A Visiting Snapper

 by Sue Ann Kendall

I went out Friday morning to see if I could get a photo of the feral cat that’s showed up at our ranch (brave thing, considering our predator density). Thus, I had my camera out and ready when I detected movement over by my tack room. It wasn’t a cat, though. At first, I thought it might be an armadillo, but as I got closer, I recognized a common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) was lumbering along across the property, heading from one body of water to another.

snapping turtle
I’m busy. Leave me alone.

We’ve always had snapping turtles at our ranch. For a long time there was one much bigger than this (those tend to be males), with a head as big as a pro football player’s fist. We’d usually run across it in April or May, heading somewhere across a pasture. The dogs bark at them, but horses don’t seem to mind them. I’ve never seen one snap, though my mother used to tell a story of how she narrowly avoided losing a finger once.

snapping turtle
Obviously, it came out of a body of water next to the blooming black willow trees.

These turtles tend to live in shallow water, especially streams and creeks. That’s where at least one of the snapping turtles on our property was for much of this spring. I don’t know if it’s the same one. This one looks less ancient somehow.

This is in the creek in front of our house and is smaller than the other one. Notice the hole in its shell. I wonder if someone tried to eat it or shot it.

These turtles are really cool, and I’m glad they are still around. They seem like relics of a long-ago age, to me. Here’s a fact I found that you might like:

In shallow waters, common snapping turtles may lie beneath a muddy bottom with only their heads exposed, stretching their long necks to the surface for an occasional breath. Their nostrils are positioned on the very tip of the snout, effectively functioning as snorkels.

iNaturalist

I’ve seen them doing just that in Austin in the limestone creeks, which was fun. Whenever I saw people and their dogs frolicking along Barton Creek, I remembered how many snapping turtles I had seen there, in Lake Creek, and in Brushy Creek. They are quite common, as their name hints. Still, it’s always fun to see them out of the water, since they spend most of their time submerged and snorkeling along with those handy nostrils out, unless there’s a mating mission or something.

The tail looks pretty scary, too!

What Else Is New?

I’m always on the lookout for new flowers and such, and sure enough, every day seems to bring something fun and/or pretty. Who needs all those bluebonnets and paintbrushes when the other guys are just getting started? My Engelmann daisies are taking over, as usual, but I’ve been seeing some other favorites popping up, as well. Take a look!

I’ve tried my luck at posting sound files on iNaturalist, too. So far, I have a confirmed (and VERY loud) Chuck-will’s widow and dickcissels. You’d think I could get a red-winged blackbird, but there are always bunches of other birds around when they are calling. I could get other birds, but I don’t know what a lot of them are, and there’s no help identifying the sounds if you can’t see the bird.

Sporty Sports and Dandy Lions

by Sue Ann Kendall

Here are two sets of thoughts in one post.

Sporty Sports

As I continue to monitor the new flowers that are blooming in northern Milam County, I’ve found a few interesting ones. You probably know that occasionally a plant will produce a flower that’s different from its usual form or color. These sports are how new cultivars can come about, especially if humans show up and start breeding them intentionally. Out here, though, they just show up and we enjoy them.

This is a Texas paintbrush Castilleja indivisa found on County Road 140 near Walker’s Creek.

Here’s my mandatory Wikipedia quote about sports in botany, in which I left the links in case you want to learn more:

In botany, a sport or bud sport, traditionally called lusus, is a part of a plant that shows morphological differences from the rest of the plant. Sports may differ by foliage shape or color, flowers, fruit, or branch structure. The cause is generally thought to be a chance genetic mutation.

Wikipedia

The beautiful flower you see above was a pleasant surprise on my morning walk down the road in front of our property, where I was looking for new things and admiring the bluebonnets. What the heck is that yellow plant, I wondered? It looks like popcorn. When I got close, I was taken aback by how beautiful this sport of the normally orange-red flower was. I guess if I was a nursery owner, I’d have collected some seeds in a few weeks. Instead, I looked up more information and found that pale orange and yellow variations do occasionally occur.

Here’s now 99% of the native annual Texas paintbrushes, which are a parasitic plant, by the way, look where I live:

That looks more familiar!

The more I have been looking closely at my roadside wildflower friends, the more variations I’ve seen. Have you seen any of these? I know that the pink ladies/evening primroses Oenothera speciosa vary widely in their pinkness. We always have a patch of the whiter ones here. I’ve also run across a light purple bluebonnet Lupinus texensis that I found quite charming (more so than the burgundy ones), as well as a white Texas vervain Verbena halei, which I had never seen before.

You might call me paranoid, but I wonder if the reason there are so many variations in the colors of the flowers on that stretch of road is because of the chemicals sprayed every year on the field across the road (which is the only field in miles in any direction that’s managed using fertilizers and herbicides sprayed by an inaccurate plane). I’ll never know, but I have my suspicions, especially since tomatoes and peppers always die after the spraying. I’m pleased that this year they have winter rye or some silage thing that they don’t spray.

This is the field to which I refer. Apparently the chemicals do not bother the verbena.

Speaking of herbicides that I don’t use…

Dandy Lions

Someone on Facebook recently was complaining about how chemical companies always use the common dandelion as their generic image of an ugly weed that must be eradicated. We all know that you can eat the young leaves, make wine from the flowers, and dye using the roots, of course. They have many health benefits, from what I read. They are friendly lions!

They are also vitally important to our pollinators in the early spring. Last month, they were among the few blooming plants out there for the bees, tiny wasps, and butterflies to feed on. Until the rest of the flowers showed up, later than usual, they kept the beneficial insect population going. I was very glad to see so many healthy common dandelions out in my pastures.

This gal was also happy to see a dandelion.

But, have you noticed how many members of the dandelion family are actually out there in our fields, pastures, and yards? I have been greatly enjoying some of them, including the tiny weedy dwarf dandelion Krigia cespitosa, the shy smooth cat’s ear Hypochaeris glabra that spends most of its time tightly closed up, and the extra prickly one, prickly sowthistle Sonchus asper.

One more interesting thing about dandelions. I just discovered today, when I was researching which flowers I’ve been seeing were in the dandelion family, that what I called dandelions my whole life, and the only ones I saw as a child, were in fact false dandelions Pyrrhopappus pauciflorus, which is a member of the aster family. Now I know.

They are beautiful, anyway.

Miscellaneous

And while I’m here, I may as well share what else is popping up around here. I saw my first winecup and fleabane this week, and my first Englemann daisy, sikly evolvulus, and tie vines today (forgot to take a picture of the latter). My heart leapt for joy when I discovered I DO still have baby blue eyes on my property (someone “cleared brush”). For added pleasure to those with allergies, the black willows are blooming, too.

All I can say is keep looking down. You’ll see plenty to keep you entertained for hours. We live in a beautiful place, and have so much we can learn if we are observant!

There’s always something to see on a Texas country road in spring.

Signs of Spring: Northern Milam Edition

by Sue Ann Kendall

Like many of our Chapter members, I always get excited when there are indications that maybe we’ll stop getting frozen participation, then heat, then cold, and over and over. Spring flowers give me hope. In the past couple of days, both Donna Lewis and Linda Jo Conn have shared flowers from different parts of Milam County. I’d already been thinking of writing a similar post, but they got there ahead of me. Or did they? We can all get into the search for spring!

It might be interesting to see what kinds of flowers are blooming just a bit north of where they observed (near Gause, and in Cameron). Plus, I needed to get outside for my nature fix.

I’ve always found henbit deadnettle (Lamium amplexicaule) pretty. Here it’s encouraging the other flowers, like the field madder, to get blooming.

I had intended to spend 20 minutes outside taking photos, but I ended up wandering around for an hour. It had been raining, so some of my specimens didn’t look too great. All the storksbills were bedraggled, the anemones were missing petals, and the crow poison had their blossoms firmly shut. So, a couple of these photos are actually from last week. But the plants ARE blooming now!

I’m fond of the showy blossoms that eventually show up each year, but my secret love are the little bitty flowers. Tiny bluets make me especially happy, and this is a great year for them out in my horse pasture.

Of course, everyone is out looking for their first bluebonnets, which are already up in Austin, from what I hear. In northern Milam County, they are usually a bit later than in many places, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a bumper crop of them! This year will be no exception. I found beautiful leaf clusters holding raindrops in their centers, a few buds, and one just starting to bloom. I predict some great smells in the upcoming weeks!

It’s fun to see how the cold weather affects the new leaves on some of the plants, like this prickly sowthistle. I didn’t get any photos of it, but the dewberries have bright red leaves right now, too. Everything will get back to normal soon.

There are also some dandelions and field madder hiding in here with the prickly sowthistle (Sonchus asper). Notice the water droplets. I just noticed on iNat that this plant is even found in Hawaii. Those seeds stick to stuff!

I’d have a photo of my native plum tree, but it was too muddy to get to the reclusive shrubby tree. Maybe next week, if it’s still in bloom. I love those harbingers of spring, too. Some of the other plants I found were also shared by Linda Jo, but I love them so much that I can’t resist sharing.

So, fellow El Camino Real Master Naturalist Chapter members, what’s growing in your part of Milam County? No doubt that answer will be changing every day for the next few weeks. The weather will get nice one of these days, I know. Mother Nature has her own time clock.

My Woods in Winter

by Sue Ann Kendall

I’d planned a fun nature walk with my family for Christmas, but thanks to COVID, I ended up on a solo walk. I explored a part of the woods that’s near the house, but not often visited. It was warm and sunny, but still a winter wonderland to me. I thought maybe some of my Master Naturalist friends would enjoy a walk along with me.

A dream in green

The green you see is a mix of rye grass and chickweed.

And mushrooms!

I went over to the tank/pond on the other side of the woods from the one behind our house. It’s the most attractive one and is always full of life.

Cows love it, but they haven’t pooped all the life out of it.

It’s often hard to get to from our place, because there’s a fence marking a property line that ends in a place that stays damp for a long time after it floods. But, the recent tree-killing knocked it down in a spot, so I could explore the pond while it’s full.

We only have a couple of months when the trees have no leaves. You can see more!

This pond has lots of aquatic plants in it. Some are blooming. I forget what they are, but it’s pretty.

The water looks brown, but there are lots of fish.

It always smells nice and earthy around the pond when it’s wet. Admittedly, some parts smell more cattle-y. It smelled fresh today.

Looking towards the dam.

The highlight of my little walk was checking out where the water comes into the pond, which I’d never seen from this side while the stream was flowing.

Coral berry lines the little stream.

The stream had dozens of minnows in it. It was fun to watch them dart around. In the photo you see their shadows better than them! I also figured out that the stream comes out of a spring at the base of our pond. It doesn’t seem to drain our pond, or if it does, it’s slow.

I felt like an explorer in my own back yard. I found a freshly dug hole where some animal lives.

And I encountered an ant swarm on a log. Probably fire ants but still cool to watch. I didn’t stick my fingers in there to check.

Can you see the ones with wings?

It is always refreshing to hang out in nature, no matter what time of year. It’s healing and reminds you of the big picture. None of us is alone. Please enjoy more images of our small, green wonderland.