Recently in Wildlife - Insects Category

Happy Thursday, y'all! Today is National Chocolate Day. And is it a coincidence that it's also National Internal Medicine Day, as well as National First Responders Day? I think not; you should take comfort in knowing that if you overindulge in the food of the gods, *someone* has your back. Or insides. Or...whatever.

The Horseshoe Bay Cultural Enrichment organization sponsored a delightful concert last Sunday afternoon, featuring an Austin-based group called Sister Golden Hair (hereinafter, SGH). And, yes, that's a direct reference to the song by the same name recorded in released in 1975 by the band America.

Photo - Sister Golden Hair in concert in the Hill Country Community Theater
Yeah, I know what you're thinking -- MST3K, right? It's actually the stage
at the Hill Country Community Theater in Cottonwood Shores.

SGH covers songs from the Golden Age of Music: the 60s and 70s-D (i.e. minus disco, because no one wants to relive that). Their playlist was perfect for the crowd in attendance as they -- OK, fine..we -- skew boomerish. IOW, this is our music.

The band has some videos up on their website and on YouTube, but the vids don't do their musical gifts justice. If you have a chance to catch them live, don't pass it up. Our only complaint is the same one we almost always have, and it's not the band's fault: no dance floor.

We had a wee bit of wind early yesterday morning, and awoke to this scene in front of our house.

Photo - downed tree limbs blocking the street

This mess is a combination of cedar elm and live oak limbs. It appears that the elm limb (the nearest to the foreground of the photo) snapped off, hit the oak limb -- you may be able to make out the broken stump in the upper left of the photo)  on the way down, and both crashed into the street. Fortunately, ours is the only house at the end of a cul-de-sac, so there no traffic was blocked.

It's hard to get sense of the scale of this pile of debris. It took about an hour of chainsaw work to break it down into manageable pieces, which in turn required five pickup loads to haul to the city's yard waste collection area.

Photo - a view of the cedar elm
The part of the trunk where the limb broke is in the upper middle part of the photo.

Ironically, I had scheduled a visit by an arborist next week to come out and assess the health of our trees, and to give us an estimate for cleaning them up. This particularly cedar elm is probably fifty feet tall, and I can't help wondering if it needs to be taken out completely. That would be a shame, but the prospect of more falling limbs is frightening, to say the least. 

Speaking of chainsaws, I'm not sure I've mentioned that I bought a new one back in August.

Photo - my new EGO chainsaw

Having acquired an EGO battery-powered lawn mower in May, I was already impressed with the quality and performance of the brand's products, and I was tired of working around the extension cord of the decades-old 12" electric chainsaw I inherited from my father-in-law. After a bit of research on the various models made by EGO, I chose the 18 incher, as I was swayed by the higher RPM (which equates to more and easier cutting power). 

While this is not a professional-level saw that would be used for hours of work on a daily basis, it's more than adequate for occasional use by someone like me. I've used it on tree limbs up to 12" in diameter and it's never skipped a beat. I mentioned above that it took an hour or so of cutting and trimming on the downed limbs, and the battery still had a 20% charge.

The saw is quieter than a gas powered model, and requires less maintenance. I really like the fact that you can turn it off to clear the work area, then it restarts -- immediately and every time -- with a push of a button.

Of course, it's highly unlikely that this is the model Leatherface would choose to wreak havoc on humanity, but he's got issues other than his commitment to environmentally-friendly lawn equipment.

Take a look at this photo, if you dare. No, don't just glance at it; take a really close look

Horrifying photo of female wolf spider covered with baby spiderlets

You've no doubt seen something like this before, although if you're like me, you poured bleach in your eyes in an attempt to forget the sight. This is a female wolf spider and she's lumpy not because of arachnid cellulite, but because she's covered with -- wait for it! -- wolf spiderlets. (You can see that a couple of them have been kicked off the mothership, probably for bad behavior, although what constitutes bad behavior for a spider is beyond my desire to contemplate.)

Now, if your initial impulse upon seeing this photo is to grab a can of Raid and spray your monitor, you're not alone. Actually, you may be alone, but many people share your revulsion at seeing a nasty a** spider covered with babies. And that would have been my normal response, but for the intervention of the Facebook group,  Antman's Hill (which I've previously referenced).

As I've become more educated about the species, I view it with slightly less loathing than before. While wolf spiders will bite if threatened, their bite is deemed "medically insignificant" to humans, a description that falls a bit short in the reassurance category, but that's just me. Anyway, they do have an ecological niche -- they eat other insects that we humans might deem even more undesirable, although, frankly, I've had a hard time finding out exactly which insects those might be. 

Also, they have eight eyes. In the preceding photo, all the little white dots are spider eyeballs reflecting my phone camera's flash. Let's say there are twenty baby spiders hitchhiking on mom's back. That's *cipher cipher* 168 eyes. All those eyes apparently are useful in hunting prey. Wolf spiders don't spin webs...they track down and jump on unwary edible bystanders, not unlike Congresspersons looking for additional sources of revenue from unwary taxpayers.

So, the next time you see a sight like this, have a little empathy, especially if you're a mother. How would you like to have your kids riding your back? What's that you say? Oh...OK...never mind.

OK, lest you think I've gone soft, that wolf spider family was in our garage. I would be much less sanguine about its presence had it been in our house. Also, I'm pretty sure that Jim Morrison, our resident Texas spiny lizard, ate it the next day. Hakuna matata, y'all.

...because Foto Friday was already spoken for. Plus, I'm a procrastinator.

Here are some pictures I took.

Photo - Green tree frog on mandevilla leaf in bright sunlight
Where's a pair of Wayfarers when you need them?

The green tree frogs have been numerous lately (or perhaps there's just one and he/she is someone ubiquitous). But it's a bit rare to see one in the bright sunlight like this. It soon retreated into the shade of this mandevilla.

Photo - Spider molt - unknown species
What's going on here?!

For a couple of days this week I was watching yet another arachnid activity outside one of our windows. This one had me puzzled. It appeared to be two spiders. Was there a meal taking place, or was it a bit of spidery hanky-panky? I had no idea, but this scene persisted for almost two days.

The next day, this was the only thing left:

Photo - Spider molt - unknown species
No wonder it took the spider two days to wriggle out of this.

It's the same scene; I just used a macro lens to get up close and personal. I was now even more confused, as this spider was moribund to the max. So I turned to my go-to resource for insect identification: the Antman's Hill® Facebook group. The experts there quickly explained why my spider wasn't skittering about. This is actually a molt...the shed "skin," if you will, of the spider shown in the previous photo. Pretty amazing, huh? (Those experts never did, however, identify the spider for me. I guess they figured that anyone who couldn't tell a spider corpse from a live one was probably hopeless. And, of course, they were right.)

Photo - Anole resting vertically on a metal gate
Move along, folks...nothing to see here.

Some people have fence lizards, others have tree lizards. Some even have brush lizards, which presumably are afraid of heights. We, however, have gate lizards. (OK, it's really just an anole whose camouflage isn't as effective as it thinks.)

Photo - tree fungus with a tiny T-rex photoshopped in its shade

Tree fungi pop up in the weirdest places sometimes, but they provide a valuable service to tiny creatures needing respite from the Texas summer sun.

This final image is going to require some explaining.

Photo collage - nighttime trail camera photos of various wildlife in our back yard

This is sort of a collage of critters that visited our back deck over the course of two evenings. Most of them require no identification (but I will provide one anyway), but there are some things worth noting. 

  1. A pair of foxes
  2. A trash panda, aka raccoon
  3. A fast-moving armadillo
  4. Skunk #1 - white back and tail
  5. Skunk #2 - standard black and white back
  6. Skunk #3 - black back and tail
  7. Ring-tailed cat (Bassariscus astutus) aka ringtail, a member of the raccoon family
  8. Not is the same small fox shown in #1?
I'm always surprised at the variety of coloration in skunks. Besides the ones pictured above, we've seen on that's almost completely white.

The ringtail was a terrific surprise. They are presumably fairly common, but also very shy and elusive, and this is only the second one we've photographed in four years of living here. As you can see, the animal's tail-to-body ratio is ridiculous.

And with respect to #8, the more I watch the video (all of these photos are screen shots of frames from videos), the more I think this is the same juvenile fox that appears in the first photo. It's a cute little rascal.

There's never a dull moment when it comes to wildlife around Casa Fire Ant.
¡Hola, amigos¡ ¿Qué pasa? Hoy es el día nacional de guacamole, y es la hora a celebrar. (It's also Mexico's Independence Day. Coincidence? I think not.)

We've got a lot of territory to cover, so let's lean into it (as "they" say in H.R.).

I'm sure most of you are itching to know what's going on with the garden spider I introduced a week or so ago. As you may recall, said spider wasn't exactly batting a thousand when it came to closing the deal on a meal, so to speak. But I suppose it was getting by...until a couple of days ago, when I noticed that it and pretty much all evidence of its web were no longer haunting gracing our garage window. So, unless it packed its bags and moved somewhere the property values are more reasonable, I have to assume that it discovered the hard way that there's always someone bigger and meaner than you. [Cue Bad Bad Leroy Brown mood music]

Of course, I have no idea what that bigger someone was, but I have my suspicions.

T-rex staring down our garden spider

On a sorta semi pseudo-related note, as long as we're updating some local wildlife reports, our Texas spiny lizard is still hanging out in the garage, eating bugs and spiders -- don't think? Nah...surely not... -- and pooping everywhere, and while it may be my imagination, I think it's getting accustomed to my presence. At least it's not diving under the treadmill the instant I come into the garage.

If that's the case, it may be because I finally wised up and set out a paper plate which I fill with water almost every morning. I'm not that wise in the ways of lizards but I figured that it wouldn't hurt to put out some water just in case it wasn't getting sufficiently hydrated from food sources. I did wonder, though, if my efforts were being recognized by the target of my largesse. 

That question was put to rest a couple of days ago when I watched the lizard creep slowly from under the treadmill and make its way to the edge of the paper plate where it proceeded to drink some that morning's refreshment. 

As is my wont, I determined to capture some photographic evidence of this phenomenon, so I set up a GoPro camera aimed at the dish, and configured to take a photo every 30 seconds. Each morning, I would refill the plate with water, and turn on the camera, letting it do its thing for a couple of hours. I would then return and scroll through the images on the camera (is it obvious that I'm retired?), looking for the affirmation that I hadn't imagined what I thought I saw. And for several days, it did appear that it had been an illusion, a cruel joke foisted on me by an uncaring Mother Nature and/or a decaying brain.

But this morning's efforts erased all doubt. I finally caught the little guy/gal in the act, and here's the proof:

Animated GIF: Texas spiny lizard drinking water
You can lead a lizard to water, and sometimes it will drink.

Let's talk about music for a minute, shall we? First, here are the last ten songs that iTunes shuffled onto my phone this morning:

  • Kikuchiyo to Mohshimasu -- Pink Martini (thanks, Sam!)
  • Too Much Stuff -- Delbert McClinton
  • All the Pretty Colors -- Sturgill Simpson
  • Never Kill Another Man -- The Steve Miller Band
  • Eleanor Rigby -- Joshua Bell & Frankie Moreno
  • I'll Fly Away -- Gary Chapman & Wynonna [not Ryder]
  • Paranoid -- Black Sabbath (how did that get on there?!)
  • Dance Electric -- Pointer Sisters (how did that get on there?!)
  • Same Kind of Crazy -- Delbert McClinton (hmm...I sense a trend)
  • Love is Gonna Gotcha -- Lucy Woodward
Pretty interesting, huh? And, guess what they all have in common, other than being comprised of 1s and 0s which are magically converted into sound waves? Uh...well...nothing, actually. So, never mind.

I have, within the past two days, purchased two new albums, which I now recommend for your consideration. The first is alluded to in the list above...the album name is Hang On Little Tomato by Pink Martini, and the songs on this 2004 album are almost as eclectic as the list of music I provided above. The group consists of a dozen musicians, and they've performed songs in 25 different languages (not all at the same time...I'm guessing) in a wide variety of styles. My pal Sam played the title track of the album for me on Monday, and it features a wonderfully accessible clarinet solo, and I'm a sucker for clarinet solos that make me foolishly think that, yes, I could do that. (Reality inevitably harshes my mellow.) I immediately downloaded the entire album.

Then, yesterday, I purchased Sturgill Simpson's new album, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita, released last month. I've previously confessed to being a Sturgill fan, and this album generally reinforces my fandom. It's mostly bluegrass/Americana/throwback country in genre, with one great exception -- a Latin-style number called Juanita and featuring Willie Nelson on guitar. [Some have expressed  astonishment/disappointment that Willie doesn't sing on the track, but his unique guitar phrasing is unmistakeable.] The album is short -- less than 30 minutes of music -- and designed to be listened to straight through, even if most of the tracks stand up well by themselves. 

If it sounds like I'm damning the album with faint praise, it's only because there's not a lot of meat on the bones. Three of the ten tracks are a minute or less in length, and one song is sort of a remixed epilogue of the introduction. OTOH, Simpson is a skilled storyteller and if you approach the album with that in mind, you'll be rewarded for your time.

We might as well wrap this up with more music. Here's one of the songs I think I'd like to have played at my funeral.

I changed my mind (not about the funeral song, but about how to end this post). Here's a tree frog resting on a poinsettia leaf. Sorta makes you look forward to Christmas, huh? [There's more where this came from over on my Instagram page. Hint, hint.]

Photo - Gree tree frog resting on a poinsettia leaf

OK, now we're finished. Go eat some guac.
All I have to say about the title of this post is...Roget let me down yet again.

For the past couple of months I've been observing a female yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia; a type of orb weaver) just outside one of our garage windows. During that time, it's grown from a half-inch "wingspan" juvenile into a three inch Stuff Of Nightmares, dining on a variety of hapless insects that become ensnared in its two feet wide circular web, which is anchored at the corners by some tall shrubs on the bottom, and the eave of our house at the top.

I check on it daily, mainly to reassure myself that if it's still there, it's not in our house. Did I mention my arachnid aversion? I confess a somewhat morbid fascination with its behavior, as I comfortably (in a physical sense; emotionally, it's a different story) view it from the opposite side of the glass.

But last week, I saw something that made me drop my guard and rush outside to get a closer look. The spider was busily spinning something around with those Tim Burtonesque legs, and I immediately recognized it as Lady Shelob's next Meal Simple. The apparently imminent entrée was vaguely beetle-shaped, and as I looked closer, I realized to my horror that it was still alive and [literally] kicking.

So, of course, I had to video it...and you'll never believe what happened next! (No, really!)

So much for the spider being the ultimate predator.

Of course, I had to chase some rabbits after viewing these spectacles. Here are some things you might not know about spiders and their webs:

  • Spiders can vary the thickness and stickiness of the silk they produce depending on its intended use. For example, the silk that the beetles were wrapped in is called "aciniform" while the outer rim and spokes of the web is comprised of silk called "ampullate" (and ampullate can have different compositions depending on whether it's meant to be temporary during construction of the web, or permanent).

  • Aciniform silk is much tougher than other types, making the beetles' escapes that much more impressive.

  • The Darwin's bark spider's silk is the toughest biologic material ever discovered; it's ten times tougher on a weight-adjusted basis than Kevlar. ("Toughness" is a combination of a material's strength and ductility -- which, as we all know, is the measure of how much a material can be distorted [or stretched, in the case of spider silk] without breaking.) This explains why Kim Kardashian's bras are made exclusively of spider silk.

  • OK, I made that last sentence up.

  • Spider silk is rich in vitamin K, which can aid in blood clotting, so the next time you, say, cut off a finger with your chain saw, just look for a spider web. (Not really. I mean, it might work, but there are probably other, more medically effective measures, starting with not cutting off any appendages.)
Sorry; I don't know what the post title means either.

Howdy, buckaroos, and happy Thursday to you. Today is, of course, International Bow Day, so feel free to take a bow, look for a [rain]bow, grab a bow (arrows are optional), and hye thyself to the nearest boat bow. Oh, and today is also when we are scheduled to meet at our church to plan the upcoming semester of English As A Second Language (ESL) classes, and I think the preceding sentence shows why such classes are so challenging for the students. (But don't get me started on duplicative reflexive pronouns in Spanish.)

Say, did I mention that there's a photo of a snake in this post? It's actually a really cute, derpy-looking one, but still. 

Debbie and I have recently started watching the syndicated rebroadcasts -- OK, reruns -- of Reba on The Hallmark Channel. Now, before you revoke my Man Card, let me just say three words (or four, if you're -- you are -- not into contractions): it's freakin' hilarious. I don't know why we never watched it before (its six season run ended in 2007), although the fact that it aired first on The WB and later on The CW might explain it; we only watched networks with 3-letter abbreviations. That's a personal moral decision, but feel free to make your own call on this important issue.

Reba McEntire is a fantastic comedic actress (she also does serious, heart-rending drama; I refer you to her serious, heart-rending role in Tremors). And, of course, she's dabbled in a singing career, and sews clothes in her spare time to make ends meet [Ed. That's not remotely true.]. Speaking of singing, Reba is the only sitcom in history where the lead actor also sings the show's theme song. [Ed. That's also not remotely true.] Of course, most people don't realize that Jerry Seinfeld actually played the bass line in his eponymous series [Ed. That's not remotely true; stop it!], but that doesn't require nearly as much skill as singing.

You know, I spent quite a bit of time crafting what I think was a carefully worded and thoughtful assessment of the current situation in Afghanistan. But I've reconsidered posting it. I'm not sure why any of you invest your valuable time to stop by this blog, but I am fairly confident it's not for rants about political issues or world events.

OTOH, I'm not above linking to insightful and eloquent takes on the matter.

Debbie recently discovered why our lone tomato plant was underachieving: tomato horn worms.

Photo - Tomato horn worm on tomato plant
Photo - Tomato horn worm on tomato plant

These caterpillars eventually turn into five-spotted hawk moths, but before they do, they can wreak significant havoc on one's tomato crop. Debbie actually cut ours back to the ground. You might say the surgery was successful, but the patient died.

By the way, these tomato hornworms do have a natural enemy -- braconid wasps -- and the way they kill their prey almost makes you sympathetic to the caterpillars. Experts say that if you run across a caterpillar "infected" with the wasp's "virus," don't kill it...the next generation of wasps that will eventually hatch from the caterpillar's body will provide that much more protection against the next generation of hornworms. Nature can be cool even when she kills.

[Here's where the snake photo comes in...]

Last Sunday afternoon we got more than two inches of rain in less than twenty minutes. The creek rose quickly and the city sent someone out to close the low water crossing. After the rain let up, Debbie and I walked to the crossing down the block from our house to check out the torrent.

As we were turning to go home, something at the edge of the concrete apron caught my eye. It was a water snake, seemingly trying to make some sense out of the raging river that an hour earlier was a placid, slow-moving creek.

Photo - Plain-bellied water snake in the creek
This is a plain-bellied water snake, a non-venomous, relatively common creek- and lake-side dweller whose primary diet is fish, frogs, and salamanders. This one allowed me to get within a few feet before I violated its personal space and it disappeared into the swirling water.

I regret to inform you that on Tuesday of this week, we came across a flattened PBWS in the middle of that same low water crossing. I don't know why it felt the need to cross the road, but it lost the battle with traffic. Was it the same one that I photographed? No way of knowing, but it was a little sad, nonetheless.

In closing, I posted the following photo over on my Instagram feed, and folks seemed to like it, so I thought I'd add it here for those of you who haven't drunk the IG koolaid. It's just a picture of a morning here in the Texas Hill Country.

Peace and grace to you all!

Photo of sunrise through the trees in Horseshoe Bay, Texas
Howdy, y'all! Today is National Intern Day and also National Chili Dog and National Chicken Wing Day, so we've sent the Gazette's army of interns out for a junk food scavenger hunt. Fingers crossed that tomorrow is National Antacid Day.

Boy, there's a lot going on nowadays in the Wonderful World of Nature, so let's just dive right in. (Notice how I worked in a reference to the Summer Olympics? Take that, interns!)

Our garage has been a focal point for a couple of observations. First, a yellow garden spider has set up shop on a shrub right outside one of the garage windows. I've watched it grow into a pretty big specimen.

Photo - Yellow garden spider showing the web's stabilimentum
That thick zig-zag is the stabilimentum.

The spider itself is not my focus today (although it does creep me out a bit), but the topic of these spiders' stabilimenta is pretty fascinating. It's one of the mysteries of nature, in that we don't really know for sure what its purpose is. Some think it's to warn away birds who might inadvertently destroy the web by flying into it; others think it's to attract prey, or simply to strengthen the web. I found this college student's essay to be a great discussion of the alternatives.

Speaking of mysteries, I've recently noticed a virtual absence of insects inside the garage, and while this is a welcome development, I can't help wondering what's causing it. That mystery was solved a few days ago.

Photo - Texas spiny lizard resting atop our treadmill
Even lizards need rest after a hard treadmill workout.

This is a Texas spiny lizard, and alert Gazette readers will recall that they have been the focus of a number of previous posts.

Photo - Texas spiny lizard resting atop our treadmill
Better -- and cheaper -- than an exterminator

I'm pretty sure that this good-sized lizard is responsible for keeping the garage relatively bug-free. There are only two downsides. The first is when I forget that he's around and turn on the light early in the morning just in time to spot him out of the corner of my eye running across the floor. And the second is...poop. I think you know what I mean.

Speaking of lizards -- and mysteries --Debbie spotted a tiny one on our front porch wall. 

Photo - Juvenile prairie lizard on the wall of our house
The doorbell is just over 2" in diameter.

Here's a closer look:

Photo - Juvenile prairie lizard on the wall of our house
Regardless of species, it was pretty chill about getting photographed.

When I first looked from a distance, I thought it was a baby anole, but immediately dismissed this idea when I got closer. Then, I figured it was a juvenile Texas spiny lizard, but the scales on the head didn't look right. I posted a photo on the Texas Reptile and Amphibian Identification Facebook page, and received several conflicting species suggestions, but the one from the most knowledgeable person was that this is a juvenile prairie lizard

That's highly interesting to me, because I've not seen one around here before. I've submitted this sighting to iNaturalist where I'm sure I'll get a definitive answer.

Switching gears, let's move on to the insect world, where once again Debbie called me over to see a grasshopper moving slowly up our sliding glass door. It was a perfect pose for a picture.

Photo - Underside of a grasshopper on a window
If you think there's something vaguely familiar here, you're not alone.

Now, we could go into a detailed discussion of the various parts of the typical grasshopper underbelly, but we all have better things to do. Still, if your curiosity remains (or appears) after your next margarita, you can visit this page, courtesy of the University of Wyoming, whose high jump team's mascot is...OK, I'm just kidding. Probably. Who knows, really? Anyway, we'll save the boring scientific and accurate stuff, because this is what I immediately saw:

Photo - Underside of a grasshopper on a window with a Photoshopped Groucho Marx disguise
"I never forget a face, but in your case I'll make an exception." -- GM

I thought about submitting this to iNaturalist but they'd probably cancel my account.

Oh, hey...we haven't checked in on the local amphibian population yet, and this next one is a doozy (I'm pretty sure I heard Groucho Marx say that once.). And, again, we can thank Debbie for it:

Photo - Gray tree frog sitting atop a bell pepper
Pepper hopper topper

This is a gray tree frog who needs to take a remedial botany course because this bell pepper plant is not now and never will be a tree. I'm also going to think twice about eating any of our peppers now.

Last year, we routinely found tree frogs under our deck chaise lounger cushions every summer morning. But when they didn't reappear this year, we feared that the Great Texas Snowpocalypse last February might have wiped them out. Fortunately, they're apparently tougher than that, and they're back under the cushions as well as on our produce.

Now, last but not least, we'll wrap things up with some mammals, and I get the credit for this sighting (which, to be honest, is nothing special, considering that you can't swing a rutabaga around here without hitting one of these guys):

Photo - White-tail deer buck, doe, and fawn lying in the grass
Olan Mills would be proud.

Every evening around 5:30 or 6:00, whitetail deer gather in the vacant lot next to our house to browse. It may be the same group, with a few variations, but there's usually several does, one or two fawns, and a buck may or may not grace them with his presence.

If you look closely, you'll see that the buck still has its velvet antlers. Here's a good source of information about deer velvet (that's not focused on its dubious uses in medicine). [This website also contains some photos and descriptions of the process of shedding the velvet and if you have a weak stomach, you might want to skip over that.]

Incidentally, browsing is different than grazing, and different species of herbivores will usually do one or the other, but not both. The distinction is important, because that's why our local lawns are safe from deer. Anytime you see a deer apparently grazing in a lawn, it's really looking for acorns or leafy weeds
Debbie and I have been monitoring the life cycle of black swallowtail butterflies, and it's a pretty fascinating process.

But, first...

I started writing this accompanied by the dulcet tones of a just-now-repaired clothes dryer, and it's a good feeling to know that we won't need to employ the makeshift fan-in-garage approach (which, I will admit, was surprisingly effective) until the next belt breaks.

Animated gif: large fan blowing a sheet around in our garage

Now, as I was saying, we've got some butterflies-in-waiting marinating on our back patio. Debbie first noticed them as tiny black worms infesting the parsley she had planted in a pot. (Don't ask me why; I have yet to encounter a dish which was improved -- or even affected -- by the addition of that herb.) She said she flicked a few of them off before she found out that they were actually the second stage in the life of a black swallowtail butterfly. The first stage is, of course, eggs, but who thinks to look for butterfly eggs on parsley plants?

Once we determined they weren't a threat to our existence, we left six of them to their own devices, and within just a few days, two things occurred. First, the parsley began to be stripped of its leaves. Second, those tiny (less than 1" long) worms morphed into these:

Photo - Black swallowtail butterfly larvae on a potted parsley plant
Three of the six original butterfly larvae (aka "caterpillars")

They were actually quite striking in appearance...

Photo - Closeup of a black swallowtail larva
Photo - Closeup of a black swallowtail larva

We didn't realize it until we did some research, but they actually have a bit of personality (if you'll excuse the anthropomorphism). If you threaten or irritate them, they expose an organ called the osmeterium which, along with an accompanying odor, is said to startle and repel predators. I was able to elicit this behavior simply by gently touching one with a gloved finger or even with a stalk of parsley.

Photo - Black swallowtail butterfly larvae with exposed osmeterium
The osmeterium is that pair of slimy-looking, orange "tentacles"

Photo - Closeup of a black swallowtail larva with exposed osmeterium

By the way, in the preceding photo you might notice that one of the caterpillars is sporting green stripes instead of white. We also learned that this means that it's one step closer to becoming a chrysalis.

And speaking of chrysalises (or chrysalides...take your pick), you probably already know that this is the last step of the transformation that results in a butterfly. But if you're like me, you may not have ever thought about the actually process in which a larva (caterpillar) becomes a chrysalis (pupa). And, in fact, I had always kinda thought of a chrysalis as being an outer covering of the caterpillar, but that's not even remotely close to what happens.

In reality, the chrysalis is the result of an amazing metamorphosis in which the caterpillar basically dissolves its own cellular structure and reshapes itself. OK, that's a tremendous oversimplification, and if you want to really delve into the biological science, here's a great place to start.

We were hoping to catch a caterpillar in the midst of this metamorphosis, but ours hid themselves from our prying eyes. However, Debbie was able to locate two of them in their chrysalis form. (Of the initial six larvae, three apparently wandered off and one didn't survive.) One of the chrysalises is now attached to a stalk of basil that was growing in the same pot as the parsley (the caterpillars showed no interest in eating basil), and the other caterpillar moved to an adjacent pot where its chrysalis form is now attached to a bougainvillea. (Update: My live-in fact checker informed me that it's a bell pepper plant, not a bougainvillea. I can't decide what needs more work, my botany skills or my memory.)

Photo - Closeup of a black swallowtail chrysalis
The first step in the metamorphosis is to spin a couple of threads to attach to the material where the chrysalis will remain for the duration.

Photo - Closeup of a black swallowtail chrysalis

We were puzzled by the blobs of material at the tail end of each chrysalis. I haven't been able to find any mention of this phenomenon, but my theory is that it's actually a small piece of the caterpillar's body that isn't metamorphosed into chrysalis form. 

Swallowtails are apparently known for their unpredictability, in that it takes anywhere from a few weeks to a few months for a butterfly (aka "imago") to emerge from the chrysalis. Their disregard for the calendar was proven as I ventured into a field outside just outside our neighborhood a couple of days ago and spotted a black swallowtail checking out the flowering weeds.

Photo - Black swallowtail butterfly in the field
Its normal lifespan is only a couple of weeks.

The life of a butterfly is short, which is a little ironic considering how long it takes to get there from its beginning as an egg. But they make the most of that short life by adding incredible beauty to the world, not to mention their value as pollinators.

Photo - Black swallowtail butterfly and bougainvillea - Midland, Texas - 2009
A dozen years ago, I watched this one frolic among bougainvillea at our home in Midland.

As The Worm Dangles
April 14, 2021 9:07 AM | Posted in: ,

Imagine, if you will, a pair of drunken-yet-paradoxically-overcaffeinated zombies staggering along a tree-lined cart path on a golf course. That mental picture is not far from the reality of my and Debbie's morning runs lately. You see, we are well into the Season of Dangling Worms here in the Texas Hill Country, and the act of walking, running, or sometimes even just standing under oak trees can result in becoming draped in obnoxious fashion by...well...dangling worms.

Animated gif of an inch worm
An inch worm inches (ha!) its way across our garage floor.
Our erratic jogging movements result from mostly futile attempts to avoid the caterpillars that hang from almost invisible strands attached to every single oak limb in existence. That's almost not an exaggeration. And because the worms are tiny and their bungee cords invisible, we can't always spot them until the last second.

Our clumsy avoidance technique yields mixed results. We've taken to doing a worm check on each other after our outdoors sessions. Debbie compares it to monkeys grooming each other, although I'm not sure we're that elegant. Even so, yesterday I brought two caterpillars in with me on my shirt after our run, and Debbie later had a hitchhiker in her hair. Yes, it's all fairly disgusting.

At this exact moment in time, we have at least three different varieties of caterpillars gracing us with their presence: oak leaf rollers (on the right, in the photo below), cankerworms (also known by the less odious name of inchworms), and a larger one (on the left), whose identity remains unknown to me. [Update: The one on the left is a forest tent caterpillar. We have a fair number of them, mostly crawling on the walls of our house, but it could be much worse.]

Photo of two caterpillars of different species

The scale in the photo is misleading. The specimen on the left is at least twice the size of the leaf roller.

If there's any good news in this situation, it's that the infestation is quite short-lived. We should be past all of this in a few more days, and it's smooth sailing until *checks calendar* May, when the walnut caterpillar invasion begins. 

In the meantime, if someone tries to tell you that these little dangling creatures pose no real threat to humans, let me assure you...the truth is much more complicated and dark:

Comic strip showing caterpillars to actually be alien chest-bursters

Caterpillar Complaints and Captures
October 16, 2020 11:24 AM | Posted in: ,

Spoof of Indiana Jones movie still

Alert Gazette readers will recall my lament from last spring regarding an infestation of walnut caterpillars and their fecal flotsam. Well...lucky us. It turns out that these creatures make twice annual appearances -- spring AND fall -- and we're now in the middle of their curtain call.

This is also the time of year that the pecan trees begin to drop their leaves, so we're dealing not only with caterpillar poop falling onto our deck from the trees in our back yard, but also the leaves. My mid-morning ritual now consists of firing up the leaf blower in an attempt to bring a modicum of order to the deck and back porch. Of course, those efforts yield results that last at best a half hour or so, but, like Sisyphus pushing that rock, my fate is simply to keep trying.

Now, all of this is annoying enough, but this is also the time of year when the walnut caterpillars launch themselves from the tree and rain down like multi-legged storm troopers. In the past, we've tried (a) ignoring them, (b) sweeping them, and (c) squishing them. The first approach proved unworkable, the second was futile, and the third was gross. So, this time around I've initiated Option D: harvesting them. 

Equipped with leather gloves and a bucket, I've picked up literally hundreds of caterpillars. I realize that for every one I catch, there are probably a hundred more that go...somewhere. But I figure that for every one I catch, that's one less to deal with next spring when the next generation hatches.

I haven't figured out their life cycle or behavioral patterns. I mean, they drop out of the trees, but then immediately find the nearest wall and start climbing back up again. I don't know; maybe it's like an amusement park ride to them. But it's a somewhat unsettling thing to stand on the back porch to watch -- and hear...they make a faint but obvious plop when they hit -- them fall. They seem to be slightly stunned when they hit the deck, but quickly recover and start crawling around.

Anyway, I'm collecting caterpillars by the bucket, and the creepiness factor increases when you look into said bucket. The following scene brings to mind the phobia of Indiana Jones:

Animated gif of walnut caterpillars crawling around in a bucket
They could be really short snakes.

As with most things, this too shall pass. At least walnut caterpillars don't transmit COVID-19.

Do they?
Happy Friday, folks! We've got a lot of ground to cover today so try to keep up. (Just kidding. If you're here for the pictures, there's plenty; if you're a former Playboy reader and have just stopped by for the articles, there're a few things for you, as well, but none of it requires your rapt attention.)

First, please join me in congratulating the 80th guest at the Fire Ant Armadillo Lodge:

Photo - armadillo being released from trap
He's a little camera shy.

Armadillo Ochenta -- as he prefers to be called -- won a fabulous prize of an extended vacation in an undisclosed location somewhere between Austin and San Angelo. Enjoy, #80, and feel free not to visit again!

We've recently had a number of interesting visitors besides #80. Yesterday afternoon Debbie glanced toward the back patio and exclaimed "what's that?!" I followed her pointing finger and saw that she wasn't looking outside at all, but rather at the track of our sliding glass door. This little fellow was attempting, and failing, to look inconspicuous.

I grabbed him, carefully trying not to break his tail, and he responded to my gentle grasp with a gaping maw that informed me that he was ready and able to inflict significant mayhem on anyone and anything within snapping distance. He, too, was released on his own recognizance to one of our flowerbeds.

Photo - green anole in my hand
Anole in hand is the same as in a bush, only more comical.

And,'s not a snake. It's a green anole. So cool your jets.

Not all our visitors are as harmless or comical. I watched this one stroll around the grounds until he felt at home.*

Animation of redheaded centipede
I count only twenty-one pairs of legs. So, more arthropodic braggadocio.

This is a Giant Redheaded centipede, aka a Texas Redheaded centipede (not to be confused with the Texas Red Headed Stranger). This one was about six or seven inches long (I tried unsuccessfully to get it to stand still for an exact measurement; it had a bad case of jimmy legs). 

Centipedes are horrifying to look at and, yes, they are slightly venomous. But they do fill an ecological niche by eating other insects and even snakes. That's all well and good as long as they stay outside. Unfortunately, they don't always respect our boundaries.

Let's shift gears to something a little more cuddly. Alert Gazette readers will recall that we are regularly visited by tree frogs. In fact, almost every morning we find two of them hidden beneath the cushions of the chaise loungers on the back deck, and they spend the day there. And every evening, they leave to do whatever nocturnal amphibians do when the sun goes down.

Occasionally, though, we'll find them in different spots -- invariably cool and shady spots -- during the day. Here's one that was resting in the foliage of a potted bell pepper plant on the deck.

Photo - tree frog amongst pepper plant leaves
Move along. I'm not the droid you're looking for.

But enough of the Animalia kingdom; let's talk fungi.

I was roaming around the adjacent vacant lot, wearing snake boots and carrying a weedeater, much to the bafflement of the golfers across the fence, and came upon this scene:

Photo - plants growing on top of fungus growing on a dead tree trunk
A pyramid scheme of life

I realize this isn't all that interesting at first glance...and possibly not at second or third glance. But work with me here. There's a big, dead, partially rotted tree stump lodged in the ground. And on that stump is a tree fungus (bottom center in the photo), somehow finding nourishment in that woody corpse. But -- and here's what I found rather fascinating -- in the center of that fungus there are green leafy plants taking root. I don't know what kind of plants they are, but wouldn't it be cool if they're baby trees? Talk about the circle of life.

Well, I can see you don't share my enthusiasm for symbiotic relationships among flora living and dead. That's fine. But what about a mushroom that looks like a flower? Is that more to your liking?

Of course, anything worth posting is worth Photoshopping, and while this mushroom has an interesting shape, I feel it's a bit lacking in the coloring department. So, I've "helped" it along. Drag that vertical yellow bar to the left to see what I mean.

Photo - mushroom that looks like a flower 'Photo - Photoshopped mushroom that looks like a flower
Drag that yellow line. You know you want to.

Up next: some raccoon photos, and perhaps a beaver video. Stay tuned!

*Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Feel free to hum the song from which this lyrical phrase comes.
It's been a stressful week around here, for reasons that I won't go into. I tell you that simply as an excuse -- as if I really need one -- to not tax my brain by attempting to come up with with any of the witty, pithy, and wise words that I know you all come here to get. *cough*

Nope, I just want to show you some pictures.

So, is there a term for the time that occurs about an hour after sunrise, or about an hour before sunset? Early morning? Late afternoon? That seems too easy. Eh, whatever. Here are two photos taken along Texas State Highway 71 down the road from Horseshoe Bay, at almost the same spot but ten hours apart on Monday, September 28th. The first is the "after sunrise" scene; the second is the "before sunset" picture. God does good work.

Photo - Cloud formations in Central Texas
Photo - Cloud formations in Central Texas

I think we can all agree that praying mantises are cool. Well, except for those of us who think they're terrifying. It's not really their fault that they have those googly eyes that follow you and peer deep into your very soul while they plot your imminent demise. OTOH, maybe they're just curious. Anyway, most of them look like the gal (or guy; I have no idea) shown below, right? Very, very green. It makes for great camouflage on plants; maybe not so much on a downspout.

Photo - Green praying mantis

So, green isn't a great camo color for every setting. It appears that some mantids have figured that out and have adapted. Take this guy (or girl...I have no idea), for example. I noticed it crouching on the pavement in our cul-de-sac while I was using the leaf blower (an activity not unlike sweeping the beach, but that's another less photogenic story).

Photo - Gray praying mantis
Photo - Gray praying mantis
Photo - Gray praying mantis

Now that, my friend, is effective camouflage! Well, except for the glaring shadow, but transparency is not a strong suite of most living creatures. That coloring will work well on tree bark, which I assume is a more normal habitat than the middle of the street.

AFAIK, mantids can change colors only very slightly, so this is a different species than la campamocha verde shown above. Still got those weird googly eyes, though.

While we're on the subject of insects that sport different colors than usual, here's a cicada that was on our driveway. Most of these guys are also on the greenish end of the spectrum.

Photo - Brown cicada

I think this is a pretty great scheme, and evokes the colors of the Black Knights of West Point. Feel free to suggest to someone that they should change their name to the West Point Cicadas (and be sure to let us know how that turns out).

Last but not least, while rolling snake eyes can be a VBT (Very Bad Thing) in a game of craps -- although I know about as much about shooting dice as I do about playing cricket, i.e. less than nothing -- not all snake eyes are eeeeeevvvvviiiiiilllllll. In fact, the eyes on this six-inch-long DeKay's brownsnake are much less creepy than those on the praying mantises above. But, YMMV.

Photo - Closeup of the eye of a DeKay's brownsnake

Thanks for indulging me. I'm not as stressed as I was before. And I never drink while blogging, so lose that thought.
Fake MPAA rating for this post warning you about its provocative content

I don't know whether it's because we've been stuck at home more this year, but I've noticed more evidence than ever before that spring in our neighborhood is a matter of life and death...and I'm not talking about COVID-19 at all.

If the Circle of Life was unrolled and laid flat in a trend line, we've spotted examples of the significant points along that line. To wit...

In the beginning

We have three species of lizards living in our neighborhood: the six-lined racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineatus) , the green anole (Anolis carolinensis) and its less-plentiful cousin, the brown anole, and the Texas spiny lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus). The three each have unique "personalities" and behaviors -- the racerunners are like inquisitive two-year-olds around kitchen drawers, the anoles (at least the males) are pugnacious and territorial, and the TSLs are skittish and secretive. But they all have one thing in common: a strong desire to make little lizards. And, for some reason, our courtyard seems to be the preferred make-out location.

Photo - Anoles mating
Photo - Six-lined racerunners mating

Both the anole (top photo) and racerunner (bottom) females will lay eggs that will hatch in less than two months.

By the way, I'm not sure why it is, but a noticeable percentage of the lizard population around here are missing parts of their tails, as you may have noticed with the female anole and the male racerunner. Fortunately, they'll both regenerate those tails.

New life...or not

So, after making whoopee, the next point along the Great Trend Line of Life (GTLL) is -- can you guess? -- babies...assuming everything goes according to plan. When it does, it's very cool. I've written at length about the new family of hawks next door, but not all the life stories end that happily.

About a year ago, I documented the nesting and egg-laying behavior of a river cooter, and the predation of that nest by an armadillo. I assumed this was a rather isolated event, but this spring I've found four such ravaged nests just in the vacant lot adjacent to ours. Here's an example, with the background faded to highlight the destroyed eggshells.

Photo - Turtle nest attacked and eggs devoured

The hole at the top of the photo is where the eggs were originally buried; the white slivers are all that remain of the leathery eggs.

Fortunately, nature has a way of compensating for these destructive events via the sheer number of nests that are built and eggs laid, and our populations of red eared sliders and river cooters seems quite healthy. And so we occasionally get treated to scenes like the one below (excuse the poor long-distance phone photography) of a tiny turtle sunning itself atop a big one. Are they related? Who knows? But they both appear content.

Photo - Tiny turtle on top of big turtle

Life is a gift, if you can keep it

But, of course, life can be a zero sum game in the world of nature. The food chain is pretty immutable; eaters get eaten, and sometimes bad decisions are fatal.

As an example of the latter, here's a hummingbird who kamikazied into one of our windows. I'm sure that everyone with a feeder has seen this happen at some point in the past, and it's always tragic.

Deceased hummingbird

Life seems to be particularly nasty, brutish, and short if you're an insect (you're not, by the way, so don't worry). For example, you might encounter an assassin bug. When that happens, the prognosis is grim. Just ask the May beetle in the following photo (but don't expect an answer).

Photo - Assassin bug sucking the life out of a beetle

This pair was on our back porch. If you look closely, you'll see the assassin bug's proboscis inserted into the belly of the beetle, whose life is slowly being drained. We don't mourn this passing because the beetle is a pest, like much of the assassin bug's other prey, so the bug may be ugly (and it is capable of giving a human a nasty little puncture if handled) but it's a beneficial guest in a garden or yard.

The assassin bug is also tenacious. As I attempted to photograph this behavior, it tried to back away from my presence...but it never let go of its prey. You've got to admire someone (or something) that's willing to fight for its dinner.

Another occupant of the "death point" on the GTLL is the moth shown below...or at least, what's left of it.

Photo - Cope's gray tree frog eating a moth

We've noticed that tree frogs have taken to hiding beneath the cushions of the chaise lounges on our deck, in obvious defiance of the dangers of being squished. So, we've started looking under the cushions to help them avoid any embarrassing flattening. Early one morning, I pulled a cushion back and uncovered this Cope's gray tree frog (Dryophytes chrysoscelis) in the middle of a tasty breakfast of moth.

So, in this version of the zero sum game, the moth's life energy is converted into the frog's ability to continue waking us up in the middle of the night by singing its unique arrangement of Bohemian Rhapsody outside our bedroom window.

By the way, there are actually two almost identical species of gray tree frogs, and they can be distinguished pretty much only by their calls. Both have that bright orange or gold stripe on each back leg that you can see in the photo. I'm guessing that this one is a Cope's gray tree frog, but that's only because the Wikipedia photos look similar. And, really, from the moth's perspective, it's not important.

So, there you have it -- the amazing and intriguing and disturbing facets of natural life in the Fire Ant neighborhood. If there's a silver lining in the COVID cloud, it's the [forced] opportunity to slow down and observe more closely what's going on around us.

I leave you with one last tree frog photo. You'll have to guess what happened to him/her/it.

Photo - Cope's gray tree frog

Frickin' Frass
May 29, 2020 7:02 PM | Posted in: ,

Re: the post title -- pardon my French. Except in this case, "frass" is actually German.

As long as we're on the subject of disgusting worm-related phenomenon, lately we've been dealing with an infestation of walnut caterpillars on our pecan trees. It's bad enough that they're not abiding by their names -- no one in their right mind would mistake a pecan for a walnut -- but they're also using our back yard as an outhouse. Just look at this photo:

Photo - Caterpillar castings or frass

That's horrible, isn't it. No, wait...I'm not talking about the condition of the deck, which is in obvious need of refinishing. I'm referring to those black specks, which are caterpillar frass, aka castings, aka poop. The caterpillars in our trees are producing generating prolific quantities of frass, to the point where we (and by "we" I obviously mean "Debbie") are having to sweep off the deck several times daily.

You're probably familiar with the book Everyone Poops, and that's obviously true even for insects in most stages of their life cycles. I accept this as a perfectly natural phenomenon, no different than the exhalation of CO2 by mammals during breathing or the squishing of bodily fluids when one steps on a walnut caterpillar who has the poor judgment to temporarily cease pooping and venture down from the tree.

And it's not as though caterpillar excrement has no redeeming qualities. In fact, it (and all of its insect cousins' output) is high in nutrient value for your gardening enterprise. Unsurprisingly, you can buy bags of bug poo from Amazon. I don't want to know the details of how someone manages to fill a bag. (That link leads to a product that is described as containing exudate matter of black fly larvae. So, so dignified, especially if you hear it spoken with a British accent.)

Pestiferous as the prodigious poop production may be, it's more frustrating that we can't spot the exudate actors. The caterpillars are seemingly camouflage experts because we have yet to spot one in the trees.

As with most of these natural phenomena, this too shall pass. In the meantime, while How To Train Your Dragon may be more entertaining, I'd really like for someone to produce How To Housebreak Your Caterpillar. And I'd like to be able to go out on our deck without an umbrella.

Comic about a poop deck. Sorry not sorry.
Yes, poop deck is a real thing. Just not with caterpillars.

This is the third in an ongoing series of posts about the fascinating details of nature in our figurative Texas Hill Country back yard. Part 1 is here and Part 2 here.

Sure, birds and [some] reptiles are cute and cuddly, and [most] insects are not, but that doesn't mean that they're not attractive, even when they're a bit scary.

Take the pipevine swallowtail caterpillar, for example. As shown below, it looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie, with those nasty-looking black "horns" and the contrasting orange dots. This one was inching aimlessly around on our driveway, and I had to google it to identify it. But when I discovered its identity, and followed the logical trail to its metamorphosis, I found that it eventually becomes something out of an 1950s Walt Disney animated movie. Drag the yellow bar left to reveal the beauty of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly. Butterfly photo borrowed from this website; uncredited photographer.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a pipevine swallowtail (aka blue swallowtail) IRL, and I don't know much about them. But according to this excellent article, the larvae are distasteful if not downright poisonous to the predators that would feed on them, because they "sequester" acids from the plants they feed on. So their menacing exterior is a warning about their deadly interior.

Photo - Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar 'Photo - Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar

Speaking of butterflies, here's a photo I originally posted to my Instagram account. The butterfly is a Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia). I did a teensy bit of Photoshopping to make the colors of the butterfly stand out.

Photo - Common Buckeye butterfly
Our lawn isn't really black. As far as you know.

Dragonflies (which are neither dragons nor flies, but then the same sort of misnomer applies to butterflies) are nature's Top Guns. I didn't make that up; someone else did. I just stole borrowed it. Anyway, they look like they're assembled for aggressive action...except maybe for this one:

Photo - Dragonfly on crape myrtlePhoto - Dragonfly on crape myrtle
Anyone know how to reset a dislocated dragonfly shoulder?

I've never seen one with the wings folded forward like this. It was in our back yard, perched on the end of a crape myrtle branch (which I don't think is going to win any awards for blooms this year). It was rather windy, and perhaps the dragonfly was just trying to steady itself in the breeze. I hope it didn't throw anything out of joint.

Let's talk about something else.

Flowers are great, aren't they, especially when they pop up in unexpected places or assume unexpected shapes.

Last week, Debbie and I went on a long walk up (literally; the road rises 100' every mile, on average) the main road through our part of town. The traffic isn't usually heavy because it's essentially a residential street, but on this particular morning, there was a steady stream of cars and trucks going both directions (it's a wide, divided thoroughfare with an equally wide landscaped median so there's little danger to pedestrians). We were puzzled, and wondered if we'd somehow missed an evacuation order related to a gas leak or zombie outbreak. 

After about a mile of walking, we spotted the morning glory shown below just a few yards off the road. It was just the single flower amongst the thick undergrowth of a couple of trees. It was begging to be a photographic subject, so I obliged it. I share all of this only to say that while we stood on the curb, pointing to and discussing the flower, the traffic coming our way slowed to a crawl as curious drivers tried to see what had captured our attention. People will rubberneck at anything.

Photo - Morning Glory
Sometimes, less is more.

Oh, in care you're curious about the unusual volume of traffic, it turns out there was a major traffic accident on Highway 71, a mile or two west of where we were. A section of the highway was closed down for a couple of hours, and the street we were on was the only detour route available to traffic going to or coming from Austin.

There's no particular story behind the next photo; I just like it. It's an emerging agapanthus bloom on a plant in our courtyard. It's taking FOR. EVER. for this this one to fully open. I guess it's confused by our hot-then cold-then hot again weather, and is waiting for things to stabilize. I've got news for you, buddy...this is Texas and it ain't happening.

Photo - Agapanthus bloom about to open
Is this the flowering equivalent to sticking your hand out a window to see if it's raining?

Here's another photo that I find most pleasing. It's the foliage of a Persian Shield (Strobilanthes) that Debbie has planted in a pot on our front porch.

Photo - Foliage on a Persian Shield (Strobilanthes)
This is our tribute to Prince Rogers Nelson (RIP)

I was going to post a photo of the bloom on our aloe vera plant, but it's even slower to actually open up than the agapanthus, so I'll just wait until it does.

Thanks for sticking around for this little nature walk. I'll bet we do another one at some point in the future.
For the past few weeks, we've listened to the conversations (and monologues) of crows, originating from somewhere to the southwest of our house. They don't sound close, but their calls can carry long distances. And every now and then we could hear something crow-like, almost like the pleading of a young bird. But I'm far from being an expert in the ways of crows so I could very well be mistaken about that.

Anyway, as Debbie (previously known as MLB, but I now have her permission to reveal her identity) and I were heading out on a run yesterday morning, I glanced over at the electrical transmission towers that are just outside our neighborhood and spotted what looked to be a nest near the top of one of them. I told her that we should go investigate when we have a chance.

We did just that around in the early afternoon, donning our snake boots in preparation for a hike through the tall vegetation and rocky terrain surrounding the towers. We drove to a cul-de-sac about a hundred yards from the towers, parked the truck, and began making our way across the landscape. I brought my camera (of course) with an 80-250 zoom lens, and as usual, found a lot of interesting things to photograph. Let's explore, shall we?

The beginning of the hike was a pretty one, with an impressive array of spring wildflowers covering the ground.

Photo - Wildflowers in a field

We could see the tower in question just over the treeline, and it was obvious that there was a large nest near the top of the tower.

Photo - Transmission tower at a distance

We crossed the wildflower-covered open area and walked through a brushier part of the hill, and through an opening in the trees we caught a glimpse of an impressive vista, including a sliver of Lake LBJ about two miles away, as the crow flies (sorry).

Photo - View of Lake LBJ and surrounding countryside

The nest seems to cling precariously to the crossbeams of the tower. Notice the cluster of wires installed on top of the insulators to keep birds from perching there; I have no idea why that's important, but they obviously have no effect on nest building.

Photo - Crows nest on electrical tower

Photo - Close-up of crows nest on electrical tower

There are actually a pair of identical towers, side-by-side, and a crow was keeping watch on the other tower. 

Photo - Crow on electrical tower

A second crow had been flying back and forth, and eventually it landed and appeared to consult with the first one. If its plumage looks to be in disarray in the photo below, that's because it was. More puzzling behavior...was it shaking its feathers to communicate something to the other bird as they touched beaks?

Photo - Two crows on electrical tower

We watched the birds for a few minutes, then decided to do a little more exploration. Here's Debbie posing in front of a granite boulder she tried to convince me to take home.

Photo - Debbie in her snake boots

These purple flowers were quite plentiful, and we'd never seen them elsewhere in the neighborhood. At first, we (and by "we" I mean "she," because I know nothing about flowers) thought they were wild irises, but a little googling identified them as giant spiderworts.

Photo - Giant spiderworts in bloom

Cacti is plentiful, especially amongst the rocky outcroppings, and some of them are beginning to bloom.

Photo - Cactus flower
Photo - Cactus flowers

The most interesting find of the day was when Debbie pointed out the "foam" she discovered at the base of a few plants. I had never noticed it, but once we started looking closer, it was fairly common.

It was another mystery, but one quickly solved when she googled it and pronounced it to be the work of the spittlebug. These are tiny insects whose nymphs suck the sap from plants and then pump bubbles into the liquid to produce the foam (some oldtimers refer to it as "frog spit"), which surrounds them as protection from predators and also keeps them from drying out. The term "spittle" is misleading, however, considering the foam activation emanates from the other end, to be delicate about the matter.

Photo - Foam or spittle produced by spittlebugs
Photo - Foam or spittle produced by spittlebugs

Spittlebugs are not actually harmful to the plants they reside on, although in large enough quantities they can cause them to droop a bit. They are unusual enough to warrant a rather long investigatory article from The Gray Lady itself...which would have been the last place I'd have thought to look for an exposé on spittlebugs.

As an aside, this is not the first time we've discovered strange secretions from the plant life in our neighborhood. Alert Gazette readers will no doubt recall this post about ice flowers.

We didn't know enough about the phenomenon to investigate further on our hike, but when we returned home we went looking for the foam in the vacant lot next door. It wasn't nearly as plentiful, but we did find a couple of occurrences, and I violated the personal space of one of the inhabitants to see what it looked like. You can't tell a lot from the following photo, but it does confirm that the foam has a tenant.

Photo - Spittlebug on the end of a stick

Spittlebugs weren't the only attractive critters we came across after returning home. Here's a pretty little damselfly. (Confused about the difference between a damselfly and a dragonfly? This will help.)

Photo - Damselfly

And, finally, this caterpillar was hiding in the undergrowth. The spikes on its back might remind one of the wiry clusters on top of the electrical towers we visited earlier...and I suspect they serve the same purpose: to dissuade birds from further investigation.

Photo - Caterpillar

It was a fun and even educational way to spend a quarantined afternoon. Our only disappointment (well, mine, anyway) was that we didn't encounter any snakes (as far as we know) so our protective boots are still untested. Maybe next time.

Web Weaving Weirdos
July 20, 2018 9:27 PM | Posted in: ,

I'll fight a bear, but I don't like spiders. I'm not a fan of those.
  -- J. J. Watt
I'm an unabashed arachnophobe. Spiders are not just creepy; they're intentionally malevolent. God created spiders because snakes weren't sufficient to remind us that we live in a fallen world. Spiders are the only creatures that have the capacity to make me hurt myself while attempting to avoid even the most benign encounter. 

Given those facts, it amazes me that I'm posting this. You should be impressed.

A few weeks ago, we had at least five yellow garden spiders (Argiope aurantia) nesting in our back yard landscape. [Note: I have previously -- and erroneously -- referred to these spiders as orb weavers.] They ranged in size from about a quarter inch in body length up to more than an inch...and that doesn't include their devastatingly creepy legs. Some of them had future meals trapped in their webs.

Yellow garden spider with prey trapped in its web

Several of them were in the process of building their webs, and I tamped down my revulsion in order to video what I grudgingly came to appreciate as an amazing natural phenomenon. I filmed a couple of spiders during this process and compiled the following short (~3 minutes) movie. I hope you'll find it as fascinating as I did.

The following photo is a closeup of the spider's spinnaret, which is emitting the silk thread that comprises the web.

Yellow garden spider spinning silk for its web

Of course, the purpose of the web is to snare prey. Below is a photo of one of our spiders feeding on an unidentified insect (possibly a moth). The next photo shows a different spider feeding on a rather large cicada. Judging by the state of the web, the cicada put up a fight, but it obviously was to no avail.

Yellow garden spider feeding on mothYellow garden spider feeding on cicada

As I mentioned in the video, while the spiders are definitely predators, they're not at the top of the food chain. None of the spiders shown in this article are still around. I suspect they themselves have become prey to birds or lizards, or even mammals such as possums. I honestly can't muster any sympathy for them. For one thing, it's just nature at work. But really, in the end, regardless of the exquisite elegance of their silk spinning, spiders are just creepy.

Local Nature
May 7, 2015 10:34 PM | Posted in: ,

Just a few random observations from the Wide World of Nature - Midland, Texas Edition.

First, the following video is noteworthy in spite of its poor quality (shot through an office window with a zoomed-in iPhone), because it shows a ladder-backed woodpecker who landed on a red yucca and began working over the blooms. These woodpeckers are not exactly unknown in our parts, but I've only seen a few during the decades of living here, and I've never seen this kind of behavior. (Click the full-screen arrows to get a slightly better view; the ticking noise in the background is not intended to evoke a woodpecker's noise - I just forgot to remove the audio track.)

Can anybody identify this bug? We noticed several of them on one of our Texas Mountain Laurels. It's hard to get a sense of scale from the photo, but they're really tiny. They weren't damaging the leaves, as far as I could tell (although something is eating on one of our trees).

Update: After some intense scientific investigation (aka, several Google searches), I've narrowed it down to a member of the Pyrrhocoridae family. Possibly. That's my story, anyway.

Bug on Texas mountain laurel leaf

Bug on Texas mountain laurel leaf

A couple of weeks ago I posted some photos of a dove that built a nest - and I use the term very loosely - on top of our concrete block wall, under the eave of the house. I pretty much forgot about it until last week; when I checked it, here's what I found.

Two baby doves in nest

The eggs had hatched and two babies were growing rapidly.

A few days after this photo was taken, we had a serious wind- and thunderstorm. I had assumed that while the nest was of the typical shoddy construction that's the dove's trademark, it was still well-sheltered. However, when I checked on things, I discovered that the storm had had a bigger impact than I expected.

Both doves were on the ground, but one was deceased. The other seemed to be in good shape, and even better, the momma was keeping close watch over it. I got within a few feet and while she was clearly agitated by my presence, she didn't fly away. Again, forgive the quality of the photos, which were taken at dusk with a phone.

Young dove on ground

Mother dove keeping watch

And, finally, anything Nature can do, Photoshop can...well...undo? Overdo? Outdo? You decide.

Cutter bee on firewheel
Prickly Pear bloom

The bluebonnets are thinning out in the Texas Hill Country, but wildflower season is far from over. The amazing fields of blue are giving way to even more vivid arrays of yellow, red, and white blooms, and not just from the typical flowering plants. Cacti are busy putting out their own displays of color.

And, of course, where the flowers go, bugs are bound to follow. And, sometimes, creatures more reptilian.

We spent last weekend at Horseshoe Bay and on Sunday afternoon Debbie and I took our cameras out for a walk. The first thing I did was drop my macro lens on the pavement. Fortunately, Canon makes a really rugged lens and even though it suffered a few scratches and dents, it continued to perform perfectly. 

It was quite breezy and those of you who do macro photography know what a challenge it is to get decent closeups when your subject is swaying continuously. But my technique of taking about 8,000 photos at a time paid off in a dozen or so semi-decent images.

Here is some of what we came back with. You know the drill; click on each picture to see a larger, uncropped version, complete with pithy caption.

Rainbow cactus bloom Unknown bug on unknown flower Bluebonnet photobombs cutter bee on firewheel
Hedgehog cactus bloom Bloom on prickly pear (do bugs have allergies?) Flower buds on prickly pear
Blue damselfly Blue damselfly (thinks he's hiding behind that stalk) Unknown bug on unknown flower (again; do I look like an entomologist?)
Unknown bug on knockout rose (in Midland) Bee on knockout rose (in Midland) Prickly pear bloom
Can you spot the lizard?

Camera Sunday
August 26, 2014 8:32 PM | Posted in: ,

I spent some time last Sunday afternoon wandering around the grounds, camera in hand, looking for photo ops. As usual, once I focused on the trees instead of the forest*, a number of interesting details emerged, most of which involved flying creatures of the six-legged variety.

Flesh Fly

This insect goes by the rather unappealing name of "flesh fly" (genus Sarcophaga), a fly that gets its name from its preference for dining on rotten meat. Our goal is to have dispensed with all rotten meat by each Sunday, so this specimen had to be content with its perch on a Texas Mountain Laurel leaf.

Flesh Fly

Another flesh fly. I like this photo as much for the matrix of twigs and limbs as for the insect subject.

Cutter Bee on Vitex blooms

Our Vitex trees are blooming and attracting a multitude of bees (and hummingbirds). Above is a leafcutter bee getting lost in a mass of blooms.

We don't see a lot of bumblebees around here, and they seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate, so it was encouraging to see several of them working over the vitex blooms.

Bumblebee on Vitex blooms
Bumblebee on Vitex blooms

Not everything was about airborne invertebrates, though.

Liriope Bloom

This is a bloom on a liriope, more commonly known as monkey grass. They don't bloom very often, at least in our flowerbeds, probably because they don't get enough water (but that's just a guess). So it's a treat to find them flowering.

And in conclusion, this...because...well, gnarly.

Vitex branches

*We don't actually have a forest, so this is a metaphor...or a simile...or something. It's definitely not an onomatopoeia.

August 17, 2014 9:50 AM | Posted in: ,

I've never made a secret of my dislike for spiders. There are people for whom I have great respect who think spiders make great pets, but I'd just as soon invite a family of cobras to live in our bedroom as tolerate a single eight legged freak.

We recently transplanted a couple of tall junipers into slightly larger and more stable pots, and each of them was home to at least one of these:

Black widow spider

Perhaps you don't recognize it; perhaps this angle will help:

Black widow spider

Even the photos give me the willies. And because we've had some favorable weather conditions this summer, there are a bunch of these lovely creatures around the house (thankfully all on the outside). [In the interest of full disclosure and without a shred of remorse, I will report that this particular black widow was in the throes of death, thanks to my good pal Raid.]

That's not to say that I can't appreciate the skill of certain of the species in creating things of beauty, even if they'll never themselves be objects of my desire. This morning, while enjoying a cup of coffee and the newspaper on the front porch this morning before church, I noticed the following installation, which had been constructed overnight. The light was just right for a few photos.

Spider web
Spider web
Spider web

In the interest of full disclosure...the little guy in the first two photos is still busy at work, doing whatever his spidery little heart desires. I'm not a total long as he stays on his side of the car seat.
I walked over to the north pond yesterday, hoping to get some photos of the big crane that's been hanging out the past few weeks. He flew away before I could do that, so I sat at the water's edge waiting for him to return. He never came back (thanks to you, Mr. Loudmouth Cell Phone Talking Walker), but I found other things to distract me. Such as the secret alien world of flying insects.

Click on the small images for bigger versions, and to go through them slideshow-style.

We've all heard stories about the tendency of the female praying mantis to bite the head off the male after mating, right? Well, that's a gross exaggeration, and unfair to the species. In point of fact, the female bites off the head before mating, which, according to this article, spurs the guy on.

Hard to believe, huh? Yeah, that's what I thought until I spotted an oddly constructed insect on our crape myrtle at lunch today. Click on the small photos to see the gory details.

Photo of mating mantidsPhoto of mating mantidsPhoto of mating mantids

I'm sure there's a cautionary tale here, somewhere, but I'm trying really hard not to think about it.

July 18, 2010 2:23 PM | Posted in: ,

Debbie spotted this dragonfly as we were walking around the pond earlier today. I didn't have my camera with me, but we returned about 30 minutes later and the insect was still hanging around (actually, there were two of them, chasing one another with unknown motivations).

According to this website, this is a Scarlet Darter Dragonfly (Crocothemis erythraea). Whatever the name, it's a gorgeous specimen.

Photo - Scarlet Darter Dragonfly
Photo - Scarlet Darter Dragonfly

High Wire Act
July 7, 2010 8:33 AM | Posted in: ,

This walking stick was hanging from an electrical line over our B&B at Canyon Lake last week, barely in reach of my zoom lens. I don't know what he thought he'd find up there, and he seemed to make a great target for a hungry bird, but I guess he knew what he was doing. Well, insofar as any insect "knows" anything.

This is a vastly different kind of "stick" compared to the one I photographed last year. This one is Mike Tyson, while that one is Michael Cera.

Photo - Walking Stick on Electrical Line

Stalking the wily cursor
February 12, 2010 11:28 AM | Posted in: ,

We once had a neighbor whose hyperactive Maltese terrier would chase a flashlight beam around the room for as long as we had the energy to move the light. His seriousness in attempting to capture what was obviously a highly annoying if not downright dangerous prey never failed to amuse. Nor does the following:

If you've never been around mantids, you won't completely understand how creepy they can be as they follow your every movement with their beady little eyes.

Link via Neatorama

More Butterfly Photos
November 6, 2009 6:42 AM | Posted in: ,

I keep thinking that it's a little late in the season for butterflies, and yet they keep showing up. Yesterday, a beautiful black swallowtail was sipping from the bougainvillea growing in pots on our driveway. It was persistent enough that I was able to run inside, change lenses on the camera, and take a few dozen photos. Below are a couple of examples; there are ten additional larger images in the Gallery.

Photo - Black Swallowtail Butterfly on Bougainvillea
Photo - Black Swallowtail Butterfly on Bougainvillea

Technical photo details: Canon Digital Rebel XT, Canon 80-200 zoom lens, manual focus, ISO 100

Butterfly and Flower
October 17, 2009 7:00 AM | Posted in: ,

I failed in my quest to get better photos of the snapping turtle, but I was determined to bring something back in my camera. When I took this photo, I had no idea it would turn out as beautiful as it did. The wind was blowing and the autofocus on my zoom lens wasn't cooperating, so I focused manually, took a breath, and hoped that I captured the scene without too much blur.

Photo - butterfly on yellow flowerPhoto - butterfly on yellow flower

I should try manual focus more often. ;-)

(Who am I kidding? This was pure luck.)

And yet another bug pic
September 4, 2009 7:00 AM | Posted in: ,

We've were hit with a veritable plague of grasshoppers a couple of weeks ago. Occasionally, we'd pick up a hitchhiker on the car, including this one that landed on the windshield, and provided a rather unique perspective for a photo.

Photo of a Grasshopper

Yeah, it's another bug pic
September 3, 2009 9:52 PM | Posted in: ,

This critter was on the wall outside the studio where we had our dance lesson tonight. It's some variety of walking stick insect but I've never seen one quite like it before. It's about six inches in length, and more delicate-looking than most walking sticks I've seen.

Photo of a Walking Stick (insect)

September 1, 2009 6:06 AM | Posted in: ,

I seem to be in a photographic rut lately, but the insect world has presented some opportunities too good to ignore.

I spotted this unknown variety of shield or stink bug on one of the red-tipped photinia in our front flowerbed. I browsed in vain through more than 500 photos via Google's image search without finding a match for this particular coloration and pattern, but I suspect there are thousands of variations. Anyway, I don't recall ever seeing one quite like this.

Photo of shield bug
Photo of shield bug
The bees were working over the yellow bells (aka esperanza) in my father-in-law's backyard, and so I hauled out the camera on Saturday to try to capture some of the action. I was so focused (pun intended) on the bee leaving the bloom in the following photo that I didn't notice the one that's on approach to the landing area.

Photo of two bees near yellow flower

Is it just me or does the one facing the camera have a cartoonish look on his face?

Mantid on Board
August 30, 2009 6:59 PM | Posted in: ,

We brought a nice lantana back with us from Fort Stockton, a birthday gift for my wife from my brother and sister-in-law. After it was situated on the back porch, Debbie called me to take a photo of what might have been a stowaway on the trip home.

Photo - Praying Mantis

He's wet because she sprayed him with a hose before she realized he wasn't a grasshopper. I think he's a little miffed, if the expression on his face is any indication.

It's also more than a little creepy the way he follows your movements with his head and eyes.

Creature Faceoff
September 17, 2005 9:36 AM | Posted in: ,

I suppose I have a thing for mantids. In my defense, they're the T-Rexes of the insect world, only greener. How can you not be fascinated by them? Plus, they're quite photogenic. 

Late yesterday afternoon, I spied a praying mantis resting on a plastic stool on the patio. As I turned to go back inside, I caught a glance of something else and realized photos must be taken. 

The really interesting thing is that two hours later, the live mantis was still staring down his much larger but no more stoic rival. At some point, I guess I need to remove the fake insect so the other one can get on with his life. 

Unless...and this is a vaguely disturbing thought...there's some more basic, um, attraction at work.