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!  

Volunteer Opportunity at S. M. Tracy Herbarium

by Linda Jo Conn

Dale Kruse, curator at the herbarium at Texas A&M University at College Station, is in need of several volunteers on a regular basis to help with the new National Science Foundation digitization project. 

The S. M. Tracy Herbarium has thousands of vouchers that are to be included in the National Science Foundation digitization project.  At last count, there are over 360,000 vouchers in the S. M. Tracy Herbarium stored under strict environmental criteria.

Definition:  

voucher herbarium specimen is a pressed plant sample deposited for future reference. It supports research work and may be examined to verify the identity of the specific plant used in a study.

voucher specimen must be deposited in a recognized herbarium committed to long-term maintenance.

https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/herbarium/voucher.htm
File:Neuchâtel Herbarium - Allium sphaerocephalon - NEU000100621.jpg
A typical herbarium voucher looks like this. (It is a dead flattened plant glued on a piece of special paper.)

The National Science Foundation digitization project involves the digital scanning of the vouchers in several selected herbariums in the United States including the S. M. Tracy Herbarium so that the uploaded images may be shared globally with all botanists and taxonomists. 

This volunteer effort at the S. M. Tracy Herbarium, located off of East University Drive in College Station, will involve several tasks, including:

  • Gluing dried, pressed specimens and their descriptive labels to special herbarium paper to create vouchers.
  • Re-gluing and / or re-enforcement of existing vouchers.
  • Computer activities such as data entry and digitization,
  • and other tasks as may be requested by Dale.
Result of the program will be digital images of the vouchers that look similar to this. 

The digital vouchers will then be uploaded into the National Science Foundation digitization project under the scope of the prestigious BRIT Herbarium in Fort Worth.

From there, the ultimate data entry will be accomplished using many volunteers including the existing Texas Master Naturalist volunteer effort project approved for the El Camino Real chapter under the Volunteer Management System (VMS) classification “Citizen Science Transcribing-Selections for BRIT”. 

To reach this final stage, tasks must be completed at the S. M. Tracy Herbarium.  If you are interested in volunteering on a regular basis at the herbarium, contact:

Dale Kruse
Curator:  S. M. Tracy Herbarium, Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology
Lecturer: Department of Range, Wildlife, and Fisheries Management
dakruse@tamu.edu                    
Herbarium: 979.845.4328

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Bats at the July Chapter Meeting

We got to enjoy some really great information on bats around the world from Cindy Bolch at our July Chapter Meeting in Milano. She brought lots of interesting handouts and gave us a really good overview of why bats are our friends.

A few highlights that I learned:

Cindy Bolch and her bat information.

There are mega-bats and micro-bats.

The mega-bats are all found in Asia and use sight and smell to find food. Flying foxes are a primary example. They are just about as adorable as an animal can be (that was an opinion), and they have many specific adaptations to prey (fish, birds, etc.) or terrain.

Here’s a bat going after a frog.

Micro-bats are the ones here in the Americas and elsewhere. They primarily eat nectar, fruit, or insects and find their food through echolocation.

There are six types of bats found in Texas, though most of us are primarily familiar with the Mexican free-tailed bats that spend summers in this part of Texas eating lots and lots of insects. They spend days in caves (or under bridges as in Austin, Round Rock, and even Milano) and fly out at night to eat. Most of the ones we see here are females with pups.

The wings of bats have “fingers” spread out in them, making them very flexible and maneuverable. Bird “fingers” are all fused at the tops of their wings. Most bats mainly use their toes to hang on where they perch, but like I said earlier, some have long claws to catch prey, and a few, like vampire bats, can actually walk.

Also at the meeting, Linda Jo Conn received her 2500 hour pin.

Even if you already knew a lot of bat information, you couldn’t help but be amazed by the variety of bats in the first video Cindy showed, and you couldn’t help but be charmed by the sweet baby bats in the second video. They look like flying dogs. Aww.

I know I’ll be telling lots of people the tidbits I picked up at the presentation!

Cathy Johnson got her 250 hour pin! The first of the 2018 class to hit that milestone!

Bryoventure III at the Big Thicket

by Ann Collins, with additional photos by Linda Jo Conn

Linda Jo Conn and I just got back from “Nature Nerd Nirvana” – a phrase coined by a fellow traveler this past weekend. Ten lucky participants were able to trail along after Master Teacher Dale Kruse on Bryoventure III. We spend three glorious days immersed in the flora and fauna of the Big Thicket National Preserve. Talk about herding cats; Dale actually had a whistle to keep us rounded up!

Finding mosses everywhere in the Big Thicket.

Dale arranged lodging at the Research Station in Saratoga, Texas. We brought our own food and “drink,” but everything else was furnished. Not exactly the Plaza, but more than adeqquate for our needs.

Extreme dragonfly close-up

Trails in the Thicket were in great shape. There hadn’t been too much rain, so there were few muddy ruts in the roads. Of course, some of us managed to get in water deep enough to seep in over out boot tops – not me, of course! One trekker actually fell in and another, who shall remain nameless, fought her way across a bay gall (that’s an area dominated by sweet bay and holly) on a fallen cypress log. Such fun to watch!

We were supposed to ignore all the vascular plants and focus entirely on the bryophytes – like that was going to happen! Fortunately, birds are somewhat difficult to see with so much vegetation, and the trees are so tall!

Continue reading “Bryoventure III at the Big Thicket”