Blog of the El Camino Real Chapter, Texas Master Naturalists, Milam County, Texas
Author: Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall
The person behind The Hermits' Rest blog and many others. I'm a certified Texas Master Naturalist and love the nature of Milam County. I manage technical writers in Austin, help with Hearts Homes and Hands, a personal assistance service, in Cameron, and serve on three nonprofit boards. You may know me from La Leche League, knitting, iNaturalist, or Facebook. I'm interested in ALL of you!
I am sure all of you have noticed the numerous little mini flocks of scissor-tails lately around the county. They are a bird even amateurs can identify.
We drive to our destination and everyone in the truck says look, look, a scissor-tail!
So, why do these birds have this tail? This bird is a flycatcher, so it needs to be agile and able to turn quickly on a dime and in mid-air. To catch an insect you have to be fast.
Its tail splits in two to redirect its flight. Pretty handy.
Scissor-tailed flycatchers (Tyrannus forficatus) are beautiful birds with a pearly gray head and chest, and dark wings and tail. They can be found all over Texas and Oklahoma.
During the winter they will migrate south to Mexico and even South America. That is what they are doing now. Otherwise you would not see them in a flock. They like to be solitary, except at night when they may roost together as a community. A sleepover with your friends.
In some places they are known as the Texas bird of paradise.
Females (who don’t have as long of a tail as the males do) lay three to six eggs that are white or cream colored with some dark red on them. Lovely to see.
Trees that have died and are still standing (snags), and trees that have fallen provide many homes and food for wildlife. Here are some examples.
Excavated cavities provide homes for woodpeckers.
When they leave a cavity, secondary nesters move in. These include chickadees, titmice, wrens, and bluebirds.
The hollow part of limbs also house owls, raccoons, squirrels, and some bats.
Many invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals live in or on fallen trees.
Fireflies use decaying logs to complete their life cycle.
The hollow trunks provide homes for skunks, foxes, mice, and weasels, to name a few.
That’s a ton of uses as a tree finishes its life. It helps coming and going….as a fallen tree decomposes it provides nutrients back to the forest floor.
So, you might think twice before cutting a grand old tree that has died down. Of course there are times when you have to remove one, like being too close to a structure or fence. But if it’s a safe distance, then save it for our wildlife.
In 2018, wheat was planted here at my property, where there was once blackland prairie. Since then, nature has taken over. A mix of native and non-native grasses and forbs quickly came up by themselves. Each year the mix changed, but by 2021 it was obvious Johnson Grass was a huge threat and would eventually outcompete and overwhelm everything else. I was reluctant to use herbicides, because they might affect the plants and animals that I wanted to keep. For example, it’s unlikely anyone tested the effect on wolf spiders. So, I was left with only mechanical means of control.
I decided to focus only on the Johnson Grass to keep it simple. I came up with several plans depending on how thick the Johnson Grass was and whether an area would be mowed. One image shows an area where I pulled the Johnson Grass and ragweed starting early in the year. It looks pretty nice now and only a few unwanted seedlings have come up since. I’ll mow this area in early spring before the bluestem comes up and after it goes to seed. You can see some Johnson Grass I haven’t gotten to lurking in the background on the right.
The other image shows where the mowed area meets the unmown area. Johnson Grass doesn’t like regular mowing. There are numerous small plants in the foreground, but these have limited root systems and will die or are easy to pull. King Ranch Bluestem tolerates regular mowing. I mowed around the plant in the foreground and now it’s going to seed. I mowed around other plants, primarily legumes, and hand pulled any Johnson Grass that didn’t get cut. In the background is a mass of Johnson Grass. I’m hand pulling this. You can see little of anything is left except leaf litter where I have pulled it to the right. Some will regrows, and I’ll have pull it again, but subsequent pulling goes much quicker than the first. In the meantime, other plants, such as asters, now have enough light to spout and grow. By the way, if you hand pull Johnson Grass, wear good gloves. Otherwise it can give you a nasty cut if your hand slips.
Other areas I’ve promoted with selective weeding are stands of goldenrod and a large patch of frogfruit where water collects sometimes.
It’s possible another threat will rise out of the several species of non-native grasses present, but for now I have a plan.
If you have some or all of these you probably have Giant Ragweed ( Ambrosia trifida). I certainly don’t think it’s ambrosia…it’s awful! I don’t see how you could make rags out of it. Where do these names come from?
So are they good for anything? As it turns out, I looked in my reference book, Medicinal Plants by Peterson and found out that the native Americans did use it for certain ailments. They used it as an astringent, to stop bleeding, dysentery, and insect bites to name a few. Today it is commercially harvested for the treatment of ragweed allergies.
So, yes it has a few saving characteristics.
Also out in the pastures right now is a very valuable plant that our migrating monarchs use. It is in the Sunflower family: goldenrod.
The native Americans used this for many medical issues: roots for burns, flower tea for fevers and snakebites, crushed flowers for sore throats, and some other ailments.
Both these plants can cause severe allergic reactions, so don’t try any for medical ailments unless you have asked your doctor first.