Sunday, February 28, 2010


A coyote drifted through the woods just at the treeline of the back yard yesterday morning. He was a large one, shaggy winter coat just the color of the tree trunks and dead grasses he slipped through. It was a lucky glance in the right direction that caught him--he was silent and almost invisible. I could hardly get the words out: "There's the trees, there's" A few seconds later, he was gone, melted into the woods. Gone like someone turned off a coyote-switch and he simply evaporated. No time to take a picture, so I'm left with just a memory of the grey-brown fur and the wary eyes.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010 data!

I don't know why this squirrel loved the rain gauge so much. It looked like the start of a great friendship, but was not to be. I became suspicious after a major rain event left the field marshy, and the creek swollen and turbulent, while the gauge attempted to convince me that the precipitation amount was somewhat less than 0.1 inch.

Upon closer examination, a crack was discovered. Unacceptable for a pair of weather geeks. (Yes, we've blown out a set of stereo speakers while listening to The Weather Channel. Hasn't everyone?) The yellow rain gauge has been discarded and replaced with a proper weather station.

We. Have. Data. We've got rainfall, barometric pressure, air speed and direction, outdoor AND indoor temperature, relative humidity, dew point..... I'm getting dizzy.

Friday, February 19, 2010

If it was easy, it wouldn't be fun.

When we first moved from The City to The Country, I knew a few birds. Really, who CAN'T call a cardinal or a blue jay at first glance? Imagine my surprise when I found that not all birds are as easy to put a name to!

Once tucked away in the Little House in the Not-So-Big-Woods, I found that I liked having proper names for things. It's much better to talk about the Southern Prickly Ash than about "that tree with the weird pointy bark." It's the same with birds. I'd rather say "Look, there's a chipping sparrow" than "Hey, there's that little sparrow-looking thing."

So, with field guide in one hand and binoculars in the other, I set out to look for distinguishing marks on everything within sight that grew, crawled, slithered, or flew. I discovered the agony of trying to analyze the subtle difference in shading between 2 almost identical birds in the guide, and then apply it to a real live one: a bird that doesn't want to sit perfectly still in the exact pose as the exquisite picture in my hand.

Case #1 (Photo courtesy of Ken Blackwell, from Flickr )
Even I knew it was a woodpecker. I didn't know there so many kinds. It did have a red head. Perhaps it was a red-headed woodpecker! (I'm logical like that) wasn't. It could be a red-bellied woodpecker. What does the book"...distinguished by the wash of pale red on the belly..."

The belly??!!?? It's a woodpecker! Their bellies stay pressed against the tree trunk! I can't remember how many times I followed the infernal winged things from branch to branch, binoculars making circular indentations around my eyes, quietly moaning "pleeeeaaaaassssse turn around!" I'm sure it got to be a game with them. "Hey, watch me hop up on this branch, but I'll turn away from her so she can't see my front side!" The bird that was finally careless enough to let me catch a glimpse of that rosy glow must have been heckled by all of his friends.

Case #2
(photo left, courtesy of Don Sutherland, from Flickr)
Again with the woodpeckers! "Hairy" or "Downy"? Check the all-knowing Reference Book. "Hairy woodpeckers are larger." Refrain from throwing Reference Book across the yard. That description would be great if only I could persuade one of each to perch side by side on a tree trunk, so I could do a little comparative measurement. When there's only seeing one, it's less than useful. I did finally find a mention elsewhere that you can differentiate them by the ratio of beak length to head width. At that time, they started hiding their heads.
(photo right, courtesy of Anne Elliott, from Flickr)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

When the Leaves Are Gone

My world is dominated by trees. The Little House is plonked down in the middle of a patch of deciduous woods about 5 acres in size. Trees jostle each other for position, sneakily sliding branches one way or another in order to slurp up just a little more sunlight during the summer days. When the wind blows, I think the noises are just branches creaking and leaves gently slapping, but it's probably the sound of arguing: "Hey! I was here first! Move your leaves somewhere else!"

Leaves were the first things I noticed about the trees when we moved out here in 2007. It was a wet spring: record-setting wet. The place had been abandoned for several months, and the resulting wall of trees and vines and weeds that surrounded the house made the leaves a real in-your-face presence. Leathery oak leaves. Sandpapery elms. Frilly chinaberry. Cedar elms with foliage that reminds me of cornflakes. All different, and all keys to identifying the tree.

And that worked great, until autumn rolled around. Without the curtain of leaves to assist me, I was forced to focus on more subtle cues, particularly bark.

Ask kids to draw trees, and invariably, they'll reach for the brown crayon when they draw the trunk. Scribble on some brown, draw in a knothole, and move on.

But if they'd just look....

Here's a young hackberry. One of my students called these little corky lumps "tree warts." I think it looks like a three-dimensional topographical map of an area you shouldn't go hiking in alone. I can imagine a tiny little Thelma & Louise driving off one of those cliffs.

Here's another.
Very little of the grade-schooler's crayon-brown bark on the bur oak. Like furrows in a farmer's field, the long, deep vertical grooves are characteristic of this tree's bark.

Similar, but not too alike, is the pecan.

The greyish color and vertical grooves recall the bur oak, but the furrows aren't as deep, straight, or continuous. Pecan trees have what I consider "regular bark." I had to think about why they seem to be the norm from which all other trees deviate, then I realized that pecan trees were all around my house when I was a kid. This was the type of bark I saw most often as I was growing up, so I must have imprinted on it as a gosling imprints on her mother.

I've saved the best for last.

Meet the Southern Prickly Ash. Unless you live in the Southeastern U.S., you probably haven't run across one. The trunk is covered with these little pyramids. Many of them have a single ominous thorn protruding from the tip. My husband cut a walking path through our woods, and there's one place where the ground slopes sharply. When it's wet or icy, that spot is slippery, so it would be great to be able to grab onto a tree for balance. Of course, this is the tree that's right there. I'll be keeping my balance by myself, thanks.

At this time of year, the leaves on most trees are still curled up drowsily inside their buds. What better time to get to know trees from a different angle?

Friday, February 12, 2010

A sad day for snowmen

Significant snowfall in this part of Texas is an event so rare that schools are cancelled, businesses close, and local TV meteorologists warn about the dangerous conditions on the roads outside.

Kids who have trouble getting to school by 8 a.m. can be up, dressed, outside, and have a 6-foot-tall snowman completely finished and detailed by 7:15.

Snow started falling here as though someone turned on a switch at 6 a.m., Thursday. Big damp flakes started coating the ground almost immediately. School was delayed for two hours, then cancelled completely for the day. Still it fell and piled up in drifts that covered branches, steps, and armadillo burrows. I left for school before I knew about the delay, and found myself having to dodge potholes by memory: no hint of their gaping maws was evident under the white blanket.

After I got back home, Mike and I built our own snowman. I think that, in spite of his smile, he has a "get off my lawn!" sort of aura.

Maybe his crankiness got the better of him: He experienced a colossal structural failure of his nether regions, and toppled headfirst down the front steps. The hat is still buried in the resulting snowdrift. Rather sad, since he was my first-ever snowman.

I thought perhaps size might have been Mr Cranky's problem. Determined to leave my mark, I created a much smaller version, only about a foot tall, and plonked him down on the deck railing. Instead of gathering pebbles from the driveway for the facial features, I used the sunflower seeds that were already laying around nearby. Two for the eyes, one for the nose, several more for the mouth, and I salvaged and halved Mr. Cranky's left arm to make 2 arms for my new creation.

A few minutes later, I glanced outside and noticed that his mouth was missing a few seeds. Being a snowman novice, I'd put them in at a downward angle, so they must have fallen out. Five minutes later, one eye was gone. What's up with this? They weren't put in at a "fall out-able" angle. Do you suppose a, surely not. Not with all the piles of seed lying around everywhere. I replaced the missing bits, then watched as my feathered friends came closer and closer, and finally......

Of course, loading it with seed and suet was absolutely necessary now. I even tempted one of my favorite birds over within range. I love the brown thrasher, here imitating a roadrunner. Another highlight is the Incredible Levitating Finch.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

In Praise of Rotting Things

"Honey, you wanna see the new fungus picture?"

"Not while I'm eating lunch."

Such is the average view of rot and decay. To be fair to my awesome husband (who not only indulges but actively encourages my whims), a fair number of my photographs probably aren't appropriate for mealtime viewing. (A cheery little image of a glistening wasp larva being carried off by ants springs to mind.)

But this one was different.

Two years ago, we reluctantly cut down a pecan tree that was threatening to topple over and block the driveway. The pieces were pretty much left where they fell. Since then, we've had a wonderful array of bracket fungus take up residence on the old trunk. This is one of the most striking and dramatic.

I believe it is the Turkey Tail fungus (Trametes versicolor). There is also the possibility that it's the very similar-looking Stereum ostrea, a.k.a. the False Turkey Tail. Tom Volk's excellent website tells me that you can tell the difference by looking at the pore-bearing underside. Since we're getting quite a snowfall right this minute, investigating fungal private parts will just have to wait.

These fungi are very attractive. Hard and leathery, rather than slimy, they range up and down the trunks of dead (or sometimes not-quite-dead) trees. They array themselves in an assortment of colors: brown, reddish, orange, cream. Some of them become colonized by algae and display a distinct green color. They may form dense colonies, like the picture above, or enjoy a little space of their own, like this one.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Buffet For One

The Little House and its Not-So-Big Woods are pretty full of sights and sounds and smells. There are few reasons to wander off outside its borders in search of interesting things to see, but even the most stay-at-home will drift away now and then.

That's how I met Buffet Snail. This cheery fellow (gal? other?) was a resident of the grassy area outside Ballinskeligs Castle in Ireland. Here, he's munching on a slightly rotted dandelion stem, which must be some sort of snail ambrosia. I've never seen a snail with such a gleeful expression.

I watched him for a while, then I felt that he should be relocated, as he was enjoying his snail-y lunch on a highly-traveled path. I picked him up and set him on my hand as I walked him to a quiet spot near the castle's wall. There was an odd sensation on my skin, and I realized he was rasping me with his rough tongue, hoping that I was as tasty as the dandelion had been. Alas, I'm not lunch-worthy.