Tanks? Ponds?

I live in Texas, on a cattle ranch, though none of the cattle here are mine. The cattle here mostly drink out of artificial ponds, because as any Texas naturalist knows, there’s only one natural lake in Texas (Caddo Lake, on the Louisiana border). Thus, any pond you see is made by a human or beaver.

There’s a tank in the middle of those flowers down the road.

However, any native Texan will tell you those cattle aren’t drinking out of (and cooling off in, and pooping in) ponds. Oh no. Those are tanks. Stock tanks or cattle tanks. You sound like a city person if you call them ponds.

Our lovely small pond that sometimes merges with the creek.
I don’t know how long they stay so pristine.

I’m telling you all this because I’ve recently had a couple questions about what the heck a cattle tank is. First, stock tanks in most places are like big water troughs made of metal or plastic. People like to make them into swimming pools. But that’s a normal tank.

These are attached to water supplies and have valves to keep water at the right level. We have some here, as well. The goldfish in there have really grown, to my happiness.

There ARE fish in here.

But most properties have one or more of these in-ground tanks, made usually by damming an arroyo or other place where water naturally goes, then digging out a big hole. This is how we made our front “pond.” Our driveway is the dam.

The tank we made. Those trees grew up since we built the dam/driveway.

All the other tanks on the property are much older. Our neighbor’s son remembers swimming in them. Um, I see too many snakes to consider that. The big tanks have very tall dams around them, created by digging the holes. The dam around the front tank next door is really tall, and Fiona freaks out at it. I still don’t know why.

Looking down the ditch that drains into the big tank. Look carefully on each side to see the dam.

Because I wanted to know more about the history of tanks in Texas, I looked it up and found a fine article from Texas Monthly that fascinated me. For example, I learned that 80% of the tanks in Texas have fish in them, even ones that haven’t been stocked. I’ve seen catfish in ours!

The tank behind our house has plenty of fish for the herons, and is popular with cattle and dogs for cooling off. There’s only a dam on one side, but it’s tall!

I also learned that there are subsidies for building tanks that prevent erosion. That may explain why Texas has more of these man-made bodies of water than any other US state. I actually think that’s what my neighbor does, advise people about building tanks. I should ask, huh. My friend Phyllis confirms this; I’d call them tanks, too, if I got paid!:

My Dad always said that the government would pay farmers to put in stock tanks in the early 1900’s. So if you built a pond for your livestock you paid for it, but if you built a “tank” for your livestock the government paid for most and sometimes all of it…

Of course, as my friend Lynn also pointed out, when you build a tank, the State owns the surface water. That’s one of those weird Texas technicalities.

One thing I do know is that it’s easier to build a tank when you have some clay in your soil. In sandy places, you have to add a layer of clay so it will hold water. We have a couple of dry tanks here, too. Animals like to hide in them. See, I paid attention in my Master Naturalist classes. I obviously think tanks are cool.

Some old tanks look pretty darned natural, like the one next to Walker’s Creek cemetery.

And finally I was happy to read my favorite thing about tanks is not just mine and my naturalist friends. Tanks now attract all kinds of plants and animals that might not be there if we hadn’t put the water there for them. Long after the cattle ranches are gone, the tanks will remain, drying up in drought and refilling when there’s lots of rain.

The little front pond in a drought. Not much water (2013)

Yes, pond, tank, or whatever, these artificial watering holes will provide us with ample nature watching opportunities and provide habitat for so much life. Hooray for tanks!

A Familiar Bird All Dressed Up

It’s much cooler this morning than it was yesterday, so I wish today was the massive hay-bale unloading day. And, yes, I have a sore back and arms, but that’s not gonna stop me from getting out and doing things! Um, and theoretically today I’ll finally have time to work on the newsletter that’s going sort of slowly this week.

Anyway, I have a bird story. Every day when I wake up, I head over to our second-story bedroom window that faces the chickens and the pond to see what’s going on in the world. I can see dogs, hens, horses, cattle, and often birds.

Today, I saw two white birds by the pond. Seeing a white bird is not uncommon, since we have a Great Egret who visits often. These two looked like egrets, but not so great. They were smaller and had patches of a pretty salmon color on their heads and backs. They looked like this:

Photo from iNaturalist, copyright (c) Charlotte Bill.

I couldn’t get a photo, since my phone was updating its OS. The nerve. I wracked my not-really-awake-yet brain trying to figure out what it could be. It had a poky bill, so it wasn’t a duck. It had a long neck, but not THAT long of a neck. And it looked like an egret with a short neck and a short bill.

Isn’t that a pretty bird? Photo from iNaturalist, copyright (c) Charlotte Bill.

The phone finally finished updating, so I could look it up on Merlin Bird ID. That is one helpful piece of software! I entered its size as smaller than a goose, and its colors as white and orange. I couldn’t wait to see what exotic creature I’d seen, but not been able to photograph. I had to laugh when I saw what came up. The birds are a pair of cattle egrets in breeding plumage!

My own best picture of cattle egrets, in a large flock.

My gosh, I’ve been seeing these birds my entire life, but the color fooled me. Now I know they get all colorful this time of year. Looking through the photos on iNaturalist, I could see they can be quite colorful. I read that they get more colorful in some other parts of the world, too.

Learning about these guys (Bubulcus ibis) on Wikipedia explained to me why I’ve seen them my whole life. It turns out that they were first introduced to the US (escaping captivity) in Florida, where I spent my childhood! They were observed breeding there in the late 1950s, and had spread to Canada in just ten years. Wow. They also busily expanded from their native Iberian peninsula, too. I guess where there are cattle, they follow.

I have a vague memory of my mom mentioning that they didn’t see them when she was younger, which makes sense to me now. I strongly remember finding these birds very funny when they rode around on the backs of the huge herds of Hereford cattle we’d see in north Florida in the 60s.

I guess it pays to wake up and look out the window, because it can lead you to learning a lot more about a bird you’ve enjoyed your whole life! It pays to stay curious!

Feeling a Little Better about Nature’s Survival

After that unusual series of cold fronts, snow, and ice, I (and others) have been pretty worried about whether out friends out there in nature are going to make it through to spring and keep going. In the past day or two I’ve seen some happy signs. So, as long as I’m out in nature and not dealing with technology, I’ve been pretty happy.

Vlassic is happy, because I’ve been sitting on the porch with him and running around a lot.

My heart skipped a beat when I finally saw some Indian paintbrush plants in the field. Now that there are two or three of them, I know we’ll have at least a bit of our usual field of orange in front of the house (as long as we can convince Jim the brother-in-law not to mow until they are going to seed).

A brave pioneer in the big wildflower meadow (until someone turns it into a pasture).

The field is already lovely to me, with a whole lot of mock verbena mingling with crow poison and field madder, once you look close enough to see them. And I know more’s coming! That’s why I like this time of year. Every day something new starts blooming, and I record them on iNaturalist so that some day I can analyze the data and see if the weather changes when the wildflowers start up (that will be when I retire).

I don’t remember having so much of this charming plant in the field before!

A new “blossom” coming up yesterday was this dwarf plantain (at least that’s what iNaturalist identified it as). I thought it was the annual trampweed (which is also in the picture, along with chicory, burr clover of some kind, and a grass, but I was wrong).

But it IS something new blooming, whatever it is!

Another new bloomer is one I’d been worried about, on behalf of my stomach, and that’s the dewberries. They really got knocked back by the cold, but by gosh, they have recovered and started blooming. Even though there are only a few blossoms right now, it already smells good over by the stream.

Future fruit! Yay!

How about the non-plants?

Adult green-striped grasshopper that is brown.

I’ve been anxiously looking for butterflies and grasshoppers and such. Judging from the sounds I’ve been hearing, the green-striped grasshoppers I’ve been watching grow up have matured. I see them flying around the back yard and making their grasshopper noises. Here’s one that happens to be brown.

I’ve been seeing a lot of these hairstreak butterflies, along with some sulphurs and one red admiral that was too far away to photograph.

Hairstreak with chicory and tiny bluet.
This blurry shot is the best one I could get, as the butterfly never landed.

But, I had heard people were already seeing monarchs, but that there was nothing for them to eat. Sure enough, as I sat in the back yard yesterday waiting to go to the phone store, a steady stream of them passed by, but never landed on anything. I sure hope they find some nectar!

I know pear trees are blooming (native ones, not just Bradford pears), so the bees are doing well.

Maybe Carlton has some hunting dog in him. I caught him pointing (he turned his head when he saw me).

I’m never alone when I’m out looking at all these plants and insects and such. Carlton and Penney are especially close to me wherever I go, while Alfred and Vlassic explore more. It always makes me happy to see that the pets have as much fun as I do. We are all really lucky to have acres and acres to explore and nobody to tell us what we can and can’t do out here. Ranch living may have poor cell reception, but it makes up for it in the kind of freedom that matters to me, which is freedom to observe nature and be a part of it, not try to dominate it.

As usual, Penney was by the water.

I hope you are enjoying the signs of spring where you are (and if you’re in Colorado, I hope the snow is melting).

A Chickweed Festival for Birds

It was a beautiful morning here, with mist rising from the ponds and a very heavy load of dew, so the grasses and flowers were all shiny. As soon as I went downstairs and sat at my desk, I realized that there are even more birds in the field in front of the house than usual.

Some of the birds I scared off when I walked outside. Mostly starlings, but there’s a meadowlark at left.

The meadowlarks have been all over the fields for weeks now, but I realized that there are also a lot of European starlings, along with some of the red-winged blackbirds that I’ve mostly been hearing and not seeing. The savannah sparrows are also participating (a few white-crowned sparrows are at the edge of the woods, but they don’t like to come out in the middle of the field). Joining the crowds are our breeding pairs of mockingbirds and cardinals. This creates quite a cacophony.

Where I see all the birds. You can see some flying back by the trees. I scared them.

I wondered why there were more birds today than in the past couple of weeks. I put on my Master Naturalist thinking cap and thought there must be some kind of thing for them to eat now that wasn’t there last week.

The male cardinal is in the center. The mockingbirds flew off as I took the picture.

Sure enough, I recalled mentioning to Lee last night that the chickweed was all yellowish and looked like it had gone to seed. Could that be it? The name implies birds like it.

Chickweed in bloom.

So, I went off to search the internet and look at that. I found an article that told me chickweed is not native, but is good to eat for us humans, too. It’s chock full of vitamins and minerals. Most important:

Chickweed is also grown as feed for chickens and pigs, hence its common names clucken wort, chicken weed, and birdseed. Wild birds also love to eat chickweed seeds.

Read more at Gardening Know How: Can You Eat Chickweed – Herbal Use Of Chickweed Plants 

Well, there ya go. I used my brain and got my answer. It looks like I’ll have plenty of bird-watching fun for the next few days, right out my little window. Chickweed is my new friend, and officially a wildflower and NOT a weed (even though I already figured it was).

This is not fascinating, but does show some chickweed seed heads.

Anything exciting going on where you are?


Don’t forget that if you like my blog or podcast and want to be one of my supporters, I’ll be grateful and give you a shout-out!

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!

What’s Recuperating from the Cold and Snow?

Since the weather is warm and it hasn’t started raining yet, I decided to see how the life around here is faring after last week’s bad weather. The first thing I found was that, indeed, the cold has messed the chickens up. Look what poor Buttercup laid!

Buttercup’s little egg, next to the normal one I found this morning.

Not all is bad for them, though. While they seem to dislike something in their scratch grain mix, the damp weather has been perfect for sprouting whatever it is. That will make good browsing for them or new chickens that we get!

At least the chicken run won’t be all dirt!
We prefer bugs.

I wondered if any insects and such were out, so I was happy to find a checkered butterfly and two lady bugs! I saw a moth, but it was too fast for me!

I found that most of the usual plants for this tome of year were blooming, but I was surprised to see a cranesbill had already managed to produce seeds!

Here are a few of the other blooming plants I saw. It was good to see them recovering.

I also found the wildflowers in good shape, including my favorite yellow daisies and bluebonnets. We’ll have color this year! And speaking of color, the cold gave some unusual leaf colorings.

I heard a lot of frog sounds from across the road, and plenty of birds. I heard a whooshing sound and turned around to see I’d disturbed some ducks on one of the tanks/ponds. I did get a photo of them flying, though I don’t know what kind they are.

Ducks, trees, clouds.

Spring is coming. Winter can’t stay forever. I’m glad I got some entries for iNaturalist today!

What’s in the Creek!

Today’s Bioblitz adventure took me and the faithful canine companions over by the creek again. I was trying to see if there are any different plants in the woods and creek side. Also, I wanted to let the dogs have fun. That they did!

Happy Carlton in the creek.

Mostly Penney and Carlton enjoyed the windy, sunny day by running, smelling and splashing. It was a good distraction from staring at plants.

I crossed the creek! (Also, check out that soil layer with all the big rocks.)

The dogs running in the stream inspired me to check it out, and I found some slimy algae.

Doesn’t that look shiny and fun?

It reminded me to check the water for plants. I found two cool things I never saw before today!

I’m not sure if it’s one kind or two kinds, but crowfoot is a cool name, and cursed crowfoot is a GREAT name!

All afternoon I looked for birds. I got a vulture photo, but all the other ones hid…until I was just about to walk through the gate back to the house. Suddenly, a bird was right in front of me. By the time I got the camera up, a little ruby crowned kinglet was right in front of me! It’s the first one I’ve seen here! A good day.

Hello!!!

It was a good day all around. I also had a great ride on Apache. I think he’s having fun, too.

Knitting on Hold Due to Online Shopping Fail

Darn me. I thought I had ordered more yarn for the table runner I’m making for Lee, then wondered why it had not arrived. Sigh. The website I used had such a long and convoluted ordering process that I missed one last “finalize order” button on the bottom of a screen, because the text was so long that the button required scrolling to see. Let me just say, “Grr.”

It’s looking pretty, though, other than my ugly decreases (for which I blame the yarn texture, not my sterling technique.

So, I now have a 28-inch long piece of knitted fabric and no more yarn. The purchase HAS hit my credit card, so now I’ll just wait until next week for the rest to show up. The good news is that Lee wants the runner to be 50 inches, so the two more skeins I ordered should be enough, but not too much. That makes me happy!

Half of a table runner.

I made a mistake in the last light brown section, but it’s not bad enough to rip out. With all that crazy color and texture, who’s gonna look that hard at it, once it’s on the stereo cabinet? It just shows I’m human!

Once again, I am really glad to have a backup project! The blue shawl will get longer today, though I must admit categorizing all my Bioblitz photos takes away from my knitting time.

Still Blitzing

No one I know actually logs ALL the hours they spend on iNaturalist. For me, the time just melts away as I try to figure out what kind of plant or animal I’ve seen. Yesterday I even got a couple of bird photos, nasty, blurry ones, but yay! I actually love this one, which really doesn’t show the bird species, but looks artsy.

Mystery bird.

And I got these beautiful closeups of henbit, the omnipresent wildflower of February.

And here, I just had to take a photo of the entrance to the driveway that leads to the cabin and barns. It’s pretty to me.

Very Texas-y.

How’s your weekend going? I hope better than this dead hunk of fish I found. Yep, a good place to stop blogging.

I don’t think there’s enough of this to identify on iNaturalist, but the fish does have cool teeth. At the top is a fin.

Blitzed and Hit 2000!

It’s been a heck of a work week, giving me little time to think or write about. We’ve been doing real estate stuff, but I hesitate to write about that anymore. So, I’ll tell you about the highlight of my day, which has been participating in the Winter Bioblitz for our Master Naturalist chapter.

Crow poison

I made 62 observations today, which was a feat, since I only did it on breaks and at lunch. It’s also a feat, because the vast majority of the plants I can identify right now are henbit, chicory, and clover.

Look at all those observations

The highlight of my morning was reaching 2,000 iNaturalist observations. I’ve been going more slowly lately, so this meant a lot to me. I enjoy contributing!

Some really pretty dandelions

It was good I knew where a lot of things are, so I could confidently say, “This is poison ivy!”

That’s one thick ivy vine.

Other chapter members got out and took some pictures, too. Carolyn took a picture of a cat and uploaded it, which gave me a chuckle. I know lots more will join in!

Ooh, snails and mussels from Linda Jo.

Anyway, I’m enjoying my nature pause and finally able to get Master Naturalist hours for my iNaturalist work around the ranch. That makes up for whatever challenges I’m facing.

A sweet tiny field madder bouquet.

Have a happy evening. Time to knit.

Preparing for Nature Fun

As I’m noodling around with the idea of “goals,” I decided one would be to learn something about nature every day by getting outside and focusing on my surroundings. I get to start out by participating in our Master Naturalist chapter’s winter Bioblitz (follow along with us, if you want to!), for which I’m really thankful to our iNaturalist guru Linda Jo. I can now observe things on the ranch for a week, starting tomorrow! I am hoping to maybe get some bird photos.

Speaking of birds, for the first time in a long time there were eastern bluebirds on the fence with the gray birds! The blue on the males is so striking! Of course, the mockingbird chased them off, so I couldn’t get a picture, but my eyes enjoyed them.

This photo shows the beautiful colors you see when they fly. Photo © Michael J. W. Carr, some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)

Spending time observing non-humans and watching them through the seasons makes me happy. It’s easy to do, since I usually walk over to the horses every day, often go on longer walks, and like to hang out in the woods. Making getting out and observing my surroundings an actual goal seems like a fine self esteem ambition.