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CWS_BigBlue(WR)_lg.jpgNotes from the Canyonlands

Chuck has retired but
his past blogs are still wonderfully entertaining.

Occasional observations and notes from Dr. Chuck Sexton, the wildlife biologist at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge.  Chuck has been on staff at the Refuge since 1994 and has been a student of the ecology of the Texas Hill Country for over 30 years.

*** Be sure to click on the "Read more" button to see the full text of each entry!
***The public can read Chucks posts, but only dues paying members (logged in) can comment.
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  • Monday, December 06, 2010 4:02 PM | Anonymous member

    Just a quick note to let everyone know that our Endangered Species Program office at the USFWS headquarters has completed the editing and uploading of a special podcast on Balcones Canyonlands NWR.  You can download the podcast on the following page:

    Endangered Species Program: Partnership Stories

    Also available for viewing on this web page are a dozen photos of the Refuge highlighting our habitats, species, and programs.  Enjoy!

  • Friday, October 08, 2010 1:02 PM | Anonymous member
    A Mediterranean Gecko on my own front porch in Austin.    Mediterranean Geckos have become a fairly common sight around houses and garages in Central Texas.  Although some folks might be creeped out a little by these critters running over the walls or scurrying out of sight near a porch light at night, rest assured--they are completely harmless.

        As well, they are very beneficial and very efficient at gleaning insects that are attracted to your porch light.  In fact, at my home in NW Austin, if I turn on a porch light and hope to photograph any moths that might arrive, I have to be "quicker than a gecko" to get my pics before the moths become a gecko's late night snack (...or is it breakfast for them?).

    Photographing our captive gecko at the HQ.    Geckos are fun to watch, but frankly, after seeing dozens at my house and seeing them regularly on buildings at the Refuge (e.g. right outside my office), I get rather ho-hum about them.  Just another gecko.  However, our new biologist Jim Mueller (more about him later) brought a gecko to the office in a small critter cage today and it offered us an unusual opportunity to view and photograph a very important but rarely observed part of a gecko: It's toes!  Like most lizards, geckos are very adept at running up and down walls and even running around "upside down" on an overhang or eve.  Surprisingly, they can even walk on smooth glass or plastic.  How do they do that?  With uniquely adapted toe pads.  This involves minute bristles called "setae" and some interesting physics known as "van der Waals forces".  I'll have to defer to the experts on Wikipedia to explain this; I invite you to read the section on "gecko toes" here.

        Here is photographic documentation of their specialized footwear:

    Looking through the plastic cage at a gecko's hind feet.
    Close-up of the underside of a gecko's foot.
    As close as I can crop and blow up a picture of a gecko toe!

    * * * * *
    Below the Line:

        You can read more about the Mediterranean Gecko in the following articles:

    "Life History of a Successful Colonizer: The Mediterranean Gecko, Hemidactylus turcicus, in Southern Texas." Kyle W. Selcer.  1986.  Copeia 1986(4):956-962.

    "Factors Affecting Range Expansion in the Introduced Mediterranean Gecko, Hemidactylus turcicus." Kenneth J. Locey and Paul A. Stone.  2006.  Journal of Herpetology 40(4):526-530.

  • Sunday, September 26, 2010 10:37 PM | Anonymous member
    Greg Lasley's image of a soaring Swainson's Hawk    Today (Sunday, Sept. 26) we're enjoying one of the first noticeable cool fronts of the Fall season and it feels like hawk migration to me.  One of the most amazing wildlife spectacles of North America is the annual Fall migration of raptors through Texas.  If you ask the average Texan on the street, they'd probably understand that, yes, some hawks show up in the Fall and Winter, but unless you've peered for hours at the puffy white clouds rolling over the Texas Hill Country or plopped yourself down on a bluff overlooking the Nueces River just above Corpus Christi at this time of year, you may have missed this.

         I saw no major movement today but this is a good time to prompt everyone to watch the weather for good migration movements on days like this.  Any time from right now through mid-October is prime time.  When conditions are right, if you see one hawk cruising overhead, a closer examination may actually reveal hundreds or thousands--and they may be just dots against the sky.  I stare up at the sky in hopes of glimpsing these pre-eminent wind sailors.  I get an empathetic rush of adrenaline when watching the graceful critters zip by.  I'm earth-bound and envious: This is one of the most tantalizing displays of the mystery of avian migration.  Last year we were lucky enough to glimpse a major movement on October 2 when 4,000-5,000 hawks sailed over the HQ in a matter of a few minutes.

         Anticipation is everything: Hawkwatching is something of a feast or famine type of activity.  Above all, raptors are smart at conserving energy and utilizing the prevailing wind currents to move from point A to point B.  That means waiting until the strong cool fronts of the Fall to catch a ride.  So on a hot September day when south winds are still bringing moist Gulf air over Central Texas, you can spend a long time looking at the sky and see nothing more than the local vultures moving to and fro.  But when these cool fronts are coming through, hold onto your hat!  Keep in mind also that the rumpled landscape of Balcones Canyonlands provides excellent topography for updrafts on which to "catch a wave".

         Even on a good day with conducive winds such as today, other factors play a part in either concentrating the migrating hawks in certain areas, spreading them out over the landscape, shifting them from this ridge to that ridge, and so forth.  You might watch the sky for a few hours and see hawks dribbling by in ones and twos, then all of a sudden a mass of Broad-winged Hawks or Swainson's Hawks will stream overhead, perhaps  "kettling" up in a classic vortex when they find a good thermal or updraft, or streaming by high on set wings.

    Jim Zipp's photo of a swirl of Broad-winged Hawks   Neal Smith's classic image of Swainson's Hawk moving through Central America

    On the left, your looking at a kettle of Broad-winged Hawks against a blue sky (ph. Jim Zipp).

    On the right is Neal Smith's classic image of a huge kettle of Swainson's Hawks moving through Central America.
    Hawks in the upper righ corner are actually streaming into the bottom of the kettle;
    the rest of the birds are swirling to gain altitude in a thermal.

         As many as 10 to 12 species of hawks might be seen on a good day here in the eastern Edwards Plateau.  Sizeable numbers of the following species can be expected:  Broad-winged Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, and American Kestrel.  Smaller numbers of just about everything else will spice up such a day, including Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks, Ospreys, Northern Harriers, Merlins, and Peregrine Falcons*.  Hawkwatching and hawk identification are the subject of a number of field guides and special publications.  A handy chart for identifying the common species can be downloaded from the Hawk Migration Association of North America's webpage here.  I suggest checking out the following useful websites which have great information on these topics:

         Texas Hawk Watches

         Birds of North America Account of Swainson's Hawk Migration

         Hawk Migration Association of North America

         Hawkwatch International

         Smith Point Hawk Watch and Gulf Coast Bird Observatory

         For this Refuge, Doeskin Ranch provides an excellent setting to scan the adjacent ridgelines and broad expanse of sky overhead.   Some day, I'd hope we'll have the opportunity to develop and open a hawkwatching facility up on a high point of the Flying X tract, but that's a long way off.  In the meantime, almost any high hill in Central Texas with an unobstructed view to the north and northwest will allow you a chance to intersect this amazing feathered energy flow.

    Happy Hawkwatching!

    * * * * *
    Below The Line:

        * Don't get fooled by all the rest of our feathered friends which might be moving on the same winds:  Silent dark V's of cormorants are a regular sight on such days.  If a "V" is honking, you might have geese (one of 3 or 4 possible species).  If they have long legs and necks and are "tootling" [yes, I made up that word], then you're probably underneath a flight of Sandhill Cranes.  If they are huge and white with black in the wings and are swirling gracefully in a big kettle, then your probably looking at American White Pelicans.  And if they have long legs and necks and are black and white and are "tootling"...CALL ME IMMEDIATELY!!  (This is more likely in the latter part of the Fall migration but we have had three confirmed sightings of Whooping Cranes over the Refuge in the past 10 years!)

  • Wednesday, September 22, 2010 8:17 AM | Anonymous member
        On the morning of Monday, September 20, Couch's Kingbird, 20 Sept 2010, BCNWRI was doing some gardening around the photo blind at the HQ before I settled into my paperwork routine for the day.  As I put some crucita cuttings in the ground and pulled weeds, I kept hearing a familiar series of call notes in the trees nearby, but I couldn't place the sound.  "Whik-whik, whik, whik-whik-whik!"  It was so familiar that I almost passed it up, letting it settle into the dim corners of my aural registration banks.  But I had that nagging thought: "I know that sound, but what is that?  Where have I heard that before?  Is that the sound of a familiar wintering species just now arriving as a first Fall migrant?"  The sound seemed out-of-season or out-of-place.

        Then, suddenly, the same bird uttered a sharp, raspy, upslurred "breeer!" and a light bulb went on:  A Couch's Kingbird--a first Refuge record and a bird unaccustomed to the limestone hills of Central Texas.  You may recall that this was one of the subtropical species in the repertoire of that annoying southern-trained mockingbird this Spring at the Beard cabin ("Mocking Who?", May 4).  But this was the real deal.  It is a species I've seen and heard over the years by the hundreds in South Texas and Mexico but I had only briefly encountered one in the Austin area some 20 years ago.  Familiar, but very out of place.

        I put down my dandelion digger and raced back to the office to retrieve my binoculars and camera, taking the time to notify colleagues Rob Iski and Jim Mueller of my identification.  Conveniently, we returned to find the kingbird perched on a power line in plain view, not far from the HQ building.  I took a series of pictures with my trusty point-and-shoot camera, zoomed to the max.  My unsteady hand wasn't up to the task, so I invited Rob over to be my human tripod.  And a good tripod he was.  Below are some of the better images.  (I had to adjust the brightness on these images to bring out color and details since that morning provided only a dim cloudy background for photography.)

    Note the long bill, extensive yellow on the breast, and the lack of gray on the chest.  This picture shows the fairly distinct dark mask through the eye.

        These pictures show the following field marks of a Couch's Kingbird to distinguish it from our more familiar Western Kingbird:  (a) a forked tail rather than a square one, (b) an extensive yellow breast with just some dusky shading on the sides of the upper breast, rather than a gray chest, (c) a dark mask from the base of the bill extending back through the eye, and (d) a long fairly wide black bill.  Though not discernible in these pictures, we could see that the tail lacked the white outer webs on the outer tail feathers which a Western Kingbird would show.  The most likely species to be confused with Couch's is the nearly identical Tropical Kingbird, an even rarer resident of deep South Texas and the tropics.

    This odd angle from below documents the wide base of the bill to distinguish Couch's from Tropical.
    Tropical and Couch's can be distinguished by the shape of the bill, with the Tropical having a much narrower bill at the base, and by some very small details of wing feather shapes that are difficult to see in the field.  Luckily they are easily distinguished by voice and the sounds I heard were pure Couch's.

    * * * * *
    Below The Line:

        Through the years, we have amassed a nice bird list of some 280+ species.  An embarrassingly small number of those were actually first detected by the Refuge's Wildlife Biologist, who you would think might be in a position to pad that list in the course of his (my) regular duties.  I take this disparity as a testament to the skills and enthusiasm of our visiting birders and the talented colleagues I have worked with, rather than as some professional short-coming.  (I have to.  Otherwise it would make me cedar green with envy.)  Nonetheless, adding a new bird species to the Refuge list is worth just a little "woo-hoo", isn't it??  Woo-Hoo!!

  • Tuesday, August 24, 2010 10:07 PM | Anonymous member

        It's the doldrums of Summer when bird song is waning and not much is stirring except grasshoppers and dragons.  I've spent the time rehabbing from Springtime-inflicted injuries and maladies;  I apologize for my absence from our Friends sphere.

        One advantage (?) of summertime is the opportunity to catch up on long-ignored Federal paperwork.  I settle into the A/C, fire up the old gubmint computer, and make Deborah Holle happy by meeting reporting deadlines to the best of my ability.  It is not my lofty goal here to interest you in the array of acronym-heavy* contributions we make in this vein, but one particular reporting task reminded me of a long-overdue topic.
        One Congressional requirement of all Refuges is to annually brag about everything we've accomplished in the past fiscal year and everything we hope to accomplish in the coming year in what's called our "Refuge Annual Performance Plan" (this is where I'd normally insert the standard report abbreviation in parentheses...but you get the picture).  This year I got particular enjoyment when I compiled a list of all the active research projects that we have hosted on the Refuge--a list that grows longer every year.  Elsewhere, I have hinted at some of these but now is the time to give them their bloggable due.  We entertained no fewer than 21 diverse field research projects conducted by University faculty and students and other institutions.  I cannot adequately explore the wonderful details of each of these efforts in this space but I wanted to give you a sense of all the great work being done by these enthusiastic and energetic folks.  So, in no particular order, here are brief overviews of as many of these as I can remember--with apologies to the researchers for any errors or oversimplifications:

    The University of TexasProfessor Norma Fowler, Section of Integrative Biology

        The research interests of Prof. Norma Fowler (Section of Integrative Biology) and her students overlap a great deal with the habitat management and restoration needs of this Refuge.  Her doctoral student Christina Andruk is involved in a study of grassland restoration and is also the lead researcher in a Challenge Cost Share study of hardwood regeneration in warbler habitat.  Christina and her team have been collecting very detailed vegetation measures in woodlands on two Refuge tracts.  In a related spin-off study, Christina's field assistant Kevin Doyle has initiated his own graduate research on fire succession and deer browse effects in juniper-oak woodlands on the Rodgers tract.

    Christina Andruk (L), Rebecca Lin, and Kevin Doyle (R), fresh (?) out of the field.

    Sahotra Sarkar, always the 'Best Dressed Field Researcher', even when battered and bloodied.    We are honored to have the attention of a gaggle of U.T. students lead by Prof. Sahotra Sarkar (Section of Integrative Biology) whose diverse research interests span the world both geographically and taxonomically.  Sahotra and his students set up several wildlife cameras along animal trails in remote locations to capture passing critters, including the occasional unwary Refuge biologist.  A few outings to do some small mammal trapping by his team have begun to add to our knowledge of rodent distribution.  Setting out live traps to sample small mammal populations on the Flying X.He has also recently increased his research focus on the spread of insect-born diseases such as chagas in Texas and has been sampling ticks and kissing bugs (Triatomines) to monitor potential vectors.  Further, we continue to be hopeful that we might uncover a population of spring-dwelling salamanders on the Refuge; Sahotra has been dutifully sampling many of our permanent springs looking for them, thus far without success.  His students have also initiated detailed water quality sampling as an adjunct to the salamander hunt.  Blake Sissel and Stavana Strutz are among the students spending time in these diverse tasks on the Refuge.  A hoped-for inventory of some of our cave fauna has been planned by Prof. Sarkar in conjunction with Kathleen O'Connor of Zara Environmental but other work loads have prevented the initiation of that effort.

        Researchers associated with U.T.'s Texas Natural History Collections have recently initiated sampling surveys of various groups of organisms.  Curator of Ichthyology Dr. Dean A. Hendrickson and his colleagues are just starting a long-overdue, comprehensive sampling of fish diversity (along with other aquatic vertebrates).  Dr. Travis LaDuc, Assistant Curator of Herpetology, will be starting up an analogous sampling effort to better document our amphibians and reptiles, a group which has only received casual attention from Refuge staff to date.  Curator of Entomology Dr. John Abbott and our photography pal Greg Lasley have helped us investigate Odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) over the years and stand ready to help us identify new critters in a heartbeat.  We've donated a few insect specimens to John's collection at Brackenridge Field Lab, just a drop in that vast invertebrate bucket.

    Baylor UniversityDr. Joe White, an expert on forest ecology, in a forest type quite different from Balcones!

        Associate Prof. Joseph White (Dept. of Biology) and his students have been involved for several years on the Refuge studying the fire history and dynamics of our woodlands.  Darrel Murray has analyzed historical aerial photography of many Refuge tracts and has also monitored microclimates in and around our shaded fuel breaks.  Jon Thomas has collected detailed vegetation data in woodlands which contribute to models of fuel loading, potential fire dynamics, and carbon sequestration.  Prof. White, along with Darrel, Jon, and grad student Jian Yao, recently completed and forwarded to us a comprehensive analysis of much of this work entitled "Characterization of Woodland Fuels and Possible Risk to Golden-cheeked Warbler Habitat", one of the most important research contributions to the Refuge to date.

    Dr. Michael Morrison, warbler ecologist, in a rare picture of him ... indoors.Texas A&M University

        Students and field researchers with the Institute of Renewable Natural Resources at TAMU, guided by Prof. Michael Morrison, have been doing statewide monitoring of both Black-capped Vireos Melanie Colòn, having way too much fun at the Flying X, after a long day of chasing down vireos.and Golden-cheeked Warblers.  This year, a TAMU team headed by Melanie Colòn spent long months searching for vireos all over the Refuge, banding many birds, and monitoring nests.  The efforts of Melanie's team provided us with critical documentation of our vireo population this year, vastly expanding the limited efforts that Refuge staff could accomplish.  (Melanie had the field assistance of David Morgan (Texas State University), whom you'll meet in Part 2 of this series.)  Melanie did double duty: She also set up and monitored nest cameras for TAMU grad student Terri Pope who is collecting data on parental behavior at Black-capped Vireo nests at several sites in Central Texas.  Yet another team of TAMU students came by briefly to do some censusing of our Golden-cheeks as part of their statewide monitoring effort.  They were in and out so fast, I didn't get their names.

    Paul Lenhart and one of his grasshopper gladiator cages on the Gainer tract.    Paul Lenhart, a grad student in the Entomology Department at TAMU, has a fascinating project dealing with the dietary niche partitioning of grasshopper communities.  Paul is in his second year of field work on the Refuge and has set up some neat field experiments on the Gainer tract.  He is also a superb photographer and has uploaded many of his Orthopteran images to BugGuide.net.Shawn Hanrahan, another nutty netter from TAMU.
        Initially introduced to the Refuge by helping Paul with some of his field work, Shawn Hanrahan has recently initiated his own field sampling of Neuropterans (lacewings, ant lions, mantidflies, dobsonflies, etc.) to study "genome size variation" in this set of insects.

    A Mantidfly, one of the interesting creatures Shawn Hanrahan is studying.

    Dale Kruse in the wilds of the Big Thicket.
        Dale Kruse, Curator of the prestigeous Tracy Herbarium at TAMU, more frequently a denizen of the Big Thicket, had just gotten permitted to start looking for bryophytes and other height-challenged plants on Balcones when our weather got hot and dry.  We look forward to wetter times with Dale and his colleagues.



    *** I'm barely half-way through with this tome on Refuge research!  Tune in for Part 2 in a short while.
    * * * * *
    Below the Line:

    "A good typo is worth a thousand words."  You can quote me on that.  In preparing an early draft of this post, when describing our report writing duties, I accidentally created this equally descriptive mis-phrase: "the array of acronym-heaving contributions we make."  I just thought I'd throw that up for your consideration.  So toss me a cookie if you like my new phrase.

  • Friday, July 02, 2010 10:45 PM | Anonymous member

    Lee Elliott's pic of a Red Katydid from Bugguide.net.     "Red Katydid" might sound like an entomological oxymoron but it’s a real critter…and that’s a bit easier to say than the Central Texas Leaf Katydid or Truncated True Katydid or Paracyrtophyllus robustus, all of which refer to the same thing.


        Moreover, they’ve made regional news recently because of an outbreak of the species west of San Antonio in Medina County and nearby areas.  I hasten to add that this is not an invasive species from some distant continent.  In fact it is a native species--actually an endemic Texas species like twist-leaf yucca or the Golden-cheeked Warbler--and this is a natural occurrence.  Every few years or so, local populations of this katydid build up to what might be considered nuisance levels.  This is not an uncommon phenomenon when certain insect populations are recovering in good years after a stretch of drought.

         From a dietary standpoint, they tend to be oak eaters (even though the one in Lee Elliott's photo to the right is on a juniper).  During such outbreaks, they can defoliate acres of trees.  However troublesome that may sound initially, it is apparently a very transient phenomenon since the katydids die off nearly as quickly as they arose and then the oak trees heave a big sigh of releaf…ooooh, sorry about that…I mean a big sigh of relief, and then put on a fresh crop of foliage.


    Dave Morgan's pic of a red katydid at the Flying X. 


        When I first heard about the Medina outbreak a few weeks ago, I emailed a request to staff and the various field researchers working on the Refuge to let me know of any sightings of this species in our area, thinking we could serve as an early warning for an outbreak that might occur here.  Within hours, researcher David Morgan sent me a picture of a nice pink katydid and said, “They’re all over the trees at the Flying X and on the Rodgers tract.”  So much for early warning.  Happily, they have not defoliated us quite yet.  [Update: July 8, 2010.  Thanks to everyone for notifying me that you are seeing these katydids.  I have all the reports I need; no more messages or forwarded pictures are needed!]





        The most intriguing thing about this particular katydid is that it occurs in basically two color forms:

    Maury J. Heiman's pic of a green-form Red Katydid from Medina Co. a few years ago.

    In a regular year in normal numbers, these ‘dids are green like so many of their Tettigoniidae brethren*.  (That’s the family of true katydids--I just felt like showing off.)  However, when populations build up to these outbreak levels, the predominant color morph is pink or red:

    Mike Quinn's pic of a pink form Red Katydid

    I haven’t delved into the scientific literature to learn why or how this happens, but like so many other growth issues, it probably has something to do with hormones and diet.  I’m just guessing.

         You can learn a lot more about this katydid on one of Mike Quinn’s excellent invertebrate web pages here.  A recent news article on the event in the southern Edwards Plateau can be found in the June 7th issue of the AgriLife News from the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

    * * * * *
    Below the Line:

      * In an attempt to be politically correct, I tried to find a neutral or feminine equivalent of the word brethren.  But, alas, I find nothing other than "sisterhood" or "kinfolk".  Actually, "katydid kinfolk" sort of has a nice homey ring to it, don't you think?  Sounds like my ancestors back in the hollers of Kentucky.
  • Monday, June 14, 2010 10:06 AM | Anonymous member

    Blueweed flowers.  Photo from Flora Cyberia.     These pretty blue flowers belie a sinister potential: This is blueweed or Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare). a noxious weed in the Borage family, found in pastures and hayfields in the East and Midwest.  It may pose an incipient threat to farming and ranching in Central Texas.

         With the exception of one native wildflower, blueweed is not easy to confuse with anything else:

    Blueweed winter rosette of fuzzy leaves. Coiled flower clusters along a leafy stem.  Note the simple oblong leaves. Blueweed going to seed.

    Non-native, Invasive Blueweed or Viper's Bugloss:  Eliminate "WIth Extreme Prejudice"!

         The annual or biennial blueweed plants grow to about 1 to 3 ft tall and are bristly all over like a bull nettle.  Caution:  Don’t try to pick or handle this plant without leather gloves!  The leaves are simple, narrow, and oblong to lance-shaped (compare with native "Blue curls", below).  Blueweed blooms from April to September with masses of sky blue flowers about a half-inch across which are arrayed in coiled or curled spikes on the leafy upper stem.  You can see more images of blueweed on the Wikimedia Commons here.  Probably the only native species with which it could be confused is Blue curls (Phacelia congesta):

    Blue curls.  Courtesy: Norman G. Flaigg, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Digital Library  Blue curls flowers.  Courtesy: J. A. Marcus, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Digital Library.

    Native Blue curls:  DON'T PICK THIS!

         Note the complex lobed and toothed leaves of Blue curls as well as the flat-topped arrangement of the coils of lavender flowers on a bare stalk.  Blue curls is typically found at the shady edge of dense woods, often in sandier sites or creek banks.  By contrast, in our area blueweed has shown up as an invader of highly disturbed sites such as caliche fill, gravel parking lots, and roadsides.  Thus far, it doesn't seem to compete well in a healthy native grassland.  Let's hope it remains confined by our tough native flora.

         Blueweed and I have a history.  In early June 1997, Eddie Hertz and I were looking for remnant prairie plants along the railroad right-of-way on Texas 29 between Liberty Hill and Burnet when we spotted a couple of clumps of blue flowers that neither of us recognized.  That was about 5 miles west of Bertram on the north side of the road.  We stopped and picked a specimen for the Refuge collection.  When we got back to the office and identified the plant, red flags went up.  Our standard reference work at that time, the Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas by Correll and Johnston had this ominous description:

         “Native of Europe, long ago introduced into the e. U.S. and now a serious pest in

    the Northeast and Middle Atlantic States, west to South Dakota, Kansas,

    and reported (but not seen by us) from Texas.”

         Eddie and I returned to the spot and ripped up both of the two plants on the roadside, bagged them carefully for the trash, and scanned the area for other plants.  We saw none.  We notified several botanists and herbaria at the time of our discovery.  We checked that spot on TX 29 for the next few seasons and saw no more blueweed.

         Fast foreward to May 2010.  Someone spotted a pretty blue flower in the yard of the new Victory Baptist Church on Texas 29….about 5 miles west of Bertram....and brought it to the attention of Sammye and Mike Childers.  They did some research, identified the plant, and red flags went up once again.  Unfortunately, a couple of acres of the church property had the pretty blue flowers all over them.  Clearly, Eddie and I had overlooked some plants which were probably across a fence on private property back in 1997.  In recent weeks, volunteer efforts have been organized to put a dent in the population of blueweed on the church property.  The species doesn’t seem to have spread far in 13 years, but it’s already making conservation groups and the county extension agent a bit nervous.  There are plans to start an herbicide treatment soon and future volunteer control efforts will probably be needed.  I suggest keeping in touch with the Highland Lakes Chapters of the Texas Master Naturalists and the Native Plant Society of Texas for further information.

         IMPORTANT NOTICE:  If you think you’ve seen this flower on a roadside, ranch, or any other place, please notify the AgriLife Extension Agent for your county.  Here are the local contacts for the Refuge area:

              Burnet County Extension Office



              Travis County Extension Office



              Williamson County Extension Office



    Obviously, if you observe this species on any Refuge tract or in our immediate area, please notify me ASAP.

  • Sunday, June 13, 2010 3:39 PM | Anonymous member
    Panorama of twist-leaf yucca at Doeskin Ranch in June.

         How impressive is the flowering of twist-leaf yucca right now?!  If you haven’t done so recently, drive FM 1174 up to Doeskin Ranch and you’ll see the most amazing display of blooms of this Hill Country endemic yucca in decades.

    Blooms of twist-leaf yucca.     In a typical year only a small portion of the yucca plants successfully flower and set seed.  Yucca flower stalks, it seems, are “deer candy”.  Whitetails normally wander the hills and dales munching on the stalks just as they start to grow in April and May.  The sight of a yucca stalk bitten off about one to two feet above the leaves is the more typical aspect we expect at this time of year.  Usually, the only yuccas that successfully bloom are those where deer can’t get to them: growing in the middle of a big pricklypear clump, on a cliffside, in a fenced deer-proof exclosure, or along a busy roadside where a deer doesn’t feel comfortable foraging.

         Why is the bloom of the yucca so spectacular this year?  I can only speculate.  It has been an abundant year for all wildflowers due to the wet winter and early spring.  That’s certainly part of the reason.  But I think we can take the abundance of yucca stalks right now as a measure of a lowered deer herd due to the drought conditions of 2008-09, at least locally.  As well, any number of other smaller critters (like the yucca moth, yucca skipper, weevils, etc.) which feed on various parts of yucca plants and might take a chunk out of it's reproduction may have suffered declines along with the deer herd.  The yuccas have been released to grow and spread their pedicels*.

         We have actually identified four species of yucca in the Refuge area.  Perhaps 99% of the yuccas you’ll see across the Refuge are twist-leaf (Yucca rupicola), a species endemic to the Edwards Plateau.  Most of the time, but not always, you can recognize this species by the slight twist in each leaf which contorts on some plants to nearly a full twirl.

    Buckley yucca. Credit: Joseph A. Marcus; Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Digital Library.

         Co-occurring on several of the more northerly tracts in the Burnet County portion of the Refuge is Buckley yucca (Y. constricta).  This is another Texas endemic.  It can be recognized by its narrow, straight leaves which have curling threads along the margins.  These yuccas have a tall flower stalk like twist-leaf.  I recently noticed several Buckley yuccas along the lower portion of the Rimrock Trail at Doeskin Ranch.  Follow the jeep trail from the trailhead down across the creek and watch for this species on the right as the trail gently ascends the open grassland on the far (east) side.

    Arkansas yucca. Credit: Sally & Andy Wasowski; Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Digital Library.     A third small yucca, that is, a yucca without a tree-like trunk, is Arkansas yucca (Y. arkansana).  I think it was John Kelly who pointed out a small population of this species to me at one of our favorite botany spots along Cow Creek Road.  As you drive up Cow Creek Road from RM 1431, the first 0.5 mile passes over some sandier substrates derived from non-limestone terrain--more on that in a later blog.  It is characterized by several species of plants which occur on these sandy lands and almost nowhere else in the Refuge area.  The second bend of the road has acquired our local nickname of “Greeneyes Bend” because of the conspicuous population of the namesake plant (Berlandiera betonicifolia) which blooms for much of the spring and summer there.  Tucked in amongst the greeneyes are several low yuccas which key out to Arkansas yucca.  This species can be recognized by a combination of leaves with threads on the edges and a short flower stalk with flowers starting just barely above the leaves and with a fairly simple flower arrangement with few/no side branchlets.

         The last of the four yuccas and the least numerous is Torrey yucca Flowers of Spanish dagger. Credit: Rick Hammer from his or Spanish dagger (Y. torreyi), a species that is much more common in cultivation and in the sandy soils of the Llano uplift and further west.  [I think this plant is erroneously identified as Trecul yucca on a recent edition of our Refuge plant list.]  This is an arborescent yucca, old examples of which can have a leafy trunk up to 8 or 10 feet tall or more.  The leaves are huge and straight and the plants have abundant flowers in summer in a huge bundle.  While looking for nice pictures of Spanish dagger to include with this blog, I came across Rick Hammer’s wonderful botanical blog on the "Flora of the Texas Rolling Plains".  Rick is a Professor at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas.  Check it out.

    * * * * *

    Below The Line:

        * How's your botanical terminology?  A "pedicel" is the stalk of an individual flower.  A "peduncle" is the flowering stem for a cluster of flowers (like the yucca stalk) or the stalk of a single flower when there is only one (like a poppy, for instance).  A "petiole" is the stalk of a simple leaf (as you find on an oak or elm tree) or the central stalk of a compound leaf (like a pecan, walnut, or soapberry) and a "petiolule" is the stalk of an individual leaflet on a compound leaf.  Now you know; you are now smarter than my spell-checker.

  • Sunday, May 30, 2010 12:52 PM | Anonymous member

    The Wayward Journal

         On Friday, May 21, I took a break from work and from the Texas Hill Country and went wandering south of Austin to explore the birdlife in the area around Seguin and Guadalupe County.  I should mention--and this will come as something of a shock to some of you--that I don't often go birdwatching during my time off.  I watch birds...and everything else in the natural world...in my free time, but I had mostly gotten out of the habit of chasing birds.

         But this Spring has been an exception to my sedentary ways of recent years.  I have been inspired by the "Texas Century Club" effort of the Texas Ornithological Society to see at least 100 species of birds in each Texas county.  I'm not aiming at all 254 Texas counties, but I thought I'd see if I could meet that mark in each of the 15 counties which make up the bulk of the "Austin Area Checklist Circle"--the area within a 60-mile radius of the Texas Capitol building.  Perambulation in moderation, so to speak.  But that's still a huge area to explore--about 11,309 square miles if you do the math.

         For Guadalupe County, I could find mention of only 53 species of birds I had seen in past excursions.  I had passed through the county en route to other destinations innumerable times, especially along Texas 123 racing towards the Texas Coastal Bend and its abundant birdlife.  But Seguin and environs had rarely enticed me to stop and explore.  So that Friday, I was going to make amends for past transgressions--literally--and see what avian offerings the area had.

         I had done my homework: I studied county road maps and Google Earth, chatted with local birders, and scoured previous postings on TexBirds to see what might await.  I had a plan...  Maybe that was the problem: I had a "plan".  [Insert your favorite cliché here.]

    Max Starke Park in Seguin, one of my birding destinations.

    Max Starke Park in Seguin, one of my birding destinations.

         I got a very early start, arriving in the eastern corner of the county pre-dawn, early enough to hear a Common Nighthawk in its last foraging bout over an open pasture and to flush a Chuck-will's-widow off a paved county road--the last pavement I would see for several hours.  Along FM 1150, then onto Nixon Road, then off the pavement onto Dix Road and then to Nash Creek Road which is a major connecting route to, ... well, to the other end of FM 1150.  I stopped several times to listen to the dawn chorus.  By 6:30 a.m., even before the sun came up, I had tallied 20 species or so.  Northern Cardinal, Bewick's Wren, Mourning Dove, Painted Bunting, Ash-throated Flycatcher ... Wait a minute!  Greg Lasley's portrait of a Brown-crested FlycatcherThat's not an Ash-throat singing, it's a Brown-crested Flycatcher, its South Texas cousin and one of the rarest breeding birds on this southern fringe of the Austin checklist circle.  Woo-hoo!  That got a big asterisk in my field journal.

        Then somewhere between that Brown-crested Flycatcher and an anonymous farm gate about 2 miles down the road, I lost that field journal.  I apparently made a note about another dawn singer, set the journal on the hood or bumper of my truck, got distracted by another bird or some darned wild thing on the roadside, and then jumped in the truck and drove away.   Since I was scribbling notes in the journal at almost every listening stop, it was only a few minutes later that I realized I was missing the journal.  I backtracked on the road and couldn't find it.  Phlox on the side of Nash Creek Road, one of the distracting array of wildflowers.I spent the next 3 hours walking that two-mile stretch of road and never found it.  A yellow-green journal in a sea of yellow-green foliage.  I was envisioning a cow in an adjacent pasture stomping my journal deep into the mud, or a county mower shredding it like so much other mulch on the roadside.

         Well, to make a long story just somewhat shorter, a passerby--a local resident on Nash Creek Road--retrieved my journal and mailed it back to me just a few days later.  It was probably just a bit of odd timing; he'd found the journal in the middle of the road but hadn't realized that the journal's owner was that out-of-place stranger a short ways down the road, raising his binoculars and staring off into the distance.  No harm, no foul.  Just great consternation on my part for several days.

         I mention all this just to get around to the topic at hand:  What would have been lost had that journal never turned up?  It was the latest of 63 volumes of my field notes, but it was less than half filled with my scribbles.  I had just started the volume on April 1 and had already photocopied all the Refuge field notes for April.  I hadn't copied my own personal birdwatching notes for other April days, nor had any of May's notes been duplicated.  Would that Brown-crested Flycatcher on Nash Creek Road have disappeared into anonymity?  Of course not.  It is more a measure of my unhealthy reliance on my journal-crutch.  Precisely 27 pages of my life's work, spanning just over 21 days, would have been lost.  And for that, I wasted three perfectly good hours on an early morning birding jaunt, and several days of mourning.

         For the record, here are some of the earth-shaking, history-making data for May that might never have seen the light of day, some of which were fortunately documented by photographs:

    --  May 2:  I jotted down a second-hand report from David Maple that he'd seen a male Lark Bunting in breeding plumage Greg Lasley's portrait of a Lark Buntingnear the Barho tract, a rare spring sighting.

    --  May 3:  I briefly resighted a Lazuli Bunting that Rob Iski had found on April 29 on the Post Oak Creek Trail; first I'd ever seen on the Refuge.

    --  May 3:  A male Bell's Vireo was singing on territory near the photo blind, the fifth species of breeding vireo on the Refuge this year (along with Black-capped, White-eyed, Red-eyed, and Yellow-throated).

    Grape Joint, an enlarged solution 'joint' on the Rodgers tract.--  May 7:  I found a new karst feature, a hole in the ground, on the Rodgers tract and named it the "Grape Joint".  At Doeskin Ranch in the afternoon, I discovered that I had missed the blooming of our Shooting Star flowers along the Rimrock Trail; make a note to look for them in mid-April.

    --  May 9:  SCA Student Elizabeth Lesley found her dog playing with a dog-slobber-covered Coral Snake in her yard.

    --  May 10:  On the Martin tract, an Eastern Hognose Snake feigned death for me like only a hognose snake can.

    --  May 14:  Visited a large private ranch in n.w. Burnet County where conservation banking is being proposed.  On the distinctive Paleozoic limestones in that region, it's difficult to figure out the dynamics of the warbler and vireo habitat, but our colleagues in the regulatory side of FWS want some answers.

    --  May 16:  Helped with a breeding bird survey on the Bamberger Ranch and spent the rest of the day birding in Blanco County to pad my county list there.  Best bird of the day:  Cactus Wren near the community of Sandy.

    --  May 17:  Lots of painted lichen moths and Hypoprepia fucosa - The Painted Lichen Mothbird-dropping mimic moths at the porch light at the office in the morning.

    Acontiid_1 Acontiid_2 Acontiid_3

    Acontiid_4 Acontiid_5 Acontiid_6

    Three or four (or five or six?) moth species,

    all with the same survival strategy.

    A female Dobsonfly on the HQ building.--  May 20:  Photographed a huge female Dobsonfly at our office door.

    --  May 21:  Guadalupe County birding trip:  ***Brown-crested Flycatcher (2+ singing in dawn chorus)...

    * * * * *

    Below The Line:

         Oh, How did my "Century Club" effort on the quiet roads of Guadalupe County turn out?  I almost met my goal: By the end of the day, I had added 40 new species to my county list, ending the (frustrating) day at 93 species.  I missed Blue Jay, Orchard Oriole, and Indigo Bunting, leaving something for a future visit.

  • Tuesday, May 04, 2010 11:41 AM | Anonymous member

    N Mockingbird, by Greg Lasley.  All photos used by permission.     In the wee hours of April 29, in the full-moon-lit night sky, a Northern Mockingbird decided at 3 a.m. to give a concert outside the window of the cabin on the Refuge where I was staying.  That’s not an uncommon event, well known to (sleepy and annoyed) Texans through the ages.  But do that around a Texas birder who primarily tallies species by ear, and you have an interesting dynamic: a pop quiz of bird sounds.  I am regularly amused and impressed when a mockingbird faithfully reproduces the territorial calls of some of our other local birds.  The titmouse, cardinal, bobwhite, blue jay, and chuck-will's-widow are always on the playlist.

         But every few years, I hear a mockingbird that clearly took lessons from a set of neighbors that bear a geographic imprint from a distant land.  With nothing better to do at 3 a.m., I took pen and paper, sat out on the porch, and began to tally the species I could recognize from this particular individual.  In rough order of the abundance of repeated calls or song phrases, here is some of what my ear detected from this mocker in a ten-minute sample (...and these weren’t rough approximations of the sounds; these were faithful, head-turning, CD-quality utterances of diagnostic sounds of these other critters):

         Black-crested Titmouse, 18 calls

         Ash-throated Flycatcher (2 different phrases), 15 calls

         * Great Kiskadee, 13+ calls

         * Green Jay, 12 calls

         * Long-billed Thrasher, 10 calls

         Northern Bobwhite (covey call), 10 calls

         Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 10 calls

         * Audubon’s Oriole, 6 distinctive low whistles

         * Cactus Wren, 5 or more calls

         Greater Yellowlegs, 5 calls

         Western Kingbird/Scissortail, 5 calls (dawn calls)

         House Wren, 5 calls

         Ladder-backed Woodpecker, 4+ calls

         Barn Swallow, 4 calls

         Bewick’s Wren, 4 calls

         * Curve-billed Thrasher, 4 whistles

         American Kestrel, 4 calls

         Blue Jay/Red-shouldered Hawk, 4 calls

         * Couch’s Kingbird, 3 calls

         * Northern Beardless Tyrannulet (?), 2 calls

         Rock Wren (?), at least 2 calls

         A large portion of the sounds of any mockingbird are generic or unattributable to one bird species, and the concert goes by so fast that I’m sure I overlooked or misclassified some sounds, especially in my groggy 3 a.m. state of mind.  Notwithstanding these sources of potential error, there is just no way that this particular bird would have been exposed to this combined set of distinctive sounds outside of deep South Texas, especially the subtropical species marked by an asterisk (*).  Some of these birds range uncommonly as far north as San Antonio, but assuming that there might be some gross correlation of the frequency in the mockingbird’s repertoire with the commonness of the species around the songster, we’re talking about an origin in the Lower Rio Grande Valley at the closest (e.g. from the environs of a place such as Santa Ana NWR or Laguna Atascosa NWR).

         Mockingbirds are not generally regarded as a migratory species, but the young of all species relocate to begin lives of their own.  Those post-fledging dispersal distances for most birds may range from a few hundred yards to a few dozen miles, but there will always be the occasional traveler who decides to pack his bags and look for greener pastures, woodland, or forest, much farther afield.

         Here from Greg Lasley's Nature Photography website are some cropped images of a mockingbird surrounded by the probable South Texas neighbors from whom it apparently learned a portion of its repertoire.  Hover your cursor over each image to see the species name.

    Couch's Kingbird Audubon's Oriole Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet

    Curve-billed Thrasher Northern Mockingbird Long-billed Thrasher

    Green Jay Great Kiskadee Cactus Wren

    * * * * *

    Below The Line:

         Now imagine you are charged with doing a bird census in a patch of South Texas brush where you will tally all species in the dawn chorus by the songs you hear around you…and the Northern Mockingbird is the most common and noisiest species within earshot.  I’ve been in this setting; it can be a complete frustration and a completely laughable task.  On a route through acacia-mesquite shrublands somewhere south of Uvalde many years ago, I routinely had results at each of several stops such as: “Mockingbird, 6+; Killdeer (?), Green Jay (?), Couch's Kingbird (1 or 3?), thrasher sp. (?), …”

         Another source of confusion on a South Texas breeding bird census comes from the roughly similar songs of the Northern Cardinal and its close relative, the Pyrrhuloxia, both of which can be abundant.  I was forced to make up a new “species” on my tally sheet--Cardiloxia--for songs I could not distinguish.

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