Welcome to Our Blog

Hello, friends. This blog is where the El Camino Real Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists shares news, articles, and reflections. You’ll find our posts right under this introduction. We encourage your comments and likes, and of course, shares!

Texas Parks and Wildlife
AgriLife Extension

The Texas Master Naturalist program is sponsored by Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.

Our chapter meets monthly on the second Thursday of the month in Milano, Texas.

Our Mission: To develop a corps of well-informed volunteers to provide education, outreach, and service dedicated to the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas within their communities for the State of Texas.

How Glorious to Be Able to Fly

by Donna Lewis

Recently I had several clutches of Purple Martins fledge out into the world.  There are more to come soon.

Newly hatched babies.

When they fledge, they make their first flight and leave the nest. A big step that must be successful the first time.  Talk about pressure.

Getting close to fledging.

Right now they still perch on the gourd rack, but are out in the new world learning to fly, hunt, and socialize with their friends. They sing so loud and often; I know they must be laughing at the pure joy of it all.

Singing their songs

How I have dreamed of flying and looking at the earth from above. I think many of us have that dream.

The Martins will be here in the US for about another eight weeks or so. Then they start to gather in huge roosts, waiting till their instincts tell them it is time to fly to their winter home in Brazil. They have dual citizenship.

In Brazil, they live in the trees until winter is over, and once again they return here to have their babies. It will be the only time they live in gourds or other man-made houses.

A very full nest box

Their song is beautiful and one of the reasons they are so loved. It is so silent after they leave.  I count the weeks till they return.

Donna Lewis 
Proud Purple Martin Landlord

First Lesson Learned at State Conference Proved Invaluable

by Linda Jo Conn

Imagine this…. eight women sharing two bathrooms in a cabin in the woods. Awakening early Saturday morning, I was in dire need of a toilet and both bathrooms were occupied.  After climbing down from the top bunk, I really began to feel pressure.   

Sassafras Cabin at Camp Allen Conference and Retreat Center

Thank goodness, the first Advanced Training Class I had attended on Friday afternoon at the 2012 Master Naturalist State Meeting at Camp Allen in Navasota proved invaluable to my comfort and sanity.  “Techniques for Teaching Leave No Trace Principles to Urban and Suburban Audiences” was the official class title, although a more descriptive sub-title given by the instructor was, “How to Teach Soccer Moms to Pooh in the Woods”. 

Many urban and suburban people have trouble relieving themselves in the outdoors when recognizable restroom facilities are not available. Showing them simple ways to be prepared to fully enjoy the experience of being in the “back country” can be part of our enablement and education process. Necessary supplies listed by the instructor were: a small Zip lock bag, a wet wipe, and on occasion, a hand trowel. 

Saturday morning, I was a Master Naturalist needing relief! I knew there were no plastic bags in the cabin cabinets, so I pulled an empty Kraft Shredded Cheese bag from the trash can. A couple of squares of Kleenex from the box on a side table in the living area sufficed for wet wipes. A six- to eight-inch deep hole to bury solid waste was not necessary at the moment for what I needed to do, so the trowel was not required. 

Quickly donning jacket and shoes, I ventured out into the chill and walked into the darkness. The encroachment of the woods and my internal pressure precluded taking the prescribed 100 steps away from the cabin. Thirty steps did just fine. Blessed relief! The evidence was deposited in the cabin trash can. 

I was fortunate my first training class gave me the information and permission to be able to make myself comfortable. I also became aware of the difficulty many would-be nature enthusiasts may have enjoying the outdoors because of the apparent lack of restroom facilities. 

Who’s at the Top of the Food Chain Now?

by Eric Neubauer

You’d think a Rabid Wolf Spider would be king of its domain. By the end of last week many had reached their prime and would be thinking about reproduction, but not this one, which was destined to become food for a spider wasp’s offspring instead.

A wasp attacking a spider
Wolf spider played by Rabidosa rabida. Spider wasp played by Tachypompilus ferrugineus. Note that The forelegs of some Rabid Wolf Spiders blacken as they become adults.

I arrived with my camera as the wasp was dragging the paralyzed spider toward its nest. Unfortunately the early morning light was bad and the wasp was fast, so most of the photos were poorly lit and out of focus. Thus, I have to tell most of my story with words.

This is what I saw. The wasp was dragging the spider along. The wasp dropped the spider several times and appeared to wander around before returning. At first I thought it saw me as a threat and was taking evasive action, but as I watched it reach its destination, I realized how entirely focused it had been on the task at hand.

Rabid wolf spider on limestone with fossils.
Bonus photo of a rabid wolf spider, by Sue Ann Kendall.

Wasps don’t have eyes in the back of their heads, so it couldn’t see where it was going while dragging the spider. Every time it dropped the spider, it had gone back to find the opening of its nest to reorient itself as it returned to the spider. It made no sense to drag the spider a long way and then find out it was in the wrong direction.

After dragging the spider about four feet and a couple of final yanks, the wasp and then the spider disappeared under the house skirting.

Cool Caterpillar

 by Donna Lewis

This Pandora Sphinx was a very interesting caterpillar I found one day while walking around our place.

Pandora sphinx moth from 2015.

It’s rust colored, very fat with bright yellow almost tear-drop eye patches. I had never seen one before or since then.  I was excited to find it.

It was eating leaves on a Virginia Creeper vine, a vine with five leaves.

Here’s a picture of Virginia creeper taken by Ann Collins from iNaturalist (Creative Commons copyright).

The Virginia Creeper is a great  native vine to have around.  It tolerates most soil conditions and climates  It has many uses for wildlife, and can be used as a vine in gardens.

Many birds such as Bluebirds, Titmice, Cedar Waxwings, Robins, Chickadees, and more love its berries.  Several species of Moths and Butterflies use it as a host plant.

This is also the vine that created the saying we were taught as children.

Leaves of 3 leave it be, leaves of 5 let it thrive….

Poison ivy near Cameron, by Sue Ann Kendall from iNaturalist. Creative Commons copyright.

This vine is often mistaken for our favorite vine, Poison Ivy, but Poison Ivy has three leaves.

Right now you can find both vines just about  everywhere in the country especially around wooded areas with part shade, so be careful to identify which one you just touched..

I have personally found that an over-the-counter product called “Tecnu” Poison Ivy Scrub. If used within 8 hours, it can really help get rid of the oil that causes the itching.

I should buy it by the case!  I never learn.

The Passion Vine and the Butterflies and Other Creatures That Love It

by Donna Lewis

Most of us have these beautiful vines that come up on the ground, fences, and trellises. So besides being magnificent, who else appreciates them? Butterflies and birds, that’s who.

Passionflowers

The vines only show up when it’s hot.  Pretty lucky for us, because it’s hot here.

The Latin name for the passion vine is Passiflora incarnata. What you may not know is that many of the vines we have here are actually naturalized, not native. You can tell by the number of leaves on them which one they are.

Another view.

If they have five leaves, they originally came from Asia and naturalized here. If vines have only three leaves, they are true natives. Both work well here and are host plants for the Gulf Coast and Variegated Fritillary butterfly.  The vine also provides cover for other insects.

Fritillaries

The Gulf Coast species is orange and black with silver under parts.

Gulf Coast Frittilary

They use the passion vine as a host plant. They love hot weather, so only appear when the vine emerges.  Pretty smart of them.

Gulf Coast Fritillary caterpillar

The second species of Fritillary is the Variegated variety.

Variegated Frittilary. Photo by Sue Ann Kendall.
Variegated Frittilary caterpillar. Photo by @susanmco on iNaturalist.

They also use the passion vine as a host plant to deposit their eggs on.

The Vairegated Frittilary does not have the silvery underwings of the Gulg Coast. It looks more like a dried leaf when it has its wings up. Both Fritillaries appear in the summertime, and will leave when the weather turns cooler.

The passion vine is a great way to cover a large area in your garden. [Suna points out that the fruit is also edible and makes a lovely jelly.]

This vine has five-leaf clusters, so it’s naturalized.

Beautiful and practical!  Perfect.