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!  

THIS Is How You Vacation

by Sue Ann Kendall

My little company held its Board retreat near Wimberley last weekend. I was pretty excited when I found out we’d been booked into a ranch with over 100 acres. I was even more excited when I arrived and realized I knew the area pretty well from having been on retreats nearby in a previous life stage. I immediately formulated a plan to get as much Master Naturalist activity in as I possibly could. That’s my idea of fun, I guess.

As soon as I put down my suitcase and got oriented by the property owner, I set off. I didn’t set off very fast, though, because I was doing a BioBlitz! My goal was to see how many different plants, insects, etc., I could identify from Friday through Sunday. The layout of the land was very helpful in this pursuit, because there were huge meadows full of prairie broomweed and friends, deep oak and cedar elm woods, a creek, hills, valleys, and lots of limestone formations. I made over 50 iNaturalist observations that afternoon.

Some of the things I saw the first day.

When I got back, we sat on the screened porch and watched hundreds of butterflies floating by. They were small, so I knew they weren’t monarchs (I did see three of them during the weekend). I looked on Facebook and saw that my Chapter member friend, Dorothy Mayer, had suggested I join the TX-Butterfly Facebook group. So, I did, thinking I’d at least learn something about SOME butterfly. Imagine my surprise when the first post I saw was describing the migration of the American Snout butterfly! There was my answer!

American snout butterfly, sitting still for once. Photo from news article linked below.

I later came across an article on it in the news, so you can read more here.

The rest of my weekend was a blast. I hiked all over the property, which used to be a ranch, then a resort, then part of it was a disc golf course, etc. There was a sunset tower to climb, hidden meeting areas, lighted paths, and really pretty cattle. Quite a place. It would be a fun Master Naturalist retreat area.

On Saturday, we avoided the incredibly crowded Wimberly Market Day (not many plants to observe there, anyway), and instead we visited the Jabob’s Well park. Jacob’s Well is the second-deepest artesial well in Texas, and it’s really beautiful. Apparently people keep drowning when they try to explore its caves, so I stayed on the shore. I was glad to be there AFTER swimming season, too.

Jacob’s Well

I met some young Park Service staff who were just keeping an eye on things, and they were fun to talk to. They told me to be sure and go find the sign saying how much work Master Naturalists had donated to the visitor center and gardens.

Way to go, Hays County TMN!

Of course, I made some more observations there, especially in the prairie restoration area. There were so many beautiful native grasses to see.

This must be last year’s grass, but it was so pretty (switchgrass).

I enjoyed finding plants that were new to me or seemed rare, as well as old friends (one dandelion, just one). What made me happy, too, was discovering that of all the iNaturalist sightings in the area, only three were by someone other than me, so I did good work documenting what I saw. Maybe it will help someone, sometime!

In the end, I added well over 100 observations to iNaturalist, saw the work of fellow Master Naturalists, met some people at a distance, avoided crowds, and had some fun. That’s a perfect vacation in these times of social distancing!

The Checkered Beetle and the Painful Plant

by Marian Buegeler and Sue Ann Kendall

This month’s iNaturalist observation of the month was this beautiful image of a checkered beetle (Trichodes bibalteatus), photographed by Marian Buegeler of our 2020 class.

Marian reports:

[It] is sitting on a vine that iNat identified as sorrelvine (Cissus trifoliata). It is a beautiful vine that grows like crazy all over the family farm. 

I have always referred to this vine as poison ivy, because anytime I come in contact with it I break out in a nasty rash that gets identified at the docs office as poison ivy/poison oak.  

The flowers.

Sue Ann adds: The iNaturalist entry says that sorrelvine is a member of the grape family, and native to the US. It’s very common in this area (Sue Ann’s family lives nearby and reports they have it on their property, too, and it causes allergic reactions as well, though maybe because it’s near actual poison ivy).

From Marian: Here are three more pictures of insects on the sorrelvine.

Another beautiful beetle on this vine.
It must be delicious.

I put these on iNat and they have been identified as Grapevine Beetle (Pelidnota punctuate), Delta Flower Scarab (Trigonopeltastes delta), and Bumelia Borer (Plinthocoelium suaveolen). Although, only the Bumelia Borer has reached research grade status.

This is definitely a scarab.

I have also seen lots of wasps and grasshoppers enjoying a meal at this vine. It certainly seems to be the place to eat! I just wish I wasn’t allergic to it.

Do any of you readers have more experience with this vine?

A Fly Named Anthrax pluto

by Eric Neubauer

When I review my photos and decide what to upload to iNaturalist, the first thing I do is separate them into broad categories such as flies aka Diptera, and today was the day to work on that group. One was this shaggy, spotted fly found in a wooded area near Alligator Creek.

Sue Ann now declares this her SECOND favorite fly.

I don’t know my flies very well, and trying to identify one I’ve never seen before is like going down Alice’s rabbit hole.

There are so many different kinds of flies. A fair number don’t even have a single observation at iNaturalist, but I thought this one was distinctive enough and I might get lucky. Way down in the low double digit observation totals of Texas flies, I finally found one with similar spots. It was in the Anthrax genus which I’ve never encountered before.

The word “similar” is a dangerous one and it has burned me before, so the next logical step was to search the genus Anthrax in Texas. And what do you know, there was another nearly identical species down in the single digits! Now, how am I going to tell them apart?

The only consistent difference I could see was that the leading edge of the wing of one was solid black and alternated between black and clear on the other. Mine was the one with 7 observations, now increased to 8. The only other observations for this species in North America are four in eastern Canada, oddly enough.

Bioblitz! The First of Many!

This morning, a semi-hardy group of Master Naturalists met at Wilson-Ledbetter Park in Cameron to see if we can actually DO a bioblitz. What’s a bioblitz? It’s when people get together and see how many observations they can make on the iNaturalist citizen science platform in a defined area during a specific time.

Do we look chilly? We are!

Our goal is to have as many observations as possible today, February 22, at the park. That means anyone who observes after our group blitz will also count.

Goofy selfie in which I could not fit everyone in.

Twelve of us came to the event, which is a great turnout! We gave some handouts to the people who were new to iNaturalist, showed folks how to join the project I’d set up the day before, and set off in groups, where experienced and inexperienced people were together. Our instructions were to take as many pictures as possible of the flora and fauna you encountered.

Different groups did their observations differently, with some people uploading photos as they took them and others choosing to take the pictures on their phones then upload them later. We also had a couple of people using cameras, and a couple of spotters/observers. Below are some action shots and a couple of the photos we took. Thanks to Meghan Land and Dorothy Mayer for sharing their photos.

One thing I discovered is that we have some great nature observers in our new class. One found a domestic cat carcass (no photo available, thankfully) and another found some beautiful eggs in a nest by an oak tree (perhaps from the nearby ducks).

Eggs found under a tree. Sparkly finger to show size.

Long-time members shared stories about previous projects our group has done in the park and helped identify some of those pesky forbs that were everywhere. It’s quite a challenge when so little is blooming, and many woody plants have no leaves yet.

We were much warmer in the conference room, with coffee.

After about an hour of photographing, we went back to the warmth of the Hermit Haus and practiced using the iNaturalist app to upload photos. It’s a bit of a learning curve, especially if you have an android phone and all your “experts” have iPhones. But, folks are already adding their observations to the project, and people are out there identifying them.

Here is what we have as of mid afternoon. We will certainly have more later!
Here are all the observations from our bioblitz, as of 3 pm today. The key to the colors is in the image above.

Just a few hours after the bioblitz started, we have over a hundred observations, and half the team has uploaded content. Not bad at all! Check the project page to see how many more observations have been uploaded. They will be trickling in over the next few days.

Where shall we go for our next bioblitz? Will you join us? Our goal is to visit all the parks in the county, so suggestions are welcome! Remember, Tania Homayoun of Nature Trackers, and our state iNaturalist expert, will be joining us April 18 for a special training with both an indoor and an outdoor component. We will let you know which park we’ll be holding that one at!

Want to Learn More?

Read more on using iNaturalist for bioblitzes at this link.