Learning about Vultures at the Chapter Meeting and Beyond

by Sue Ann Kendall

The September Chapter Meeting presentation for El Camino Real Master Naturalist was by Debbi Sorenson, who has been observing vultures on her property for years and decided to do some research on these fascinating scavengers.

Debbi listens to questions and comments during her presentation

We learned how to distinguish our two resident vultures, the turkey vulture and the black vulture from each other. The easiest way is to look at their heads. Turkey vultures have red heads and black vultures have black heads. In flight, turkey vultures have white on their lower wings, while black vultures just have white “fingers” or wing-tips. The turkey vultures are also a little larger.

There you go, heads

Other interesting tidbits I gleaned were that turkey vultures are almost exclusively carrion feeders an find their food through extra-sensitive senses of smell. Black vultures both hunt and eat carrion and use sight to locate their food. They often see the red vultures eating and take over from them. I’ve seen this at my house.

These black vultures at my ranch found a dead snapping turtle that turkey vultures were eating, and took over.

Debbie also shared the ranges of both birds and told us about their breeding behavior, which is to lay two eggs in abandoned buildings or dead trees and raise them there. George Bowman, a visitor to our meeting, shared how he had a baby vulture raised on his front porch this year (which many of us had enjoyed on Facebook). He ended up with a poopy porch, but a successful fledging of the baby.

Debbi shared that their barn is a vulture nesting headquarters for a pair, and that they enjoyed watching one with just stumps for feet (Old Peg) as it grew. Debbi shares her garbage with them and gets lots of observations in return. I also enjoy watching them. They are graceful in the air but are pretty fun on the ground. I love to watch them as they hop, hop, hop around my tank behind the house.

I guess Debbi isn’t alone in enjoying vultures and their behavior. She had lots of questions to answer, and she also explained that our other resident carrion eater, the crested caracara, is not a vulture at all, but is a falcon, also known as the Mexican eagle.

Here’s what you call a group of vultures, depending on what they are doing.

Our meeting concluded with the recognition of two of our members. Congratulations to Alan Rudd and Scott Berger for getting their annual recertification for forty volunteer hours and eight advanced training hours. And Scott received a milestone recognition for 250 hours contributing to the Master Naturalist organization. We appreciate our members!

A Non-native Vine Beloved by Bees: Sweet Autumn Clematis

by Donna Lewis

Today it is cloudy and looks like rain. But in the secret garden there is a vine that is beautiful and blooming like crazy. When I get close to it, I can hear and almost feel the honeybees doing their thing on it. It’s a beautiful vine.

I cannot remember how I came to have it, because it is not a Texas native vine.

I try to buy native as much as I can.  I also try to plant things for the pollinators. This plant is common in India and other Asian countries. So, I guess you could call it naturalized because it does great here.

I have seen it in many magazines covering arbors and fences. It is lovely and the tiny white flowers blend well with any other colors. It climbs well.

It blooms at the end of the summer when normally you don’t have much going on. That is refreshing. 

It can get invasive, but the little beginner plants are easily removed.

I have this vine in a half-shaded area. When wet, the birds love to wiggle around in it getting a bath.  The tree frogs also like it because it is moist. The garden’s inhabitants really like it.

As you can see, it really has some good qualities, and it is very pretty.  No thorns. I like that.

You will have to decide for yourself if it’s for you.

As I always say…who are you gardening for?

Storks Visit Milam County

by Sue Ann Kendall

This morning there’s thunder everywhere, which means more welcome rain is on the way, so I went out early to feed the chickens. I’m glad I did, because when I looked into the pond (tank in Texan) behind the house, I saw something in addition to the usual great egret (Ardea alba) and great blue heron (Ardea Herodias): wood storks!

Busy!

They used to visit for a while periodically, back when the pond had a large dead tree they liked to hang out in, but lately they just drop by and move on. I’m so glad I got to catch them before they left. They are such gorgeous birds, with white bodies, black (actually dark gray) heads and black wing tips that make them easy to spot when they are flying.

There’s a wing.

You know they are big when you compare them to the resident great blue heron, who is HUGE thanks to all those catfish and minnows it ate while the ponds were drying up.

Comparison shot.

Wood storks (Mycteria americana) are the only American stork, and they move around with the seasons. They used to be known as wood ibises because their bills look like those of ibises. Interestingly, they must have shallow water to feed in because they feed by touch. You can see that in many of the photos. That’s why they breed when water levels are falling (in South America). They are predominantly subtropical birds, which is why they hang around here only when it’s warmer. They are listed as a threatened species in the Western hemisphere, because of predation (bad ole crested caracaras) and believe it or not, ecotourism disturbing their nesting colonies. (Source: Wikipedia via iNaturalist)

I’m extra happy to have gotten some videos. The one of them flying away is so lovely. I hope they visit again soon!

Quick one, but good image of wings.
Goodbye, friends! Come back some day!

PS: Yes, we had a good amount of rain yesterday, and it’s raining again now. Happy news for all the plants around here!

Pondering Plant Names and Old Adages

by Carolyn Henderson

Turkey Tangle Frogfruit – why was that name given to the little bitty flower that grows close to the ground and seems to be able to survive anything? Some fellow iNaturalist.org users in the El Camino Real chapter of Texas Master Naturalist tell me that it used to be just “Frogfruit” until it was recently changed. No one I know seems to know why that occurred either.

I often wonder how words originate. For example, I’d like to know who designated that tall naturally occurring thing with a lot of fluffy greenery on the top half a “tree.” I’m not asking why there are trees (I’m sure many scientists could tell me), I wonder who chose that combination of letters to identify it to other people.  I should point out that I have degrees in journalism and English, two subject which perpetuate a lot of word pondering.

I also have been curious about the adage about Texas Purple Sage “predicting” rain. It came to mind today because mine suddenly bloomed. I have frequently heard that Texas Sage blooms two weeks before it rains. Many people I know believe that to be a fact. My Texas Sage can cover itself in beautiful purple flowers very quickly and, often, many times a year. However, it always seemed to me, that mine blooms after it rains. It turns out that neither is exactly correct, but it’s not called the “Barometer Bush” for nothing.

The shrub is believed to be sensitive to barometric changes in the atmosphere. When humidity and pressure change to indicate rain favorability, the bush blooms – at least according to current study.

I went to the Google search site and typed in “Texas Purple Sage predicts rain.” I found that many people had pondered this adage, and some had researched it. Below are partial quotes from two articles I read on the topic.

Research was obviously needed, so I dug in. All the book and online references agreed nobody knows the answer for sure. I learned that while Texas sage does tend to bloom a day or two before rain, it can also bloom within days after a rain or just when conditions are optimal for rain to occur, even though rain may not happen. This curious response to weather probably is mostly due to the plant’s sensitivity and ability to detect humidity as well as change in barometric pressure.

So, what can you depend on? Only that Texas sage blooms sometime around a rain event — maybe. If you have a full-sun location that drains well, plant some and enjoy them. They are very pretty plants.

By Howard Garrett | Special Contributor, The Dallas Morning News

The detail behind the matter, however, is that while Texas sage tends to blossom a couple days before precipitation occurs, it really blooms when the conditions are optimal for rain. Actual rainfall may not occur, but the plant is sensitive to changes in barometric pressure and humidity, and therefore it blossoms.

By Spring Sault, Nature section, Hill Country News

Maybe it is predicting rain after all. Like all weather forecasts, it’s rarely spot-on accurate. What the Texas Purple Sage does do is bloom despite little rainfall and high temperatures, and it attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds in mass sometimes. (I hope you can see the video here to actually see that.) My Texas Sage took a hit from the Freeze of 2021 which required severe pruning. It is really growing now and blooming. I hope the bees smell it and show up.

Texas Purple Sage Action!

Drought, Ugh

by Donna Lewis

First we have the Big Freeze, now we have the big heat wave and drought!!

I guess we need to be more careful about what we wish for. When it was cold, I wished for warm weather…

So I took a few photos around the house. It is bad. I didn’t even have the heart to take photos of my beautiful pollinator garden. I have tried to save it, but we also have to be smart.

Water for the birds, the big plants and trees. But we might just have to let the small stuff go.  Zinnias will come back from the dried seeds you can harvest now. That will save some water.

This is a good time to learn from this weather event. Put out a sprinkler in the evening, the birds love it.

And on a happy note, here is one of my neighbor’s horses watching me put out the sprinklers. He always gets a carrot for helping me!  

Take stock of WHAT is surviving instead of being so upset over the plants that do not make it. Next year we will know to plant more of the hardy things that made it.

We must always observe and revise our plans. Things change.