If you live in the US, you’ve probably seen cardinals (the Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis) in your garden, in parks, or in the woods. They are a common bird at feeders, and their coloring makes them easy to spot. Their beautiful songs also pinpoint where you need to look to see them!
The cardinal was my mother’s favorite bird. I can remember sitting on our back porch watching birds at the feeder. My mom told me that if I sat really quietly, “Mama Cardinal” would come right up to us. And she did. Mom liked to point out her pretty coral “lipstick.” I think I know where I got my love for observing birds!
One thing I had not observed until recently was a cardinal nest. I see lots and lots of nests, like wrens, doves, barn swallows, and the big hawks, but I don’t think I ever saw cardinals nesting before (now, I have seen LOTS of juvenile cardinals hanging out with their parents, just not the nests).
So, imagine how happy I was yesterday when I was sitting on the porch at our office in Cameron and saw a “Mama Cardinal” fly to a little tree next to our warehouse. She has a nest! I watched both parents for a while, then went to look at the nest more closely. It’s impressive! There is string and some kind of clothing label in it, but mostly it’s made of sticks and looks almost woven. It’s deep and cup-shaped, not shallow and wide like many other nests I see.
Unfortunately, while it’s easy to see with the eye, it doesn’t photograph very well. And I’m not going to climb up a ladder and bug the birds. I look forward to watching the fledglings flying around in a few weeks.
Speaking of plagues, at the Hermits’ Rest it’s apparently time for another of those infrequent visitations of the insect kind, the lovebug. This is one of their big years, as the front of my car will attest.
Fascinating creatures, they didn’t show up in the US until the 1960s, much to the delight of those of us who were children at the time. We spent a lot of time devising ways to shoot them out of the sky with the water hose, or pulling them apart (eww). Yes, they spend most of their adult lives mating.
Lovebugs were a real danger during the time when I was in college, traveling up and down through the middle of Florida. People were always on the side of the Florida Turnpike, broken down, because the bugs had clogged their radiators. My 1972 Pinto Squire wagon had a very small radiator; that did not combine well with lovebugs.
The rest stops had special lovebug removal stations set up, so folks could clear their windshields and radiators enough to go home. They sold special screens to put on your car grill to reduct the damage. Wikipedia says that modern car paint doesn’t suffer as much, but in the past you had to get the bugs right off or their acidity would eat into paint. You can see why no one liked them.
Before I go any further, I must say it’s raining! When it rains to any significant extent once the hot weather starts, it’s worth mentioning. We will have some happy plants, and I set some seat cushions out to get cleaned, too (it’s free!).
One thing the rain is washing away from those cushions will be mud dauber nests. We always have some here (ours are black-and-yellow mud daubers, Sceliphron caementarium), but this year they are especially abundant. I have always enjoyed watching these guys and find the places they make nests pretty funny sometimes. You never know where one will show up, like on a shovel, in the lawn mower, etc. They were all over those seat cushions, too. They use such nice, brown mud. Quite the construction workers!
Today’s tale/tail is another one about uninvited guests. You may recall I mentioned seein a possum at our office. This latest sighting was originally reported by my friend Mandi, who is also our office manager in our real estate business. She’s renovating the Rattlesnake house across from the Hermits’ Rest, but right now she lives in a house next to our office on Travis in Cameron. This small-town site is just crawling with wildlife. Some of it is VERY scary, especially if you have a “way with words.” Mandi reports (via Facebook, edited to be PG):
Our office kitty, Shadow, recently had kittens. I am on one of my insomnia spells for whatever reason. I’m at the office working on some things, because I always think that if I do some work, I will get sleepy. Doesn’t actually help, but I digress.
Shadow came around about an hour ago hangry from them babies. So, I put some food out for her )I ‘ve been bringing it back in with me, because I know we have a opossum family living somewhere at the office).
Let me back up just a second and remind all, I’m not afraid of snakes. I’m not afraid of spiders. Only the dead mice freak me out.
But, if you hear a rustling in the leaves at 1:30 in the morning and look over expecting to see the office cat because you just called her, and see this instead…
I am pretty familiar with what lives around the Hermits’ Rest, probably because looking for moving objects is one of my best skills; I seem to have been blessed with better-than-average peripheral vision. That helps with birds, snakes, and stuff. It also helps with rodents, so I’m pretty darned sure we have some big old tree rats (Rattus rattus, my favorite Latin name), along with a heck of a lot of mice and voles. We always see them when Lee shreds the pastures (along with a whole lot of happy hawks, caracaras, and falcons).
The past few weeks, though, I’ve gotten a LOT of practice in mouse identification and spotting. It started when I saw mouse poop in one of the bathrooms. I was just glad it wasn’t rat poop. Lee saw that one and said the dogs “played with it.” Then, I saw some in the other bedroom. Uh oh. Worse, Lee found a mouse in his car. I figure they came in looking for the food that is always in there.
However, when my sister and I got in my (totally food-free) car and were greeted by a friendly mouse face, I knew something was up. She fled, and I escorted that one out of the car. I was concerned. Why are we suddenly seeing so many mice in the house and garage, I wondered?
After my post about the squirrels last week, my friend Matt Hickner began telling me about his own wildlife experiences at his relatively new home in Bakersfield, California. They don’t have tree squirrels there (not really any trees, as its a desert). But they do have ground squirrels and friends.
Since Matt’s house was recently constructed in a new neighborhood, there are quite a few empty lots nearby, featuring lots of dry grasses and dirt, which give him prime critter viewing opportunities.
A couple of days ago, he posted this on Facebook:
In the vacant lot across from my house are burrows that the local ground squirrels dug. These burrows were also a great temptation for the endangered Western Burrowing Owls to occupy. I can see all of this activity from my home office so I clicked a few pictures of them this morning.
Yes, burrowing owls! I’ve always been fond of those, since they were the mascot of the school my brother and my friend Anita went to (Florida Atlantic University, all the way across the US from Matt).
I am proud to say that last Thursday I got my dragonfly pin and my certificate to show I am a Certified Texas Master Naturalist. I can’t say it was hard work, because it was too much fun, but it did require an investment of time and effort! In addition to the weekly classes for three months, I also did 20+ additional hours of advanced training, and over 40 hours of volunteering.
We also got sweet hummingbird pins to thank us for participating in the Earth Day work. They do love their pins here. (They also love cooking; the potluck featured perhaps the most delicious cabbage dish EVER cooked; this bunch needs a cookbook.)
I’m really glad I ran into Dorothy Meyer at an essential oil class and got to talking to her about the group! They sure are an interesting bunch, with so much to teach me. I just want to soak up all the local lore!
What Did the Native Americans Here Eat?
We also had a very interesting speaker, Prof. Alston Thoms, an anthropologist from Texas A&M. He is an expert on Native American history, and focused the talk for us on what people ate in past centuries in this area. It was lots of roots and berries, cooked in earth ovens (which he does yearly for his grad students). The most “duh” moment came when he asked what the most common food source would have been. It took a while to realize that of course, it was the white-tailed deer. It’s been in the area as long as humans have, and always on the list for what’s for dinner!
I could listen to this guy all day long. I wish he could come back and talk more about the Native Americans currently in Texas. I met some who live near Aquarena Springs a few years ago, and they were really knowledgeable about herbs and healing.
I like squirrels. I had a pet squirrel as a kid, named Squirrelly, who we shared with our neighbors. He was cute and fun, though he made a lot of noise running in his wheel at night. Later he lived in our treehouse until we let him go.
Here in central Texas, we mostly have the fox squirrels, which are bigger and have more tan on them than the other ones, the gray squirrels, which are what you mostly see east of here. We do have some of each. They dig lots of holes, which mean the dogs think there’s treasure in there (acorns).
A couple of days ago, while Anita and I were walking the dogs, I saw a squirrel in the greenbelt with a black head and tail, with a gray middle. That was some cool genetics happening there! I’ve seen a black one near where I work, too.
Of course, some places have lots of interesting squirrel variations. I remember white squirrels in Baton Rouge, for example.
You always know when the Property Brothers (that’s a TV show) are in Toronto when you see the black ones running around. I have a deep connection with the black squirrels of Toronto, since I was walking down a side street one day when one tried to jump off a building into a young tree, but the tree couldn’t hold it. It landed on my head. All I knew was that suddenly there was a THUMP and scritching on my head. A little old dude excitedly pointed down the road and shouted, “Skwi-rrell!” in a cute accent. Then we all laughed our heads off in the middle of Yonge Street.
I hadn’t intended to write up two dewberry posts, but other than a couple of fun bird sightings (dickcissels and Eastern kingbirds!), the dewberries were the nature highlight of the weekend for me.
This week there were way more of them than last week. I picked three quarts in just a five-yard stretch along our arroyo. Some of them were as big as fancy blackberries. They must have liked the rainy winter a lot.
From those berries, I made yet another cobbler, and also a really interesting sauce, from a recipe by Jess Pryles for blackberry sauce. There are many interesting ingredients in that there sauce (star anise, whole cloves). I served it with delicious venison backstrap roast, and both my sister and spouse declared it a gourmet triumph. I’m glad the neighor recommended this recipe, because just the salt/pepper/nutmeg rub on the beef made it worth checking out. Her new cookbook, Hard Core Carnivore is available now, so check it out (she’s also been on lots of book tours lately).
Dewberries are the unofficial plant mascot of Cameron, Texas. They are truly abundant here, judging from all the photos I’m seeing. Cameron even used to have a Dewberry Festival, which featured all sorts of delicious things made with these perky fruits. I miss it.
The dewberries are a group of species in the genus Rubus, section Rubus, closely related to the blackberries. They are small trailing (rather than upright or high-arching) brambles with aggregate fruits, reminiscent of the raspberry, but are usually purple to black instead of red. Unlike many other Rubus species, dewberries are dioecious, having separate male and female plants.
That male and female plant part explains why I keep seeing bushes with no fruit! Aha!
We are lucky to have lots of dewberries here at the Hermits’ Rest, though I’d never really done much with them before, other than snack on them. That’s because I never went out looking for them when they were completely ripe. This year, after all that foraging talk, I vowed to do better.