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.

A Random Photo

by Linda Jo Conn

Have you ever taken a random photo and later discovered that the object or moment captured in time was priceless? Perhaps it was a photo of a child with a precious smile, that perfect shot of a hummingbird in flight, or an incriminating image of a pesky raccoon.

What frequently happens to me is that when I am cropping photos for observations on iNaturalist.org, I find previously unnoticed insects, caterpillars and spiders on the petals of a flower or the stem of a plant. I call these “bonus observations”.

Then sometimes, what I thought I was photographing turns out to be a complete blunder in identification.  Such was recently the case.

Fellow El Camino Real member Scott Berger and I met for a scheduled physically-distanced nature walkabout survey at the Bridge Park in Rockdale. We inspected the iron bridge frames, the historic wood plank calaboose from Burlington, and a nearby oil well pump. We noted the usual ragweed, fall asters, grasses, spurges, and various emerging winter season plants as well as a few skittish grasshoppers, skippers and some gopher mounds. 

While strolling about the area, I noticed a bird soaring above us in the sky. Snapping a quick photo of the presumed vulture, I figured that if the photo was at all usable, I would try to identify it by the silhouette. 

At home, I cropped the blurry photo, entered it on iNat, and gave it my best shot at an ID: Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus).   An expert bird identifier soon replied.  “No, the wing span looks too long for a black vulture.” 

My blurry, cropped photo. Look at the head and tail!

Back at my computer, I cropped the photo more severely and noticed what appeared to be a white head on the bird. Could this be a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)? I entered that ID.  Soon, my supposed vulture in the sky over Rockdale was confirmed to be a bald eagle.

I am still doing a happy dance. My first sighting of an eagle outside of confinement!  

Cedar Park in Milam County

by Linda Jo Conn

Driving past the roadside park on Hwy 79 between Milano and Gause on my way to Sugarloaf Mountain Bridge, I told myself that one of these days I was going to stop and investigate the place. So, on the way home, I stopped and looked around. 

It is a typical roadside park. Surrounded on three sides by a chain link fence supporting several species of vines, it has a circular drive, the usual brick and cement tables and benches, and some large cedar trees.

Later, when using Google Maps to enter the GPS location for my observations into the iNaturalist.org website, I discovered that this small roadside park actually has a name:  Cedar Park. Not surprising. Cedar trees are the dominant trees.

Bird’s-eye speedwell.

Although the area is closely mown, there were a few flowers to observe. I saw my first Bird’s-eye Speedwell (Veronica persica) and Field Madder (Sherardia arvensis) blossoms of the season. There were the usual roadside park plants of Straggler Daisies (Calyptocarpus vialis), Crow Poison (Nothoscordum bivalve) and Green Poinsettia (Euphorbia dentata).  

Climbing the chain link fence were common vining plants:  Mustang Grapes (Vitis mustangensis), Carolina Snailseed (Cocculus carolinus), and Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). 

The most memorable plant of the visit stayed with me a while. The park must have been covered with grass burrs (Cenchrus sp.).  You may call them sandburs or stickers. Not noticeable in the short vegetation while I was walking about, they showed up as I was about to get into my truck. There must have been hundreds of them stuck to my jeans and to the tops and soles of my tennis shoes! It took a while to remove them.

Grass burs. Not fun.

Cedar Park is a shady, convenient place to stop on the highway and was visited by several travelers while I was there. Fortunately none had children or pets wanting to romp on the grounds. That would have been a memorable stop for them also. Ouch!

Invasion of American Robins

by Donna Lewis

I have had an invasion of American robins this week. They came by the hundreds and have not left.

Usually they land, eat bugs, then move on, but this time they looked around and decided they would hang out. Life is good here.

So, every day they have been drinking and pooping in my bird baths. I’m not sure in which order; we’ll leave that alone. Because of that, twice a day I put fresh water in all of them and replace the dried mealworms.

A robin guarding my feeders.

My resident birds, the cardinals, woodpeckers, chickadees, and others have to fight to get their share.

But one robin has taken it to a new level. He or she has decided to chase my bluebirds off the mealworm feeders. None of the other robins are doing this, just the one.

For four days the bird has sat on the platforms and chased the little bluebirds away.

I love all the birds, but this is pushing my patience, so I tried to run him off so he could join his flock in the pasture.

He’s not budging! I almost touched him once.

I could not get a photo of all the action, but here he is in all his glory. I call him the Bluebird Bully.

Stay away from my mealworms!

Bon appetit.

My Keyhole Garden Experience

by Debra Sorenson

After years of putting in a garden and many hours of chopping, watering, preventing hogs from getting in the garden, droughts and then too much rain, we decided it wasn’t worth it.  Some years we had an abundance of green beans, black eyed peas, squash, and okra, but not enough to outweigh all the work. 

Then on September 12, 2019, I attended the Master Naturalist meeting and the presentation was on Keyhole Gardening.  “WA LA!”  This may be our solution, I thought. I purchased the book, Spoiled Rotten ,by Deb Tolman, Ph.D., and began gathering materials for our garden.  NOTE – my husband thought I was nuts! 

Here are my steps (photos of the stages are below):

  1. We used an old water trough, cut the bottom out and put galvanized small wire in the bottom to keep gophers out. 
  2. We made the keyhole for composting scraps out of wire and wrapped it with old window screens. The purpose of the window screen is to keep the roots from going into the keyhole while allowing the nutrients from the compost to feed the plants.
  3. Added a layer of rocks over the wire for drainage.
  4. Then alternated layers of sticks, wet paper feed sacks, dried cow manure, wet cardboard boxes, blue jean (cotton) scraps, and paper. It took more materials than you would think!
  5. The top 8 – 10” is bagged garden soil. TA DA! You could use your own soil but ours isn’t the best – clay and sand…

Our spring garden was not as productive as we hoped, as there was not enough time for the compost to supply the nutrients for the plants. 

This fall, I worked in bags of Miracle Grow (shhh…it’s all supposed to be organic) to help give the plants a boost. Next spring, we will work in some chicken manure and compost from the Bird and Bee Farm or the mushroom compost from the Madisonville area! 

Finished fall garden

We’ve got lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots (just coming up), brussels sprout, mint, one pepper plant, and a rogue cantaloupe from the spring! Delicious! And it’s so much easier than the traditional garden. 

My husband thinks we should do another one  in the spring, as he’s got another water trough with a rusted holey bottom. He realized that I’m not as nuts as he first thought!

Monarch Butterflies (Danus plexippus)

by Donna Lewis

So you thought we didn’t have many monarchs here in Milam County…

These little beauties were in my pollinator garden just a few weeks ago (the last week in October).

They were nectaring on blue mist flowers, which are very easy to grow.

Yes, we can make a difference for our monarch friends. This is what we do as Texas Master Naturalists. We protect the natural world so that those who come after us will get to enjoy them like we do. What an honor for us.

Make sure you plant what the butterflies need to survive. And keep on learning!