First Freeze of Winter!

Carlton says, what the heck? As that thing that used to go round and round is now a lawn ornament. (Photo by Lee Bruns)

It’s finally not raining! But, wow was it windy for a couple of days. As you can see, it blew off our wind sculpture, which had been there since we built the house. Wow.

We also officially had our first frost of the year this morning. It’s always important to note these things if you’re trying to be a naturalist or gardener. Farewell to those last tomatoes that were trying to appear!

Entertainment on a Misty Day

Cattle want to come in and hang out with us.

Still wet here. It feels like walking on a sponge when I go outside. At least the mist cleaned off the horses. Fiona the donkey is still preset grubby. Maybe next week we can groom!

So, since we couldn’t do much outside today, we looked out the windows. The Vrazels’ cattle decided to hang out near the fence. The calves are so cute.

Of course, right after I took the picture, the dogs noticed they were there. Brody really doesn’t like them near the fence. He lets them know.

Just Another Chilly Day…

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Suna was keeping Carlton warm, or vice versa, this morning.

Autumn arrived with a bang yesterday (that high school football game was CHILLY!), and it got me to thinking I ought to write more little “slice of life” posts in among the more serious ones. So, here’s what’s going on today.

Brr

I was so cold night before last that I bundled up extra last night by sleeping in my bathrobe. I guess the dogs were cold, too, because at one point I had two heads on me, plus one at my feet. I just did my best to roll over. When Lee woke up, he saw me sleeping with Carlton under my arm. The little weenie dog was totally under the covers!

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That door will now go up and down, as a door should. Lee is telling the garage door guy all about our real estate business model in this picture. Always looking for houses to buy.

A Much Needed Repair

And today the chill didn’t stop a garage door repair guy from cheerfully showing up and getting the right side door of our big garage working again. It had shaken itself totally out of alignment. Those are BIG doors.

Now I can park my car under there again. I think the mouse population has decreased and it will be safe again. Plus, I never put food in my car!

So, that’s today’s excitement. Later the horses may get groomed (they sure need it) and we’ll see if there are any more dead chickens. The sheep are still with us, thankfully.

If It’s Not Drought, It’s Flooding

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You can see more water behind the main pond.  Before everything grew up while that part of the pond was dry, it was all one view of water. The driveway you see is the dam that made the pond.

The weather patterns here in Milam County have been a topic of my blog posts and Facebook rants for as long as we’ve been coming out here (and our first visit was in 2010 or 2011). This year has been a great example.

This year, we had a very wet spring, followed by over a month of no rain in summer, with large cracks developing in the ground and very brown foliage. We were worrying that the ponds would evaporate again like they did in the Big Drought of 2011.

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Most of the time, this is just grass. Once the pond is full, runoff usually makes a little stream that goes to the deep area where there was an old spring that used to be the beginning of the real stream. I’m wondering if our springs will come back at some point.

Quickly, this condition was followed by what has seemed to be never-ending dampness and mild weather all through the autumn. We’ll have a few nice days, and then the sky opens up again.

I was happy that the Master Naturalist Conference coincided with a break in the weather so we could do all our field trips, but right after that, it’s been dark and wet again. My Geometry post has images of the fog in Austin from this week; in fact, three days in a row there was enough fog to make driving a bit scary.

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This culvert is intended to keep the pond from overfilling and washing away the dam. Since it overfilled a couple of times, we now also have a back-up culvert. It’s engaged once this year.

Here at the Hermits’ Rest it was just as foggy, and there was a lot more rain than in Austin. When I arrived to the ranch yesterday, it had just rained a lot, and Walker’s Creek was at the top of its banks. The arroyo was flowing away, and the dogs had a blast running through the output of the dam culvert.

Last night, just as we went to bed, another downpour began. There was .8″ over night, which made almost two inches in 24 hours.

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That sliver of water to the left of the driveway just before the gate usually can’t be seen from the house (by short people like me, anyway).

Usually you can’t see the front pond from the house, because the water level is too low. This view through the second-floor window (and screen) shows you it was visible this morning!

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Don’t the screens and the blinds add an air of mystery to the very full back pond? I usually doesn’t go all the way to that black thing at right (which is an old well or something).

The back pond had even spread farther to the east than usual.

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View from the car. The creek is usually about ten feet wide. It’s been lots worse, though.

And the creek was flowing into the flood plain meadow. I tell you what, I am glad to be enjoying some sunshine this afternoon as I take a break from work to type this! Maybe the ground will be a little less soggy when I head out to feed animals.

Geometry

Sometimes looking at familiar things from a different point of view is insightful.

From up on the fourth floor, the plantings in my work courtyard look like an ancient goddess figure.

It helps me remember that Mother Earth is always here with me.

The fog earlier in the week felt like a much-needed embrace from nature. There is something that transcends petty divisions and abides, no matter how cruel people can be.

Glad to have our ranch, my friends, and the animals.

The Loggerhead Shrike and Friends

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A loggerhead shrike nest in a bur oak tree in Old Settlers Park, near baseball fields.

My time with the Master Naturalists ended on a high note with a post-conference outing to Old Settlers Park in Round Rock. The idea was to observe how a declining species, the loggerhead shrike, has adapted to using the park as a habitat, and is thriving.

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Bur oak acorn. Huge and tasty.

Before the outing, I’d attended a session led by Jim Giocomo on “The Geography of Grassland Birds: How International Bird Conservation Efforts are Linked.” He talked about how agencies and Master Naturalists can help provide these birds with more appropriate habitat, track their locations, etc.

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Jim Giacomo (center) and some of the other experts he brought to our field trip in Round Rock.

In that talk, he mentioned his own work with the loggerhead shrikes (the only songbird that is a predator), which conveniently nest right near his house and showed us some great footage of baby shrikes. In one film, the parent birds keep trying to stuff a dragonfly in the mouths of the babies, but it keeps getting stuck. It was hilarious.

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Tania’s Halloween costume was “nerdy birder.”

Jim’s luck in finding birds to observe over entire breeding seasons has given him lots of insights, so it was really fun to go with him and fellow biologist Tania Homayoun out in the field to see what he sees.

Continue reading “The Loggerhead Shrike and Friends”

Land Snails! Everywhere!

Back to the Master Naturalist Conference postings, which I know you’ve been looking forward to (maybe?). Finally I get to share all the land snail information I learned on Sunday of the conference. This was a topic I knew very little about, so it was all new to me.

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Here Ben shows us all the parts of a snail. I really like the umbilicus.

Ben Hutchins gave the presentation, and wow, that dude knows a lot about snails. He told us so much about the snails that live all around us. His enthusiasm was very contagious, and by the time he was finished with his in-class presentation, we were all dying to get outside and look for some land snails. So, we stepped out of the hotel and went to the conveniently located riverside park just a short distance away.

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The small but mighty globular drop snail, and my hand.

We immediately started finding snails! First we found the tiny globular drop snails, which are the small white ones we’ve all seen, but had no idea what to call them.

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See how the end of the decollate snail looks like it’s broken off? That’s normal!

Then we found the decollate snails I’d always thought were broken. Nope, they all lose their tips as they mature. Huh. We found lots of living examples of those.

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Rabdotus, front and back. Whichever is which.

We ended up finding at least five kinds of snails in our short walk. Others included white-lip globe snails, the very common Rabdotus, and the Asian Tramp snail.

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A white lip globe snail. So shiny. I think these are the ones with an operculum. I could be wrong.

We didn’t find any milk snails. Those are the ones I find a lot around Cameron. It turns out they aren’t native, but ARE the same escargot that the French eat with butter and garlic. My friend Pamela was extremely thrilled to learn this. She apparently has many meals’ worth at her house.

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Ben shows us a snail he sorted out of the leaf litter along a path.

Salient Snail Stuff

Did you know that most of the land snails crawling in our leaf litter are so small that they are hard to spot with the naked eye? The best way to find them is to sift leaf litter, which he demonstrated using a really nice hand-made sifter.

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Ben has on a light, and is looking through a loup at a tiny jewel snail.

Did you know they have “teeth?” The teeth are really sharp protruberances on the shells.

Also, snails need moisture to be able to get out and about and do their snail activities. If it gets dry, many types of land snails just go into hibernation until it rains. And some of them have been known to hibernate months or years!

What do they eat? Well, your pet snail will love carrots and lettuce. I’m sure they are hours of entertainment…

The Key to Land Snails?

It turns out that it’s not easy to get more information on land snails, because the last comprehensive book on the subject came out in the 1950s. Good news, though! Ben is working on new material that will grow up to be a book. He’s also developing a key to help identify snails that you find (a key uses a series of questions do narrow down genus and species in a type of organism).

We all got a sample snail, and a microscope to look through, and we practiced identifying our snails using the key. It was really fun, and Ben figured out a place where he needed to add a question or two to make it easier to ID a particular type of snail. We did science!

I’m really glad Ben shared copies of his work in progress. I’m putting my copy of his text, photos, and key in a binder for future use. He was right. Land snails are fascinating!