Kickapoo State Park Bird Blind

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Black-Capped Vireo at Kickapoo S.P. – © Heather Valey

I always love birding in new places, especially areas fairly far from my home turf.  I recently went birding at the Kickapoo Cavern State Park bird blind and had a really good look at some great Vireos and a few other birds that are very hard to get a glimpse of in the Austin Texas area.

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White-Eyed Vireo at Kickapoo Cavern S. P. – © Heather Valey 2019

The bird blind was created very thoughtfully.  There is a place for birders to sit and watch through windows cut in the blind and there are windows placed higher in the blinds for photographers using tripods.

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Juvenile Male Bullock’s Oriole at Kickapoo Cavern S.P. – © Heather Valey 2019

A gravity fed stream flowed through the middle of the bird area with a few thoughtfully placed cedar branches as perches. There were a couple of sparsely leafed trees on the edges of the bird area that also allowed for some good viewing.  Native limestone with orange lichen was used ornamentally as well.  It was a very pleasant place to sit, listening to the gurgling stream and watch the birds flit in for a drink and a bath was a perfect way to spend the morning.

(Top Left: Hutton’s Vireo, Top Right: Yellow Warbler, Bottom Left: Yellow-Breasted Chat, Bottom Right: Black-Tufted Titmouse all ©Heather Valey 2019)

Friday the 13th, a Full Moon & Glowing Scorpions

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written & photographed by Heather Valey

It was Friday the 13th and a full harvest moon, enough coinciding symbolism to keep any superstitious folk home with the door locked.  However, there was an enthusiastic crew at the moonlight hike I co-led with super Volunteer Coordinator, Johanna Arendt (Travis County BCP).  The hike was on a tract of the Balcones Canyonland Preserve that is managed by Travis County.

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The tract we were hiking is a small part of a large network of tracts in the surrounding Austin area that make up the preserve. This land was put aside to preserve habitat for endangered and threatened species.  One of these species being the Golden-Cheeked Warbler. 

Hikers_reeditEveryone came equipped with flashlights and the desire to see creepy crawlies and things that go bump in the night at the preserve.  Luckily, for us nature did not disappoint. We wandered through a meadow at the beginning of the trail and made our way up into an Ashe Juniper and oak forest.  Once in the forest Johanna, armed with a black light, flipped over a couple limestone rocks.  After a few rocks, we found what we were looking for, a Striped Bark Scorpion.  (That’s Centruroides vittatus for anyone who wants to know the Latin. )  Now being proper Texans, we’ve all seen a scorpion or two, heck some of us have gotten much closer than we’ve wanted to and gotten stung once or twice.  I fall into that category… ouch. (I still think they are amazing though.) However, one novel thing about scorpions is, that in black light, they glow!

Blacklit Bark Striped Scorpion

Why do scorpions glow under black light? Scientists don’t know exactly what causes the effect.  They have narrowed it down to a substance found in the protective hyaline layer of the scorpion’s exoskeleton.  Scientists have noticed that scorpions don’t glow right after they molt.  Suggesting that the substance that causes the glowing develops as the new exoskeleton hardens.

After admiring the glowing Arthropods, we went on up to a ridge to look at the full moon and then down back to the trail head where an Eastern Screech Owl topped off the evening with an eerie whinny, much to the appreciation of the group.  After the hike we said our goodbye’s to our great group of hikers as everyone headed off to their cars.  We hope to see them on a future hike.

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You too, can join us on future guided hikes at the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve in Austin, Texas.  Check their MeetUp page for upcoming hikes.  If you would like to volunteer to help with land stewardship activities on the BCP check out the opportunities they have on their Event Calendar.

 

sources

Brown, Wizzie, “Hot Dry Summer Has Scorpions in South Central Texas Heading Indoors”, 30 June 2018https://today.agrilife.org/2018/06/30/hot-dry-summer-has-scorpions-in-south-central-texas-heading-indoors/, Agrilife Today

Kids Discover, “What Makes Scorpions Glow in Ultraviolet Light?” 2019, https://www.kidsdiscover.com/quick-reads/makes-scorpions-glow-ultraviolet-light/, KidsDiscover.com, 

Terminix, “Why Do Scorpions Glow Under Ultraviolet Light?”, 2019, https://www.terminix.com/blog/bug-facts/why-do-scorpions-glow-under-ultraviolet-light/, Terminix.com

Mindfulness in Nature

Last spring, I found myself sitting by this pond wishing there was something interesting to photograph. I decided to sit and just wait. I was hoping maybe a Heron or Egret might fly in and allow me to play paparazzi. I waited and I waited.

I was bored and restless as I realized that Mother Nature probably wasn’t going to cooperate with my photo shoot fantasy. I let go of my expectations and I felt myself start to relax. I started to look at the ground and the plants at my feet.  I noticed rocks I hadn’t noticed before.  Individual plants stuck out to me instead of the clumps I only barely saw earlier.  I looked at where the water of the pond met the dry land.  I noticed Water Striders on the surface of the water.  I noticed a dragonfly landing on the some tall reeds nearby.

Out of the corner of my eye near my feet I saw movement.  I focused in that direction and noticed baby Strecker’s Chorus frogs no bigger than my thumbnail climbing from the water out to land.  These newly metamorphosed frogs were starting a new part of their lives right in front of me, and I almost didn’t notice.

I didn’t get any bird pictures that day, but I did walk away with a great lesson.  If you stop and look around you outside, you’ll realize there is so much more going on than you realize.  The magic of life is in the details, and if you can slow your mind down and take in the world around you, amazing things will surface.

I Just Flew In From the North & My Arms Are Tired…

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American Robin – photo credit H.Valey

This past weekend, the air was filled with the songs of Robins and the whistles of Cedar Wax wings.  Thousands of these birds ascended on the Austin area a few days ago.  I don’t think it’s probably a coincidence that it coincided with the polar vortex up north.  Humans dig in somewhere warm when it gets cold, birds can just fly somewhere warmer!  My hiking accomplice and I also noticed alot of Cedar Waxwings… you often see them with Robins so perhaps they decided to ditch the cold up north and join their compatriots for a Texas vacation.

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Cedar Waxwings – photo credit H. Valey

During a hike in the hill country on Sunday we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of Robins.  The song of the birds were so intense at times that I felt like we were in a rain forest. The birds were flitting from tree to tree and hopping on the ground looking for insects.  We noticed that a few we looked at seemed very tired.

This happened a couple years ago as well, when there was a particularly cold spell of weather up north.  A huge group of Robins headed in to Texas, and that time they all landed in my backyard! Well it seemed that way… see the photo below!

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Robins – photo credit H.  Valey

So in most places the Robin is the harbinger of spring, but sometimes in Austin it’s the harbinger of someone else’s winter.

Fall Showers & The Fungus Among Us

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Tall brittle stems – photo by H. Valey

This fall has been unusually wet for us in the Texas Hill Country.  We’re going on our 4th week of showers.  Our hot 90 + degree weather has nicely evened out in the low 80’s and the plants that didn’t get much of a chance to flourish in the summer due to our unusually dry spring are now making up for lost time.  Everything is green and pretty.  The extended moisture and warm temperatures are also bringing with them a host of interesting mushrooms almost everywhere you look.

The mushroom is much maligned.  As children we are taught to not touch them and definitely do not eat them.  There are only about 70 to 80 species of fatally poisonous mushrooms, but a lot of them look a lot like ones that aren’t poisonous, so if you are going to forage for mushrooms you have to know exactly what you are looking for.   However it isn’t going to hurt you to look for mushrooms, just don’t put them in your mouth or smell them.  Don’t let this scare you into not taking the time to appreciate them visually.  These organisms can be useful, beautiful, weird and extremely interesting.

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In The Sidewalk Crack photo by H. Valey

The mushroom is the fruit of fungi.  The fungi live in soil (or in their food source: wood, leaves, etc. ).  When a mushroom sprouts up, it will then spread its spores out into the air and surrounding ground.  Most of the spores will die, but some will land in an area where there is nutrients and they will become fungi in the soil thus starting the process all over.

Some basic mushroom anatomy.  The cap is known as the pilious and the stalk, the stipe.   Mushrooms are typically either gilled or polyporous.  Most mushrooms have gills.  Polyporous mushrooms have pores or little tubes.  (see picture below).

Here are some links to more information on mushrooms:

 

Here are is a fun gallery of some of the mushrooms I’ve seen this fall. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

The Garden As A Teacher

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Sometimes I find teachers in my garden.  The garden is never the same from day to day.  It deserves a good look at least once in the morning, because what is there then may not be there when I get home in the evening.  Sometimes I tell myself, when I see a flower and want to linger on it, “You don’t have time, You can do that later.”  But almost always when I come back it is not the same. Something has changed… either the flower is completely gone, or the light is hitting it differently, or maybe its been chewed on.  What I’ve learned in the garden is this.  Every moment is unique.  Nothing is permanent, so if you see something special, honor the moment and let yourself stop and drink it in.

Caterpillar01_sig.jpgThe garden also teaches non-attachment.  One such example happened recently with Monarch caterpillars.  One day there were 2 happily munching on milkweed.  They looked like they were in their 5th instar and I was excited to see them form into chrysalis’.   The next day they were still there and I took more pictures.  Any day now I should see chrysalis’.  The day after I went out to look for them, and they were gone.  I looked all over the area the milkweed was planted.  I felt disappointment, perhaps even a bit of grief for the Monarchs.  Then I stopped and noticed that what was making me feel bad was attachment.  I had grown attached to the idea of seeing them turn into butterflies, so when the world presented me with something different I felt disappointment.  The lesson is that I can choose to feel bad, or I can accept what has happened.  I can then make wise choices in the future… like perhaps next time I find caterpillars on my milkweed I’ll put them in an enclosure while they are still vulnerable.  Or maybe I just accept that sometimes in nature things don’t go as planned.

The garden is a good place to learn mindfulness lessons with subject matter that isn’t as overwhelming as a lot of personal situations, especially impermanence and acceptance.

What has your garden taught you lately?

This Snake Freaked Me Out…

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Texas Rat Snake – photo by H. Valey

…until I realized it was a Texas Rat Snake, also known in some parts as the Chicken Snake. The scientific name is aphe obsoleta lindheimeri.

The Texas Rat Snake looks a little scary at first sight, mainly because they can grow to be very long (3 to 6 feet) and their defense mechanism is to freeze when they see you.  They also are known to shake their tails similarly to a Rattle Snake. This can be misinterpreted as the confidence of a venomous snake, but these snakes are constrictors and non-venomous. They do have a reputation for biting when cornered, but the bites are reported to be on the mild side and as mentioned non-venomous.

They are found primarily in Texas, but their range extends to Louisiana, Arkansas & Oklahoma.  No matter in what state you find them, their preferred habitat is one with Oak trees present.  Although I have seen them in parking lots before, and I saw one slither in through a mail slot on a mailbox once, most likely giving the mailbox owner a bit of a shock!

Their diet consists of rodents, and undoubtedly bird eggs and nestlings.  They are fantastic climbers and can find their way into birds nests pretty easily. An adult can take rodents as large as a fox squirrel. They are also good swimmers.

They are not considered threatened, but they are often the target of humans who come across them and kill them because they don’t know what kind of snake they are.

The picture up top was taken at a nature preserve.  The snake was in a pile of limestone rocks near many full grown oak trees.  The snake below, I spotted in the parking lot of an office complex.  Again, many full grown oak trees around, as well as leaf litter and limestone.  You can get a feel for how long these snakes can get in the video below!

For more information on Rat Snakes, visit these sites.