Before I go any further, I must say it’s raining! When it rains to any significant extent once the hot weather starts, it’s worth mentioning. We will have some happy plants, and I set some seat cushions out to get cleaned, too (it’s free!).
One thing the rain is washing away from those cushions will be mud dauber nests. We always have some here (ours are black-and-yellow mud daubers, Sceliphron caementarium), but this year they are especially abundant. I have always enjoyed watching these guys and find the places they make nests pretty funny sometimes. You never know where one will show up, like on a shovel, in the lawn mower, etc. They were all over those seat cushions, too. They use such nice, brown mud. Quite the construction workers!
Today’s tale/tail is another one about uninvited guests. You may recall I mentioned seein a possum at our office. This latest sighting was originally reported by my friend Mandi, who is also our office manager in our real estate business. She’s renovating the Rattlesnake house across from the Hermits’ Rest, but right now she lives in a house next to our office on Travis in Cameron. This small-town site is just crawling with wildlife. Some of it is VERY scary, especially if you have a “way with words.” Mandi reports (via Facebook, edited to be PG):
Our office kitty, Shadow, recently had kittens. I am on one of my insomnia spells for whatever reason. I’m at the office working on some things, because I always think that if I do some work, I will get sleepy. Doesn’t actually help, but I digress.
Shadow came around about an hour ago hangry from them babies. So, I put some food out for her )I ‘ve been bringing it back in with me, because I know we have a opossum family living somewhere at the office).
Let me back up just a second and remind all, I’m not afraid of snakes. I’m not afraid of spiders. Only the dead mice freak me out.
But, if you hear a rustling in the leaves at 1:30 in the morning and look over expecting to see the office cat because you just called her, and see this instead…
I am pretty familiar with what lives around the Hermits’ Rest, probably because looking for moving objects is one of my best skills; I seem to have been blessed with better-than-average peripheral vision. That helps with birds, snakes, and stuff. It also helps with rodents, so I’m pretty darned sure we have some big old tree rats (Rattus rattus, my favorite Latin name), along with a heck of a lot of mice and voles. We always see them when Lee shreds the pastures (along with a whole lot of happy hawks, caracaras, and falcons).
The past few weeks, though, I’ve gotten a LOT of practice in mouse identification and spotting. It started when I saw mouse poop in one of the bathrooms. I was just glad it wasn’t rat poop. Lee saw that one and said the dogs “played with it.” Then, I saw some in the other bedroom. Uh oh. Worse, Lee found a mouse in his car. I figure they came in looking for the food that is always in there.
However, when my sister and I got in my (totally food-free) car and were greeted by a friendly mouse face, I knew something was up. She fled, and I escorted that one out of the car. I was concerned. Why are we suddenly seeing so many mice in the house and garage, I wondered?
After my post about the squirrels last week, my friend Matt Hickner began telling me about his own wildlife experiences at his relatively new home in Bakersfield, California. They don’t have tree squirrels there (not really any trees, as its a desert). But they do have ground squirrels and friends.
Since Matt’s house was recently constructed in a new neighborhood, there are quite a few empty lots nearby, featuring lots of dry grasses and dirt, which give him prime critter viewing opportunities.
A couple of days ago, he posted this on Facebook:
In the vacant lot across from my house are burrows that the local ground squirrels dug. These burrows were also a great temptation for the endangered Western Burrowing Owls to occupy. I can see all of this activity from my home office so I clicked a few pictures of them this morning.
Yes, burrowing owls! I’ve always been fond of those, since they were the mascot of the school my brother and my friend Anita went to (Florida Atlantic University, all the way across the US from Matt).
I am proud to say that last Thursday I got my dragonfly pin and my certificate to show I am a Certified Texas Master Naturalist. I can’t say it was hard work, because it was too much fun, but it did require an investment of time and effort! In addition to the weekly classes for three months, I also did 20+ additional hours of advanced training, and over 40 hours of volunteering.
We also got sweet hummingbird pins to thank us for participating in the Earth Day work. They do love their pins here. (They also love cooking; the potluck featured perhaps the most delicious cabbage dish EVER cooked; this bunch needs a cookbook.)
I’m really glad I ran into Dorothy Meyer at an essential oil class and got to talking to her about the group! They sure are an interesting bunch, with so much to teach me. I just want to soak up all the local lore!
What Did the Native Americans Here Eat?
We also had a very interesting speaker, Prof. Alston Thoms, an anthropologist from Texas A&M. He is an expert on Native American history, and focused the talk for us on what people ate in past centuries in this area. It was lots of roots and berries, cooked in earth ovens (which he does yearly for his grad students). The most “duh” moment came when he asked what the most common food source would have been. It took a while to realize that of course, it was the white-tailed deer. It’s been in the area as long as humans have, and always on the list for what’s for dinner!
I could listen to this guy all day long. I wish he could come back and talk more about the Native Americans currently in Texas. I met some who live near Aquarena Springs a few years ago, and they were really knowledgeable about herbs and healing.
I like squirrels. I had a pet squirrel as a kid, named Squirrelly, who we shared with our neighbors. He was cute and fun, though he made a lot of noise running in his wheel at night. Later he lived in our treehouse until we let him go.
Here in central Texas, we mostly have the fox squirrels, which are bigger and have more tan on them than the other ones, the gray squirrels, which are what you mostly see east of here. We do have some of each. They dig lots of holes, which mean the dogs think there’s treasure in there (acorns).
A couple of days ago, while Anita and I were walking the dogs, I saw a squirrel in the greenbelt with a black head and tail, with a gray middle. That was some cool genetics happening there! I’ve seen a black one near where I work, too.
Of course, some places have lots of interesting squirrel variations. I remember white squirrels in Baton Rouge, for example.
You always know when the Property Brothers (that’s a TV show) are in Toronto when you see the black ones running around. I have a deep connection with the black squirrels of Toronto, since I was walking down a side street one day when one tried to jump off a building into a young tree, but the tree couldn’t hold it. It landed on my head. All I knew was that suddenly there was a THUMP and scritching on my head. A little old dude excitedly pointed down the road and shouted, “Skwi-rrell!” in a cute accent. Then we all laughed our heads off in the middle of Yonge Street.
I hadn’t intended to write up two dewberry posts, but other than a couple of fun bird sightings (dickcissels and Eastern kingbirds!), the dewberries were the nature highlight of the weekend for me.
This week there were way more of them than last week. I picked three quarts in just a five-yard stretch along our arroyo. Some of them were as big as fancy blackberries. They must have liked the rainy winter a lot.
From those berries, I made yet another cobbler, and also a really interesting sauce, from a recipe by Jess Pryles for blackberry sauce. There are many interesting ingredients in that there sauce (star anise, whole cloves). I served it with delicious venison backstrap roast, and both my sister and spouse declared it a gourmet triumph. I’m glad the neighor recommended this recipe, because just the salt/pepper/nutmeg rub on the beef made it worth checking out. Her new cookbook, Hard Core Carnivore is available now, so check it out (she’s also been on lots of book tours lately).
Dewberries are the unofficial plant mascot of Cameron, Texas. They are truly abundant here, judging from all the photos I’m seeing. Cameron even used to have a Dewberry Festival, which featured all sorts of delicious things made with these perky fruits. I miss it.
The dewberries are a group of species in the genus Rubus, section Rubus, closely related to the blackberries. They are small trailing (rather than upright or high-arching) brambles with aggregate fruits, reminiscent of the raspberry, but are usually purple to black instead of red. Unlike many other Rubus species, dewberries are dioecious, having separate male and female plants.
That male and female plant part explains why I keep seeing bushes with no fruit! Aha!
We are lucky to have lots of dewberries here at the Hermits’ Rest, though I’d never really done much with them before, other than snack on them. That’s because I never went out looking for them when they were completely ripe. This year, after all that foraging talk, I vowed to do better.
If you live anywhere in Milam County, Texas, you will know what’s bugging me.
Lots and lots of June bugs. We say every year around here there’s a plague of something. So far this year, these bugs are the winner. And, yes, I know it’s May. They always show up in late April here. We’re in the South, you know.
The bugs don’t really hurt anything, but they sure cause a mess. In the picture above, that is ONE day’s accumulation. My husband had swept the porch the night before (note that the mop and bucket are there from the previous night’s “adventure” where a skunk expressed an opinion about two of our dogs).
Our new puppy LOVES the June bugs, however. The other dogs will snatch one out of the air as it plummets to the ground, but the puppy would prefer to just sit there and eat then off the ground. Since the pup’s underweight anyway, I guess the additional protein isn’t killing him. So far.
Last week I showed you the urban hawk nest near my Austin workplace (they are doing well, by the way). Today I went to sit in the courtyard behind our building, just to get some air, so I’ll tell you about the birds there.
The lansdcaping team did a great job on this spot. They planted many great native plants, including turk’s cap and other plants the hummingbirds love, plus a variety of textured and colored plants. It’s a pleasure to walk through or have a nice lunch there under the escarpment live oaks and cedar elms. And of course, the plants attract all kinds of birds.
The highlights of today were a large group of wrens, Carolina wrens, I believe. Every time I see one I think, “Wow, wrens are small!” They are also just about the cutest birds to watch, with their bobbing tails, chirps, angry wren sounds, and nice songs, when they are happy. They aren’t very shy, either, so you can easily watch them in trees, on the ground or in nests built in odd spots (like our old gas grill).
While I was watching the wrens and listening to them chirp and peep, a glorious song rang out. I was entranced. It was just beautiful, and there were two different songs, obviously from the same bird. “What is it?” I wondered. “I hope I can see this magnificent creature!”
I could tell it moved to the other side of me, so I peered into the tree. Then I laughed. The magnificent creature was a male American robin. This is a bird I listened to all the time when I lived in Illinois. Here in Texas, I don’t see them very often (Merlin Bird ID lists them as uncommon both here in Austin and at the Hermits’ Rest), so I guess I forgot what they sounded like.