Tuesday, August 30, 2016

River primroses and more

Cross the U.S. 281 bridge over the Blanco River here right now, and you may notice some TALL yellow flowers in bloom on the west side along the river. Wonder what those are, I mused when I first saw them. So I later e-mailed park manager Ethan Belicek and asked if he knew. In all my years of living in Blanco (and in the state park, too), I'd never seen them before. Could they have arrived via last year's floods?

"What a coincidence," he wrote back. "We were discussing them yesterday. They are river primrose. And yes, since we didn't see much of them before the flood, we are assuming they were washed in." 

Note to self: Get over to Blanco State Park and get some photos. Which James and I did today. First, we had a picnic lunch on the west end of the park, overlooking the river. Can this REALLY be August? Impossible! The temperatures are far too mild. So it was a perfect day to get outside.

After lunch, we moved our car and walked down toward the Caswell Nature Trail. Along the way, I took some photos of the river primrose (Oenothera jamesii). Aren't they beautiful? 

Instead of going back to the car, we decided to keep going. The lower portion of the nature trail is closed due to damage from the floods. But the upper portion is fine.

Buffalo bur
Blue mistflower (Chromolaena ordorata)
Likely white boneset (Eupatorium serotinum)
Interesting markings on some limestone
Seedhead from a mystery legume (see branch below)
UPDATE–Thank you, Debra and Melissa, for the ID! Yes, this is an Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis). What a cool seedhead!

Texas kidneywood in bloom

End of the trail at the eastern dam

Velvet-leaf mallow

Look out, allergy sufferers! The Texas giant ragweed is GIANT!
A pipevine
Wild petunia
Last look at the river primroses

This plant (and photo below) reminds me of a jimsonweed, but the flower heads don't match up.....another mystery.
UPDATE–Melissa suggested that this plant may be a cockleburr (Xanthium sp.), more specifically a rough cockleburr (Xanthium strumarium). I tend to agree because if I blow up the photo above, I can see small burrs where the leaves join together. Thank you, Melissa!

Getting personal with a cicada

I happened to find this resh cicada (Tibicen resh) on the back patio the other day. So it and I got up close and personal for some photos. James helped me out with a few. I think these insects are quite beautiful.

According to Bugguide.net, the cicada's name "resh" refers to the "markings on the mesonotum [upper surface of middle segment of thorax] that look like an upside-down Hebrew letter Resh (and its mirror image on the other side)."

Also according to Bugguide.net, resh males have been recorded, "producing a mean sound pressure level of 105.9dB(50cm), ranking them amount the loudest insects in the world!" I believe it!

Monday, August 29, 2016

Barometer bush

Take a look at the cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens) that lives across the street from us. I shot the photo below Saturday evening. The next day, the cenizo looked like the photo above. You know, it's true what they say about this species–that it can predict rain. Hence, one of its common name: barometer bush. Now more than ever, I believe it. Earlier this month (August 5-7), James and I drove down to Port Aransas for his high school reunion. Along the way, coming and going, we noticed cenizos in full bloom. Ten days later, we had loads of rain in Central Texas. Now they're blooming again! We must have more rain on the way?
Here's a short piece I wrote for Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine a few year ago, "Barometer bush."

Even our dwarf cenizo in the back yard is blooming now.

More signs of spring in late summer

In all my many, MANY years of living in Texas, I've never experienced an August like this one. At least, not that I can remember. As a rule, Augusts in Texas are to be endured with sweltering, gritted teeth and beneath shade or indoors. But THIS August! Rains? Cool temperatures? Yes yes yes yes! And now many of the plants have decided to bloom as well. I am simply amazed.

Firecracker plant 'St. Elmo's'
Milkweed bugs doing their thing
American beautyberry
Three-lobed rudbeckia
Barbados cherry
Blue-margined ground beetle (Pasimachus elongatus)
The mandarins on my Texas satsuma tree (Citrus unshiu 'Miho') will be ripe soon!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Gray blister beetles

Yesterday evening, James suggested that we go finish a project that involved peeling off letters from a roadside sign less than a mile away on Ranch Road 1623 in Blanco. Good idea! So I sprayed on some insect repellant, he put on long pants, and off we went. When we got to the site, right away I noticed some mounds of buffalo burr (Solanum rostratum) in bloom. I think buffalo burrs are pretty, but most would consider the species a weed because of its prolific prickles and toxicity. The plant is a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), like tomatoes and datura.

When I peered closer, I observed LOTS of long gray beetles feasting away on the leaves and even the flowers. Naturally, after we finished our job, James drove me back to the house so I could grab my camera. This was just too interesting not to document.

I've since learned–thanks to Bugguide.net and entomologist Mike Quinn–that these are gray blister beetles (Epicauta albida). Mike pointed me to his Blister Beetles of Texas and Important Texas Beetle Resources pages. 

Normally, I'm game to handle most beetles. But something about the ferocious-looking appearance of these warned me not to. So I didn't. And good thing I stuck with my instincts. "Are they safe to handle?" I asked Mike. No. "Blister beetles are known to cause blister outbreaks," he replied. Hence, their common name.

This irritating ability comes from their hemolymph (an insect's version of blood), which triggers blistering on contact with human skin. The blistering agent is called cantharidin, which can be highly toxic to mammals. Horses have died by eating blister beetles trapped in baled alfalfa hay. For humans, the blistering is uncomfortable but soon diminishes on its own with no medical treatment.

Online, I found an extensive research study on the species, "Ecology, Behavior, and Adult Anatomy of the Albida Group of the Genus Epicauta.) Most of the study was over my head, but I did pick up some bits and pieces.   

"Adults of all species of the group are found most frequently and in greatest abundance along roadsides, near ditches, in swales, and in other situations where the amount of soil moisture is sufficient to support the growth of herbaceous plants through the summer season," the study states. "Many of the food plants of the adults are to palatable to range animals, and adults may occur in great numbers even in heavily grazed pastures and ranges. Indeed, because of the variety of weedy plants utilized by the adults, it seems likely that the group has benefited from both grazing of livestock and cultivation of the land."

The study goes on to state that the preferred food host are plants in the nightshade family, most importantly those in the Solanum genus. 

Also, adult beetles "are characteristically gregarious... Within aggregations or groups, adults commonly rest, feed, clean and perform other activities in close proximity to other individuals..."

Check, check, check! Our gray blister beetles were definitely feeding together on Solanum along a road. So interesting! Right?