Friday, March 28, 2008

Awakening and Nourishing a Passion for Learning

Fifth graders from Bonham Elementary School at Selah for 3 day science program:

For many children in the 5th grade a three day, 2 night trip to a ranch is an adventure unlike any school trip they have experienced before. They will sleep in dormitory rooms with their friends, and eat delicious food. They will learn about science and nature by hands on experience, have time to play, fish, hike, meet owls and hawks, and look at the stars through a big telescope.

We now have four different schools that come here for Fifth Grade Field Studies. We have only one class here at a time, so there is individual attention given to each students.

Subjects relate the fifth grade level Texas Elements of Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). Because the students have learned a lot of skills and concepts in this "outdoor classroom" and are excited by their experiences here, they have been doing well in their TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) test. In some cases their improvement is remarkable.

The following pictures offer examples of their activities and experiences during their 3 days here, including evening activites.

The Bamberger Ranch as a "working ranch"
Because we are a working ranch, the students are introduced to Scott Grote who is the ranch operations manager. He tells them about the domestic animals, cows, and goats, and how he manages them.

Scott introduces his horse, who helps him round up and move cattle from one pasture to another.

Introduction to water, watersheds, aquatic organisms, and water quality.
Steven Fulton runs the rainfall simulator which has tall grasses in one tray and bare ground and a "cedar" or Ash Juniper in the other. Hollow needles in the trays above allow water to fall like rain on the trays.
  • On the CEDAR side (right) most of the water flows into the bottle marked RUNOFF and is dark and muddy because because the topsoil is picked up and carried away with the water. Little or no water enters the groundwater bottle.
  • On the GRASSES side (left) almost no water runs off into the runoff bottle, and the bottle marked GROUND WATER fills up with clear water.
Students wear water-proof boots and net aquatic organisms that live near the shore of a shallow tank. They find many of the larvae (young before they go through metamorphosis) of the flying insects that live near water, such as dragonflies, mayflies, and damselflies. They also catch small fish, sometimes a tadpole or two, and swimming beetles.

Fishing at Madrone Lake
Fishing is also on the agenda, and it is sometimes the first time a student has had the opportunity to try their hand at it.

Journal keeping
A special Journal was created for this educational program, and each student has one. After each segment of the day time is scheduled for writing up their experiences and thoughts. Sometimes they are required to do a drawing or diagram of what they've seen.

Stargazing with the Austin Astronomical Society (AAS).
After dinner one of the members of the Austin Astronomy Club gives a slide show of some of the features seen in the sky. When it's dark they go out to the area where the AAS has set up. Students and teachers take turns visiting the 3 telescopes, and any questions are answered.

Understanding Soils
Steven talks about the components of soil, which include air, and water, as well as sand, silt and clay, and organic matter.

Steven and Justin show examples of some different kinds of clay, silt, and sand. Students learn how to test for different components, and learn about weathering and erosion.

The Bluebonnet trailer goes to dinosaur tracks and fossil beds
During the Cretaceous Period this area of Texas was a shallow sea, and fish, oysters, clams, snails, and ammonites lived there. Some of their fossilized remains remain here.

Dinosaurs walked across a limey mud flat and left their footprints which became limestone over a long period of time. Bones of Acrocanthosaurus, a meat eater have been found in Texas and there are many examples of their tracks in Texas too. Some of our tracks are excellent and you can even see toe-nail marks on several of them.

Fossil Hill has many thousands of fossil oysters and clams.
A student shows his fossils, the oysters being the most common ones.

Learning about some plants, leaf characteristics, flowers and pollinators.
Tree characteristics are discussed.

Bees are important pollinators of plants, both wild and domestic. Students look at a demonstration hive to see how they live.

After a discussion about birds adaptations to different life styles, and how foot and beak shapes indicate habitat and food preferences, students construct a bird house.

Sallie Delahoussaye shows an Eastern Screech Owl, and describes how she cares for injured birds during their rehabilitation. Birds that can't be released into the wild sometimes become her Education Birds like the owl she is holding.

Ed Somes is holding a Mississippi Kite. The curved beak shows that it is a bird of prey, and though it is doing well, its broken wing will keep it from being released.

This beautiful bird is a Harris hawk and she has been a teaching bird for years.

Night Hike
Students take a night hike with flashlights. A highlight is when Steven does a Screech owl call and gets one of our resident owl to answer him.

In order to play the Lewis and Clark Adventure students must learn to use a compass.

Students are divided into two groups and go on the trail. Each group must create a map using their compass, and note directions and signs (such as a large tree, a special plant, rocks or sticks making an arrow to indicate direction) that will allow the other group to go the same way and not get lost. It is fun as well as educational.

After eating lunch, packing, and getting ready to leave, there is a final stop at Hes' Country Store where J. David Bamberger talks with students about heritage conservation and the importance of family. He encourages them to interview their grandparents and find out how things were when they were children, where they grew up, and what they remember about their own grandparents.

Thanks to the Bonham students that were here recently. I hope you enjoy seeing the pictures of your adventures here, and that you share them with your parents. Many thanks to Ms. Madrid for putting her wonderful pictures on disc so I could use them for this chapter of my blog.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

What are those birds doing?

My camera sees what my eyes can't see!

In the big trees on the east side of the ranch house I have two hanging feeders with black oil sunflowers seeds, three feeders made for thistle seed, two platform feeders that I put both sunflower seeds and thistle seeds in, two hummingbird feeders stocked with sugar water, and one suet holder. By having having different feeders I can attract lots of kinds of birds.

Since I got my Cannon single-lens reflex digital camera I have from time to time set up my camera on a tripod, aimed it at a feeder and taken pictures. The wonderful advantage to digital cameras is that you can take hundreds of pictures and delete all the ones that don't show anything special. This week my blog shows pictures of interactions of birds which shows activities and details that I can't see because it is happening so fast that my eyes can't see the action.

Of course I don't know what the birds are really saying to each other, but it is fun to make up captions for them.

Hey, I was here first!
These birds are Pine Siskins that have markings that look like sparrows, but is actually in the same group as Goldfinches. They have yellow markings on their wings and tail (the yellow doesn't show up in these photos). They like thistle seed and in this picture are on a sock thistle feeder. Because there are lots of individuals they are frequently jostling for spots.

It's mine, keep away!

Why don't you look where you're going?

There is room for everybody, we just have to figure out where.

You all are too rude, I'm out of here!

Last summer when there were hoards of hummingbirds hanging around the hummingbird feeders, I set up my camera and took some shots of their activities. Below is one of them.

This little male Black-chinned Hummingbird is either landing, or possibly he is leaving (hummingbirds are like helicopters, and can fly forward, backward, up and down).

Chris Johnson took this wonderful picture of a female Black-chinned Hummingbird while visiting during the summer.

Thanks to Chris Johnson for the picture above.
Other pictures taken by Margaret Bamberger

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Blooming bushes

Bushes provide the current "best flower show" at Selah this month.

The combination of tall grasses which are still standing and now are mostly tan, and small amounts of rain, have reduced the show of wildflowers this spring. However blooming bushes this spring have been looking good. So here is a selection of bushes and small trees that are blooming now.

J David said that my pictures don't show what the plant looks like, so the top pictures in each case shows leaves and more of the plant.

Agarita (Berberis trifoliata) is a common bush on the Preserve. It has compound leaves with 3 stiff leaflets (with 5 points on each leaflet). Their sharp points make it difficult to pick the beautiful red berries that ripen in June and make a delicious jelly.

Rusty Blackhaw
Rusty Blackhaw (Viburnum rifidulum) is a pretty small tree with shiny opposite leaves that turn a beautiful rusty red in the fall. The berries start as a pinkish color and turn dark blue as they ripen. Birds love to eat them.

This crabapple (Pyrus sp.) tree is by a creek and blooms early each year. Because it blooms before or with its leaves, it looks snowy white when it first starts to bloom. Even though it had been blooming for weeks when I took this picture, I was still able to find some fresh blossoms.

Texas Lantana
Texas Lantana (Lantan urticoides) has red, yellow and orange blossoms. This pink and lavender variety came from a nursery and is in our yard. The leaves have a distinct odor and the berries are small, dark blue and ripen in late summer or early fall.

Texas Redbud
Texas Redbud (Cercis canadensis var. texensis) is a drought tolerant native bush or small tree. It blooms early (March and April) and adds a bright splash of color to the landscape in early spring while winter colors dominate. Its leaves sprout while it is blooming, which are shiny green and heart shaped. This tree which is in the Bean Family has clusters of flat, deep red bean pods that ripen in the fall.

Texas Mountain Laurel
Texas Mountain Laurel (Sophora secundiflora) is an evergreen shrub or small tree frequently found on limestone hillsides. It has dark green shiny compound leaves with leaflets on either side of the main stem (like a feather), and one at the tip. In spring the purple blooms smell like grape Kool Aid. They bloom in some places as early as February. They are in the Bean Family and their pods are silver grey, and are 3 to 5 inches long. They contain bright orange/red seeds that are very hard and ripen in September. Children call the seeds "burn beans" because you can rub them on cement and they get hot enough to feel like you're being burned if they are pressed against sensitive skin. Leaves and seeds are poisonous to cattle, goats, sheep and humans. Because the seeds are very hard they often pass through the digestive tract intact and cause no harm. The Mountain Laurel I learned in North Carolina is a different plant than the Texas Mountain Laurel, and has different flowers leaves and seeds.

There are probably more bushes blooming right now, but the ones in this post are the ones that caught my eye. They are definitely the showy ones around my house and around Madrone Lake.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Bluebirds Set up Housekeeping at Selah

Bluebird images captured by Amanda Fulton

Amanda with Steven and Aiden last summer at Madrone Lake.

Amanda teaches biology at Blanco High School. She is married to Steven who is a biologist and teacher here at the Bamberger Ranch Preserve. They have a son, Aiden who was born on the 4th of July in 2006.

This past weekend, Amanda set up her camera in the yard in front of a bluebird box that a pair of bluebirds had chosen as their nest box. For hours she sat, watching and taking pictures. The six bluebird pictures in this blog show both the characteristics of the male and female, and the care the male gives the female during the nesting period.

I have asked Bamberger Ranch staff members for contributions such as pictures and ideas for the blog, and am thrilled that Amanda took these pictures.

Bluebirds are one of the Thrushes (a sub-family of birds). Thrushes have thin bills, strong legs, and many have beautiful songs. Both insects and berries are important to their diet.

Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) are in Eastern and Central United States including Texas. There are also Western Bluebirds which are seen in far West Texas. Flocks of Mountain Bluebirds are seen here sometimes in the winter.

They are a medium sized songbird, 6 to 8 inches from head to tail. They have a wingspan of 10 to 13 inches. They weigh around 1 ounce.

As is true with many bird species, the male is more brightly colored than the female. The blue on this male is a uniform and intense color , and the chestnut marking of his chin and breast is a rich color. His belly is white.

In this picture of the male bluebird you can see what a lovely blue is on his back - from his head to his tail.

This female bluebird's picture shows her grey-blue face, white eye ring, and the soft chestnut color on her breast.

The female is sitting in the opening of her nest box as she waits and watches for her mate to come back, hopefully with a delicious insect or berry.

Her mate has returned with something for her to eat, and she eagerly accepts it.

Now that she has eaten he gets ready to fly away, perhaps to find something to eat for himself or perhaps he'll find more food for his mate so that she can produce healthy eggs.

Before people started putting out bluebird nest boxes, bluebirds were having a hard time finding appropriate nesting sites that weren't taken by other birds, such as European Starlings and House Sparrows. People that liked seeing and hearing bluebirds decided to make nest boxes especially for them, and now the numbers of bluebirds have increased dramatically. We have put up lots of them here.

Many Audubon Society groups have developed "Bluebird Trails" in parks and on private land. Members put up lots of nest boxes, and and develop trails with good spots for watching bluebirds come and go with food for their nestlings.

Typically the female lays 4 or 5 pale blue unmarked eggs. Incubation lasts for 13 to 16 days. Both parents bring food to for the nestlings. Young birds leave the nest at around 18 or 19 days. I have seen the adults feed them for a while after they are out of the nest.

Eastern Bluebirds typically have more than one successful brood each year. The grown birds from the first clutch will often help feed the latest youngsters.

Thanks to Amanda for these wonderful pictures of Bluebirds.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a wonderful website with lots of interesting visual things including a Nest Box Cam of bluebirds, which should start their 2008 season soon (within the next week or so). Last year the cams started being shown on the website in March. Some of the nests were successful and some were not. Some of the pictures from the cams during the spring last year (2007) can be viewed now.

Try to get out and enjoy the birds this spring. There is a lot of activity now, and nesting sites are being chosen and nest building is starting. I'd love to hear about things that you find! If you send answers in the "comment" section I can publish them and everyone can read them! You can use your real name or make up one. If you don't want your comment published let me know.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Looking at 2007, A Year in Pictures

2007 Rain Total Was 44.59" at Bamberger Ranch

2007 was a very interesting year. We started it with low water in Madrone Lake, some dry or very low tanks or ponds, and had no water flowing in our creeks. The springs were flowing but at a low rate. We were concerned about trees and other plants, because in the fall of '06 they were showing signs of stress. When we heard that an El Nino was forming in the Pacific Ocean we were happy to hear that rain was most likely on the way. We had close to 21" total for 2006, but combined with less than average rainfall (average is 28"/year) in 2005 and 2006 we showed a real water shortage. We started getting rain in the fall, 2.53" in September, 2.74" in October, none in November and 1.94" in December, for a total of 7.21" for September to December.

The year of 2007 brought real rain starting in January, with 8.32 inches for the month. There was no rain in February, 9.23" in March, 2.55" in April, 5.94" in May, 3.56" in June, 6.85" in July, 3.13 in August, 2.56" in September, 0.86" in October, 0.91 in November, and 0.68 in December, for a total of 44.59 inches for the year.

Pictures Month by Month:

In mid-January we had an ice storm which was beautiful to look at, but it was hard on many trees and caused a lot of broken limbs. I feel excited like a kid when I look out and see ice and snow. I grew up in New Orleans, so I didn't see much snow growing up.

In February a friend offered to have a tree moved for us as a gift. The tree digging equipment had been in use on his place and we gratefully accepted his generous offer. We picked out two small White Shin oaks (Quercus sinuata) and had them moved to the field in front of Hes' Country Store where we have examples of most of the species of trees that grow naturally on the ranch as well as a few native trees that have been introduced on the ranch. They are doing very well in their new spot. Thank you JM.

In early March the Texas Redbud (Cercis canadensis var. texensis) trees bloom and provide bright pink color against the drab winter landscape. The larger tree is a Madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) that has red bark and evergreen leaves. Both of them are natives and grow here. This Madrone tree was here when the big lake was built in 1987, and Madrone Lake was named for it.

In April our Snowbells bloom. The Sycamore-leaf Snowbell (Styrax platanifolius) is found in valleys and along creeks here, and is pictured above. I was standing underneath the tree, and the blooms are hanging down over my head. The Texas Snowbell (Styrax platanifolius
var. texana) is a federally listed endangered plant. They are found in the watersheds of the Nueces and Devil's River, as well as along some creeks that feed into them. The plants look almost identical, except that the Sycamore-leaf Snowbell has a smooth green underleaf, and the Texas Snowbell has a fine white fuzz on the underside of their leaves. J David has been working to save the Texas Snowbell by growing them from seed in our greenhouse and planting them in corrals (to protect them from deer and goats) in the areas where they grow naturally. Hopefully the end result of the reintroduction project will be to de-list the plant because there will be so many healthy plants growing, that it will no longer be endangered. Check the spring issue of "Wildflower" the magazine of the Lady Bird Wildflower Center for an article titled "Saving the Snowbell" about J David and his volunteers.

In early May the book about J David and the story of the creation of The Bamberger Ranch Preserve, called "Water From Stone" was realeased by A&M Press. The author, Jeffrey Greene is married to my sister Mary and they live in France. J David is on the left of the poster of the front of the book, Jeffrey stands on the right side behind me. He came here to help promote the book and we spent most of the month on the road doing talks, slide shows, and selling and signing books.

By June Madrone Lake was full. During the summer of 2006 the level of the water dropped to five or six feet lower than its normal level. It is a marvelous swimming lake, especially when it is full.

At the beginning of July the ranch had received more than the average amount of rainfall since the first of the year. In this picture we are looking down into Big Valley which was very green at that time. The creeks were running, and wildflowers were plentiful.

Also during July Cory, our dog who climbs trees trying to catch squirrels (so far he hasn't), or some other critter that he is sure is in the tree, at times gets himself into tight spots. On this day he couldn't turn around and J David is trying to figure out how to get him down. Cory is a wonderful dog, but a bit silly at times.

At the end of July we had a gathering at the house. While we were cleaning up the patio look who hiding under a decorative wooden pot holder - a Diamond-backed Rattlesnake! Fortunately for us it seemed to be a calm snake, and didn't strike. Steven, the ranch biologist came up and moved it (very carefully) into a garbage can. J David took it to another part of the ranch where there were no houses, and released it.

Early in August we were driving around and saw these storm clouds over Carter Tank. I demanded that we stop the truck so I could get a picture. One of the great things about wet years is dramatic clouds.

In September the water is still warm enough for swimming in Madrone Lake. Our friends had a wonderful time jumping off of the swimming deck.

Early in October grasses are starting to bloom and put on their seeds. With such a wet growing season, grasses were unusually tall. The seed heads of the Yellow Indian-grass (Sorghastrum nutans) that J David is standing next to are more than six feet tall.

In November some of our trees turn pretty colors. Big Tooth Maples (Acer grandidentatum) can turn yellow, gold, orange or red. This maple at Madrone Lake seems to have gold and orange.

Sallie Delahoussaye a wildlife rehabilitator, sometimes releases hawks and owls at Selah. She came out late in December on a cold day to release this Eastern Screech Owl, who was anxious to be free again. Sallie works hard to keep injured birds of prey in a safe clean environment while they heal. She sees that they receive good medical care and proper food for good nutrition. Before she releases them she needs to know that they can fly and hunt on their own.

Each Christmas season I set up my little village on the mantle over the fireplace. I also celebrate the season by having friends over to a pot luck dinner. If the weather isn't too horrible, we take a hike in the afternoon. I often have the gathering on the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day of the year.