How Glorious to Be Able to Fly

by Donna Lewis

Recently I had several clutches of Purple Martins fledge out into the world.  There are more to come soon.

Newly hatched babies.

When they fledge, they make their first flight and leave the nest. A big step that must be successful the first time.  Talk about pressure.

Getting close to fledging.

Right now they still perch on the gourd rack, but are out in the new world learning to fly, hunt, and socialize with their friends. They sing so loud and often; I know they must be laughing at the pure joy of it all.

Singing their songs

How I have dreamed of flying and looking at the earth from above. I think many of us have that dream.

The Martins will be here in the US for about another eight weeks or so. Then they start to gather in huge roosts, waiting till their instincts tell them it is time to fly to their winter home in Brazil. They have dual citizenship.

In Brazil, they live in the trees until winter is over, and once again they return here to have their babies. It will be the only time they live in gourds or other man-made houses.

A very full nest box

Their song is beautiful and one of the reasons they are so loved. It is so silent after they leave.  I count the weeks till they return.

Donna Lewis 
Proud Purple Martin Landlord

Who’s at the Top of the Food Chain Now?

by Eric Neubauer

You’d think a Rabid Wolf Spider would be king of its domain. By the end of last week many had reached their prime and would be thinking about reproduction, but not this one, which was destined to become food for a spider wasp’s offspring instead.

A wasp attacking a spider
Wolf spider played by Rabidosa rabida. Spider wasp played by Tachypompilus ferrugineus. Note that The forelegs of some Rabid Wolf Spiders blacken as they become adults.

I arrived with my camera as the wasp was dragging the paralyzed spider toward its nest. Unfortunately the early morning light was bad and the wasp was fast, so most of the photos were poorly lit and out of focus. Thus, I have to tell most of my story with words.

This is what I saw. The wasp was dragging the spider along. The wasp dropped the spider several times and appeared to wander around before returning. At first I thought it saw me as a threat and was taking evasive action, but as I watched it reach its destination, I realized how entirely focused it had been on the task at hand.

Rabid wolf spider on limestone with fossils.
Bonus photo of a rabid wolf spider, by Sue Ann Kendall.

Wasps don’t have eyes in the back of their heads, so it couldn’t see where it was going while dragging the spider. Every time it dropped the spider, it had gone back to find the opening of its nest to reorient itself as it returned to the spider. It made no sense to drag the spider a long way and then find out it was in the wrong direction.

After dragging the spider about four feet and a couple of final yanks, the wasp and then the spider disappeared under the house skirting.

Cool Caterpillar

 by Donna Lewis

This Pandora Sphinx was a very interesting caterpillar I found one day while walking around our place.

Pandora sphinx moth from 2015.

It’s rust colored, very fat with bright yellow almost tear-drop eye patches. I had never seen one before or since then.  I was excited to find it.

It was eating leaves on a Virginia Creeper vine, a vine with five leaves.

Here’s a picture of Virginia creeper taken by Ann Collins from iNaturalist (Creative Commons copyright).

The Virginia Creeper is a great  native vine to have around.  It tolerates most soil conditions and climates  It has many uses for wildlife, and can be used as a vine in gardens.

Many birds such as Bluebirds, Titmice, Cedar Waxwings, Robins, Chickadees, and more love its berries.  Several species of Moths and Butterflies use it as a host plant.

This is also the vine that created the saying we were taught as children.

Leaves of 3 leave it be, leaves of 5 let it thrive….

Poison ivy near Cameron, by Sue Ann Kendall from iNaturalist. Creative Commons copyright.

This vine is often mistaken for our favorite vine, Poison Ivy, but Poison Ivy has three leaves.

Right now you can find both vines just about  everywhere in the country especially around wooded areas with part shade, so be careful to identify which one you just touched..

I have personally found that an over-the-counter product called “Tecnu” Poison Ivy Scrub. If used within 8 hours, it can really help get rid of the oil that causes the itching.

I should buy it by the case!  I never learn.

The Passion Vine and the Butterflies and Other Creatures That Love It

by Donna Lewis

Most of us have these beautiful vines that come up on the ground, fences, and trellises. So besides being magnificent, who else appreciates them? Butterflies and birds, that’s who.

Passionflowers

The vines only show up when it’s hot.  Pretty lucky for us, because it’s hot here.

The Latin name for the passion vine is Passiflora incarnata. What you may not know is that many of the vines we have here are actually naturalized, not native. You can tell by the number of leaves on them which one they are.

Another view.

If they have five leaves, they originally came from Asia and naturalized here. If vines have only three leaves, they are true natives. Both work well here and are host plants for the Gulf Coast and Variegated Fritillary butterfly.  The vine also provides cover for other insects.

Fritillaries

The Gulf Coast species is orange and black with silver under parts.

Gulf Coast Frittilary

They use the passion vine as a host plant. They love hot weather, so only appear when the vine emerges.  Pretty smart of them.

Gulf Coast Fritillary caterpillar

The second species of Fritillary is the Variegated variety.

Variegated Frittilary. Photo by Sue Ann Kendall.
Variegated Frittilary caterpillar. Photo by @susanmco on iNaturalist.

They also use the passion vine as a host plant to deposit their eggs on.

The Vairegated Frittilary does not have the silvery underwings of the Gulg Coast. It looks more like a dried leaf when it has its wings up. Both Fritillaries appear in the summertime, and will leave when the weather turns cooler.

The passion vine is a great way to cover a large area in your garden. [Suna points out that the fruit is also edible and makes a lovely jelly.]

This vine has five-leaf clusters, so it’s naturalized.

Beautiful and practical!  Perfect.

Quail Release

by Ann Collins and Catherine Johnson

Catherine Johnson and I had a spectacularly rare treat this week. We were visiting the Bird and Bee Farm, where Catherine has created a marvelous wildflower garden. If you haven’t seen it, you really must go. It is full of color, texture, and scents. Guinea fowl and chickens roam free, gobbling up grasshoppers and other noxious critters. Catherine even shares the overflow (flowers, not grasshoppers!).

Bobwhite quail. Image by @JBL via Twenty20

Gene and Cindy Rek have turned their hundred-acre property into a prairie paradise. You may already know they sell laying hens of every description. They also sell Rio Grande turkeys, guinea fowl, and Peking ducks.* This week they added another member of the feather family: Bobwhite Quail.

After an early morning trip to Bastrop, they came back with two flax boxes with breathing holed punched in them. Inside were thirty pairs of breedign quail. Gene carried the boxes out in some tall grass and gently set them down. He cut the strings on box #1 and carefully lifted the lid, revealing an almost-solid carpet of mottled brown feathers.

Just as we were taking in the scene, it suddenly erupted and flew away. Not at all what I was expecting!

Here’s what we saw:

The next box we were somewhat prepared for, but it was just as exciting when it was opened and thirty quail breathed a sigh of ecstasy and got their first taste of prairie freedom.

While we stood, adjusting to this miracle of Nature, the birds immediately started calling to one another with their signature whistle of, “Bob White!”

Later we saw several of them on the pond margins, trying to make sense of this incredible gift they had been given. Hopefully, most will survive to repopulate an area that was once their native habitat before every scrap of nature was cleared away for cattle, monocultures, and civilization, before pesticides, GMOs, and chemicals.

This is supposedly quail. Photo by @Tereza via Twenty20

These birds were all full grown, but future plans include day-old chicks to be raised in the barn and released later this summer.

There will be a coming out party when they are old enough, and all of you are invited to the celebration. Cindy will let us know when it is. It will be fun: a step back in time and a step forward toward restoration of a native prairie, right here in Milam County.

Mark your calendars!


*The farm is open only by appointment, and they are booked many weeks ahead. Please call them at (512) 808-8533 to reserve an opening! You can drop by and look at the gardens at any time.