Report on the ECR Seasonal Winter BioBlitz

by Linda Jo Conn

As I reported at the monthly chapter meeting, I was pleased with the participation and results of our first seasonal BioBlitz. We had 10 participants who have submitted 492 observations to date, which included 248 species. To view the observations, go to: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/ecr-seasonal-winter-bioblitz.

This was a low-key BioBlitz, promoting observations made at one’s place of residence to avoid travel and promote physical distancing during this time of COVID precautions. We enjoyed pleasant weather that encouraged outdoor time during the first part of the designated week, but it did get a bit disagreeable during the last days. Still, worthwhile observations were made.

Perhaps one of the first things noticed by plant observers was the lack of blooms. Yes, there were the typical cool-weather blossoms of henbit deadnettle, catchweed bedstraw, shepherd’s purse, and common chickweed, but also a lot of unidentifiable leafy green rosettes. 

Lichens, particularly the orange colored hair lichens, were definite eye-catchers in the drab landscape. 

Golden-eye Lichen Teloschistes chrysophthalmus Photo by Linda Jo Conn.

Some plants such as the American Trumpet Vine were identified by last season’s seed pods

American Trumpet Vine Campsis radicans photo by Sue Ann Kendall

Other plants were given a general tentative ID and hopefully will be revisited when blooms appear later in the year.

Fleabanes and horseweeds, unidentified. Photo by Ann Collins.

We observed birds. A Red-Shouldered Hawk is perhaps checking out the nearby martin house.

Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus Photo by Debbi Sorenson

We observed reptiles. Well, one reptile observation was made.

Common Slider Trachemys scripta Photo by Ann Collins

We saw mollusks,

River Mussels Family Unionidae Photo by Marian Buegeler

And spiders,

Shore Spider Pardosa milvina Photo by Eric Neubauer

and insects,

Stable Fly Stomoxys calcitrans Photo by Sue Ann Kendall

And other arthropods, such as this intact exoskeleton of a white river crayfish.

White River Crayfish Procambarus acutus Photo by Marian Buegeler – reviewer said it was a great observation!

So, I thank you, sunasak, birdladymilam, marianmarie, eaneubauer, chenderson, dsorenson, potterswasp, jfcthornton, and debbi9, for participating in the BioBlitz.

 I look forward to joining you at the spring iNaturalist seasonal BioBlitz, scheduled for May 20-26. 

Happy iNat-ing!

A Valentine to Our Chapter

by Jackie Thornton

We will be celebrating Valentine’s Day soon and at my age that doesn’t mean a dozen roses or a box of candy from a six-foot good-looking guy!  It is a time that gives me pause to think about the appreciation I feel for a group of people.

Here’s a Valentine from Sue Ann, saw greenbrier hearts in my woods.

I appreciate the value system of our Master Naturalist group. There has been due diligence in protecting us and still providing opportunities. On the state level, the Virtual Volunteer Fair was awesome, but the event impacting me the most is joining the Winter BioBlitz. Linda Jo has been such a supporter for all of us in participating in iNaturalist, but I always found an excuse. 

Excuses including: I need a new iPhone, more books, more expertise…

First time out I came back with my photographs and spent hours pouring over plant identification references. I don’t regret the time spent, but it was overkill when you have Linda Jo checking your work!  I ended up with three research-quality entries (my yaupon holly is shown below), and you would have thought I had just gotten a gold star on my research paper. ( Please do not ask me about lichens or mosses though.)  I encourage anyone hesitating to take the big step, take it!

So, to all of you that have worked so hard to keep us active, safe and appreciated, thank you and Happy Valentine’s Day!

Making a Personal Impact with iNaturalist Observations

by Linda Jo Conn

Thursday, February 4, marks the day! Our El Camino Real Seasonal Winter 2021 iNaturalist BioBlitz begins at 12:00 am that morning and continues until Wednesday midnight, February 10, the following week. For some time, our chapter has not been able to gather as a group for a nature survey, so the week will be an opportunity to figuratively join forces to document the fauna and flora of the areas where we reside. Yes, this does include our personal property as well as our neighborhood and the places we go as we physically distance during the COVID restrictions.  So get that camera ready!

The BioBlitz is an iNaturalist project. See: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/ecr-seasonal-winter-bioblitz. Yes, you must be a member of iNaturalist to participate. And yes, to get volunteer hour credit for participating, you must email connlindajo@gmail.com and state that you want to join the project. OK, I can hear the groans from miles away. Must I again emphasize that iNat is a valuable tool that documents nature and is used not only by TPWD but other organizations and university researchers as well?

A prime example is the rare sighting of a live Spotted Skunk (Spilogale putorius) by Ann Collins on her porch in the suburbs of Milano.  It is the only Milam County observation on iNat and one of the few documented observations in Texas.  (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/2710384)   Ann’s observation caused a lot of excitement and interest at TPWD.  Clint Perkins, a graduate student at Texas Tech, did field research on Ann’s private property and continues to review all mammal observations on iNaturalist.  

Eric Neubauer has the only observations of the Southwestern Dusky Grasshopper (Nebulatettix subgracilis in Milam County. (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/34920111)  Again, there are few documented sightings in Texas and those were probably not made at a state or city park.  

Countless unique observations added to iNat have been documented on personal property by a Texas Master Naturalist, but those species we may consider common or mundane also have a definite need for documentation.  I have personally noticed the apparent change in bloom times for wildflowers, the species of migrant birds I see, along with the disturbing spread of invasive species, and so I document even the ubiquitous species. Each and every legitimate observation has value.    

So what is the point of all this?  Some Texas Master Naturalists have been disgruntled by the exclusion of the time spent on iNaturalist observations on one’s private property as valid volunteer hours.  As a result, many have lost interest in using iNaturalist as a personal tool for sharing and learning about nature. 

Well, I have two points to make:

Number One:  Since approximately 95% of the land in the state of Texas is privately owned, neglecting to enter observations from our personal properties skews the data. I urge you to continue your contributions as citizen scientists by observing and documenting on iNat what you see around you every day.

Number Two:  This is an approved project where El Camino Real Master Naturalist members have an opportunity to observe at leisure on their private property and earn volunteer hours without having to travel to participate in a BioBlitz. 

So join iNaturalist and the ECR project. Take photos. Share them on iNaturalist. Report your volunteer hours.  It is that simple. 

My First-Day Hike 2021 in a Texas State Park

by Linda Jo Conn

It’s been quite a few days since I participated with other nature-loving folks in a self-guided hike at a nearby state park, on the first day of 2021. I think it has taken me that long to recuperate before sharing my adventure.

The four state parks closest to my home are each about 35 miles away. I chose to visit the Birch Creek Unit of Lake Somerville in Burleson County. The last time I visited it was on an El Camino Real Chapter field trip in October 2013.

Heron at Birch Creek

It was not a warm day, in the mid 50’s, so I did not have to worry about breaking a sweat.  My jacket felt good when I was not protected by trees from the wind. 

I initiated several physically-distanced conversations with several folks, including a couple from Iowa who had come to Texas to eat BBQ at Snow’s in Lexington the next day. (I could not resist wowing them with the fact that the famous pit master Tootsie is my former sister-in-law.) It was interesting to hear from each person where they had traveled from for this event. 

I obtained my printed copy of the designated trail showing locations of several orange flags marking points of interest. I walked down the path, stopped at the first orange flag, read about the lake in the pamphlet, proceeded along the way, and never saw another orange marker. I got totally and hopelessly lost. 

Freshwater Mussel

Eventually, I encountered an equally lost college student and her younger brother from Houston. We teamed up to find our way back to the park headquarters. Although not the ideal situation for nature talk, as we walked along I enjoyed answering their questions about the plants we passed and showing them interesting species such as soapberry, yaupon holly, and coralberry.  I even pointed out feral hog, deer, and raccoon tracks for their edification. I realized how much I have learned by being a Texas Master Naturalist and iNaturalist addict since that 2013 visit to Lake Somerville.  

Coralberry

 My hike about the park took a bit more time and effort than I had planned, but was certainly worth the experience.  Perhaps our chapter members can hike Mother Neff or another state park together New Year’s Day 2022. I will certainly appreciate some companions to guide and direct my steps.        

It’s Not Just about Nature

by Linda Jo Conn

On Tuesdays for the past month, several El Camino Real Texas Master Naturalist members have met to explore nature in several public locations in Milam County. The sites have ranged from a roadside historical marker to a manicured downtown lot. We’ve been careful to follow current guidelines, by wearing masks when we are closer than six feet apart, and not gathering in numbers over ten.

We have not made an earth-shaking discovery, but we have seen some interesting organisms. The past week, we observed at four Rockdale locations: Veterans’ Park, Skate Plaza, George Hill Patterson Civic Center, and the Fair Park.  

Catching an elusive insect.

On a large “spineless” cactus, we found dozens of cactus bugs (Hesperolabops gelastops). A large Chinese tallow tree had a leaf-footed bug (Leptoglossus sp.) resting on its bark. An elusive beetle had to be ferreted out from the vegetation to which it had escaped during a photo session. It turned out that Catherine Johnson is a tenacious and successful bug hunter. 

Several in the group are interested rocks and geology.  Debra Sorenson noted the iconic petrified rock and sandstone pillars at the Fair Park entrance.

Deb enjoys petrified wood used at Fair Park.

Farther into the park, I observed my first gomphrena weed (Gomphrena serrata) and Spanish gold (Grindelia ciliata) in Milam County.

However, our park investigations are not just about nature. It is not just about recording and sharing the species we see. Our gatherings during the past month have been bright spots:  Time I spent outdoors with other folks who find joy in learning and exploring new and old places.

We shared our time, thoughts, and experiences with each other. My most memorable moment of our last park survey session was not a bug or a plant, but was when we paused at the new recently dedicated granite markers installed at Veterans’ park next to the city swimming pool. 

War is hell.

 Our thoughts turned to those who had served in wars. One shared their father’s experiences during the D-day invasion. Another shared their father’s thoughts about the atomic bomb. My own father never spoke of the war. The time we spent at the site was solemn and memorable. That semi-circle of granite markers fulfilled its purpose. We had paused and honored our veterans.

So, I repeat. It is not just about nature. It is also the social (yet physically distanced) sharing of thoughts and experiences among a community of folks who appreciate the wonder and glory of our world. It is a reason I am a Texas Master Naturalist.