Monday, March 30, 2009

Volunteer natives

After we bought the adjoining lot to our home, we were excited to find many native plants, including a young redbud tree. I'd forgotten about the redbud until James spotted the pretty little blooms yesterday. It's definitely a redbud because the tiny leaves are already heart shaped.

We also have two Texas yuccas (twisted-leaf yucca)–an older one and a child nearby....

And I can't wait until this little Texas mountain laurel blooms. I love the grape-candy smell of the flowers.

On the lot, we also have several small cacti. I'm not sure what they are, but they're staying!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Some silly fun...

Last week, when Lindsey and I took our short spring break trip together, we walked into a nearby dollar store and browsed the toys. She didn't have to twist my arm to buy some coloring kits that featured bright magic markers and "velvet" boards with designs stamped on them. Lindsey also picked out a kit that had three "scratch-off"boards and a plastic stylus. As you can see, I picked out the ladybug design. I must say the scratch-off part requires a lot of concentration and a keen ability to stay within the lines. But I prevailed.

Today I added the "LADYBUG FOUND" (cruddy exclamation point) and then mailed it to my friend, Rebecca Rice Smyth, who's a researcher with the Lost Ladybug Project. She's gonna be surprised. Maybe she'll even get a laugh.

Who knew I was so talented?

P.S. My velvet coloring board featured a happy milk cow surrounded by flowers. I carefully colored everything with lots of bright colors. Then I presented my moo-nificent work of art to husband James, who graciously hung it in the meat market where he works.

He's good at humoring me.

APRIL 8, 2009–UPDATE–Rebecca sent me an e-mail: "Hi, Sheryl! I just got your present today!!! It arrived days ago, but I haven't been in the lab. Your beautiful work is up on my wall, very cheerful. Thank you so much for thinking of me. I love it."

Buds and blooms

Spring brings so much energy when it arrives. I have really felt it today, especially when I spotted the purple martins flitting overhead. It's so fun and even exciting to walk around the our Wildscape and see green buds and colorful blooms appear on once dead limbs and branches. Or perhaps to see new growth shoot up from dead foliage. For instance, yesterday I was thrilled to spot a little bud popping up from the coneflower. I really thought it was a goner. But nope. We'll have coneflower for a second season. Our yellow columbine hasn't done as well over the years.

And the red columbine starting blooming just a few days ago. This plant is very hardy and reliable.

Excuse me, but I want to get back outside and see what else is going on!

New additions

So much for sticking with a plan. James and I had agreed that we just weren't going to plant anything new this spring because of the drought. Yesterday, storm clouds gathered on the horizon so–yeah–you guessed it. We loaded up a little red wagon at a San Antonio nursery and came home with five different kinds of new plants. Here's what we picked:

Salvia 'Eyelash'
Salvia blepharophylla
A bright red salvia

Gulf muhly

'Hot Lips'

Gaura DIED

Mexican bush sage
Salvia leucantha

Alas, the rain didn't materialize after we got everything in the ground. But it did today! We had a wonderful drenching most of the morning. (You'll be so happy when you read this, Kristin!)

Purple martins!

Oh, my, this is better than Christmas! I was outside, hanging a hummingbird feeder I'd just refilled, when I heard a familiar call. Then another one... and another one. Sure enough, I looked up and saw three or four purple martins, soaring and chortling. I just stood there a moment and stared...with the biggest grin on my face, I'm sure. Then I ran over to my neighbors' house and told THEM that their martins were back! So now we can start watching for those subadults to arrive. Or maybe some of these will get interested in our house.

I can't wait to find out!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lost Ladybug Project

Awhile ago, I found this little ladybug in one of our hummingbird feeders! I'm guessing it's Cycloneda sp. I've already uploaded photos to the Lost Ladybug Project.

UPDATE–MARCH 26, 2009–This just in from Rebecca Rice Smyth at Cornell University: "A polished ladybug, Cycloneda munda, and Texas is about as far west as this species goes. Interesting! Thank you so very much!"

Cool cool cool! (Plus I guessed right on the genus.)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Llano lizard and other fun

This little guy and I bonded for most of yesterday afternoon. This week, Lindsey and I took off for Llano for a two-night spring break getaway. We stayed at the Sunday House, a lovely cottage (two bedrooms) not far from downtown. Owner Joan Reed offers other properties, too, like the Cabin. At the Sunday House, I especially loved the front porch, where I spent a lot of time. Me and this scaly guy. Lindsey joined us off and on....

I soaked up sunshine on the wicker sofa. My little friend took the wicker chair by the porch rail. See him in the patch of sunlight on the chair's edge?

About dusk, the lizard disappeared. But I found him under the cushion, dozing. Obviously, he was trying to sleep, but I kept bugging him with the camera flash. Poor guy.

This morning, I went outside to check on him. Yep, he was still under the cushion. It almost looked like he was doing some morning push ups or something.

From what I can figure out from my reference guides, he (she?) is a young Texas spiny lizard. But I could be wrong. Is it a prairie lizard? I'm betting the former–a spiny lizard. If you think otherwise, let me know!

Thanks, Joan! And don't forget to check under the cushions before you sit on the wicker furniture!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Making a bee box

Once upon a time, while cruising the Web on a research mission, I ran across a page that talked about making a bee nest box for solitary bees, which are important pollinators, too. That sounded so cool, but that's as far as I went.

Until today. I made one!

It was very simple. I used basic directions that you'll find in Providing for Backyard Wildlife, published by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and written by Walter Brown of Belton.

First, I bought a untreated cedar post and had two blocks cut at 7 inches long. On one block, James cut off an angled inch from the top. Then I drilled the eight holes, using a 5/16-inch bit. The holes MUST be one inch a part and one-and-a-quarter inches deep. I also inserted straws to help insulate from moisture. Then I hung it on the side of a dead tree on our adjoining lot. I'll make a second one later and hang it somewhere else.

According to Mr. Brown, species that use nest boxes include mason, digger, carpenter, sweat and plasterer bees. They're not considered to be "social" bees, like honey bees. But they do like to nest close to one another. Females deposit a mixture of pollen and nectar at the end of the hole. After laying one egg, they close the hole. The grub hatches, eats the food, and pupates. Voila! A new bee!

We'll see if we can get takers. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, here's more information from the National Wildlife Federation on how to build a bee house:

With drill bits of various sizes (5/16th of an inch works best for Mason bees) simply take some scrap lumber and drill holes 3 to 5 inches deep but not all the way through the wood block. For example, get a 4 inch by 4 inch piece of wood and drill holes that are 3 and 1/2 inches deep.

You can cover the holes with chicken wire to help keep birds away from the bee house.

Securely place the bee house on the south side of buildings, fence posts, or trees.

Scatter some of the houses throughout your community. You may find an excellent location to trap some bees and then move them to your location.

DO NOT move bee houses after they are in place until at least November.

DO NOT spray insecticides on or around bee houses.

If you choose to build your own bee houses, DO NOT use treated wood.

* * *
An important reminder from the Tucson Botanical Gardens (where you can find more directions on making your own box): Remember to clean your bee box every year using a solution of one quart of water and one tablespoon of bleach. This disinfects the box and eliminates any mites or pests harmful to the bees.

Bat house UP

After more than a year, we finally got our bat house up today! We just weren't sure what kind of pole to use. I finally ordered an S&K telescoping pole that was advertised for use with bat houses. Ah, more alterations to be made. If you ever want advice on telescoping poles, ask us!

Like with our martin house pole, James installed bolts at each section on the pole. We decided we weren't going to rely on the thumb buttons on this pole either. It does make for a much sturdier pole when you add bolts. He also bolted the pole to the ground socket, which is set in concrete.

We put the bat house on our adjoining lot, where the martin house stands. Like martins, bats require an open flyway not close to utility lines. They also prefer a south or southeast orientation for warmth.

So now we wait some more....for bees, bat and purple martins.

Hey, we've got a pair of eastern screech owls roosting in both the nest boxes we put up last year. So I'm sure everyone else will come, too. Right?

Those sparrows!

I must say I am very impressed with the nest-building ability of the common house sparrow. I never knew they could build one so fast!

If you'll recall, we installed bolts on our martin house pole Sunday evening. While the house was down, I removed two of the six plugs (our three-level house has six "suites"–there's a front room and then an adjoining nest room). I thought maybe if a martin happened by, an open entrance would be a sure-fire attractant.

I was right. Sorta. The entrance attracted a couple of house sparrows by the very next morning! So yesterday, we took the house down AGAIN so we could remove the nest and replug both holes. I was just amazed at how fast the sparrows had built their nest! Nice nest, too, as you can tell by the photos. Plus they used the nesting compartment, which I thought was pretty smart for sparrows....

Monday, March 16, 2009

Breaking news!

The first hummingbird of the season just arrived!

Thought I'd heard something earlier. So a bit ago, I took a pile of work outside and plopped down at our patio table. Sure enough, one buzzed up to our feeder, then it shot off! A male black-chinned, I do believe.

Gonna put out a second feeder NOW.

Wildscape woes

All is not perfect, naturally, in a Texas Wildscape. We have our share of frustrations and setbacks, all part of the learning experience.

For instance, last evening, James installed three bolts in our new martin pole. That house will never collapse again! Before we got it back up in the air, I removed two of the six caps on the rooms, hoping that such obvious availability might entice a passing martin. Still, so far, they haven't arrived yet at our neighbors' yard.

This morning, I walked out there to the house and–DING DONG IT!–a couple of sparrows were busy MOVING IN! Which means we'll have to take down the house AGAIN, clean out their mess, and recap the holes. From what I've read, that's part of putting up a martin house. You've got to keep the sparrows and starlings OUT.

I'm amazed that those sparrows found the holes uncapped so fast. They must have been monitoring it from a safe distance.

Meanwhile, I glanced out the window this morning and saw that a squirrel had just found the new bird feeder we hung from an oak on our adjoining lot. He had it on the ground and was leisurely enjoying a late breakfast. Oh, well. We knew that was going to happen eventually. Squirrels don't waste any time either.

On my way back from the martin house, I picked up the knocked-down feeder and carried it back to the garage. Something else to figure out.

Such is life in a Texas Wildscape.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Martin house problems

I hadn't said anything here yet, but I will today. We've run into glitches with the Coates telescoping pole that holds up our purple martin house.

Last month, James dug a hole, poured concrete, and set a sleeve for the telescoping pole we ordered online. Sturdy, heavy-duty pole, or so we thought. But when we were outside, working on the new cedar fence, all the sudden, the house crashed down a notch! The bottom push-button had jiggled back inside the pole, which caused the lower unit to collapse (probably due to recent high winds). I was devastated. If that were to happen with martins in residence, they'd NEVER come back. They'd probably even get injured or killed.

So we called Birds Choice, the manufacturer, and they willingly shipped a replacement pole. We switched them out Wednesday evening, and the pole seemed very stable. I was happy.

Until yesterday morning, when I glanced over at the house as I was backing out of the garage. It didn't look as high up in the air. Sure enough, when I got home, I walked over in the rain and found the pole had once again collapsed. All the way back to the house, I cried.

Today, I'm waiting for Birds Choice to return my call or e-mail. We've got to get this problem solved once and for all! And fast! Thankfully, the purple martins have not yet arrived in our neighborhood. ASAP, James plans to drill through the pole and insert hitch pin (wire lock pins). I read about that solution on purple martin forums that I've joined through Purple Martin Society and Purple Martin Conservation Association.

Chimney swifts headed back

Paul and Georgean Kyle with the Driftwood Wildlife Association sent out an e-mail alert last night, announcing that the chimney swifts are enroute back to Texas!

"The first Chimney Swifts of the season have been sighted on the Gulf Coast returning from their wintering grounds in South America," the Kyles wrote. "As in past years, we will plot the swifts' movements northward over the next few months. Please let us know when you see the first ones in your area. This year's results will be posted on our website at along with past years' efforts."

"Last year the first sighting report we received was on March 1st," they wrote me later, "and that was actually very early. Sightings around the middle of March in Texas are about average."

I know we have this species in our neighborhood because we spot them in the evening, winging over our house. They also have a distinctive twittering call. (Listen to it on All About Birds.) In a way, they look like bats when they're flying.

You can read more about chimney swifts in my article, "Chirrups in the Chimney," Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine, March 2006. They're cool birds!

UPDATE–MARCH 23, 2009–Pretty sure we spotted some chimney swifts this evening, flying over just northeast of our house. Now if only the martins will return, too!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Precious rain!

As you can see, we're getting wonderful, beautiful, glorious RAIN! The forecast says it should continue through Saturday.....

Thank you, Lord!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Indian encampment continued

Finally, we have RAIN in the forecast!! So James set to work this afternoon, sowing native grass seeds in his Indian camp. He planted: little bluestem, big bluestem, switchgrass and yellow Indian grass. "The big four native grasses of Texas!" James says.

Wrens have a dark side

Within the past week, I have also begun to make occasional posts under this blog's name at the Round Table Conferences, which is maintained by the Purple Martin Society. Yesterday, I posted about our wren house and how a couple had started building a nest in it. It wasn't long before Terry Suchma, who invited me to post on the RTC, e-mailed and sent me some links to discussions they've had on the house wren.

Unbeknownest to me, the cute little species has a dark side.

From what I read via the RTC posts and a little on the Internet, house wrens destroy the eggs of other birds. Here are some links:

"The Great Wren Debate Revisited," "House Wren" (Birds of Forest, Yard, and Thicket), another "House Wren" (Cornell University), and "Discouraging House Wrens."

Hmm, for now I'm going to keep researching and keep this one nest box up. But that's it.

UPDATE–March 11, 2008–This is a Bewick's wren, not a house wren. The white stripe across its eyes is the difference.

Couldn't resist....

We spotted this neat bird bath at Super S Feeds and just couldn't resist. The basin is relatively shallow with a slightly raised island where the Texas emblem is in the middle. The purchase meant....
...we could replace the "old" bird bath from the back yard and move it to our adjacent lot. The new addition brings our count up to EIGHT bird baths in our Wildscape!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Spiders and siskins

Even though this drought is so very sad, I'm amazed to see nature's resiliency. Our lantanas, blue mist, flame acantha, and many other plants are budding out, determined to keep going. Yesterday, while unwinding the water hose, I spotted a teen-tiny spiderling, ballooning by on a silken strand. I caught the strand and anchored it to the faucet. Then I leaned in for a closer look. It was a crab spider child.

Later, when I walked through our gate, I saw another spiderling (photo above). Ok, time for the camera, I thought. This spiderling was a tad larger than the first one but still very small. It's an orbweaver.

In the back yard, the pine siskins (above) and gold finches are still devouring the thistle seed we're putting out. Some of the birds don't mind at all when we walk up close. Yesterday, Lindsey got a kick when she took her own closeups of a siskin on the thistle sock. Later, a siskin flew out near me when I was filling up a bird bath. I couldn't believe how close it got to me! I gave it a gentle shower, which I guess it liked.

New tenants!

Yesterday, Lindsey and I sat outside on the patio and ate our lunch. "I moved the wren house over there," I told her, pointing behind me where the wooden box hung against the house. "Maybe we'll get some this year," I added.

A few minutes later, Lindsey pointed. "Look behind you, Mom," she said calmly. I turned just in time to see a little wren popping out of the house! Oh, my goodness! Talk about thrilled thrilled thrilled! "We've got wrens! We've got wrens!" I chortled.

Lindsey just rolled her eyes. Later, I took my camera outside and managed to get one shot of a wren going inside the house.

This really is exciting.

P.S. I hung up one hummingbird feeder yesterday. None spotted as yet. No purple martins either.

Friday, March 6, 2009


Yesterday I found this little guy on our kitchen floor. I almost pitched it out the back door, then I decided to get some photographs so maybe I could figure out an identification. Thanks only to my friend, biologist Mike Quinn, I now know that it's a clerid beetle of some kind. Bulging eyes are one characteristic of the "checkered" beetle family. From the little I read, clerid beetles help control infestations of southern pine beetles, which destroy pine forests.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Bees and sunflowers

Never fails. I'm researching a specific subject (like now it's ladybugs) when–WHAM!– something else along the way catches my eye, and off I go. Down yet another verrrrryyyyyy interesting rabbit trail.

This morning, it was the Great Sunflower Project, which–like the Lost Ladybug Project–recruits people like you and me to help researchers survey bee species across the nation. You can read more about San Francisco State University's project in this article "Of Sunflowers and Citizens," American Scientist (Sept.-Oct. 2008). There's also more info in this PDF article, "Remarkable Students."

The project sends out sunflower seeds, which participants plant in their garden. Once the flowers bloom, then people watch and report on the bees that visit their sunflowers.

You bet I signed up! Our sunflower seeds should arrive later this month.

Cross off another project

James does not stand still. EVER. For awhile, he'd had a neat idea of putting up a cedar fence on our adjacent lot, just under the live oaks. Last week, he chiseled 2 feet down through limestone and carved out 17 post holes (and got HUGE blisters on his hands). Then Tuesday, he drove up to Haynes Cedar Company in Johnson City, bought 17 posts, and loaded them into his Corolla. After he got them unloaded, I walked outside to see them. "Here, hold one," he said. "I want to see how they're gonna look." So while I held a post in place, he shoveled dirt around it, packed it down...and went for another post. Before I knew it, he had more than 10 posts in the ground. By then, it was getting pretty chilly, so–confession time!–I bailed out and went back in the house. James finished setting the posts before dark.

Wednesday afternoon, we borrowed our neighbors' pickup and headed back for Haynes Cedar Company. Like James told me, Bill Haynes really does have a well-organized operation west of town on U.S. 290. Not to mention Bill's a very nice gentleman who takes pride in his work. (Plus he and his wife, Janet, read a lot and collect Texana books, which make them even cooler.) After Bill and his guys loaded 32 more posts, we were back on the road, headed home....

...and back to work!

Yeah, I helped–I held posts in place, but James did all the REAL work. I take no credit whatsoever. And once again, he finished his project before sunset. What a guy.

Great job, James!!