Wednesday, October 31, 2012

When a light bulb goes off...

Who's been eating our beautyberry?
Last weekend, I was one of 20+ members of our Highland Lakes chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists who gathered for the 13th Annual Meeting and Advanced Training at Camp Allen near Navasota, Texas. The best part of the three days was attending advanced training sessions. I just love to learn! 

Even better is when a light bulb goes off when you're sitting in class, listening and observing. Like Oh, so THAT'S what I saw! or Hey, I've observed that kind of behavior!

My first class was "Bumblebees of Texas: Species Diversity, Sampling and Identification" with Michael Warriner of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. While discussing leafcutting bees, Michael talked about how they cut out circular pieces of leaves to construct walls and partitions of their nests.

* * * LIGHT BULB MOMENT! * * *

Oh, so THAT'S what had chomped on our American beautyberry during the summer! James had noticed holes in the leaves, but we couldn't figure out what had chewed on them. Leafcutting bees! I couldn't contain my excitement and had to raise my hand and comment to Michael in class. 

Later in the class, Michael mentioned how eastern carpenter bees "may steal nectar from the stems of flowers." 

 * * * LIGHT BULB MOMENT! * * *

Wow, we've observed that in our Wildscape! I don't know how many times I've watched bees go to the stems of salvia blooms, not the actual blooms. You can see photos of this behavior here. I don't think I've actually photographed one stealing nectar, though I've seen plenty do it. Cool cool cool!

From there, Michael delved into the life cycle and biology of Texas native bumblebees. Males, who are much smaller than females, are territorial and will hover around flowers, waiting for a female to show up. 

 * * * LIGHT BULB MOMENT! * * *

So THAT'S what those bees are doing around the salvias! All summer, I saw bees hanging around the salvias, buzzing here and there, maybe chasing off other bees. They were funny to watch, but I didn't understand what they were doing or what kind of bee they might be. Those were male bumblebees! Oh, my goodness

During the conference, I also took Michael's "Native Been Management Practices" class, "What's New with Texas Wildscapes" with Mark Klym/TPWD, and "The Digital Naturalist" with Jaime Gonzalez with the Katy Prairie Conservancy.

I especially enjoyed "Bryophytes, the Forest Beneath Your Feet," presented by Dale Kruse, curator of the Tracy Herbarium at Texas A&M University. I know NOTHING about mosses, liverworts and hornwort so his session was a real eye-opener. We have a large patch of moss in our back yard so now I understand a bit more about it. 

This is our crop of moss, perhaps some species of Bryum, but I'm not certain.
What I DO know is that the long "stems" arising from our moss are the reproductive parts of the moss. They're called "sporophytes." The "capsule" (elongated point) of a sporophyte contains spores, which are released and start new mosses. 

Later in his lecture, Dale showed an image of a "splash cup," another reproductive part of some bryophytes.

* * * LIGHT BULB MOMENT! * * *

So THAT'S what I'd found inside a pot with a plant that we brought home from a nursery last April! I'd kept the strange "bird-nest" looking things for a while, but I finally tossed them outside. Back at home, I looked through my files and found the photos I'd taken. Then I looked online and found a similar photo of what I'd found in the pot. Ah, ha, mine "nests" weren't actually a bryophyte...

They were FUNGI...perhaps the bird's nest fungus (Cyathus striatus). So thanks to Dale, I solved THAT mystery! Just wish I had photos of MINE!

At the conference, I also attended "Plant ID--The Top 10 Texas Families" with Master Naturalist Diane Humes. During the hour-long session, Diane discussed common characteristics of our largest families of native plants: sunflowers, mints, mustard, spurges, legumes, snapdragons, mallows, lilies, grasses and sedges. She quoted the oft-used ditty, "Sedges have edges, rushes are ground, and grasses are hollow from the node to the ground."

 * * * LIGHT BULB MOMENT! * * *

 AH HA! That "grass" in our Wildscape that James and I couldn't find an ID for was a SEDGE! Duh! I'd even scanned it (below) but finally gave up. I found another sedge and photographed the seed head and also the angular stem. 
My mystery grass is actually a sedge.

 All in all, the three-day conference was GREAT! I learned so much and met so many nice folks. And I'm pretty darn sure everyone else in our Highland Lakes chapter (and other chapters from across the state) who went had just as wonderful a time...Just ask'em!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Life on a silverleaf

Maybe a clavate tortoise beetle (Plagiometriona clavata)
See UPDATE--adult beetle below
That's all I have to do...walk around the yard or the Meadow, and I'll see something. Like yesterday, I noticed something chewing on the silverleaf nightshade (Solanum elaeagnifolium). I bend down for a closer look, and what do I see? A very odd critter!

So I posted a photo on, thinking it was a mealy bug species of some sort. NOT! It's a tortoise beetle larva! But not just any beetle larva, mind you!

"The larva is a typical tortoise beetle type, but very unlike most other beetle larvae," according to Featured Creatures, posted by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture. "The last abdominal segment has a special 'fecal fork' which permits the attachment of dried fecal matter. This fecal mass is carried over the dorsum in the same form as 'trash bugs' (Neuroptera), and presumably offers a degree of protection through camouflage. The body is green, flattened, and almost entirely fringed with whitish multispiculate projections."  

I also spotted what I thought were three species of caterpillars on the nightshade, but it may just be two instead.....

Salt marsh moth (Estigmene acrea) or a fall webworm (Hyphantria cunea). Even the experts can't agree....yet. I think it's a salt marsh.
Some galls....
Probably a Heliothis sp.
And maybe another Heliothis sp.

I  returned to the Meadow and found MORE life on silverleafs...
 A gall....

A treehopper in the genus Micrutalis...thank you,!

Same treehopper...

 And a leafhopper assassin bug (Zelus renardii) lurking among the leaves....thanks again, experts for the ID help.


I'm pretty sure this is the adult tortoise beetle!

UPDATE November 15Eggplant tortoise beetle (Gratiana pallidula)

Get outta here!

Peyton, our seventh-grade neighbor, dropped by yesterday when he saw me and James in the Meadow. I was taking photos of caterpillars and an odd mealybug that I'd spotted on a silverleaf nightshade (a future post). Peyton shared about a camping experience he'd had with friends in his back yard recently and mentioned a "tree" that grew there. James wanted to find out what kind it was so the two set off to see it. I stayed behind.

Next thing, I know, someone's pounding at our front door! Oh, my, had James gotten hurt??! I rushed to the door and threw it open.

"MISS SHERYL, MISS SHERYL, GET YOUR CAMERA!" Peyton exclaimed, breathless and obviously very excited. "THERE'S AN OWL IN OUR BACK YARD!"


With camera in hand, I walked fast (hey, I've been a little sick so I wasn't up for running) to Peyton's back yard. Sure enough, there sat a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) atop a utility pole! Mad bluejays were squawking in trees and flying at the big bird. That's what had initially caught James' attention. Such commotion (a bird behavior called "mobbing") usually indicates that a snake's around. This time, it was an owl. 

Also, this time I noted that we saw only bigger birds--bluejays, mockingbirds and woodpeckers. The smaller birds didn't join the ruckus like they normally do when a snake's involved. 

I caught several photos of jays dive-bombing the owl. When we finally decided to leave, the owl still sat serenely on the pole.  

James and I weren't surprised to see it. A few months ago, we heard owls hooting in our trees. Then a week or so ago, a neighbor down the street, Trisha, told me that she's heard some, too. It was really cool to finally meet one in person! 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What's that on the mistflower? A wasp?

Nope! Surprise! The experts at told me that it's a species of clearwing moth--Carmenta armasata. This insect reminds me of another one I spotted in our Wildscape in November 2008. That day I spotted what I thought was a wasp. But it turned out to be a Texas wasp moth (Horama panthlon texana). Nature is so COOL!

This is why we don't mow the Meadow!

We went outside after supper and wandered in the Meadow, where we watched butterflies. Dragonflies. Damselflies. So much going on! Then I happened to spy something yellow in the grass. A sulphur? Well, sorta. A banded argiope had caught it on her web! Low in the grass, the spider had spun her orbweb. Awesome.
You could barely see her in the grass. She blended in well.
Across the Meadow, we spotted another argiope on her web! She was just about to nab a moth, but it got away. Good for the moth but not for the spider. 

AND THEN, I happened to look down and spy....this COOL COOL COOL caterpillar! James spotted a second, then I saw a third. Back in the house, James looked through our caterpillar field guide and figured out that they're a white-lined sphinx moth species (Hyles lineata). We'd never seen a caterpillar like it before. Naturally, I told Peyton, our seventh-grade neighbor who LOVES caterpillars, about this species! 
James agrees that it's better NOT to mow (except for a few walking paths) the Meadow. So much life has a place to live life when we don't!

More butterflies and flying things!

Gulf fritillary
Orange sulphur
White-checkered skipper
Phaon crescent
Ceraunus blue (this was a TINY butterfly!)
American lady
Phaon crescent
American snout
Little mystery

Grass grass grass

James is helping me out today by identifying the grasses in our Meadow. I call him my "Grass Man"........

Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula var. curtipendula)

Silver bluestem (Bothriochloa laguroides ssp. torreyana)
King Ranch bluestem (Bothriochloa ischaemum var. songarica)
Texas signalgrass (Urochloa texana)
Shortspike windmillgrass (Chloris subdolichostachya)
Reverchon bristlegrass (Setaria reverchonii)
Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides)
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium var. scoparium)
Tumble lovegrass (Eragrostis sessilispica)
Hairyseed paspalum (Paspalum pubiflorum)
Plains lovegrass (Eragrostis intermedia)
Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides)