Developing Observation Skills

by Sue Ann Kendall

I see some pretty cool things on my walks around my ranch. I think part of my poor posture comes from looking down all the time, in case I see something. But that’s a small price to pay. I’ve been doing a lot more aural observation lately, and that’s come in really handy when I’m looking for new species to add to my collection on iNaturalist. I have almost 600 species identified since I started, 62% of my 1600+ observations are research grade. I’m trying to get a good picture of what can be found in this little piece of the Earth.

Yesterday and today I’ve put my listening skills to a test. I can’t take a picture of something if I can’t find it, and sounds often lead me to something interesting. For example, I went to check the mail, which is a third of a mile walk from my house. I often stop to observe in the pond and arroyo I go by. That’s hard right now since the pond is being dug up to make it deeper if it ever rains, and our gate emits an annoying beep that I once accidentally identified as a South American bird via an app. But yesterday I was alarmed to hear what sounded like someone talking in the stream. It sort of sounded like, “Help, help!” So I put down my mail and went searching.

I followed the eerie sounds and got closer to where our “spring” starts. I didn’t want to get my feet wet, so I was careful. At one point it seemed like I was right on top of whatever it was, but I couldn’t see anything, so I stomped my feet. That caused something to move and gave me a focus for my eyes. Finally I saw something.

Is it a water hose?

Now I know why my friend’s orange and black water hose spooks the horses. That Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus) sure looked like a garden hose. I was not inclined to grab it to get a better photo. But what was the sound?

I knew right away that it was a cricket frog, since that’s the kind of frogs I hear all the time from that location (I learned how they sound from one of our Chapter Meetings). I guess it’s now a former cricket frog, thanks to the circle of life. So, my aural observation skills clued me in without even having to see the frog. I was happy to learn from reading about these ribbon snakes that they hang out on the edges of wet areas (check) and primarily eat…of all things…cricket frogs! I also learned that the one we have here at the ranch is the orangestripe subspecies, T. proximus proximus, which is why it didn’t look like the one in the main photo on iNat, which had originally confused me.

Coachwhip

By the way, I am only seeing ribbon snakes and coachwhips lately. I haven’t seen a rattlesnake or a rat snake in a month or two (the hens are glad about that). The coachwhip in this picture climbed into my son’s cabin and was hanging out on the ceiling. Luckily, he’s had pet snakes before, so he just knocked it into a laundry basket and took it outside (then sealed the hole the snake came in).

Back to my observations. Today was the same story. I was putting mail in the box to be picked up, this time. I kept hearing a sharp chirp, and it wasn’t the broken gate. It was coming from the black willow trees on our dam, which no, I’m not cutting down, because they are native and feed lots of things. I looked and looked, trying to home in on where the chirps were coming from. To the bird’s credit, it didn’t stop chirping until it began making tapping sounds. Aha. Now I knew to stop looking in the branches and look at the trunks of the trees instead.

Sure enough, there was a perky little ladder-backed woodpecker (Dryobates scalaris), pecking away and chirping during rests. There are a lot of woodpeckers around here (they like the grapevines to hide in and are especially fond of the telephone pole across the road), but I mostly see larger ones. Neither I nor the bulldozer grinding away behind this bird deterred it one bit from its mission.

I’m glad I keep listening when I go outside. I might have missed both of these interesting observations and new species!

Spoonbills in Milam County

by Sue Ann Kendall

I still get the feeling sometimes that I live in an aviary. I can’t believe how many interesting birds drop by my property and let me observe them. Yesterday was a particularly good day, because in addition to the storks who’ve been visiting for a couple of weeks, I found something different, a roseate spoonbill!

There you go, three storks, one very pink spoonbill, a great blue heron, and a great egret!

It was especially good to see the spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) in person and watch it eating up close through my binoculars, since I had seen some specimens when we went to the Texas A&M Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections last month. Oops, I just realized that I hadn’t written up that event, so darn it! You can go read about it in my personal blog post, So Many Dead Things. Below are the specimens I looked at.

Linda Jo Conn investigates the spoon-shaped bill as Dr. Gary Voelker looks on. Heather Prestridge, who gave us our tour, is holding the specimen.
You can see the variety of shades of pink they have, depending on what they’ve been eating.

The spoonbills are coastal birds, which is why you don’t see too many of them here in the middle of Texas. I’ve seen them one other time, though. According to Wikipedia as reproduced on the iNaturalist site, many were seen outside their usual range in 2021, so perhaps this behavior is continuing this year.

They’d just finished feeding, so I don’t have a good photo of that.

They are fun to watch as they eat, swinging their bills from side to side to catch delicious (and hopefully pink, to keep their feathers pretty) foods. The one I saw was parading alongside three storks on the shore of the tank behind my house, which appears to be a hotbed of small edible items these days.

I wonder if this one got separated from his or her buddies and took up with the storks, which also hang around in small groups. They were getting along just fine and didn’t seem to be bothering my resident shore birds at all.

Here’s some more about their eating habits:

This species feeds in shallow fresh or coastal waters by swinging its bill from side to side as it steadily walks through the water, often in groups. The spoon-shaped bill allows it to sift easily through mud. It feeds on crustaceansaquatic insects, frogs, newts and very small fish ignored by larger waders… Roseate spoonbills must compete for food with snowy egretsgreat egretstricolored herons and American white pelicans.

Roseate Spoonbill, iNaturalist
These guys fly with outstretched necks, like the storks, and unlike herons.

I’m wondering if I’m seeing so many interesting shore birds here lately because other shallow waters have dried up from the drought. I’ve also been enjoying a tricolored heron and a kingfisher. I’ve seen the resident green heron more and more recently, as well.

Keep your eyes open as you drive through Milam County, especially as migration time approaches. You’ll be seeing snow geese, sandhill cranes, ducks, and other interesting birds. Admittedly, you will probably find many of those by also listening. Those geese and cranes make quite a racket as they fly by. Look for the dark wing areas on the geese and listen for the clacking sounds of cranes.

I hope you enjoyed learning about a fascinating visitor. Here are some more of my photos of the spoonbill and friends.

Learning about Vultures at the Chapter Meeting and Beyond

by Sue Ann Kendall

The September Chapter Meeting presentation for El Camino Real Master Naturalist was by Debbi Sorenson, who has been observing vultures on her property for years and decided to do some research on these fascinating scavengers.

Debbi listens to questions and comments during her presentation

We learned how to distinguish our two resident vultures, the turkey vulture and the black vulture from each other. The easiest way is to look at their heads. Turkey vultures have red heads and black vultures have black heads. In flight, turkey vultures have white on their lower wings, while black vultures just have white “fingers” or wing-tips. The turkey vultures are also a little larger.

There you go, heads

Other interesting tidbits I gleaned were that turkey vultures are almost exclusively carrion feeders an find their food through extra-sensitive senses of smell. Black vultures both hunt and eat carrion and use sight to locate their food. They often see the red vultures eating and take over from them. I’ve seen this at my house.

These black vultures at my ranch found a dead snapping turtle that turkey vultures were eating, and took over.

Debbie also shared the ranges of both birds and told us about their breeding behavior, which is to lay two eggs in abandoned buildings or dead trees and raise them there. George Bowman, a visitor to our meeting, shared how he had a baby vulture raised on his front porch this year (which many of us had enjoyed on Facebook). He ended up with a poopy porch, but a successful fledging of the baby.

Debbi shared that their barn is a vulture nesting headquarters for a pair, and that they enjoyed watching one with just stumps for feet (Old Peg) as it grew. Debbi shares her garbage with them and gets lots of observations in return. I also enjoy watching them. They are graceful in the air but are pretty fun on the ground. I love to watch them as they hop, hop, hop around my tank behind the house.

I guess Debbi isn’t alone in enjoying vultures and their behavior. She had lots of questions to answer, and she also explained that our other resident carrion eater, the crested caracara, is not a vulture at all, but is a falcon, also known as the Mexican eagle.

Here’s what you call a group of vultures, depending on what they are doing.

Our meeting concluded with the recognition of two of our members. Congratulations to Alan Rudd and Scott Berger for getting their annual recertification for forty volunteer hours and eight advanced training hours. And Scott received a milestone recognition for 250 hours contributing to the Master Naturalist organization. We appreciate our members!

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.