The Grasshoppers of Bridge Park

by Eric Neubauer

I’m one of the members of our Chapter who’s visiting various city parks in Milam County on Tuesdays. Here’s what I found at Bridge Park in Rockdale, which is an area full of some of the famous bridges of Milam County. I was hoping to add to my goal of documenting all the grasshoppers in the county.

As I expected, the very first grasshopper I picked up was one I’d hoped to run across for a long time. I knew instantly what it was, but somehow expected it to be larger.

Aztec spur-throated grasshopper Aidemona azteca

Regarding the Aztec grasshopper, it was only about a ¼” long and pretty lively. I got three photos and it was gone. Looking at other images at iNat suggests it’s a tiny grasshopper and overlooked for that reason. I can’t find anything about sizes on the internet. I was looking through the fallen leaves behind the calaboose at Bridge Park.

Then there was a peculiar looking nymph I never saw before. I didn’t necessarily think it was a species I hadn’t seen. This was correct, but it was the first time I’d encountered a nymph. I think I identified it correctly.

Kiowa grasshopper Trachyrhachys kiowa

In looking at the satellite views at google maps, I realized that an abandoned railroad once ran through Sumuel Park, one of the other parks we visited. It was the one that came up though Deanville and continued on through Cameron.

This was a great visit, definitely another case of the Linda Jo’s time-to-get-off our-butts initiative. There are several sites I’ll be sure to visit again on a regular basis.

How I’m Doing on My Grasshopper Quest

I’ve seen 27 Acrididae species in Milam County. There are a total of 31 observed. Of the four I don’t have, two observations are bogus (wishful thinking applied to nymphs), one is Schistocerca lineata, which I’ve seen in Burleson County, and the other is Melanoplus punctulatus which Sue Ann has seen. Since the common name is Pine-tree Spur-throat grasshopper, I think I need to go somewhere there are pine trees.

It’s Not Just about Nature

by Linda Jo Conn

On Tuesdays for the past month, several El Camino Real Texas Master Naturalist members have met to explore nature in several public locations in Milam County. The sites have ranged from a roadside historical marker to a manicured downtown lot. We’ve been careful to follow current guidelines, by wearing masks when we are closer than six feet apart, and not gathering in numbers over ten.

We have not made an earth-shaking discovery, but we have seen some interesting organisms. The past week, we observed at four Rockdale locations: Veterans’ Park, Skate Plaza, George Hill Patterson Civic Center, and the Fair Park.  

Catching an elusive insect.

On a large “spineless” cactus, we found dozens of cactus bugs (Hesperolabops gelastops). A large Chinese tallow tree had a leaf-footed bug (Leptoglossus sp.) resting on its bark. An elusive beetle had to be ferreted out from the vegetation to which it had escaped during a photo session. It turned out that Catherine Johnson is a tenacious and successful bug hunter. 

Several in the group are interested rocks and geology.  Debra Sorenson noted the iconic petrified rock and sandstone pillars at the Fair Park entrance.

Deb enjoys petrified wood used at Fair Park.

Farther into the park, I observed my first gomphrena weed (Gomphrena serrata) and Spanish gold (Grindelia ciliata) in Milam County.

However, our park investigations are not just about nature. It is not just about recording and sharing the species we see. Our gatherings during the past month have been bright spots:  Time I spent outdoors with other folks who find joy in learning and exploring new and old places.

We shared our time, thoughts, and experiences with each other. My most memorable moment of our last park survey session was not a bug or a plant, but was when we paused at the new recently dedicated granite markers installed at Veterans’ park next to the city swimming pool. 

War is hell.

 Our thoughts turned to those who had served in wars. One shared their father’s experiences during the D-day invasion. Another shared their father’s thoughts about the atomic bomb. My own father never spoke of the war. The time we spent at the site was solemn and memorable. That semi-circle of granite markers fulfilled its purpose. We had paused and honored our veterans.

So, I repeat. It is not just about nature. It is also the social (yet physically distanced) sharing of thoughts and experiences among a community of folks who appreciate the wonder and glory of our world. It is a reason I am a Texas Master Naturalist. 

Exploring Three Rockdale City Parks

by Linda Jo Conn

A couple of weeks ago, several ECR members visited three of the city parks in Rockdale. 

Eric checks out the park up close

The first was Wolf Park, which is located on Main Street in town where the former American Legion Hall once stood. When we arrived, a crew was at work erecting the framework for a Christmas tree near the pavilion in the center of the lot.

Yard asters, still blooming

The closely trimmed city block has a border hedge of holly festooned with Carolina snailseed (Cocculus carolinus ). The lawn contains the usual scattering of straggler daisy (Calyptocarpus vialis), turkey tangle frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora), and yard asters (Symphyotrichum divaricatum). A couple of large lilac chaste trees (Vitex agnus-castus) and a bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) are the landscape trees. 

Carolina snailseed and holly

Leaving the busy scene at Wolf Park, we drove across the railroad tracks to visit Sumuel Park which was funded in part by a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department grant. It has a splash pad water feature (unused this summer due to COVID), a playscape, picnic area, walking trail, basketball half court, restrooms, and free WiFi.  

Upright Prairie Coneflower

There was a bit more nature to observe at this park, including upright prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) and buttonweed (Diodia virginiana) in bloom. A black vulture (Coragyps atratus) watched our activity from a nearby tree.   

Black vulture keeps watch

While Eric Neubauer captured another image of a grasshopper, Donna Lewis tried out the swing set. 

Master Naturalists know how to have fun!

I suppose the high point of the visit to this park was our discovery of an enormous cottonweed tree. ECR nature explorers Debbi Sorenson, Donna, Scott Berger, and Eric physically distanced themselves around the tree for a photo to show its size. It turned out that this tree had already been noticed by our ECR chapter. You can read more about this towering cottonwood on our ECR website:   https://txmn.org/elcamino/chapter-projects/special-projects/big-trees-of-milam-county/ .  

That’s one amazing cottonwood!

We traveled on to Moultry Park, located behind the former Aycock School on Baxter Street.  The park was being enjoyed by a mother with her young children when we arrived. A spacious area, it contains a basketball court, baseball field, and restrooms. 

Buttonweed at Sumuel Park

This park visit was a sobering and disturbing personal experience for me. The adjacent brick building, used by various community organizations until a 1993 fire, remains in ruins. I could literally hear the echoes of children chattering in the hallways, chalk screeching on the blackboards, and bouncing balls in the gymnasium.    

Orange Sulphur butterfly

We did observe some interesting species in and around Moultry park: an appropriately named three-ribbed darkling beetle (Eleodes tricostata), a flighty orange sulphur butterfly (Colias eurytheme) visiting a camphorweed flower (Heterotheca subaxillaris) and several mounds of harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex sp.). 

Hooray! Harvester ants!

The area is a perfect habitat for horned lizards. 

The darkling beetle

Eric stalked what he has identified as a common thread-waisted wasp (Ammophila procera) until we were both able to take photos of the large wasp. 

The big wasp

He also graciously pointed out a couple of grasshoppers (Melanoplus sp).

One of the many grasshoppers Eric spotted.

After some unexpected and serendipitous happenings at the park we headed to our homes for the day. A good time was had by all. I think. You will have to ask Donna about that. 

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!