Sunday, November 30, 2008

Traveling Seeds, or how seeds get to new territory

Seeds need to travel in order to colonize new areas. If all the seeds fell at the base of the parent plant, there would be fierce competition for light, water, and nutritional elements in the soil. So seeds get dispersed using strategies that defy gravity, use animals and/or wind to travel to new locations. 

Maple seeds are classified as samaras, which is defined as a dry, indehiscent (not opening at maturity along definite lines), winged fruit. If you throw maple samaras into the air they spiral down along a wobbly path. If there is wind I believe they can travel a fair distance before they hit the ground. Big-tooth Maple trees don't seem to make seeds every year. I don't know what conditions are responsible for seed production. It may be affected by the amount of rain or some other environmental factor, or it may be what their DNA is programed to do.

Many plants use the strategy that Buffalo Bur (Solanum rostratum) does which is to produce a seed with spikes which will get caught in the fur or feathers of a passing animal and travel with them. Eventually they will fall to the ground, and most likely will be far from the parent plant

Antelope Horns (Asclepias asperula) milkweed produces a typical milkweed pod, which looks a little like a horn before it splits open. In this photograph you can see inside the pod where the seeds are lined up with their fluffy parachutes not open yet. To the right of the pod are some open seed carriers that are just waiting for a good breeze to arrive and carry them off with their seeds to a new destination.

Grasses evolved in open windy places and depend on wind to carry their pollen  and many have fluffy attachments to their seeds. When the grass seeds are mature they loosen from the grass stem and are easily picked up by wind and carried off.  This photograph is of Bushy Bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus) which has lots of fluffy attachments to catch the wind.

This photo is of some scat (animal poop) that contains seeds. Now, I don't know whose scat it is, or what plant the animal was eating, but these seeds are still intact, and will end up fertilized (in the right conditions). This scat is on a gravel road, which is not a good place for seeds to germinate, but if it was on soft ground and some rain fell on it, some of the seeds might start growing. So having animals eat their seeds and drop them somewhere else, is another way plants get their seeds spread around. Fleshy fruits that taste good to animals are especially well adapted to this kind of seed dispersal.

Tomorrow will be one year from the day I published my first post in this blog, "Welcome to the Bamberger Ranch Journal". When I started it I decided that I would publish one post each week which means that in one year 52 posts would be published. 

This post is the 52nd. It has been a wonderful adventure for me. It has not always been easy to write a post each week, and because of cancer treatments I didn't always feel well. But I have learned so much and have taken lots of pictures.  My friends that follow this blog say that they have learned to pay more attention to what is going on in the world around them. I have found that to be true for me too. I hope that you enjoy it and take the time to enjoy the world of nature around you!

I plan to continue for at least another 52 posts. If there is something that you'd like to know more about, send me a note in the COMMENTS section at the end of any post.

Going to Seed- pea family pods, and lots of berries

Humans eat lots of Legumes which are members of the pea family. We eat green beans, green peas, lentils, black beans, red beans, black-eyed peas and pinto beans, to name a few. We love them in our gardens, in our food, and wildlife find legumes in nature and enjoy them as a good source of protein. Mesquites provides an important source of food in the southwestern United States. Gamebirds, such as quail rely on them. Fur and game mammals find them a reliable source of food - antelope jack-rabbits, cottontail rabbits, and skunks to name a few. Small mammals such as chipmunk, ground squirrel, mice, rats, eat the pods, and deer eat the foliage and twigs.

Below are some of the members of the Pea Family (sometimes referred to as Legumes, or members of "Pea" or Fabaceae Family). The ones below are plants that are native to the ranch that I saw that happened to have pods when I was out taking pictures in late October and early November.

Members of the Pea Family have pea pods to hold their seeds. The flat pods of the Texas Redbud (Cercis canadensis var. texensis) seen here are around 3 or 4 inches long. In the late spring their pods are red and turn brown in the fall.

These pods on the Kidneywood plant (Eysenhardtia texana), are very small, less than 1/2 inch long. I don't imagine that such small pods offer much for wildlife food, but the blossoms provide excellent bee forage, and the leaves are good deer browse. It is also the host plant to the southern dogface butterfly caterpillar.

Golden-Ball Lead Tree (Leucana retusa) has bright yellow, globe-like flower clusters around an inch in diameter during April and May. Their pods are thin papery narrow brown pods 4 to 10 inches long. Leaves are bipinnately compound which gives them a lacey appearance. Deer and livestock brouse this plant heavily. Butterflies and bees love their nectar. (A picture of the flowers is below).

Flowers of the Golden-Ball Lead Tree certainly fit the name of the plant and seen to explode in the spring when they bloom. I love this plant and look forward to seeing its golden-balls against the spring green of it foliage.

The common understanding of the word "Berry" is a simple one, a small roundish juicy or fleshy fruit with a seed or seeds inside, and I think of Possumhaw, Rusty Blackhaw, Snailseed, Greenbriar, Carolina Buckthorn, and Madrone trees as having berries. However, if you look up specific terminology of say "fruits", in Plant Identification Terminology, an Illustrated Glossary, by James G. Harris and Melinda W. Harris, you find that there are multiple terms to describe fruits: take for example, a "Hip is a berrylike stucture composed of an enlarged hypanthium surrounding numerous achenes". If you're a botanical taxonomist this may make good sense to you, but I would have to look up at least 2 more words, and maybe more before I would even start to understand. The following examples are fruits that I consider berries.

American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), has multiple clusters of magenta or purple berries against its light green stems and leaves in the fall, and in my opinion certainly deserves its name "Beautyberry". It grows in shady spots in moist soils, and we have them at Selah along the Nature Trail above Madrone Lake. Its flowers which appear in late spring or early summer are not showy, but are pretty, being small and white or a delicate pink.

Carolina Buckthorn (Rhamnus caroliniana) is a handsome small tree, which lives comfortably in sun or shade. One of the native plants here, it is found in many places. It blooms in late spring, and I would probably miss the small blooms if they were not so popular with honey bees which are sometimes so thick that the whole bush buzzes. Its fruit which is round, is at first greenish yellow, turns red and finally black when mature. You often see all the colors at once which adds to its beauty. The berries provide food for birds. Deer like to browse the plant, and it is often seen growing in a thicket where it is protected from browsers by neighboring spiny plants.

Texas Madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) seeds are Christmas red, have a granular surface and ripen in November. I have eaten them and they taste sweet. Apparently they are enjoyed by a number of bird species. This is one of my favorite trees on the ranch. (I will devote a whole post to it soon.)

Rusty Blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum) is a small tree that I associate with moist soils along creeks. The leaves are shiny green, simple and opposite. In the fall they turn a rust red, and are striking. Their fruit is pinkish (they have a dusty white surface, or bloom) then red, and black when ripe. They are listed as edible by Delena Tull in her book, "A Practical guide to Edible and Useful Plants". She indicates they "can be used in jellies or meat sauces, but they are best eaten raw." You have to be watching for them because birds like them so much that they may be gone before you get them.

Let me know if you find this kind of post with pictures interesting. I enjoy doing them and hope that they are informative and increase your curiousity about the world around us, both plants and animals.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Selah's Colors of Fall

When J. David was a young boy in Ohio, his mother Hester planted trees around the house and in the acres behind the house. He loved seeing them grow, and to this day plants trees on the ranch. When he started planting them on Selah in 1970 there were lots of trees here, but there were some that were missing. Maples probably grew all over the Hill Country in a previous wetter time, but today are mostly found in a few canyons and the Lost Maples State Park 50 miles west of us. David has planted over 400 Big Tooth Maples here and there are some areas that rival the State Park when the colors are brilliant.

At this time of year, at every turn of the road or trail the colors of fall are in evidence. J. David spends time out enjoying the fruits of his labor, and loves to bring friends out to see the fall colors. We even have a "Fall Colors Hike" in late November. Yesterday, Novemberr 22nd 60 people came out to hike around the trails.
(Note: Schedules are regularly shown on our website: and you can sign up ahead of time for a scheduled tour, workshop or hike. You will receive a confirmation letter and directions shortly before the day of the event.)

This grouping of Big-tooth Maples (Acer grandidentatum) are planted along the main road and can be seen at one of the turns in the main road. I want to point out that the maples are in corrals to protect them from deer, who consider them one of nature's most delicious treats. When these maples were planted we had no way of knowing that they would grow into magnificent trees that have beautiful colors.

At Madrone Lake, and along the creeks the colors of Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) that are getting ready to lose their needles are rusty red. They are especially colorful when the sun shines though them in the late afternoon.

On the trail I'm amazed at the symphony of colors that are seen in a sweep of the eyes. In this scene there are Spanish Oaks (Quercus buckleyi), Ash Junipers (Juniperus asheii), Big tooth Maples and Escarpment Black Cherries (Prunus serotina var. eximia).

Rusty Blackhaw (Virbunum rufidulum) turns a wonderful deep clear red, and retains its leaves for many weeks.

Smoketree's (Colinus obovatus) leaves turn a purplish red in fall which is quite striking. It is an uncommon tree but does well in our limestone soils.

Big-tooth Maple's colors can range from clear yellow to deep scarlet. The colors in this maple this year are what we call Salmon. We have been keeping records for over 10 years to determine if the colors are consistent from year to year, or if they are affected by weather or other variable conditions.

This maple on the Big Tooth Maple Trail is an exceptionally beautiful shade of crimson.

Maples frequently have several colors on the same plant. Here we have peach, yellow, and scarlet.

Spanish Oaks (Quercus buckleyi) turn a variety of colors. Some of the reds show a fair amount of pink in them.

This Spanish Oak is a deep scarlet.

Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is in the White Oak goup (note rounded lobes) and in the fall its the leaves turn yellow and various shades of tan and brown.

Escarpment Black Cherry turns shades of yellow and yellow orange before their leaves drop.

Arrowood Virbunum's leaves turn red in the fall. When the late afternoon sun shines through them they are a beautiful deep red.

Photographs by Margaret Bamberger taken during the week of November 17 through 22.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Going to Seed: Acorns

Reproduction is important in plants just as it is in animals. In both, when the mature generation is aging, a new generation needs to be growing up to take its place. In many plants, such as wildflowers, trees and shrubs, seeds are produced from fertilized flowers, and they carry the spark of life that will become the new generation, and they are often packaged with the food that will give them a good start.

The seeds of oaks trees are acorns. The acorn is defined in the book, "Plant Identification Terminology" by James G. Harris and Melinda Woolf Harris as," The hard, dry, indehiscent (which means that they do not open at maturity along definite lines) fruit of oaks, with a single large seed and a cup-like base".

According to an excellent book about the use of plants by animals of the U.S., "American Wildlife and Plants, A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits" by Alexander C. Martin, H. S. Zim and A. L. Nelson, "Oak trees are of major importance to both man and wildlife, and acorns are at a position at, or very near the top of the wildlife food list. Acorns provide a good and abundantly available staple - the staff of life for many wildlife species. The acorns of the white oak species are more palatable to wildlife just as they were preferred by the Indians and early settlers." The red oaks are much higher in tannins which makes their acorns bitter.

I don't know where this illustration of different seeds types "Common Types of Fruits and Seeds" came from, but we have used it for years with students and at workshops. The acorn is in the upper left-hand corner. (If you know the origin of this illustration , please let me know so I can give the author and/or artist credit.)

Bur Oak has very large acorns (Quercus macrocarpa) ["macro" = large "carpo" = Greek for fruit] and the Bur Oak tree's acorns are the largest we have at the ranch. This one is over an inch wide and if you count the cup which is deep and fringed with course hairs in the measure it is almost 2 inches wide . The leaves of the Bur Oak can be up to a foot long. The leaves in this picture were 6 to 9 inches long.

The Bur Oak acorns on the left are huge compared to the much smaller Spanish Oak (Quercus buckleyi) acorns on the right (note the quarter in the middle of the large acorns for size comparison). The white oak family to which the Bur oak belongs are sweet. Red oak acorns are high in tannins which give them a bitter taste. Native Americans made flour and tasty dishes with white oak acorns. Animals love them too.

Bur Oak Acorns are very popular with animals. These acorns have been partially eaten, probably by squirrels. J David planted Bur acorns in pots by the Greenhouse, and covered them so no acorn loving critters couldn't reach them. He underestimated the cunning of squirrels, and was dismayed when he returned to find that eight of the containers showed evidence of tampering. Two of them still had an acorn and in the others the acorns were missing.

These beautiful dark brown acorns are on a Plateau Live Oak tree (Quercus fusiformis) and are up to an inch long. The large number of Plateau Live Oak trees in this area mean that their acorns are important food for turkeys, deer, jays, titmice and woodpeckers. It is also the host plant for the caterpillars of skippers, hairstreak and admiral butterflies.

Live Oaks can get to be very large. This one, along Miller Creek has a sign that says "Largest Oak Known in Blanco County". I have no idea whether it is a Plateau Live Oak which is the common oak here at the ranch, or if it is the Coastal Live Oak (Quercus virigiana). It is huge and I think very, very old.

These acorns were on the ground under a large Lacey Oak (Quercuw laceyi) tree. We have a grove of these beautiful oaks along Miller Creek. I didn't find any of the smaller trees with acorns on them, so I was unable to get a photograph of acorns in their cups on a tree.

The old Lacey Oak trees in the grove are beautiful, with light gray bark, and graceful arching branches.

The leaves of the Lacey Oak have a thin coat of a waxy substance on their surface that reduces water loss during dry spells, and also gives the tree a bluish tint which has earned this oak the common name "Blue Oak".

There are many animals that love acorns and some actually hide them away for later in the year when food is less plentiful. Squirrels and other small mammals bury them, and then forget where they put them. Thus they plant a new crop of oaks, and some of the new plants will replace the old ones that are dying. The young sprouts are also food for other animals.

I found out from Scott Grote, who manages the deer and hunts, that the acorn crop this year is large enough that the White-tail deer aren't as interested in our corn feeders as they are in years when the acorn crop is smaller.

There are many cycles in nature, warm and cold, wet and dry. It would seem that a dry year like this past 12 months would produce a small crop of acorns. However when you consider that we had an unusually wet spring in 2007, the extra water probably gave the oaks the health they needed to make it through a dry year. When looking at the health of trees you look at what has happened in the last 2 or 3 years, not just the recent seasons.

Enjoy the fall. Leaves are changing color. Lots of plants produce their fruit in the fall. The air is often cool. It is one of my favorite times of the year.

Of course, I would love to see some rain!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Raptors Realeased at Selah

On Monday, November 3rd, two raptor rehabilitators, Sallie Delahoussaye and Ed Sones, brought a Red-tailed Hawk, and two Great Horned Owls out to Selah to release. Because we have a large ranch there is a good chance that the raptors will be able to explore, find food, and search for a good place to call home without being shot or hurt.

This Red-tail was probably hit by a car and was found on the side of a road with a fractured humerus (that big bone that connects the shoulder to the elbow in most vertebrates.) She was taken to a vet and a pin put in her bone while it healed. It was removed after 5 weeks and a period of conditioning took place in a large flight cage where she could practice flying and prove she could catch live prey such as mice and rats on her own. When she was flying well and had proved herself as a good predator that could feed herself in the wild, she was be ready for release.

The Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is a handsome bird with a heavy bill and strong talons. Juveniles have grey-brown tails with dark bands.  Adults have a red tail, which is easiest to see when the sun shines through the tail feathers. The tail feathers are red on both sides.  Their breast color can vary a lot, from very light to dark. According to the map in my bird field guide, they live over the entire North American continent, except for the far northern regions of Alaska and Canada.

As Ed holds the Rad-tail Hawk she is obviously ready to escape from human care.

As Ed releases his hold on her legs she leaps away from him and heads out across Madrone Lake.

Note the hawk's powerful legs and the muscles of its rump that are used by the bird to direct the tail, which when fanned out can serve a variety of purposes. It can serve as a rudder to steer the bird to left or right, can serve as an elevator, by directing it up or down, and serves as a brake to slow its forward speed.

With a few powerful strokes of her wings she flies down the lake and veers to the right and out of sight.

Sallie also brought out some young Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) that were brought to her as orphaned "fuzz balls". I called her today to find out what happened to them that caused them to be brought to her for care. She told me that they were living in a tree that was either cut down, or they were blown out of the nest in a storm. Young owls with some of their flight feathers are often found on the ground because they are not yet ready to fly, but they are big and can accidently push one another out of the nest. They will often climb back up the tree using their talons and beak.

Owl eyes are huge and fixed in their head, so they must turn their head to look around. They are able to see in very little light and they have very good hearing, so they can hear a mouse as well as see it in darkness.

Great Horned Owls live over most of North American except for the far northern regions of Alaska and Canada. Notice that Sallie has on very thick gloves to protect her hands and forearms from injury from the owl's talons.

In this photographs Sallie is holding the owl so we can see her talons, which are essential for catching prey. They are sharp, curved and very strong. The muscles in her toes and feet allow her to grasp prey and hold on tight while she flies to a place to enjoy her meal, which she swallows whole. After she has digested the meat, she spits out a pellet which consists of hair (or feathers), and bones.

The owl heads away from her rescuers/captors and flies across Catfish Tank.

She gains alltitude as she flies away. "Good Luck" we say as she flies away.

If by chance you find an injured hawk owl or orphaned young hawks or owls, it is best to call someone with training to handle raptors. In Austin, see the site for complete information. Elesewhere, you can call 512-472 9453 (WILD) which will put you in touch with Wildlife rehabilitators, or look up on the website of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to locate lists of wildlife rescue people by county. To learn more about Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation organization check out this link.

If anyone (an adult) is going to try to pick up an injured or orphaned raptor, be sure to have adequate protection in the form of heavy duty gloves, and a box or carrier ready to receive the bird. Those talons are very sharp and very strong, and the raptor will be afraid and not understand that you are trying to help it, and so you could be injured. DON'T TAKE CHANCES!

Pictures were taken by me (Margaret Bamberger) on November 3, 2008 with my Cannon XTI Rebel digital camera. I hope you enjoyed learning about these fasinating and beautiful birds.