The Hermit Haus Hosts the Master Naturalists Again

Finally, we are daring to have a meeting at the Hermit Haus again. Our Master Naturalist class wanted to finish its sessions, so we figured out a way. Only the students who have Zoom trouble and 3 staff are in the building. Each audience member is at a separate table.

People wear masks unless eating.

The rest of the class, as well as anyone else who wanted to attend dialed into the Zoom meeting.

That took a lot of planning and figuring out our needs. I am proud of our Master Naturalist board members for hashing it all out.

Our tech guy, Don, spent a lot of time getting us a good setup for the mix of online and in person attendees. He got us some nice speakers and microphones so people can ask questions. We tested it all earlier today and it worked great.

Now I know.

There was a weird glitch with our speaker being unable to join the meeting, but I got it working by signing him into our organization account. Yes!

And the talk is going great! Sound is good. Speaker is Hilary in a Dad joke kinda way. Whew. I’m so pleased to be able to give to our community by hosting events again, while still being careful.

Loamy sand and sandy loam.

And I now know a LOT about soil. And saw some of my friends. Everyone seemed so pleased. And I got to wear my cool new mask.

Look! It has a raven and a feather.

Thanks to Robyn at Coffee and Cotton for the high quality products

Rare Friend Sighting! Plus, More Hens

This will be a fun weekend! It’s already been great, because I got to go meet my friend Janet at Bird and Bee Farm, because she needed new hens. Her “ladies” are all retired. I’ve known Janet since soon after I moved to Austin, and we have had many adventures together. Many adventures. She now lives in Groesbeck with her partner and horses, just far enough away to make visiting not too easy. So, we haven’t seen each other in a while.

So, we were glad to see each other at the chicken farm. I showed Janet all the hard work our Master Naturalist team had done with the Wildscape project, and she really liked some of Catherine and Rosie’s great recycled decor ideas.

This chair fountain’s particularly cute.

I was all excited about some butterflies, and tried really hard to get good pictures, but these pipevine swallowtails are not the kind that sits still. My best picture had something weird in the background.

What’s that behind the butterfly?

It was one of the resident guinea fowl, just clucking away at me and peeping over the flowers.

Howdy!

Eventually we got in, after we convinced Gene I wasn’t here just for Master Naturalist stuff. Janet was after black hens, because apparently hawks don’t go after them, because they look like crows, and crows are mean to hawks. Huh. She got three young Jersey Giants and three australorps, all lovely and dusky beauties.

Native Rio Grande turkeys, since I didn’t get photos of Janet’s new pullets.

Well, I couldn’t exactly go there and come up empty handed, especially since our hen to rooster ratio is so low. I needed three hens. Conveniently, the oldest pullets they had were beautiful, as well. They are called Blue Star or Sapphire Gem, and apparently are a new heat-tolerant breed from Czech breeders. I got two of them, one of which has some gold in her neck feathers. She’s Star and the other is Sapphire. I am not creative today.

My favorite thing about them is that they are large. They won’t have to stay separated too long, though they need growth food another month or two. They have beautiful dark brown eyes, too.

The other pullet I got is a Welsummer, which I had one of before in my first batch, but didn’t last too long due to the owl. No owl will get Butternut, though! She’s safe with us in the cage. I love her buttery yellow legs, which gave her the name, and she has cool light brown eyes that match her body feathers. She’s a bit smaller than the other two, and pretty friendly.

Pretty baby.

I’ll need to re-hook the water hose, and maybe move one of the pipe feeders over to the baby area, but otherwise, they should be fine. Now if I can just figure out how to stop Clarence from crowing under Jim’s RV. That has to be loud!

Anyhow, it was wonderful to catch up with Janet, who I’m going to spend more time with not on a mission very soon. We just wish we could set and eat a meal together, but neither of us wants to chance the germs.

The Vines of Hermits’ Rest

I thought I’d take my own advice and get out in nature this morning, so I made up a project to see how many different vines I could see along the fence in front of and beside the ranch house.

Mustang grape. I know because it’s silver and hairy on the bottom.

It hadn’t gotten stifling hot yet, so Vlassic and I set off. I knew a lot of what I’d see, but figured I’d find at least seven different vines.

Vine
Looks boring, right? But if we hadn’t been aggressively mowing, it would produce cool little lanterns. It’s Cardiospermum halicacabum

I actually ended up with 12! At least I hope so. Most weren’t blooming, but I recognized them. The white morning glory had closed up and I couldn’t get to the flowers to photograph.

I was especially glad to see passion vines in more than one place, because I’d worried the poison ivy had crowded it out.

Passion vine with no beautiful flowers.

Also I was glad to confirm that we have sorrel vine here, since the Master Naturalist who lives not far from here has a lot of it.

Sorrel vine or Cissus trifoliata. It’s known as possum grape, too.

Otherwise, it’s the usual prickly, rash-inducing, invasive and/or pretty plants.

Of course I had to snap a few other pretty sights. Plus, there’s action around the hen house. There’s a new spider building a web right in front of where I get the eggs from. Luckily I have another way to get eggs.

And Chris put a live trap by the chicken run. We need to stop whatever took almost all the guineas and a hen! Hopefully, once it cools off, he will come up with more safety measures.

These are prettier than water hose, right? Lady Bird’s Centaury.

We do have a much more elaborate water system, though, since the other one was trying to make the hoses explode. Chris used new water hose/pipe and fittings to make a safer temporary setup until we make the fancy underground one. It’s also too hot to safely dig the trench for that.

At least the dogs are happy we’re inside all day. 102 is too hot for any of our outdoor projects! Happy July.

It’s weather fit for sunflowers!

Birds Sure Are Resourceful

As hard as it is to find equilibrium these days, I’ve always found my bird watching greatly helpful. Birds just keep going, breeding, eating, being silly. Here are today’s examples.

Finch Family Time

You can’t get close enough to us to get a good picture, Suna!

Over at the Hermit Haus/former church office, I’ve been watching all the birds raising families. The mockingbirds have moved on, but the house finches are doggedly determined to produce offspring in the carport. They built one nest in one corner, but lost that little one. Wah.

But, lo and behold, the second nest they built has a little fellow in it. Yesterday I got to watch it waggle its little head around as its parents looked annoyed at me from the telephone wire a few feet away.

Can you see the little head?

When I arrived this morning, two finches flew away, and I realized a second pair was building a nest in yet a third corner of the driveway. I guess those little notches make house finches feel secure (and it IS hard for roaming feral cats to get to them).

The new nest, in the back of the carport, right by where I park.

Earlier Today

As you may know, the past few weeks I’ve been going over to the sad, grass-less horse pen to give Fiona and Apache hay to tide them over until their evening feeding. Well, Big Red, the only hen remaining from my previous flock, has figured this out. She didn’t get to be the only one left by being a slow learner.

Most mornings, there she is, barreling toward me, wanting her sunflower seeds NOW. The only morning she didn’t show up, Chris found that she had laid a sad egg with no shell (she’s old), which has inspired me to get her some actual chicken food this weekend to go with her seeds.

Today, she didn’t charge at me, because she was busy. I’d actually been wondering where she got her water, because I’m not sure her old water trough made from the cabin’s air conditioner runoff is still there.

chicken balanced on a water bucket
I may be old, but I’m still quite flexible!

Well, there she was, on the edge of Fiona’s water bucket, drinking away. It was so cute. That inspires me to keep filling the bucket all the way up!

A red hen
The water was great! Now I’m ready to have my sunflower seeds.

Once she was done, she strode right over and requested her morning ration. I just love that hen.

I’m sending love and hopes for understanding for each of us. Remember, everyone you meet is pretty stressed out right now and probably not at their best.

Who Knows the Difference between a Frog and a Toad?

Do you know how to tell a frog from a toad? Here are some hints from around the Hermits’ Rest.

I bet some of you know this, but I got two good example specimens that will help the rest of you. Both are big ones, which makes it easy to see. But they ARE trying to fool us.

Gulf Coast toad

How did I know this was a toad, sitting in the dog pond? First, she has warts. Toads are bumpy. Most toads hang out on land, but this one is in water, but not swimming. That’s normal. She also has relatively short hind legs, for walking, not hopping.

Pond with exit ramp. Yes, we empty it weekly for mosquito prevention.

The toads like to hang out in the dog pond so much that Lee built them an exit ramp. He said he saw a smaller one in there, too, so maybe mating was planned (males are smaller).

American bullfrog, in the chicken run.

This big fella we found when I moved the new chickens’ water dish. It’s as big as the toad, and too dark to be one of our green frogs. How did I know it was a frog, even though frogs are usually found in or near water and this one is on land?

Well, the skin is smooth (even in the blurry photo). And look at those legs! They are much longer than the toad’s! And it WAS right next to a water dish. I admit it is within a pretty short hopping distance of the pond behind our house, from which bullfrog croaks have been heard.

Our biggest green frog, ready to dive back in the pond. Finally an amphibious creature doing what it’s supposed to.

We are happy to have both the toad and the frogs around here. They eat bugs and all sorts of critters that need to have some population control!

By the way, a toad is a frog, but not all frogs are toads.

Texas, Where Almost Everything Bites

Today I have a hodgepodge of stuff to share, but first I want to talk about what’s lurking around the ranch these days. That would be things that bite, and things that jump. Yesterday, I went to sit down on one of the front-porch rocking chairs, when I saw something on the seat.

A member of the widow spider family.

I am very glad she was pre-dead, and that I saw her before I sat. Certainly it confirms my habit of checking for creatures before plopping down anywhere around the Hermits’ Rest! I’m not sure what kind of widow spider she was, but I don’t want any of them biting me. These are the main reason I continue to support having pest control come around the house.

The second reason is scorpions, which I haven’t seen any of, but Lee and Kathleen have killed a few. I love them out in the woods, but not in the house. And I love the spiders, but not ones that could really mess with my health.

I’ve apparently become allergic to mosquito bites, and they make huge welts, so I could do without those right now, too. And biting flies! Argh. There are black flies around here, and horse flies (thankfully not around ME), and deer flies. Whatever. One of them bit me on my FACE this morning. That could have to do with how much poop we have at the ranch

Nonetheless, I am heartily enjoying discussing different kinds of flies and grasshoppers and stuff with Eric in our Master Naturalist class. He not only has good eye for finding them, but he has a good camera, and the patience to work hard to identify them.

Eric wrote me an email today about the coolest thing he saw (a “mystical experience,” in his words), which was he was trying to photograph a large grasshopper:

It jumped off the path into the high grass and when it landed it appeared to turn into at least a dozen tiny projectiles which flew off in all directions like a firework. A closer look uncovered a great concentration of grasshopper nymphs in the area.

Eric N., email 6/6/2020

Of course, he didn’t get a picture, but WOW, what an image!

My grasshopper experience this morning was also something you couldn’t photograph. I was walking back from horse riding (it went well), noticing that it’s definitely grasshopper season. Then I noticed the sound. As I walked, I was disturbing dozens and dozens of them (small ones, since they aren’t adult yet), and my walk seemed to have a rhythm section accompanying it. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap-tap-tap.

I k now a lot of people don’t like grasshoppers (like my sister), and I admit they are annoying in the summers when there are hundreds pelting me as I drive the utility vehicle. At least they don’t bite often or hard. But they are so varied and interesting. I have an AWFUL time photographing them, so I think I’m going to get a good butterfly net soon, so I can get some to hold still.

What Doesn’t Bite?

Roaches. Secretly, I have never been fond of roaches, due to childhood trauma, but I am doing better since I started doing iNaturalist. I recently even found one I thought was interesting to look at. It also lived outdoors, where it should.

Fairly attractive pale-bordered field cockroach

And non-venomous snakes don’t bite humans, often anyway. So, I was sad to see this one in the road this morning. Rat snakes are my buddies as long as they aren’t eating my hens’ eggs.

Poor snakey got hit by a car.

Okay, time to go see what’s outside that will hurt in some other way…

How Many Invasive Species Did I Find?

Last week I had a lot of Master Naturalist fun participating in the Texas Invasive Species BioBlitz 2020 that got set up by Texas Nature Trackers. You may remember I talked about it a bit last week. The idea was to see how many observations you could get from a list of invasive species found throughout the state. I knew I had easy access to a few, so I figured I’d try.

Here’s the main page for the event.

I got a good number of invasives pretty quickly, since I knew right where there was some Arundo donax (river cane), Johnson grass, and a lot of nandina on my own properties. I must have spent 3 hours the first weekend looking for invasives (and observing lots of other things, too).

By the time I went to Austin on Tuesday, I was doing okay on the leaderboard. Just a few walks around the neighborhood of Bobcat Run produced more “goodies” like Japanese honeysuckle and privets.

My final list of plants.

By the time the week was over, I was proud to be in the top twenty of number of species observed, and doing okay with number of observations as well.

Here I am, number 17, and Linda Jo number 2 (I couldn’t fit number 1 on the screen, darn it.)

Of course, my fellow Chapter member Linda Jo Conn was in second place in number of observations and first place for species. Some other guy had way more observations, because he had multiple photos of some of the species. I did a few, like things I saw both in Austin and Cameron, or ones in distinct locations. However, I could have ROCKED the numbers by just walking across the lawn and taking pictures of Bermuda grass (I would NOT do such a thing, of course).

Regrets

Darn the luck! The day after the bioblitz was over, I drove down a street I don’t usually go by, and there were a whole bunch of mimosa trees taunting me with their fluffy pinkness. Argh!

Beautiful invasive mimosa tree, just one block off of where I usually drive every day.

Then, yesterday I walked to the horse barn (I’d been driving our utility vehicle because I have a sore tendon), and right on the side of the driveway was a cheerful annual bastard cabbage/ wild mustard plant. I’d been looking and looking for one, because I knew they were there! So, that’s two more I could have found if I’d been a bit more diligent.

What Did I Learn?

I think the project did what it was intended to do: it got me much more aware of invasive species wherever I saw them, and because I kept talking about it to friends and family, I raised awareness as well. That’s exactly the kind of thing I want to be doing as a Master Naturalist.

Oh, and also, I had fun. What have been your fun projects while we’ve been not gathering in large groups and such?

Humble but Beautiful

Yep, it’s one of those nature posts. I don’t have anything to rant about today. It’s probably because my day started out so nicely, having coffee with Lee on the back porch (usually I rush off to the office, but I had a sinus issue). Looking out at the lawn, Lee remarked that he was glad his brother hadn’t mowed yesterday.

The humble wildflower makes the lawn glow.

There were hundreds of dandelions in the field, with their little faces all turned toward the morning sun, or where it would be if it were less cloudy. More rain is coming. Remember, most of the flowers in our field are actually “false dandelion” (Pyrrhopappus pauciflorus) and not the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).

The chickens love both varieties, actually. The highlight of every evening for me is feeding the hens dandelion greens from my hands.

Yellow always pops on a gray day.

While I was out there checking out flowers, I saw this really great spiderweb. If you look closely, you’ll see how big it actually is, but I was drawn to the center, where it looks like weaving. I think I know where the term “orb weaver” comes from now. Too bad the spider is in back, so I can’t identify her. You can tell she is the size of the “woven” area, though.

We have lots and lots of wasps this time of year. Mostly they just fly a few inches above the grass looking for something to eat, or posing as bird food, depending on your point of view. These blue mud daubers sure are beautiful, though.

And just to clarify: No “murder hornets” live in Texas, so it’s okay to get this close.

A Very Humble Fly

I’ll leave you with what I saw when I came downstairs for lunch. This is one big fly. It’s not as big as a horsefly, but it’s big. Eric in our Master Naturalist class says it’s an Archytas. iNaturalist agreed. I just think it looks really, really, prickly and like it would bite. One thing I dislike is fly bites. Shudder.

It’s sitting on a mop. Look at its cool bronze eyes and greenish body. With bristles. Lots of bristles.

Well, I got curious, so I looked up more information on the Archytas flies. It turns out their larvae are parasites, and they often grow in moths, beetles, and bugs that harm crops. So, they are often used as natural pesticides! How about that? I loved this quote by the person who wrote the article I read:

This tachinid fly is one of my favorites. It’s a huge, hairy fly with a blue metallic abdomen. I frequently encounter it nectaring on flowers and mucking about amongst the vegetation, never on offal or other nasty things like many of the more disgusting fly varieties. I would not allow just any fly to walk my skin with impunity; Archytas is just, well, special. (My affection is probably misplaced, and this bugger is just as filthy and revolting as all the others, but what can I say?  One has to find something pleasant to think about.)

Tachinid Fly – Archytas sp. – North American Insects and Spiders

This scientist really loves their flies! By the way, the flies are named for “Archytas of Tarentum (c. 428-350 B.C.) – Greek statesman, military commander, leading Pythagorean mathematician and philosopher; often called the father of mathematical mechanics.” He also invented the screw and the pulley. There’s a crater on the Moon named after him, as well. Again, huh.

I think I found my favorite fly. Humble, yet lovable. And oddly beautiful.

Birdhouses, Butterflies, Break-time Fun

That Chris, he needs a break from constant caulking, which is the never-ending phase of the Pope renovation he’s on now. Every bit of trim needs some caulk. Ugh. I’m sure glad he does takes some breaks, because that means we get birdhouses!

The bird house will get a perch and a lovely fake bird. I ordered a bunch of potential residents to try out.

Today’s house is at an extremely awkward corner where I guess we could have put some kind of decorative finial or something. But a birdhouse is way more fun and adds quite a bit of whimsy to the project. Chris knows I like birds and Kathleen likes that kind of thing, so we are not complaining a bit.

I like how today’s house has molding on the bottom, to make it look like it just grew there. Hmm, where will the next house be? (I know, but I’m not telling). I got a vision of little kids visiting and being sent off to find all the birdhouses in the building. That would be fun.

Another project has gotten started, too. The water heater is getting its cabinet in the main bathroom. It’s going to fit quite nicely in the corner, and there will be some storage added, which will be good in a downstairs with no, zero, zilch closets.

I believe the plan is that the compartment can be easily unscrewed for access, since it won’t happen too often once it’s hooked up. Ooh, what an exciting day that will be for all of us who wash dishes at Hearts Homes and Hands!

Breaking with Butterflies

I needed a break after finishing yet another slog of a project, so I walked around the block by the Hermit Haus. I turned by the Baptist Church, because I was wondering if the fancy New Gold hybrid lantana that’s planted all around its borders attract as much wildlife as the native ones in my tiny garden.

The answer was a resounding yes. There were skipper butterflies skipping all over the plants, as well as quite a few duskywings. I saw another variegated frittilary, but didn’t get its picture.

Big wasp enjoying a lantana flower

I also saw a very large wasp, which reminded me of an even bigger one, the cicada killer (they are so cool, but I haven’t seen any this year). This one appeared to be a Guinea paper wasp, judging from its stripe pattern and large antennae. But, I could be wrong and it could be a regular ole yellowjacket, which we have plenty of around here. I’ll find out on iNaturalist, I’m hoping.

It really does me a lot of good to take little walks and outdoor breaks, which are just fine to do in an uncrowded place like here. Since we are getting more and more coronavirus cases here, I’m not going anywhere crowded right now!

The Little Garden That Could

It’s been so much fun checking out what’s growing in my tiny garden outside my office. Every day, there’s a little bit more to see in and around it. This little space supports so much life!

This morning, I found the Inca doves poking around in the area where there’s dirt. I wondered where they were living, and then they were kind enough to show me! They have a nest right above our carport light! I love these birds, because they are calm, busy, and beautiful when they fly. The underside of their wings is a russet red, which makes them easy to identify, and looks beautiful.

Hello from the Casa de Inca

I looked a little closer before I went into the office, and saw even more life, on a tiny scale. I saw something yellow on the milkweed plant and was all excited that it might be monarch eggs or something, but when I got closer, the yellow dots moved. They are very bright aphids with little black legs. Turns out they are oleander aphids, which are also, conveniently enough, known as milkweed aphids. Well, the plants are supporting their tiny life, so I let them keep sucking away.

MMMMMilkweed! (I don’t know what the black aphids are)

Over to the left, something moved on a common lantana flower (which Linda Jo, my iNaturalist identifier, called “not one of the good ones”). There was a tiny, tiny fly. It has stripes that make it look like a bee or wasp, but it’s one of the little flies that lives on nectar from flowers, a calligrapher fly. I guess it does look like it has writing on it!

I can’t write calligraphy, but I am pretty.

And finally, when I stood up, I saw one little dayflower that did not look like all its beautiful blue friends. It’s a white sport! I love it when I find the oddballs of nature smiling up at me.

I’m a standout

What a great way to start one’s day, just noticing the bounty of life around me. This really is a little garden that could…be full of life!

What about me? I’m living in the little garden, too!

One More

I have to share, because it’s so pretty, this black swallowtail caterpillar on my bronze fennel plant at the ranch (one of two herbs that didn’t die in my planter). I’m so happy to support future beautiful butterflies!

I’m pretty even before metamorphosis! And this fennel is delish!