Book Review: The Nature of Texas

A review of a field guide to the nature of Texas, suitable for beginning naturalists

Here’s a new book that some of you who live in Texas might want to order. It’s a field guide called The Nature of Texas: An Introduction to Familiar Plants, Animals and Outstanding Natural Attractions, by James Kavanagh and illustrated by Raymond Leung.

The cover of the book, The Nature of Texas
Any book with an armadillo on it is a book I like!

This isn’t one of those huge compendiums of every single living organism in the state; instead, it highlights plants and animals that an average person with an interest in the nature in Texas might run into. The descriptions are brief and in lay terms, and the illustrations are really lovely (good job, Raymond Leung).

It’s a bit too basic of a book for me to carry around, but I could easily imagine giving it to a teenager or older child who’s going camping and wants to know what they might find out there, or someone who just moved to Texas and wants a nice overview. It would be fun to put on the bedside table for your out-of-state visitors, or on the coffee table of your rental property.

an open page of a book, with information about fish
An example of the text and illustrations.

The back of the book has two handy features. One is a brief list of interesting places to go to see the natural wonders of Texas, with clear maps. The other is a series of checklists you can use to mark off wildlife and native plants that you see in your travels. That would be a fun family project (though I’d have to add a bunch of things, like more owls).

I do recommend The Nature of Texas, just for the beautiful illustrations alone. And the introductory essay, “But a Watch in the Night,” written by James Rettie in 1948 is a real treasure, too. It’s a great reminder of how little time humans have actually been present and messing around with our planet.

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…

Serpentine Visitor

I miss all the good stuff. Last night at the ranch, while Vlassic and I were safely snoozing in our Austin bed, the ranch dogs started barking like crazy and would not stop. Lee got up and looked out the front door but couldn’t see anything.

They continued to bark, and apparently the whole family yelled at them a lot.

Then, as Lee and Chris were going to bed, they found out what all the ruckus was about: a three-foot plain-bellied water snake. According to eye witnesses, all the dogs were hiding around the corner, in order of size, with Alfred peeking his head out, barking and ducking back behind a wall. The rest were his backups.

Head of snake. Chris graciously fished it out of the dumpster for me.

Chris got the snake out with a broom, then it chased him, then he took his machete (I do not know where that came from unless it was MY machete that I won in some raffle once) and made the snake dead. Boo hoo. I was not there to convince them the snake wasn’t venomous.

Body of snake

The family believed it was a water moccasin, due to its head, which is all mushed up at this point, so the pit viperness is obscured. It does look a little triangular to me, too. I’m glad my iNaturalist friend aguilita identified it for me quickly as a regular ole water snake. In any case, it doesn’t belong indoors.

Bottom of snake

They think it must have come in when the wind blew the back door open. We are all glad the dogs didn’t go sniff it, since there are a lot of dogs getting bitten these days (Cathy J of Master Naturalists reported one rattlesnake bite and one copperhead bite just last week). Ah, rural Texas.

Vlassic, mighty disappointed that all he got out of this incident was a bit of dead snake smell.

I’m so glad to be back in Cameron. I’m also very glad to have naturalists who will help with identifying wildlife!

I Have a Little Garden

Now for some cheerful nature fun. I’ve mentioned that I spent a lot of time weeding the space right next to the back entrance to the Hermit Haus building, with the goal of making it a wildflower garden.

My little wildflower garden

I’m really happy with how it’s turned out now that the plants I want have a chance to shine and the ones I don’t want are mostly gone. The happy little lantana plants are growing bigger by the day and blooming away. All we had to do is stop mowing!

Maybe they’re a weed, and maybe they’re poisonous, but they are pretty.

The day flowers are also blooming, um, daily. But the best thing is that this tiny corner of land supports so much life.

This is a duskywing moth. You can see some straggler daisies in the back, and the grass-like leaves are the dayflowers.

Every day I see butterflies and moths stopping by, and there’s a family of spotted whiptail lizards that lives in the hole next to the garden.

This is the biggest of the whiptail lizards. Note that the lizard is shedding its skin.
Mockingbird on the lookout

I see mockingbirds every day, probably looking for the many insects that fly and crawl around, and there are also house finches and and the Inca doves.

I’m going to find another couple of native perennials to put in, and maybe one of the fancy verbenas as a contrast. The success of the little Hermit Haus garden makes me smile every day. And I’m really happy, not faking it.

Am I Falling Apart?

Hmm, haven’t whined about things that aren’t really earth-shattering lately. I’ll fix that. And I’ll share random photos, because I don’t have a theme.

Distraction! These darling little guys are Inca doves. They hang out near our carport at the Hermit Haus.

Generally, I’m a pretty healthy person. I have the occasional ache or pain, thanks to having been alive for so many trips around the sun, but really, I’m pretty good. Even the doctor said I was healthy “for someone your age.”

Unhappy left hand.

I’m wondering, though, if perhaps dealing with the undercurrent of stress for the past couple of months is starting to take its toll on my physically. It’s nothing major, but a lot of my former stress-related physical symptoms have been quietly manifesting themselves.

For example, I have started to get these very itchy little fluid-filled bumps all over my hands and arms. I used to get them a LOT when I was in college, especially during the summers when I spent 8 hours a day sanding pieces of fiberglass (printed circuit boards) by hand, or breathing chemicals that plated metal to said pieces of fiberglass. Guess who had no mask or gloves? Me.

Unhappy right hand. Also with dewberry scratches.

I thought it was bits of fiberglass getting under my skin, but as I got older, I realized I broke out when dealing with long-term stress (bad relationships, bad jobs, deaths in the family, divorces). Here they are today, itching like mad.

And I suddenly can’t walk right! Out of the blue, when I was walking home from feeding the horses, my left foot began to hurt with every step. It feels like I strained a tendon or something. I kept waiting for it to go away all evening, but nope, it’s still hurting. This is NOT the foot upon which the large light fixture landed earlier in the week. That bruise is not bad. But, what the heck, I didn’t trip, fall, drop something…nothing.

Perhaps it’s the non-matching shoe/sock combo? But these shoes are the kindest ones to my feet.

And then there’s the twitching. My eye has been twitching since February, so I guess it’s not a virus issue. I think it has been the underlying stress from starting a new company and worrying about the company I already work for (I was really worried my boss would lose his job, with good reason). Eye twitches are so annoying. It feels like everyone on earth can SEE them, even though as far as I can tell, they can’t.

Distraction! this cool lizard lives in the wildflower bed.

One symptom I’m not having, thanks to my friends the anti-anxiety meds, is what used to be constant for me, which was a really strong tingling going down the back of my neck. It used to be worse when dealing with certain friends and family members, but hardly went away at all during the 80s and early 90s. Yay, I’m cured. Now my neck just stays tense. I miss the chiropractor!

Look who’s fitting right into our household! Gracie Lou is not intimidated by Penney.

I guess I should be glad I don’t have the symptom so many of my family have had, which is horrible digestive issues. (I only have MILD ones, thanks to all my probiotics, I guess.) And I’m not getting bad headaches, which is good. And of course I’d rather have annoying stress symptoms than get put on a ventilator or have a stroke, like people with COVID-19 have.

Distraction! Light fixtures I sorta helped Chris put together while we wait for the electricians to show up.

What’s going on with you? Any weird symptoms out of nowhere? Do you also have dozens of mosquito bites on your feet, because you were helping someone put together light fixtures while wearing sandals? (That’s another reason why I am wearing shoes and socks: scratching prevention.)

TMI? Hey, that’s how I roll.

Guest Blogger: Are You Ever Safe from Snakes? No.

by Mandi Shuffield
Sarge, 9 years old. He will let his boys do anything they want to him. They seem to love putting things on his head…

The weather is finally cooling off here in Central Texas! I see a lot of folks are catching up on yard work and home improvements. I know the contractors I ‘ve talked to are sure happy about not sweating to death just from stepping out of their houses! But does this mean that we should be lured into believing that the venomous snakes are not active right now? It does not!

I have seen people share a post that gives the seasons that snakes are not out at this time of year. In my experience of almost 38 years, I’d say ignore that and pretend that even when there is ice on the ground, you could find a snake.

Just be vigilant, and then you won’t have to retrain yourself this spring. Don’t get lulled into security because some zoologist somewhere says they are “less likely” to be active. That’s the key phrase there, “less likely.” That doesn’t mean there is a 0% chance of finding them. That’s especially true if you’re moving leaves, debris, or climbing under a house where it is probably sort of warm.

Continue reading “Guest Blogger: Are You Ever Safe from Snakes? No.”

We Invade the Plantation

Yesterday was a bit more of the same vacation stuff as the rest of the week. We have a routine where Anita works all morning (that’s why I have time to blog; otherwise I’d be doing activities) and then off we go. I made a lunch with our eggs and turkey and cheese all scrambled together, making me glad we got the grocery delivery package when we got here. That way, most days we don’t have to eat out but once.

We See Sea Pines

One of the negative things about Hilton Head Island is that lots of it is not easily accessible unless you live there. It’s divided into “plantations” (which were actual plantations with all the sadness that went with them), and they are gated, so only the well-do-do who live there can get in without a pass.

Entrance to the preserve we visited.

Luckily, for $8 they will let you into Sea Pines, so we made the most of it and drove all over the place yesterday. There’s a large forest preserve in the middle, which the developer of the property kindly deeded to the residents. We trundled through there and really enjoyed the boardwalk area with lots of labeled plants and interesting terrain.

Anita in her Halloween shirt enjoying the boardwalk.

The land was reclaimed from being a rice plantation and now actually provides drinking water. That’s a great story. We saw a couple of alligators and lots of birds, plus some huge trees that survived Hurricane Matthew.

Continue reading “We Invade the Plantation”

From Exploring the Woods to Peering into a Microscope

Happy day. I am enjoying my second Texas Master Naturalist conference very much. It’s so nice to just enjoy learning with no pressure at all.

The prairie area

This morning I went on a field trip to the Spring Creek Forest Preserve. Wow, the people presenting me so much about the area. My head is full of little tidbits about prairies, forests, and riparian areas.

I also saw so many beautiful seed pods and fall plants. Lots of photos were taken by everyone.

Dew and webs.
iNaturalist says this is liatris.
Continue reading “From Exploring the Woods to Peering into a Microscope”

Deer Watching Retreat

Our real estate mini-business has to have a board meeting every year. So we decided to do a weekend retreat somewhere we could concentrate. So Lee and I used our condo points to book literally the only available 2-bedroom condo in Texas.

At least the lake is not totally dry.

It’s in Lago Vista, an oddly endearing resort village on the north shore of Lake Travis. Well, it’s a condo all right. I think it’s the least charming one I’ve ever been in. It appears to be the same age as the Bobcat house, only with very few upgrades. (Bathrooms have been done, on a budget.)

The arrow shows the nice condos and the sliver of lake we can see from our deck. Check the lower right for a photo bomber.

It appears it once had a lake view and lots of green space. But someone sold that land and put fancy condos on it. Now there is a sliver of lake and some rich people you can glimpse between units.

Oh well. It’s almost free. And it has deer.

White-tail Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

Majestic buck.
Continue reading “Deer Watching Retreat”

Family Stuff and Coping

Tell you what, it’s been a whirlwind around here the past couple of days. Lots of it’s been fun, but there has also been challenging stuff.

Me looking tired, but proud of my pink glass decanter to go with my orange glass.

Kathleen, Lee, and I have made a kind of unspoken pact to just go with the flow as our plans constantly shift due to weird circumstances. We’ve just been trying to start a business, deal with an elder care challenge, and remodel a building.

You can’t be sad if you have cherry pie with a paw print on it.

But all sorts of paperwork issues, legal surprises, scallywaggery (I made that up), illnesses, and twists and turns have meant schedules and priorities change at a moment’s notice. I’m proud of how patient we’ve been, though I think I could do better.

Continue reading “Family Stuff and Coping”