So Many Dead Things

I’ll write more in the Master Naturalist blog about this (update, I forgot to do so), but I did enjoy a visit to the Texas A&M Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections this morning. My friend Pamela and I drove over and met up with another Master Naturalist and her granddaughter, who’s high school age, and enjoyed it as much as we did, I think. We were sad that more of our group couldn’t join us.

Art is from 3D images of animals.

Our guides were curators Heather Prestridge, an ichthyologist, and Gary Voelker, an ornithologist. They were informal with our small group, informative, and entertaining as well. I had a blast learning about how many specimens they have, how long the collection has been growing (since the 1930s), and how they preserve the animals for research.

Specimen jars. Stop here if you don’t want to see preserved animals and such.

The collections of herps (snakes, lizards, frogs, etc.) are immense. It’s cool to see where they all come from. There is much from Texas but also around the world. They are preserved in formaldehyde.

The fish were fascinating as well. My favorite was the box fish. There were just so many to categorize. Wow. There’s a lot of work for their grad students and volunteers! The other thing they do with the specimens is take tissue samples and freeze them (really cold) for future research on DNA and the like. What a resource this is!

Of course the birds fascinated me. I was probably really annoying with all my questions but wow, there were things here I’d never seen before, like the Hoatzin. What the heck. This bird’s young have claws on their wings!! It’s also called a stink bird, because it digests food in its crop, which is smelly. It’s a really different bird!

Pamela is amazed at the hoatzin bird

Dr. Voelker was great at sharing information about the birds. We saw the largest and smallest owls and an awesome variety of kingfishers, some that were an indescribable blue. Africa has some darn colorful birds.

Look at these roseate spoonbills. They are so many shades of pink. and I was fascinated to see the bill up close. Such specialization!

There was a lovely domed collection of hummingbirds that had been donated to Heather. Someone had it in their family for years!

That’s something else!

I’ll spare you the details but we learned about 3D imaging and printing of specimens. They find what’s in the animals’ stomachs and can ID them. Huh.

And look! A giraffe skull! Look at the horns!

They didn’t talk much about boring old mammals but I checked them out.

Believe it or not, I managed to get hungry after all those dead things. Good thing we’d arranged to meet our friend, Lynn at a restaurant at the old airport terminal. Ah. A nice restaurant. And airplanes! What a good time.

Go Outside, They Said. So I Did.

Out here in my field
         I fight for what's real
                  I put my back into my livin'
I don't need to fight
       To prove I'm right
                 I don't need to be forgiven...
...Suna's Wasteland

I’m still dealing with some anxiety, so when my noon meeting ended, I went out and just stood by the entry into the property. Ostensibly, I was waiting for the letter carrier, but they drove past the other way and never actually delivered anything. That was fine.

My field

It certainly wasn’t a quiet time out in my field. The incessant “peep peep PEEP” call alerted me to the arrival of the dickcissels for the summer. Those little birds are so extra cheerful that it’s almost painful. The background was punctuated by the sounds of red-winged blackbirds, scissor-tail flycatchers and one male cardinal.

Only bird that sat still.

I heard a sound behind me. Hey, look at that! It was Mrs Hummingbird dropping by to say hi. Honest, that’s what it felt like. Thanks, little buddy.

Hi!

I leaned on the fence and just breathed, like you’re supposed to when you have the stress going on. That’s when I said to myself, “Damn, it smells good here!” I looked down and figured out what was going on. The native grapes are in bloom. I believe I was today years old when I realized the mustang grape flowers were incredibly fragrant. It looks like we will get a lot of them this year, in addition to dewberries, if only it will rain just a bit.

Well, droplets of water did fall from the sky briefly, but I wouldn’t say it rained. Nonetheless, it took the horses from quietly grazing in the scenic field to racing to shelter, as if they were going to get inundated. They did not. But it was fun to watch. I also enjoyed watching Apache being friends with Mabel, which was sweet. She is doing SO much better with some magnesium supplements in her.

It never did rain, so I sort of plopped myself into a relatively insect-free part of the only field that hasn’t been mowed to a nub and enjoyed the variety of flowers and grasses I saw.

Plop

Once again, there are new bloomers coming up, including some big ones and some tiny ones. I just love the variety. Being among all this diversity brings me so much peace and joy. I am so lucky to have all these plants and animals nearby.

Speaking of animals, first, the chickens are happy as heck, because they can now go back out and roam, thanks to a screen door being added to the garage. They express their thanks by taking care of any horse poop they run into and eating all the June bugs Lee fishes out of the pool. They are hardly eating their chicken food now! And they are just so happy to be able to get all fluffy and take dust baths, which is a chicken’s favorite activity after chasing bugs.

New Resident

I don’t know if I’m happy or sad to report this, but apparently we have a new ranch resident. It’s a large, fluffy, apricot-colored cat. It was first spotted Saturday morning when Sara and I were leaving for Sandhaven. It’s still here, and was in the middle of the chicken pen this morning. Luckily, we have no missing poultry. I shall be more diligent about shutting the door to the henhouse from now on.

It looks like this. Obviously, this is not the cat, as it is indoors. If you are in Calgary, you can adopt it.

I guess it’s okay for the cat to hang around, since we have a lot of things for it to eat around the barn area. Barn cats are good. Now that the dogs are reliably fenced in, cats seem to be able to hang out here. I am unable to tell if it’s male or female, and I haven’t even gotten close enough to see if it has an ear notch that would indicate it’s been spayed or neutered. I’ll work on that, of course.

I’m not expecting to last here long. If it is here after a week, I’ll bestow a name.

Hope all is well in your world. It’s not bad here; I have no clue what’s up with the chest pains.

Arrivals and Departures

The population of the Hermits’ Rest is always changing. Today there’s someone new who arrived and someone old who departed. No one died, to put a spoiler in there.

Pet me once more

Dear old Granny, the skinny old mare with the inability to properly eat grass, has been sent off to hang out with Dusty and Kathleen’s other horse at the farm in Yorktown. She can wander around and squirt and quid all she wants, hang out with cows.

Enjoy your new friends!

I must admit I’ll miss her bony old self. She is awful with other horses, but she’s a real sweetie with people. I enjoyed hanging around with her, and gave her lots of love every day.

New resident

This little guy just moved into Lee’s pond. It’s one of our many baby bullfrogs from the spring mating fest.

I like my rocks.

He’s not as friendly as Granny, but he isn’t too afraid of people. Somewhere around here is a little toad, too. Lee found it in the house and put it back out.

I’m a toad.

Another new arrival is this skink. I think they are really cool. I’m not sure if we have one or multiple. I’ve spotted skinks a few times in the last couple of days.

One other visitor I have no photos of, but my guess is it’s a pocket gopher. I hadn’t seen any here, but Sara had some. I guess they hiked over here to enjoy chicken food. I blocked the holes last night, and lo and behold, there was a lot more food left this morning. I may end up just sharing my fancy chicken food with them.

Stay out of our food!

And in other chicken news, I tried letting Babette back in with the other chickens. An hour later, she was all bloody-headed again. Darn. So, she’s back in her isolation ward.

I’m a delicate flower. But at least I’m finally laying eggs regularly.

Apache has normal eyes again, and the dogs are fine. That’s it for our comings and goings.

Goldie and the Gulf Coast Toad

Nearly all the toads you see in this area are Gulf Coast Toads. We always have a couple hanging around the house. You never know where one will be lurking, as we found out today.

A lurking toad.

Once again, a big downpour happened while the driveway was getting worked on. I was on the porch with the dogs, watching the rain.

Testing the new drain arrangement.

So, there are a couple of places where Lee’s old drainage system broke, and that’s where water gushes out when it rains hard. Today, there was a second gusher. I didn’t recall that happening before. It was like something was blocking the first one. Until I heard a POP.

What’s that?

A dazed toad spurted out of the hole. That was the blockage! I laughed my head off, so I only got this blurry image before it hopped away.

Where am I?

Once the toad hopped, Goldie spotted it. She’d never seen such a thing!

What’s that?

I watched as she circled the toad. Every time it moved, she jumped back, often nearly knocking me over. At one point she got scared by and went way across the new path to circle from a distance. She just didn’t know what to think of that toad!

I was scared!

I knew enough not to let her lick it, but a couple of times she got pretty close.

That thing keeps jumping!

It was a lot of fun watching Goldie learn. I think she got the idea not to bite or play with them. I wish I’d managed to teach Vlassic that before he got a mouthful of toad secretion and started foaming.

We Had to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

However, we didn’t head to Woodstock; we went back to Brookgreen Garden. We rose with the sun and both worked hard today, so we really needed to take advantage of the multi-day tickets we had.

Reward of rising with the sun.

We headed in a different direction this time, and of course saw lots of flowers. I’m amazed at the variety.

There were, of course, many beautiful statues. My favorite was three women sitting on a framework of metal, just lounging around naked. Such ennui. It’s just what they do!

La la la, lounging.

I also liked the Don Quixote statue, which was in a lovely planting of Texas plants. At least I think that’s what it was. I’ve seen all the plants there at home, anyway.

Eventually, we made our way to the BEST PART of the whole place. It’s a Low Country trail and zoo with native animals and farm animals that would have been on the plantations. My favorites were the river otters. I teared up watching them play.

I enjoyed goats, horses, an interesting cow, owls (lots of cool ones, but hard to photograph), a big ole alligator, and chickens. Bit by far the best exhibit was the aviary. I was in heaven there. So many of my my favorite birds, up close and personal.

The habitat was truly beautiful. You could watch the birds catch and stalk fish, interact, and even build nests! This was so much fun, and interesting. We saw a few other animals, like a little green frog, Canada geese, a pretty skink, and many more brown thrashers.

All that stuff was good, but I’d have honestly been fine just walking around looking at the ancient trees and the rice fields that are going back to nature. I feel so at home among the shadows and moss. I hope you enjoy some of my landscape images.

Anita, Stop Reading Here

And now for my final fun observation. I was really wanting to get some photos of the really interesting squirrels here. There were many fine gray squirrels, and sure, I enjoyed them.

I’d never seen the other kind of squirrel they have here, though. They are big, with long and curly tails, plus black heads with white noses. What cuties! So, I obsessively tried to get a good photo of one. Instead, I got a bunch of okay but blurry pictures.

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard these were fox squirrels, the same kind we have in Texas. But these look so cool. Of course, I looked it up on iNaturalist. Sure enough, fox squirrels come in a bunch of different colors. They can also be black.

Hooray for me. I learned a new nature fact AND relaxed. It’s time to actually vacation, I think.

PS: Anita did NOT stop reading when she got to the squirrel part. I did warn her!

Sunday Musings: It’s a Good Life, All Things Considered

Today, I’m being more explicit about what I’m grateful for than my usual gratitude practice, which is more like, “Thank goodness X is in my life, or I can do Y, or Z happened.” I want to say how grateful I am to Lee for deciding to get our retirement property early, build a house on it, and start with the rural fun and learning experiment we call the Hermits’ Rest Ranch. It’s saving my butt, that’s for sure.

Every Sunday morning, I wake up, make coffee, and hang around with Lee and the dogs up in our bedroom. It’s a huge room, so it has a loveseat, chairs, a little dining table (now Lee’s desk), and coffee fixings. Usually the dogs take turns wanting to sit by me and get petted. It’s such a gentle way to ease into the day. Weekends are the best.

This morning I had Carlton for a long time, and he was not about to let me do anything with my left hand except pet his long neck while he stretched his head straight up. Then big ole Harvey wanted some time with me. I’ve mentioned before that he thinks he’s a lapdog now, and sure enough, he managed to drape himself over my entire lap. We had a nice snuggle (I originally wrote “struggle,” which may, in fact, be accurate), though that bulky dog sure is heavy.

Not pretty, but fresh!

It is nice to review your previous day up in the bedroom, so I thought back on how happy I was to find out that all the guinea eggs from yesterday were still good, and wondered what to do with them, since I’m not heading into Austin for a few weeks, I can’t get them to my coworker who’s allergic to chicken eggs, but not guinea eggs. I guess we eat them.

Here, Apache has just picked up a clod or grass and declared round pen time was over. Typical scene with Sara working with Ace and Fiona eating grass like there’s no tomorrow.

I also reminded myself how good I am at being patient in difficult situations, which yesterday’s time with Apache once again proved. Both he and Ace were antsy, like there was something going on around them that put them on alert. I never did figure out what it was, but it led to more dancing around and trying to do what HE wanted to from Apache. He just wasn’t thinking. But, we stopped, had a little chat, and eventually went on to have a nice ride. He really likes it when I talk to him calmly.

And for those of you suggesting lessons, I’m actually signed up for some with a local trainer. That’s why I got a Coggins test for Apache when the vet was here. Sara will take Ace and I will take Apache. That means we get to practice trailer loading, because it’s been a long time since we’ve gone anywhere out of town. He used to love going to Kerri April’s to learn Parelli stuff.

This is a cool brown skink that was in the hay feeder yesterday!

I roused myself from all my musings and went out to see what’s going on with the chickens and such. Every single step I took, Bertie Lee was right with me. She’s the Big Red of my main flock. That hen just likes me. When I checked the chicks, they’d knocked their little feeder over and messed up the water, so I fixed all that and gave Star more adult chicken food (the kind they don’t like, but my shipment of Grubbly feed has not arrived yet, due to high order volumes).

They are not starving, anyway, since every time I look in they are eating away at the plant growth in and around their little coop. I’m sure no bug stands a chance in there, either!

Here’s a pretty buckeye I saw yesterday.

Then I just sat around, watched the chicks preen their feathers (it appears that they are trying to get the fluff off, so their fine new feathers can grow out), and enjoying the pond, trees, and butterflies. I got to watch the little ones go up and down the ramp, and it’s clear they are way faster at it than their mom, who carefully steps down the ramp. They also jump up and down off the small tree branch I put in their area and flap their little wings when they go to land. They will be strong! I wonder how old they will be before they can fly?

Naturally, I looked up the answer on the Googles and found they start testing their wings at around a week (check), but they don’t get their flight feathers until around 5 weeks, so we have something to look forward to!

Just looking around the ranch keeps me focused and gives me perspective. My challenges are just small bumps in the road compared to all that goes on around me every day in nature. And, like my friend Vicki has been reminding me lately:

I’ve survived all those previous hard times,
so I will probably survive this one, too.

I don’t want to just survive, I want to thrive! So I’m going to keep focused on the fact that life is good, I’m surrounded by supportive friends and family, and the new events we’ll go through will make us stronger and wiser. This is what I hope for all you out there, too.

And don’t forget to visit the podcast if you need something to listen to that’s fairly uplifting and pleasant. For me, it’s a nice break between some of my more intense podcasts! And if you want to help out with my blogging fees, consider visiting the support link at the top of the page.

Exploring the Wild Violet

Today was just the best day I’ve had in quite a while. As if finding the eggs wasn’t enough, I got to explore a new place, and wow, I found some mighty fine bits of nature!

Spoiler alert.

My friend Pamela had told me she’s seen fresh evidence of beavers on her property, which isn’t far from the Hermits’ Rest. I talked my way into an invitation to go check them out this afternoon after work. I put on cowboy boots and headed with her and Ruby the hound over to the spring-fed stream out at the edge of the hay fields.

It’s a pretty place.

The stream eventually goes to Big Elm Creek, but until it gets there it wanders around.

Near the start of the stream, which is on another property.

We set off to find beavers. There was definitely evidence of beaver activity, such as holes heading to the water and chewed saplings. But the first brush pile we looked at turned out to be a logjam, not animal work.

We enjoyed looking at plants and flowers until we got a little further down. You could see THIS was a beaver dam. It had lots of mud, sticks piled carefully, and entrance holes. We were happy! I took pictures of the holes, but to be honest, holes don’t photograph well.

All the water flows through one little area. How cool. Anyway we kept going, looking at dewberries and wild garlic and such.

Bugs, too!

We were enchanted by these very shiny, small primroses neither of us recognized. Maybe it’s an early buttercup? They are exquisite!

Then, as I trudged along the bank of the stream, I glimpsed purple. I squealed and said a curse word, but from happiness. I found violets! Wild violets!

Oh, my dear friends!

I’ve loved violets my whole life, and have missed them here. As we looked carefully, Pamela and I saw more and more. She was as delighted as I was, and we just had the best time spotting them.

Next, I got all excited to see cute little frogs and some minnows. Always good to see waterways alive with life!

Suddenly I saw a…thing. A big thing. Was it a fish, a salamander, or what? I yelled for Pamela to come see this huge thing.

Uh. It’s a…

Finally I figured out it was a dead frog, the biggest frog I ever saw in the wild (and I’ve seen those cane toads).

Not a great photo, but it was hard to get to.

Judging from its yellow throat, I’m guessing it’s a male bullfrog. It must have died of old age! I took a photo with Ruby in it to show the size. Ruby is a hound dog, not small at all.

Large.

After that, everything else was less dramatic, though we enjoyed the moss and other water-loving plants. We decided to name the little body of water Wild Violet Creek. Now it has a name!

Wild Violet Creek

I ended up going all the way to the back of Pamela’s property, where there’s a nice pool. Some short-horned cows came to see if I had any food.

Food, please.

I just ran around like a little kid taking in all the space, the hay fields, trees with woodpecker holes, and a very brisk wind. I didn’t mind. It was such a beautiful spring day!

Land spreading out so far and wide!

The water, woods, trees, and flowers washed away all the stress of the previous few days. Everyone needs access to something like this.

Peace, quiet, and beauty in the middle of Texas.

I hope you can find some springtime natural inspiration wherever you are. And maybe a giant frog or some violets.

I Found a Spring! And Pollinators!

I started out my morning nature break trying to find pollinators and check for damaged flowering plants for a survey of pollinators and plants used by monarchs on iNaturalist. I was very happy to have found bees and a butterfly, and was watching the water flowing in the stream with the dogs.

Then, Lee showed up, wanting me to help get the dogs back up so he could feed them. I said, okay, but look how well the stream is flowing! He noted that the runoff from the pond did not seem to be flowing, but the place where it dumps into the stream WAS making nice little waterfall sounds. So, where was the water coming from?

The stream is flowing so nicely and consistently that actual aquatic plants are growing.

Lee pointed out to a new puddle or marshy area that seems to have (no pun intended ) sprung up since the snow event happened. I’d been meaning to check on it, too.

The newly wet area. You can see it doesn’t have any water plants yet, so it’s new.

The puddle was very full, not like all the other ones that have dried up. Then, lo and behold, I spotted a little hole. That little hole was full of clear water, and it was bubbling up! I finally found the source of one of our intermittent springs! I was pretty excited.

Not much to look at, but it is full of bubbly water!

So, water is coming up from this hole (perhaps from the pond, who knows?), then flowing to the marshy puddle, then heading to join the pond runoff water, and on into the big hole that starts the stream.

I labeled the new spring’s path, since it’s hard to see for the grass.

Yay! Farther down, the water is running really fast, thanks to at least two other springs. We had heard that there have been springs all through that area, but most of them have not flowed since we got here, which was when the big drought of 2011-12 happened. I guess the aquifer has finally recovered! Wow!

This springy area has been holding up since last year.

Anyway, I was happy to find a Sulphur butterfly, a hairstreak and lots and lots of bees outside. They were pollinating the henbit and dandelions.

Also, one of the young willows in the small pond has started sprouting, plus I saw a bullfrog in that pond (and heard another one jump). I found one wolf spider and another insect that got away. That means some of them lived. This all makes me very happy.

I do hope to see turtles soon. I am worried about them. But, wow, so happy to have found a spring!

Random Goodness

I may as well share the good and/or interesting stuff of the day. Maybe I’ll do this every so often.

First, I got the little bistro sets up in the break area by the stairs at the Pope Residence. They surprised me by fitting. I even ate lunch at one. Now that no one else eats in the office, I’ll fine solo in style!

Kathleen and I picked these out in hopes that they would fit.

And I opened the box with the dishes for the office. I just set out coffee cups, in case a visitor wanted some coffee. The rest are i. The cabinets for now.

If it’s deemed too junky, I can put them away.

So that was fun. I also had fun looking at birds this afternoon. I finally determined the small heron I keep seeing is a green heron. It was out with the blue heron behind the house, and while I was looking at them and turtles, I spied the BIGGEST bullfrog I ever saw. Turns out they can weigh up to 1.5 pounds!

There was no way to get a photo of the frog, but I did get a picture of this scary kissing bug. It will not give me Chagas’ disease because it is deceased. Buddhism fail.

Eek

The best news is this! We had four eggs today! That’s the first time I got four eggs since we built the hen house here by our house. Thanks, Springsteen!

Bertie, Fancy Pants, Springsteen, and Hedley.

By the fall molting season, we may have a few more kick in! It would be nice to be able to share them with friends and family before they shut down to molt.

It Rained! And Other Signs of Life!

It being July in Texas, we are always prepared for a scarcity of rain and a lot of hot days. All we can hope for is to get some remnants or edges of a hurricane. Well, that seems to be happening right now, and since last night three bands of rain have come through our little ranch. The total rainfall so far is an exciting .15″ – not much, but it is better than nothing. We usually get about an inch per month, so we’re hoping that the big rain to the south of us sends us a bit more later tonight or tomorrow.

The third wave of rain as it approached. I could hear the thunder when I took the picture. The plant in the foreground is Lindheimer’s doveweed (Croton lindheimeri).
Root growth on the avocado “tree.”

The rain lowered the temperature, so I was able to get out and look around some today. Get prepared for a lot of pictures of things that are damp!

I’m always happy when there is new life. And even before I left the house, I realized that our avocado seed is getting pretty robust in the root department. Now we just need a stem!

Speaking of trees, we now have one in the back yard. I didn’t mention it earlier, because I was sad about it. You see, we bought a Shumard oak back when Kathleen and I bought those plants for our office. The guys had set it next to the RV, and I guess forgot about it. I watered it every few days, not realizing I’d needed to water it EVERY day, so by the time we went to plant it, it was mostly dead leaves.

It’s a tree. Not much of a tree, but a tree nonetheless.

But, Chris said its stem was still alive, so he planted it in the back corner (if I could use the backhoe thing, I’d have planted it). He then proceeded to set up a fine watering system that piggybacks on the chicken system and has been able to water it every other day or so.

Yep, those are new, non-dead leaves.
New leaves, and the life-giving water hose.

When I went out to say hi to the chickens to day, I looked over at the sad tree, and lo and behold, there are lots and lots of little new leaves appearing. It’s coming back! I’m so glad the rain is here to help out. It may even someday provide shade to the chickens and to the cattle behind us. That may be a while.

I found some other encouraging things as I was walking around today. I saw a young snake next to the tiny pond, and managed to get a picture of it before it dove underwater. As I patiently waited for it to come back up (with no success), I did notice a freshly shed snake skin near my feet. I bet I know who that belonged to!

I enjoyed looking at dragonflies, turtles, and bullfrogs in the rapidly shrinking pond. The rain will at least give it a bit of fresh water. I’m hoping that the tropical rain tomorrow or the next day will refill it and the other ponds.

This guy kept dipping into the water then zipping off. It was not easy to get a picture. Note dead boopie grasshoppers on the shore. It could explain why the bullfrogs don’t appear very hungry.

Maybe the grass will turn green again, too. The chickens will like that. By the way, they’ve all settled down now that Clarence is the guard rooster. He has figured out how to get to the food inside the chicken run, so all I have to do is make sure he has water every day (though Lee thinks he’s found the pond behind the house).

I got to watch this great egret snatch a fish out of the pond behind the house. This is where Clarence could be going if he runs out of my nice water in the dish.

New life always signifies hope for me. That little stick of an oak tree is my symbol of hope after adversity for now!

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