Monday, September 29, 2008

"Life in Ponds at Selah" by Amanda & Steven Fulton

I want to thank Steven and Amanda for the work they did on this post.

When I found out about the two weeks of treatments I would be getting in Houston at MD Anderson Cancer Center, I asked Amanda and Steven Fulton if they would take pictures and write about them for the September 29th post. Both of them are good biologists, and they decided to feature some of the aquatic plants and animals that are common here at Selah. Animals and plants were collected by Steven Fulton and photographed by Amanda Fulton. Amanda took some of the photographs in the field.

Steven and Amanda worked as a team. Steven went out and captured fish, insects, larval critters and some aquatic plants. He brought them home and put them into an aquarium. Amanda took pictures which you'll see in this post. Gathering information and writing captions was done by both of them.

Those of us who work at Selah find the living things in creeks and ponds very interesting. Right now the creeks at Selah are mostly dry due to the drought. There are plants, animals, & microscopic creatures and plants. Like any habitat, there are food chains and communities in which the inhabitants interact and are dependent upon the health of the whole ecosystem.

I hope you enjoy this interesting look into the watery world.

Aquatic Plants:
There are plants that live entirely submerged in water, others that have their roots at the bottom of the pond, but a good part of them is above water (think of cattails). Some plants float on the top of water, like duckweed and water lillies, and others that need to be along the edge of water where their roots are always wet.

Coontail (Ceratophyllum spp.) This submerged plant inhabits ponds with still water such as Madrone Lake. It is usually one of the most abundant fresh water plants.

Pondweed (Potamogeton nodosus). A plant with floating leaves approximately 3 inches long and 1/2 inch broad. The seeds are on cylindrical spikes floating on or extending above the water. These plants have roots in the the bottom of the lake, and tend to extend upward into the swimming zone near the shore of Madrone Lake, which makes them the most visible plant.

This little aquatic plant is common but we don't know the name of it, and couldn't find it in the field guides we have. If you know what it is, please let us know by leaving a comment, or going on our website and sending an e-mail to the ranch.

Some aquatic insects live in water but breathe air, some that spend their larval period under water and get oxygen from the water with their gills. Many of the aquatic larvae go through metamorphosis to become flying insects that are seen around water, such as dragonflies.

Water Scorpion (Ranatra fusca). Some people may mistake the water scorpion for a walking stick because of their similarities to their terrestrial insect relatives. They move about very slowly and often sit motionless for long periods of time. The stinger-like tail is actually breathing tube used to attach them to the waters surface. Note the dimple on the water's surface, where their breathing-tube reaches the surface. Their front legs are modified for catching prey. They are predatory insects that feed on other insects by injecting digestive enzymes into their prey and sucking the liquid from them and leave the exoskeleton behind.

Dragonflies are ferocious predators in both the larval and adult stages, they feed on other insects.

Dragonfly larvae are also known as nymphs. They are found in a range of permanent and temporary aquatic habitats. The larvae harpoon other aquatic insects by extending their lower lip at lightning speed. They are green and brown in color helping them to be camouflaged in their environment. If this nymph looks dead to you it is because it is dead. The water scorpion killed it.

Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea). The Roseate Skimmer has a pale-bluish thorax and a bright pink or purple abdomen. The wings are transparent with orange veins and black tips. They are very active foragers and prefer tall vegetation. My observation of the skimmer was that if perched, any movement by other dragonflies or myself, the skimmer would take off in flight. The Roseate skimmer is an aggressive predator, feeding on insect only slightly smaller. At this particular feeding sight they were outnumbered by the Twelve-spotted Skimmer.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella). The Twelve-spotted Skimmer has a very distinct wing pattern of dark brown or black wing spots. The male is characterized by having two white spots on each forewing and three on each hindwing. I thought that the white spots of the male looked more pale blue than white. They prefer open pond and lake shores well exposed to sunlight. While watching them I noticed that they are very territorial. I often saw them chasing other dragonflies away.

Burrowing Mayfly (Family Ephemeridae, Hexagenia limbata). These aquatic larval insects were given their name because they burrow into sediment at the bottom of lakes and streams. The feather-like gills you see extending out of their abdomen allow them to breathe in oxygen depleted environments.

Fish are born in water, live and breathe in water. A variety of different kinds of fresh water fish live at Selah. Some of them are featured in this post. All of these fish were in an aquarium and were small. In looking at the pictures in Freshwater Fishes of Texas (Which is #2 on the list of sources at the end of this post), I believe that they all (except for the Longear Sunfish) have juvenile markings, and certainly were in the size range for juveniles (1.5 to 3 inches).

Juvenile Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus). One of my favorite fish to catch and eat, the channel catfish can be found in most lakes and rivers in Texas and is a popular fish to release into stock ponds. It is mostly a bottom feeder; we know this because of observation and the telling characteristic of its mouth located underneath its head. Catfish are scale-less fish with their skin covered in a slimy mucus. Although many people are repulsed by their covering of mucus, the catfish needs it because the mucus is an important defense against harmful bacteria. Finally, the characteristic whiskers that give this fish its name are not whiskers at all and are scientifically known as barbels which are sensory structures that aid this fish in finding food in dark environments.

Juvenile Large-mouthed Bass (Micropterus salmoides). The large-mouthed bass is the most sought after fish by sport fisherman. Its aggressive behavior and large mouth, make it fairly easy to catch with almost any type of bait. Its large mouth also distinguishes it from other bass species in this area. Before introducing this species to a newly developed aquatic habitat, be sure to have established populations of smaller baitfish, otherwise the large-mouth bass will eat itself into oblivion.

Juvenile Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus). The bluegill is a common sunfish that is found statewide in most aquatic environments. It is a favored game fish for many anglers, especially fly fisherman. Reaching lengths of up to 16 inches, it is one of our largest sunfish; however, I have caught very few of large size here at Selah. This is possibly due to our cyclic droughts that reduce the size of pools in the creek, which makes the larger individuals more susceptible to predation.

Juvenile Green Sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus). The green sunfish is common in many aquatic environments, especially in backwaters and ponds. I find them to be very aggressive and their large mouths enable them to capture and swallow larger prey items than the other sunfish featured here. They are very competitive and when introduced to stock ponds they will quickly become the dominant baitfish species. This sunfish will also reach large sizes (up to 10 inches) and will react to many types of bait—live or artificial.

Longear Sunfish (Lepomis megalotis). Of the three sunfish featured here the Longear is moderately aggressive and smallest in size; however what they lack in size they makeup for in fight, making them enjoyable to catch with a pole-line. Their blue, green, and red coloration also makes them an attractive aquarium pet.

1. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America by Eric R. Eaton & Kenn Kaufman
2. Freshwater Fishes of Texas by Chad Thomas, Timothy H. Bonner, & Bobby G. Whiteside
3. Dragonflies and Damselflies of Texas and the South-Central United States by John C. Abbott
4. A Guide to Freshwater Ecology by Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission

Monday, September 22, 2008

Ragweeds and Other Plants That Make Us Sneeze

I've noticed people blowing their noses and their eyes are red and watery.

About 10 or 11 days ago, I heard an item on Charles Gibson's ABC Nightly about Ragweed Allergies. I googled Ragweed/allergies/ABC news and got the title "Research Links Allergies to Climate Change" by Gigi Stone. She says, "Ragweed season is at its peak , bringing bad news for more than 50 million Americans who suffer from allergies to this plant". It seems that research shows that the higher levels of CO2 seen in recent years, causes the plants to grow faster and produce more pollen. This immediately made me wonder about the status of Ragweed is at Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve. So I went out with my camera to where some of the Ragweed and Sumpweed plants are growing. I took quite a few photos but don't have them available to me now. The pictures in this post are actually SCANS made from the plants, and will provide some images for this, the first post on this subject. I will write another post with additional pictures and information when I'm home (next weekend).

Today is Sunday, and I'm sitting in my hotel room in Houston where I'm spending a couple of weeks getting radiation therapy. Even though I have my computer, I don't have the hard drive that has my photo library. However, these scans are on my laptop computer, so I do have some illustrations.

To start I need to share some information with you about the nature of the group of plants that produce lots of the kind of pollen that so many people are allergic to. First as members of the Sunflower family (ASTERACEAE) they have multiple flowers in each head. In this group they all contain minute grains of pollen that are carried on the wind and such tiny grains can be blown hundreds of miles on a breeze. Because there are so many varieties of plants in this group, while they are blooming there are always lots of pollen grains floating around, generally in late summer and early fall. When cold fronts start arriving regularly in the fall, they end the ragweed season.

The plant that is usually blamed for causing allergies blooms at the same time as Ragweed and looks like it would have lots of pollen. Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) is also in the Aster family but has large sticky pollen grains which aren't carried on the wind, but rather on the legs and bodies of bees or other insects.

On Selah, I found at least 4 different plants that have wind pollination and flowers that really don't look like flowers. Two of them are in these scans. Western Ragweed is shown in the two photos below. Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) is also found on the ranch. I have pictures on my hard drive at home, and will publish them on this blog when I'm back at the ranch. There is another plant that I have not gotten a correct identification for, but is clearly in the same group.

Western Ragweed (Ambrosia psilostachya) is generally found (at least at Selah) in dry areas and is often along the edges of roads. The male flowers are seen in a terminal spike on the top of each stem and the female flowers are found below along the stem in the axil of each leaf where it attaches to the stem. When they are pollinated the female flowers quickly develop a seed which has spines that cling to fur or feathers as animals pass by.

Western Ragweed has male flowers that produce an incredible number of wind blown pollen particles. If you click on this photo and get the large version you can see the pollen particles in the picture where they fell onto the glass surface of the scanner.

Narrowleaf sumpweed (Iva angustifolia) has very narrow leaves and the flower head has bracts that subtend each male flower. Note that the male flowers of Ragweed doesn't have the long skinny bracts along its flower stalk.
The male flowers of Narrowleaf Sumpweed in this scan don't show the stamen hanging down, but when the flowers are out, you can see them. In this scan they are enlarged a great deal.

I hope you're not an allergy sufferer. Some people find masks help if they are outside. There are medicines that may help too. If you stop to smell the flowers, don't try to smell Ragweed!

Illustrations are scans of plants placed on the window of the scanner, and scanned at at least 400 dpi, and some of the closeups on 4800 dpi.

Interesting Friends & Places in West Texas

On our West Texas trip we visited some gardens, homes of friends, hotels, and institutions. Here are a few of them.

There is a Big Bend Museum in Alpine, Texas on the Sul Ross University Campus where we spent a couple of hours exploring the natural history and our human history.

One of the displays in the museum was of a huge rock painting found in one of the large rock shelters. There are many fascinating exhibits and I recommend a visit there to all who are visiting West Texas.

At our visit to the Barton H. Warnock Science Building we saw one of our West Texas heroes is Dr. Michael Powell, a Botanist of Sul Ross University that has written about the Trees & Shrubs and Grasses of the Trans-Pecos region, and who is now gathering information about the herbaceous plants of the region which will either be published as a book or perhaps as information site on the web. A new book Cacti of the Trans Pecos is available now. It is out in paperback at a very reasonable price.

Patricia, Cindi, and J. David sit on the back of a truck. In the mid 1990's, Patty was one of Dr. Powell's botany graduate students, and she helped us with a project involving an endandered plant, the Murray Plum (Prunus murrayana). She went on field trips with us where we located new plants, and also helped us by growing some of the plants that we were hoping to plant in areas where there weren't many left. Also, we wanted to have a number of them from different colonies here together at the ranch.

Patricia had lived in town when we first knew her, but she longed to live out in the country. They now have this great house on 6 acres on the edge of town.

Eve's Garden is in Marathon, Texas and it is a B&B as well as a fabulous construction of papercrete. The Living in Paper website states, "Figuring conservatively, it takes about fifteen trees to make a ton of paper. That means that 720 million trees are used once and then buried in a landfill each year. We are experimenting with ways to turn this prodigious amount of waste into low-cost, high-value sustainable housing."

Owners, builders, gardeners and operators, Clyde T. Curry and Kate Thayer showed us around as we visited them. We met them years ago when we were in Marathon, and had enjoyed their company as well as seeing the early stages of their creation. We were anxious to see what they had built since then.

In the front garden you can see both Kate's love of plants but the organic shape of the walls and arches in the outdoor area. As you can see they love the bright primary colors of houses in Mexico.

There are many areas of the outdoor gardens, and here in the background you can see a fountain.

I love their use of organic shapes in their designs, as well as the vibrant colors.

The kitchen was spotless and I was impressed with the equipment.

This is one of the B&B bedrooms. Each has unique style, decorations and colors, and they are all different.

A passion flower captured my attention in the garden.

I guess Eve's garden should have a snake.

I have stayed many times at the Gage Hotel in Marathon, but I didn't know about the Gage Gardens, which we found quite by accident. The link above takes you to the whole Gage resort complex which includes the gardens. It was clearly planned for large events as well as for individual enjoyment.

A fountain is surrounded by flowers and stone walkways.

Grasses and and plants with colored leaves add a variety of visual delights.

I have no connection other than visitor to the places I've shown in this post of my blog. I only wanted to show you what a delightful mix of human sites are there in west Texas as well as some of my favorite scenery in the world. I have been to West Texas many times, and never tire of seeing it. I have seen it when everything was crispy dry, and when the desert floor was covered with green plants and wildflowers were everywhere. I've been there in hot weather and in cold. I've been there on Plant Field-trips and on Audubon Christmas Bird-counts. When the mountains are cold, the desert can be sunny and nice. When the desert is burning hot, the mountains can be cool.

Where ever you are, try to learn about and enjoy the natural world.

Photographs by Margaret Bamberger, 2008.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Our West Texas Vacation, Part 4 Lost Mine Tr.

When we walked part of the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park in West Texas, we managed to get an early start. There was a cool breeze and so it was quite comfortable. We tend to be slow to get going in the morning when we're on vacation. Also, as a cancer patient, I'm not the vigorous hiker I once was. However, we love the mountains, and J. David is patient with my slow speeds, so we still have a good time. Often, I sit down somewhere that is pretty and has interesting things to explore, and offer David the opportunity to hike unhindered by my slowness.

The entrance to the Lost Mine Trail is on the road that takes you in and out of the Chisos Basin, next to a parking area. The trail is clear and extremely well maintained.

Yellow-Trumpet-Flower (Tacoma stans) is a beautiful flower and a handsome bush. We saw them in many areas of the Chisos Basin, and they never fail to impress me. Two members of the same family Bignoniaceae that we have here at Selah are the Desert Willow (Chilopsis linerais) which has long skinny leaves and pink trumpet flowers, and Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans) which has big compound leaves and orange or red trumpet flowers. All of these have beautiful and showy flowers.

I have always been fascinated by lichens, which produce beautiful colors and patterns on rocks. Lichens are actually two different life forms that live together in symbiosis, which describes a relationship in which the partners involved could not survive without each other. A fungus provides a moist home for a specific algae. That algae has chlorophyll and makes food from sunlight which feeds both the algae and the fungus. Together they make a self-contained life form that can live in inhospitable places such as rocks.
As we climbed up the trail along the back of Casa Grande we looked down on Panther Pass. Through the pass we could see Green Gulch which is the only way to drive into the Chisos Basin.

The native Flax we have at the ranch is yellow. Prairie Flax (Linum lewisii) is similar in shape but is a beautiful delicate blue. Scattered along the trails they provided me with endless entertainment.

The Lost Mine Trail curves around and up the back of Casa Grande, which looks a bit different from the back. It is almost always in sight and stands out like a beacon.

Because of its incredible flame red color, Trumpetilla (Bouvardia ternifolia) is noticable as well as beautiful. This is a mountain flower and is mostly found above 4000 feet elevation.

I was sitting to catch my breath and enjoy the scenery when David took this photo. Casa Grande is behind and above me.

One of my favorite views is this one looking into Juniper Canyon. The feeling of immense space, the distant mountains and their pale blue color, and the bare rock on the mountains across the canyon all are part of the reason that I love this place.

One of the ways I can tell we are in a wet season is that the Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) is covered with leaves. During dry spells they lose their leaves and are bare spiny stems but stay alive even during extremely hot, dry spells. They have blossoms between May and July, which are red and very showy.

A close-up of Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) shows the vigorous green leaves that appear when there is enough rainfall.

After a day of hiking, David and I drove out along Green Gulch and sat at a drive-in spot for an informative sign. We enjoyed the view, the cool air, and some refreshment before going to the lodge for supper.
I never get tired of Madrone trees, and this lovely small tree was in the area where we had stopped to enjoy the view.

A close-up of the Madrone tree shows the smooth reddish bark on the living portion of the tree, and the black wood of the branches that have died. It is not unusual to see a healthy tree with a number of bare grey or black branches. (Check an enlarged version of the previous picture  of the whole tree for some good examples.)

We went to the Rio Grande in the evening with our friends Rhonda and Emily. We found the Hot Springs but unfortunately they were full of mud. We decided that it was a nice place to sit and visit but no one wanted to soak in "hot mud".

Along the Window View Trail is this monument and I wanted to share with you the message inscribed on it, because we are all blessed that there were people who understood the importance of preserving some of the country's most beautiful spots for the enjoyment of future generations. Thank you, Mr. Mather!


July 4, 1867 - Jan 22, 1930

Photographs by Margaret Bamberger, August of 2008.