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!
The third Saturday of Nature Days was rainy and cold.
Guests arrived from Heidenheimer, San Antonio and Boerne and they toured the Wildscape. Carolyn staffed the tables and discussed nature topics while Rosie helped with handing out plants and children’s gifts.
All the visitors plan to come back to visit in the spring.
This Saturday is the last of Nature Days for the year. Great weather is predicted! We should have Fall Asters, seeds, native plants, and nature gifts to share. Come visit us and let us know how your garden is doing!
Our second Saturday of Nature Days on November 12 was cold and windy. Super Troopers Scott, Linda, Kim, Gene, Cindy, Patricia, and Rosie arrived bundled up for work. New friends Kenny and Donna attended and harvested plants.
Guests drove in from distances, including Salado, Taylor, Buda, and Driftwood. We shared nature stories and how all were committed to benefiting natural resources and areas.
One family brought their own picnic to the garden- what a surprise! Children hid in the garden, picked flowers, and enjoyed the fairy garden.
Join us this Saturday to “Discover the Wonder,” as our friend, Greg Hensley, says.
Last night, our Chapter Meeting speaker was our own Alan Rudd. He happens to know a lot about fish, thanks to his training and profession of managing fisheries and lakes. He used his knowledge to show us all how little things we think don’t matter can have huge significance for those of us studying the natural world.
I have to say he had some excellent props for his talk. The first one he broke out was a dead fish. Yep. Alan proceeded to start the dissection process on a nice-sized crappie (a delicious member of the sunfish family). All he did was break its neck and extract something very small with his tweezers.
What was it? It was a stone-like thing that grows in the ears of all fish, called an otolith or ear-stone. Every fish has them. It helps them hear. What use could that tiny thing be to research? Alan had wondered that himself, when he first studied fish anatomy.
It turns out that otoliths are pretty cool. They are not bones, but more like stones. You see, bones grow in a process of taking away parts and growing new ones, thanks to components of bone called osteoblasts and osteoclasts. That’s how we get the porosity of our bones.
The ear-stones in fish grow by depositing new layers, like an oyster grows. So, they end up being solid. The stones in different types of fish look different, too, so you can tell where one came from even if the fish isn’t there. It turns out you can learn a lot from them, after all.
Alan shared with us a collection of ear stones from fish he’d harvested lately. They were very light, but quite hard. Then he shared how he came to find out how they help research.
He spent a summer doing research on salmon in the Pacific Ocean, abord a gigantic Japanese fishing boat, which had a whole fleet of other boats along with it. In addition to Alan, there was another American who was researching Dall’s dolphins, who sometimes got caught in the giant nets (over a thousand miles were put out every night–that adds up to a lot of salmon). Thanks to the other researcher freezing dolphins that had drowned and sending them off to research facilities, it was discovered exactly what the dolphins ate in the wild. How? By identifying ear-stones in their stomachs! Previously, it had been thought that the dolphins only ate squid, because all they found in formaldehyde-stored specimens were their beaks and that big bone they have. Freezing gave more info and saved the ear-stones. Progress. Yes.
Alan also shared how research had found that fish deposit a white layer every May (no one knows why) in their ear-stones. This lets you figure out many things about a particular fish. You can count the rings to see how old it was, but you can also inspect how closely together the rings are to determine how fast or slowly the fish grew. For commercial fisheries, you want fast-growing and healthy fish, and you can check on that by ear-stones. Who knew?
Bonus fact: Alan once found a 12-year-old fish in a very acidic lake. Its slow growth had let it live longer. Huh.
Bonus fact 2: Crappie breed every year at the full moon in March. They swim around looking at the moon until the right time (I made that part up).
I assure you this knowledge was much more fun to acquire via Alan’s talk. He is a good speaker, and his theme that knowledge builds slowly on the work of past researchers made a good point. Even the little things we discover doing citizen science can help someone make a big discovery someday.
The weather was great for the first Saturday of Nature Days. Visiting under the oaks surrounded by wildlife was fun.
Thank you to Carolyn, Donna, Scott, Suna, Debra, Gene, Cindy, Patricia, and Linda for making it a success. Linda was a real trooper for walking the entire garden with me. Also, thank you to Alan for bringing cypress trees and to Mike for the bee houses.
The best part of my day was meeting the couple who drove up from San Antonio and left with many native plants, including one of Debra Sorenson’s Turk’s Cap.
“Help ‘root’ people where they live so they can create their own connections and join others to care for natural resources”.
Join us this Saturday at Bird and Bee Farm (1369 County Road 334, Rockdale, TX) from 9am – noon.
From Sue Ann
I enjoyed the chance to talk to members of our Chapter as well as visitors. I also took lots of photos of the plants and animals I saw, which I hope you will enjoy.
The highlight of the day for me was showing some visiting children the mason bee houses we have to give away and explaining to them how they worked. The young people got so excited about the idea of taking one home to welcome some busy pollinators.
I took home two cypress trees, too, and am looking forward to planting them by one of our ponds!
In my personal blog earlier this week, I shared photos of a lot of butterflies I’ve been seeing around Milam County. One of our readers, who is also a follower of this blog, expressed surprise that we see so many butterflies in the autumn. She also wondered where the butterflies came from. Were they here all along or are they migrating through? It got me to wondering if this was an atypical year or if there are usually plentiful butterflies in early November. And I thought for sure some of the butterflies (monarchs and snouts) migrated but I figured the rest were born here and stayed on to become food for the birds.
So, I went and looked up whether the butterflies we see here migrate or stay here, and what times of year they are seen most. I got all the information off iNaturalist and Wikipedia, and I have lots of links in this post that you can explore.
Dione vanilla have been seen to migrate twice a year (in Florida). But they only go from south Florida to north Florida. Here is the chart of their distribution here in Texas (from iNaturalist). You can see they are here year-round but peak around the beginning of autumn, when all those yellow flowers are out.
There have been lots of observations around where I live, so they are pretty common, but beautiful.
This one, Junonia coenia, I see a lot but only at some times of the year. It’s also seen year round here but has a spring peak as well as a fall peak. I’m getting the idea that autumn is a big butterfly time here!
These do migrate, but seem to be here all year, because it isn’t too cold, I guess. Here’s what research says:
Common buckeyes move to the south along with tailwinds directed to the north or northwest after the cold fronts from September or October. They are sensitive to the cold and cannot spend the winter in northern regions that will experience extreme cold temperatures. However, they will migrate back from the south during the spring. It was spotted in California in late summer, early fall of 2022.
Battus philenor is not as common this time of year. It’s also more of a forest butterfly than a prairie one, which explains why I saw it at Tarrin’s – lots of wooded areas near her ranch. This one is also more of a warm-season butterfly. I probably saw one of the last adults for this year. I see lots of observations of caterpillars right now on iNaturalist.
They must not migrate, since I didn’t find any information on that. I do want to note that they need the pipevine plant to lay eggs on, and I found a member of that family at my neighbor Sara’s place earlier in the year. Yay!
Danaus gilippus is most definitely a fall flyer. It’s only found in the southern US and is more common in South America. This one, like the monarch, uses milkweed plants as its host. It sure is pretty.
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is another one with two peaks. One thing I’m noticing, though, is that even the ones with a spring peak have a larger one in the autumn. So, that explains something that Louise was asking about: many butterflies seem to be autumnal!
Painted ladies are the most widespread of all butterflies and are found worldwide. I hadn’t known that! They are resident in places like where I live, but also migrate to northern areas in the summer.
Common Checkered-Skipper (Burnsius communis) is one I can’t get verified, but the ones I see sure look like the ones in the picture. It doesn’t seem to have been studied as much as many of the others, though it’s really pretty with its blue body and lacy pattern on the wings. And yep, it’s another one that is seen mostly in the autumn.
Euptoieta Claudia is common in this area. They seem to be prevalent all year except in the dead of winter. I think they’re pretty, too.
They use passion vines as their host, which may explain why we see so many here. I have LOTS of passion vines! They also like disturbed areas and open fields, which we have plenty of around here. They produce multiple broods per year, which may explain the prevalence during all the warm months.
Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole) is a tiny yellow butterfly, the smallest of the bunch, it turns out. We have lots of sulphurs around here, and they are very busy little fellows, so it’s hard to get photos. This one seems to go away in the hotter months. I do recall seeing them all winter, since we always have something blooming, like chickweed, which is one of its favorites.
This one is also white and other colors, so now I know that all those teeny ones I see are the same butterfly. I learned something!
Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus) is another small one. They are incredibly numerous around here and are very busy little things. I enjoy watching them skipping around. Well, when I read the article on them, it became clear why I see so many! They love Bermuda grass. Guess what all the pastures around here were planted in? Bermuda grass. The beloved coastal Bermuda has pretty much made life difficult for the native grasses around here, but I guess that makes the fiery skippers happy. It makes them a pest in Hawaii, though. I say, eat away, skippers!
I also learned why the butterflies I see that are identified as fiery skippers look so different. They are sexually dimorphic, with the males much brighter than the females. I’m suddenly becoming a butterfly expert as I write this.
I am trying to figure out what butterflies I see earlier in the year. Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) is one I know I see in spring. Even this one peaks in the fall, though. It’s tiny, but holds still enough that I can get photos. Thanks!
These guys, American Snout (Libytheana carinenta), just migrated through here, so I know they are migratory. But they are most often seen in autumn, like all the others so far. Migrations happen after droughts that are followed by heavy rains, which explains the one last week. The Wikipedia article says sometimes there are so many that they darken the sky. Wow. Funny looking, too.
Another beauty, Phyciodes tharos is more of a spring and summer butterfly that’s found all over North America. It’s very common in this area.
Asterocampa celtis is one of the summer butterflies around here, probably because of its ties to the hackberry tree (which we have plenty of). I guess it shows up when the trees start blooming.
This is a weird butterfly. It’s rarely seen visiting flowers (I see it on trees, duh). And it doesn’t pollinate the trees:
Species in the genus Asterocampa are regarded as being “cheater” organisms, since these butterflies do not pollinate flowers when they feed from them. This species can more accurately be described as parasitizing their hosts and plant food sources since they extract nutrients without providing any benefits to the host.
I’ll stop with Papilio cresphontes, since I finally found one that isn’t most common in the autumn. This one is more of a summer butterfly. It’s always great to see one of these gracefully flitting around.
This is the largest butterfly in North America, so I’ve shared with you both the largest and the smallest today! The caterpillars are pests to citrus growers, but they are just beautiful sights as far as I’m concerned.
I lied about stopping. I forgot to stick the monarchs (Danaus plexippus) in my original post, figuring everyone already knows all about them, but since I have all kinds of delicious milkweed on my property for them to enjoy, I figure I’d better share their data, too.
As you can see, these are butterflies of summer, but you’ll still see a few of them at other times of the year. They are famous for migrating, but not all of them do so, thus the sightings at other times of the year. And did you know these were the first butterflies to have their genome sequenced? Yep. Also, did you know how to tell males from females? Males are larger and have a spot on a vein on each hindwing. I guess mine’s a female, or you can’t see the spot when the wings are folded.
I’m very lucky, because the only time I ever went to the interior of Mexico (it was for work), our hosts drove us the long way to Valle de Bravo, where we were meeting, so that we could drive through the mountains where the monarchs stay in winter. If you go around noon, they drop to the ground to feed, and we got to see hundreds and hundreds of monarchs floating down. We had to drive slowly to keep the butterflies safe, and there were men with flags that said “Mariposas – Despacio” (butterflies – go slowly) at the entrance to the forest. This was in the early 2000s, so there were way more monarchs than there are today.
From what I’ve looked at, it turns out that late summer to early autumn is the best time to see butterflies around here. It also appears that most of the butterflies we see in Milam County don’t migrate far, if at all. I enjoyed learning all this, and I hope you get something out of it, too.