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.

Milam Wildscape Project May Update

by Catherine Johnson

Bird and Bee Farm is open by appointment only, and the new bathroom nearly complete. We also have a new certification sign to go with all the other signs on the project.

It is already too hot to work anytime but early or late in the day.  The creatures and plants are thriving, though. 

Coreopsis, purple bee balm, and yarrow

The gold coreopsis in the photo above must go, because it is smothering other plants. Email me if you want some!

The garden is a beautiful Wild mess. 

This new arch is ready for vines.

We are glad for all our volunteers and donors. All materials for the structures below were donated.

Master Naturalist Kim Summers taking a break under the new shelter. The arch is shown at right.

Big Toad Little Toad

By Sue Ann Kendall

Ever since learning all about Houston toads last week, I’ve been wanting to find the toad currently hanging around our house in the Walker’s Creek community outside of Cameron. I was especially curious, because that toad has some BIG poop.

Yesterday, my niece sent me five pictures. It was a toad! I was already on my way home, so I got all excited. Must be a Master Naturalist thing.

When I got to the house, Kathleen showed me our new neighbor. She is one big mama Gulf Coast toad. She can’t be a dude toad, too big. She just hung around in the grass, and no dog was dumb enough to mess with her. (I have a feeling there are more toads by the house, judging by the nightly croaking.)

Very large toad. I didn’t pick her up for more ID, because I wanted her to continue to feel safe.

Later that evening, I was walking by the garage, which is near a little pond, when I saw something move. It was a fresh young toadlet!

Tiny toad up close.

This little fella is the opposite of Big Mama! As you can see, it’s smaller than a June bug.

Toad versus bug

I’m happy some of the pond tadpoles made it out and are heading for the big-filled world around our house and woods.

May Chapter Meeting: The Houston Toad

by Sue Ann Kendall

We had our first online Chapter Meeting last week, and while it wasn’t totally hitch-free, it went well enough that everyone enjoyed the advanced training and meeting, I think. We had nearly 30 attendees, which is a reasonable number for our chapter at any time!

Our speakers were Dr. Paul Crump (Herpetologist) and Dr. Elizabeth Bates (Conservation Initiatives Specialist) from Texas Parks and Wildlife. They graciously provided the WebEx link for the meeting, since we didn’t have our shiny new Zoom account yet (we do now, thanks to Mike Conner).

Throughout our state the habitats for many species are dwindling.  @cameronrainer via Twenty20

Conservation of Rare Species

The first part of the session was about programs that exist in the US and Texas to protect endangered and rare species. It gets pretty complicated, since species can be listed as being of greatest conservation need at the federal level, state level, or both levels.

One thing that Dr. Bates stressed was the need to be pro-active about protecting these plants and animals. She encouraged landowners to take advantage of programs, such as Safe Harbor Agreements, to protect and enhance dwindling habitats. Something easy and rewarding that any of us can do is log sightings of rare and endangered species in iNaturalist. That way, researchers can see if they are increasing, decreasing, or staying the same.

You can find more information on this topic at the Texas Parks and Wildlife department site.

The Houston Toad

For the second part of the presentation, Dr. Crump, who has worked with the Houston toad (Bufo houstonensis) for many years, provided an example of the work that’s been done to protect and expand the range of this Texas native. The Houston toad took quite a hit when one of its primary sanctuaries, the Lost Pines area near Bastrop, burned so badly.

Historic range of Houston toad (from presentation)

Crump shared maps of where the toad used to be found and its current range (which does NOT include Houston), which includes parts of Milam County. Later he did say that only five have been found here. The Houston toad is the only toad that’s found only in Texas, by the way. There are eight other toads found in this state, but the one we usually see is the Gulf coast toad.

We learned that these toads like to breed in bodies of water that aren’t permanent, perhaps because they are less likely to hold fish and turtles that would eat their eggs and developing tadpoles. They’ve bred in many ponds and such, though. Their most sensitve time is right after they crawl out of the water, because they need leaf litter to hide in, and they are easy to squish. Eventually they head out to sandy soil where they can hide by burying themselves.

The smaller males tend to live a year, while females take two years to mature, due to their size. Most only breed once. We are lucky that there has been some success breeding them in captivity and setting the little ones in ponds (it’s way too expensive to feed them to maturity; it requires mega-large amounts of crickets.

Male calling for a mate. From presentation.

It’s easy to tell a Houston toad from a Gulf coast toad if you know where to look. Houston toads have more freckles on their bellies and are quite green where their neck balloons out while they call. Gulf coast toads have a large cranial ridge that the Houston toad lacks, too. Their calls are really different, with the Houston toad being much higher in pitch. Basically, you’ve probably never seen or heard one.

But don’t let that stop you from looking, because the researchers need data on where they have been sighted! Crump and his colleagues would also love to have more participants in the Houston Toad Safe Harbor Agreement, which is a way for landowners to agree to protect their toad habitat.

If this doesn’t satisfy your curiosity, the slide deck from Crump’s presentation is available on our website, and there’s great information on the TPWD website as well.

Strike 2!

by Catherine Johnson

Snake adventures at our house continue.

Sami the dachshund found a copperhead by our back door. Yes, it is gone.

Sandy has fang marks on the black tip of her nose.

I have too many outdoor pets to worry about. We see more snakes because we are outdoor people.  We have been lucky except for one year when we had 18 copperheads around our house.

The Benadryl has kicked in.

Later today, we found Sandy had also been bitten.

Warrior Princess!

A Fly Named Anthrax pluto

by Eric Neubauer

When I review my photos and decide what to upload to iNaturalist, the first thing I do is separate them into broad categories such as flies aka Diptera, and today was the day to work on that group. One was this shaggy, spotted fly found in a wooded area near Alligator Creek.

Sue Ann now declares this her SECOND favorite fly.

I don’t know my flies very well, and trying to identify one I’ve never seen before is like going down Alice’s rabbit hole.

There are so many different kinds of flies. A fair number don’t even have a single observation at iNaturalist, but I thought this one was distinctive enough and I might get lucky. Way down in the low double digit observation totals of Texas flies, I finally found one with similar spots. It was in the Anthrax genus which I’ve never encountered before.

The word “similar” is a dangerous one and it has burned me before, so the next logical step was to search the genus Anthrax in Texas. And what do you know, there was another nearly identical species down in the single digits! Now, how am I going to tell them apart?

The only consistent difference I could see was that the leading edge of the wing of one was solid black and alternated between black and clear on the other. Mine was the one with 7 observations, now increased to 8. The only other observations for this species in North America are four in eastern Canada, oddly enough.