Weeds were the call of the day when a dedicated group of El Camino Real Texas Master Naturalist members showed up at the Birds and Bees Wildscape Saturday. There were plenty of them calling.
Members Gene and Cindy Rek own the Bird and Bee Farm, and they have allotted space to ECRTMN to grow a wildscape for use in educating people and spreading native plants to interested citizens. They are converting the acreage they have to native plants and grasses. These efforts have brought about an award from the Texas Environmental Quality Commission.
The TEQC is going to come out and video interviews with the Reks and a couple other members of ECRTMN. Catherine Johnson, manager of the ECR part, called for a clean-up day to make the wildscape more presentable for its “two minutes” of fame. More information on the award will be discussed when more is known about it.
Catherine, Donna Lewis, Scott Berger, Linda Burgess, Eric Neubauer, Debra Sorenson, Alan Rudd and his son, Adam, Cindy Rek, Jackie Thornton, and I knocked out a good portion of the clean-up but had to avoid some for ant treatments. Bees, unusual flies, spiders, and a few butterflies were already there, too. There are not yet many flowers. Everything is slow coming back this year, and I believe that is statewide, according to Texas Nature Trackers – TMN. In another week or so, I believe it will be in full growth mode.
Alan and Adam finished a storage building they had started at the wildscape. It is a great building for the site, and now all the planting pots that we save to share with others will not blow all over the place.
There was also a good amount of fellowship – especially around the table where all the goodies were that Catherine baked and brought for us. We went home having eaten a lot of chocolate and honey tea from Cindy.
There’s more to be done in a short period of time, so if any members have time and an urge to pull weeds (Catherine treated the two spaces that had ant problems), the gate is usually open.
Although some wolf spiders are active year round, this is the time of year when they start to become more noticeable. Except for a few species that are relatively easy to identify on sight, these can be very difficult to get down to species level. There are two main reasons. First, there a lot of genera and a lot more species. You are most likely to see are Rabidosa, Schizocosa, Pardosa, Hogna, and Tigrosa in our area which isn’t too overwhelming. However, the second and third of these include over two dozen species locally. The second reason is that most keys rely on microscopic details. There are macroscopic differences, but these haven’t been compiled in any comprehensive way. It may be some time before wolf spiders become as easy to identify as birds or butterflies, but I believe it will happen.
Where to find them: wolf spiders live in diverse habitats. Margins of mowed areas, shorelines, road edges, and leaf litter are good places to look. They are noticeable because they run around in the open looking for prey. They they like to be where there is a way to escape whether it’s into tall grass, under leaves or onto the water’s surface. Many live in colonies, so if you find one, you can probably find more. I find the best time to look is when the temperature is above 70 and humidity is high. On sunny calm days, you can find them active at lower temperatures because the ground warms before the air. And, they aren’t always large. There are some species that have a body length of 0.15” or 4 mm when mature. Males tend to be smaller and a bit more lively than females, and they are harder to catch. As far as I know, none of the local wolf spiders have a dangerous bite, and they won’t bite without a lot of provocation.
How to photograph them: good photos are important if you hope to make a species ID. Wolf spiders can usually be encouraged to run into an open container. Wolf spiders can jump, but do so more in a horizontal than vertical direction. They can climb, but not as well as other spiders. They will remain in the container until you get some good photos. Size is important, so if the bottom of the container has markings, you use them to scale the body length. Ventral views are important too. Looking up though the bottom of a clear container works. Others put the spider in a plastic bag so it can be flipped over. I try to release spiders close to where I found them when I’m finished with them. If you do all this, you might just have the clue that points to the species.
Study populations, not individuals: Once you find a colony of spiders, visit it often and make a full collection of photos including males, females, females with egg sacs, females covered with spiderlings, and juveniles. Most experts wouldn’t dare identify a juvenile from a photograph at present. They do look a little different than the adults. However, from my experience working with two species, the juveniles are not only distinctive, but are more consistently patterned than the adults which will have developed some individual “character” in their appearance. In the future, the juveniles may provide the necessary clue for the species of an entire colony.
Legs: I’ve noticed wolf spiders missing legs. Usually it’s one or two, but I have seen as many as four missing. Males are more likely to be missing legs than females. Legs can regrow, so you may notice a leg that doesn’t look like the others.
Recent Observation Notes from Bird and Bee Farm Trip
I continue to be surprised how finely placed the populations of wolf spiders are. At the pond dam, I found a couple of juveniles near the highest point. The first was one of my Hogna incognita (undescribed species). The other was Rabidosa rabida which seems to be species that appears everywhere in small numbers rather than being clustered in populations except perhaps around buildings. I found no more spiders until I got to the boat ramp at the far end of the dam. That’s where all the Pardosa were. The Pardosa may be all one species which would be good since most places I see them there appear to be multiple species that I haven’t been able to sort out.
I stopped at the Little River bridge north of Gause and found no spiders there. Then, I checked out the San Gabriel bridge on CR 487 east of Crossroads, which has an inspection road around and under the bridge. A bunch of spiders were in a pile of leaves that someone had dumped. I’d thought they were Pardosa at the time, but a closer look at the photos suggest Schizocosa juveniles. So, I found all four of the most prevalent genera in Milam County on my tour.
The H. incognita find was of interest. Although it seems to be mostly a Blackland species, this personally confirms it is present elsewhere, which I already figured would be true from other people’s observations. Nevertheless, its range may stop abruptly at the Brazos River. I’ll be testing that out in the next few months when they are active.
Here are some more wolf spiders to practice on. All photos by Eric Neubauer.
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!).
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.
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.