurs, Gulf fritillary, and maybe a red admiral. In the middle of January!

Sad, eh? No water to be seen.

Still, rock formations left exposed are absolutely stunning.

At one large pond left within the river, I spotted these tracks. Probably raccoon.

Further "downstream," I found a clump of fur on the rocks, attached to a large burr (see it?). A white streak means it likely once belonged to a local skunk. I didn't do the sniff test.

James found this backbone. Maybe a former catfish?

Tenacious grasses find homes in holes etched within limestone rocks. Amazing.

Throughout our trek, James kept his head down mostly, eyes peeled for arrowheads and blanks. While he searched, I looked around and listened, too. We saw a hawk, maybe a red-tailed? Heard it, too,when it landed in a far-off tree. Several dove flew out of brambles along the river bank as I approached. I heard cardinals and a woodpecker. Later I heard, then spotted, some wrens. Above us, black vultures soared high against the blue sky.

It was so very sad to see the Blanco River not a river. Yet I know the rains will return.
The white limestone rocks will disappear and once again be covered with water. Flowing water. That's the cycle of nature. Of life. Wildlife will survive and return. Even
the minnows and catfish will come back. Somehow. Someday.

They always do.

Ladybug ladybug!

Hippodamia convergens

Everybody loves ladybugs, right? I'd never thought all that much about them until I did some research on them this week for a magazine assignment. First off, they're beetles, not bugs. Secondly, researchers worry that native species are declining nationwide, perhaps in part due to introduced species. So a few years ago, they started the Lost Ladybug Project. They're asking kids and adults to shoot photos of them in their area so they can survey species.

I found this one today when James and I hiked the dry Blanco River bed (more on that to come). I just uploaded the photo above via the Lost Ladybug Project website and will look out for more.

So how did ladybugs get their name? It's believed that in the Middle Ages farmers prayed to the Virgin Mary when swarms of insects attacked their crops. When ladybugs arrived, the thankful farmers christened them "Our Lady's beetles." That's why they're also called lady beetles and ladybird beetles.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day

Across the country today, garden bloggers will go outside, shoot photos of what's blooming in their own garden, then post it on their blogs. I found out thanks to my good friend, Trisha Campbell, who gave me an article on the subject that was published last week in the Austin American-Statesman.

Here in Central Texas, we're struggling with a merciless drought. We've had very little rain for nearly a year now. So our Wildscape looks dreadful. But I did manage to find a few blooms on one of our salvias in the front yard. So that's my contribution to today's Garden Bloggers Bloom Day.

Check out other posts for today's event at May Dreams Gardens. We're number 42!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Nope, not gonna go...

This morning, as we were backing out of the garage, Lindsey spotted some vultures flying low over the house, headed west. "They're sure off to the office early today," I quipped. That's the direction they typically take from their communal roost in trees on the Blanco River near downtown.  However, when I returned from school, I happened to notice that three had opted for a layover on our neighbor's antenna. Too funny! 

And obviously, too cold for them to venture any further til temperatures warmed up some. The thermometer read 30 degrees after sunrise, and it was probably even colder up in the air, right? The one on the right is a turkey vulture; the other two are black vultures. 

I also spotted a black vulture, lounging atop an electric pole on our property. A fifth one landed in a live oak in our back yard, but I didn't get a good look at it before it took off.

Believe it or not, vultures are really fascinating birds. To learn more about them, read my article, "Scary Scavengers," Texas Parks & Wildlife, October 2005. (But trust me, vultures aren't scary. That just made for a good title.)   

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A study on bark

Weather turned nice and warm this afternoon, so I wandered around with my camera. When was the last time you pondered bark? It's been a long while for me. I was surprised to see so many "circles"–places where limbs were cut away a long time ago–on our live oaks. Mother Nature and wildlife have etched out holes in some, creating homes for small mammals and insects, I'm sure. (Which reminds me of that fox squirrel I photographed, peeping out of a hole high up in a live oak–see my posting November 14, 2008.)

Up close, bark resembles pieces of a puzzle, that fit together just perfectly.

Insects lay their eggs on bark.

And sometimes the wind slips a little knickknack within a bark's crevices.

This gift's for the birds...

For Christmas this past year, my mother gave us this great "squirrel-proof" bird feeder. And so far, it's proven to be just that. Not one squirrel has even attempted to tackle it. Maybe they read the box? In the background is our suet feeder. We put it up last summer but didn't get takers. A few weeks ago, I washed the container and installed some fresh suet. We were hoping the new bird feeder, hung nearby, might encourage the birds to try out the suet. But so far, that hasn't happened.

As for our resident fox squirrels, I might add that they do have their own feeder. For more than a year, we've kept a corn cob holder filled, and the squirrels love it. From our dining room window, we enjoy watching them hang upside down by their toes as they gnaw on the cob and dine on the corn kernels.

Amazing indeed

Sometime last fall, I decided I'd plant some seeds in little pots to see what would happen. I'm not into pot gardening, but still, I was curious. The nasturtium seeds popped right up. So did the dianthus. For a little while, that is. Not long later, the dianthus drowned or withered. Can't remember. I moved the surviving nasturtiums over to the Sanctuary, a more-shaded area. They just kept going.

And going.

I've never done anything but give the two pots some water. If I recalled, one bloomed one time. That's been it. But they're still alive, despite numerous freezes!

That's just amazing.