Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Our West Texas Vacation-Part 1

David and I decided to drive to West Texas rather than fly somewhere. We were only gone from the ranch for a week. We saw and did amazing things, and it will take at three posts to share it with you. So this is part one!

As we were driving westward on I-10 the skies and clouds were amazing. I'm in love with the changes we see in the realm of atmosphere. The fact that our trip was during the rainy season of West Texas made it very exciting.

I couldn't decide if this cloud looked more like a camel or a dinosaur. At any rate, it looks like some sort of critter that is running across the sky.

The green grasses along the road were really a nice change from the dry grasses we were seeing in Central Texas.

We turned south off of I-10 near Sheffield onto State Hwy. 349 and reached US 90 at Dryden. It was raining off and on during the late afternoon. This sky struck me as especially dramatic at the time I was seeing it as well as in the photograph..

As we approached the town of Marathon which is 74 miles west of Dryden, we found ourselves driving past some fascinating rocks in the roadcuts. They are rocks that were formed during the Paleozoic period hundreds of millions of years ago. We were looking at rocks that had been folded in a belt that was created in a tectonic event when two continental groups, Laurasia and Gondwana, collided at the beginning of the Permian period 280 million years ago to form a single land mass called Pangea.

South of Marathon Ave. D turns into a small county road called Post Rd. which took us to Post Park. It is amazing to find an oasis in an area that is so dry, but that is just what this little park is. There is a spring that feeds a series of ponds with clear water.

The county park is well managed with nice signs that describe the Geology of the area. A clean bathroom, shaded picnic tables with BBQ pits nearby, provide a lovely spot for birds and people.
Just outside of the area that receives abundant water is a desert hillside topped by some of the harder rocks of the Marathon basin.

US Hwy 385 takes you 40 miles to the Persimmon Gap entrance to Big Bend National Park. As we left Marathon, we saw hills that were topped with chert in Caballos Novaculite Formations. When chert (a form of quartz which is resistant to erosion) runs parallel to the side of a ridge, the overlying more easily eroded materials have fallen away, and the white chert beds appear as scallops which are called flatirons from their shapes.

Deserts exist on the flat land between mountains. One of the most common plants in the Big Bend in desert areas below 4000 feet is the Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata). It has yellow flowers, fuzzy seeds, and small leaves covered with a resinous material that restricts evaporation, and smells fresh when it rains.

Look for Parts 2, 3 and 4 of our West Texas Adventure in the next few weeks. Also, watch for another post by Amanda Fulton who did the wonderful bluebirds photographs in the post of March 10th, and wrote as well as photographed the Butterflies of Selah in Spring, featured in the post of June 22nd.

I've decided that it is time to tell the story of how and why I started this blog last December, 2007.

The story starts in 2004. Four years ago David and I spent a good part of August in northern Arizona. I was breathless when trying to hike up hill, and felt tired much of the time. When we got back to Texas I told my family doctor about my experience, and he said that I was getting older, and we were at a much higher elevation. Three weeks later David and I were in Rome, Italy on our way to meet with my sister Mary Weiss, her husband Jeffrey Greene, my daughter Margie Crisp and her husband Bill Montgomery for several weeks along the coast on the island of Sardinia. Our first day in Rome I had pain in my side and we decided that we should check it out before going off to Sardinia, and went to an Emergency Room. Six hours later, after tests and a long wait for an English speaking doctor to arrive, we had the news that I had lesions in my lung and liver. In no uncertain terms I was told I needed to be seen in a hospital for diagnosis. I returned to Texas, and went directly to the hospital in Fredericksburg, where I'd been a patient before. Within a few days I had my diagnosis, Stage IV lung cancer which had spread to my liver. Wow- what a blow.

The last 4 years have been a medical adventure, with lots of treatments, and I've gone from being a very sick puppy with several months to live, to feeling well most of the time. I've been under the care of a wonderful oncologist, Dr. Jose Lopez and his staff in Fredericksburg. I'm currently a "referred patient" at MD Anderson, and will have radiation treatment in September, which I'm hopeful will give me a long time without cancer.

One of the side effects of my cancer treatments these 4 years, is that I feel like I'm on a roller coaster. Being a regular teacher in the programs here at the ranch became impossible. We now have enough staff members that I'm free to do what I feel up to, which at times is helping with camps, workshops, or programs. I missed the regular contact with people who came here to learn. But most of all I missed being involved with nature on a daily basis. When my friend Chris Johnson suggested that I could do a blog about the ranch, it struck me as a perfect fit. I would have a reason to take lots of pictures, and to pay attention to what is happening around the ranch. I hope that lots of you enjoy my efforts, and my photos.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Chiroptorium designer & builder, and former intern visit Selah.

We had two visitors with important connections to the ranch. The weekend of August 1st. through the 3rd., Jim Smith who designed and built the Chiroptorium in 1997 came for a three day visit. He got to see bat emergences that were the result of his hard work. I've included some photographs of the early stages of the construction.

Jim Smith, who designed and constructed the Chiroptorium talks with ranch people (Justin is in the picture) about ideas he has for improving the observation room.

(Unfortunately the next 3 images are small and only increase in size a little if you click on them.)

When Jim Smith was working on the Chiroptorium in 1997 he did much of the work himself with the help of some of the Mexican men who have worked here for 30 years. Here he is welding some support structures.

Here Jim and J David are in the finished Chiroptorium and are looking at the interior temperatures using a device that leads from interior temperature sensors are hooked into.

Before the gunnite (cement) was sprayed on, it was a beautiful gleaming structure that was so pretty that we hated to cover it up. However no bats would ever want to stay in it like this.

Kim Kennard was an intern here last spring and was a big help with our programs. She just finished her Masters degree at Tennessee University. She did research in bat biology, and worked with Dr.Gary McCracken. She will be getting certified to teach Biology in Junior High and High School.

When Kim was as an intern here Aiden was not even one year old. She was delighted to play with him now that he is talking and running around. He enjoyed her too.

Jonathan, Kim's friend, and J David talk at the Chrioptorium.

Cory, our tree climbing dog was up in a tree during a morning walk and I took this picture. I think that he looks very noble. He is frequently a silly dog, but you wouldn't know it from this photo.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Critters, Flowers, and Seeds

This past week was very busy and very rewarding.

While out taking pictures of flowers, I mananaged to catch a few nice photographs of critters that were out visiting flowers for their nectar.

This Purple Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens) with exceptionally deep color lavender blooms was being visited by a number of bees. They were moving fast, and I had a hard time catching up with them, focusing and shooting a picture before they were off and away.

Shrubby Blue Sage (Salvia ballotoeflora) is blooming by Madrone Lake. It has small blue flowers that were attracting several bumble bees. Note the orange pollen on his right leg.

Queen butterflies were going nuts over the Blue Mist (Eupatorium coelestinum) flowers. It was magical to see them all fluttering around the patch of flowers.

I was focusing my camera on an unusually handsome Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) when a little female Black Chinned Hummingbird few into my view.

There are some new blooms out as a result of the two inches of rain that fell as Dolly made her way into Texas, and the 1/4 inch this past week due to the tropical depression.

I think this is a Bush Sunflower. There is a huge number of yellow sunflower type plants, and I don't know them all, but the description in Marshall Enquist's book "Wildflowers of the Texas Hill Country" sounded like the one I was looking at. If you are a botonist and see that I have misidentifed a plant please let me know.

These are the leaves of the plant in the photo above this one. They feel rough, and so does the stem.

This is a plant that was probably planted outside the window of our workroom. It looks like a color variety of the Gregg Salvia (Salvia greggii). I've seen them white, pink, and red, but not pink and white on the same flower.

These are the flowers of Shrubby Blue-sage (Salvia ballotoeflora). I've seen this lovely plant growing wild on the West Nueces River. We have had a specimen here next to the trail going down to the patio at Madrone Lake for years and it has done very well. Check out the image enlarged and see the fuzzy tops of the flowers.

Silver-Leaf Nightshade (Solanum eleagnifolium) is a common wildflower here at the ranch. I like it, and look forward to seeing the combination of purple-blue flowers and silver leaves in thick patches.

This is one of the Wild Petunias. I'm pretty sure that it is Low Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis). It certainly has pubescence on its leaves which is mentioned in most descriptions of it.

I have been trying to note and document the progression from flower to seeds, and have a few pictures of some outstanding ones.

When Milkweeds go to seed they can be quite dramatic. You can see the seeds still holding onto their fuzzy parachutes.

Queen's Delight (Stillingia texana) has yellowish-green male and female flowers on a spike that don't look much like flowers. The spike dries up and the fruit are green smooth pods with 3 lobes that appear at the base of the spike. In the photo above you can see 2 green fruits, and 3 remains of fruit.

There are rumors that we'll get some rain tomorrow, and today (Monday, August 11) is cloudy. We need rain, so I'm going outside to do a rain dance!

J David and I are going to West Texas for a little vacation. We leave tomorrow and will be gone a week. The gentleman that was at Big Bend and took our reservations, said that they have had rain and there are lots of wildflowers. Goody!

Monday, August 4, 2008

More Wildflowers Than I Expected

I hope that you are not tired of wildflowers. I love to see them, and I'm always trying to learn new things about them, such as their bud form, how long the blossoms last, and how they look when they go to seed.

Purple Sage or Cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens) is fairly common in our area. After a rain it is covered with beautiful lavender flowers. It is known as "the barometer bush" and some folks believe that it blooms before rain comes. However, I believe the presence of blooms is more apt to indicate a recent rain rather than forecasting a rain to come. We had a 2" rain last week and we are being told that tropical storm Edouard should bring us rain on Tuesday or Wednesday. So I wonder what the blooms could mean this time?

After publishing the post last week I started looking for wildflowers, and I really didn't expect to see as many as I found. Another surprise is the number of insects and spiders that I found, not when I'm looking at the plant, but when I've got the picture on my screen. 

We had some rain last week, and there is hope that the tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico will bring some rain to the Hill Country. Wouldn't that be nice!

The Cut-Leaf Gilia (Gilia incisa) flower is incredibly small, around 1/4 inch, and  the whole plant is only 10 inches tall growing in the dry limestone soil where I found it. It is delicate and beautiful, but unless I know where to look to find them, they are so small and insignificant looking that I just don't see them.

This is another plant with a small flower. The white cup of the Evolvulus (Evolvulus sericeus) resembles a morning glory, which is the family it belongs to. The flower is a little less than one half inch to 5/8 inch wide. When conditions are dry like it has been here, they grow very close to the ground.

Grey Golden-Aster (Heterotheca canescens) forms colonies on dry calcareous soils in the Hill Country. A light colored dense coat of hairs on the leaves give it the greyish color. The yellow flower heads are small, around 1/2 inch. The colony pictured here is about 3 feet wide. I am only showing a small portion of it here.

Generally speaking I don't find Mexican Hats (Ratibida columnaris) very attractive plants. Their leaves are deeply divided and look kind of scraggly, but in looking at the flower up close I saw an elegance I didn't see before. Be sure to click on the photo to see a large version of it, and you'll see that each yellow stamen is a little yellow star.

On Sunday when I took this picture of our Purple Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens) by the SW corner of the ranch house there was not a single blossom on it, but it was covered with buds.

When I went back out on Monday to see what was happening with the Purple Sage it was blooming! There are a multitude of buzzing bees on it today and hopefully they are making some good honey for us.

Queen (Danaus gilippus) butterflies look a lot like Monarchs and they are in the same subfamily (Danainae) but the white dots on orange in the forewing is not seen in Monarchs. Their caterpillars eat milkweed plants as Monarchs caterpillars do, and they too are distasteful and slighly poisonous, which keeps their predators from eating them. This Queen is getting nectar from a Blue Mist-Flower (Eupatorium coelestinum).

Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) is not a yucca and it isn't red. It is however, a nice plant to have around your house, as long as it has plenty of sun. Their buds and blooms are very pretty, and they bloom all summer.

The seed pods of Red Yucca can be quite large. They turn brown eventually, and open up dropping their seeds.

Rough Sunflower (Helianthus hirsutus) forms colonies near water in the Hill Country. The stiff hairs on their leaves makes them rough to the touch. Queen butterflies like them for their nectar, and the colony by Madrone Lake was full of butterflies, mostly Queens.

Snow-On-The-Mountain (Euphorbia marginata) blooms from the middle of summer to early fall. The white margin on the leaves near the blossoms and the white cup around the actual flower make the plant look showy, and I think very attractive. If you look at a large version of this photo you'll see the spider legs in the cluster on the bottom right.

I like this unusual view of Snow-On-The-Mountain. You can see a blossom clearly, and you can also see how hairy parts of it are, especially the stem.

Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. Drummondii) looks to me like its bud forgot to open. But folks, this is the flower in its full bloom. This plant likes shade, usually near water.

Zexmenia (Zexmenia hispida) plants seem to have flowers all summer long even when it is too dry for most other plants to bloom. Look at the tip of the petal on the upper flower on the right and you'll see another critter which I didn't notice when I took the picture. I did however clearly see when the picture was on my screen.

Not everything that is pretty is a flower. The Broadleaf wood-oats grass (Chasmanthium latifolium) plant has wonderful seed heads which I find beautiful. At this time of the summer the seeds are still green. Later they will turn brown, and they are excellent food for wildlife, especially birds.

Texas Snowbell (Styrax texanus) seedpods are still green. In the fall when they are ripe, they turn dark and split open. Some pods hold one seed and some hold two or three. J David and Steven collect them in the fall. After several months in damp spagnum moss in the refrigerator they start to sprout. They are planted at that stage and kept in the greenhouse until it gets warm in the spring when they are moved outside.

As I walked along the Nature Trail between the Center and Madrone Lake I was struck by how much cooler it wasin the shade than out in the sun. The sunshine and shadows, the colors and textures of different leaves formed a green tapestry that was lovely.

I hope that you have places nearby that you can visit where you can see flowers & trees, hear wind & birds, and enjoy wildthings. I feel that we all need those special times to chill out and remember how important nature is to our spirits.

I have recently been reading a book called Earth Prayers from Around the World. I would like to share one with you that I particularly like. It is from Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav:

Grant me the ability to be alone,
May it be my custom to go outdoors each day
among the tress and grasses
among all growing things
and there may I be alone,
and enter into prayer
to talk with the one
that I belong to.