It’s finally not raining! But, wow was it windy for a couple of days. As you can see, it blew off our wind sculpture, which had been there since we built the house. Wow.
We also officially had our first frost of the year this morning. It’s always important to note these things if you’re trying to be a naturalist or gardener. Farewell to those last tomatoes that were trying to appear!
Autumn arrived with a bang yesterday (that high school football game was CHILLY!), and it got me to thinking I ought to write more little “slice of life” posts in among the more serious ones. So, here’s what’s going on today.
I was so cold night before last that I bundled up extra last night by sleeping in my bathrobe. I guess the dogs were cold, too, because at one point I had two heads on me, plus one at my feet. I just did my best to roll over. When Lee woke up, he saw me sleeping with Carlton under my arm. The little weenie dog was totally under the covers!
A Much Needed Repair
And today the chill didn’t stop a garage door repair guy from cheerfully showing up and getting the right side door of our big garage working again. It had shaken itself totally out of alignment. Those are BIG doors.
Now I can park my car under there again. I think the mouse population has decreased and it will be safe again. Plus, I never put food in my car!
So, that’s today’s excitement. Later the horses may get groomed (they sure need it) and we’ll see if there are any more dead chickens. The sheep are still with us, thankfully.
The weather patterns here in Milam County have been a topic of my blog posts and Facebook rants for as long as we’ve been coming out here (and our first visit was in 2010 or 2011). This year has been a great example.
This year, we had a very wet spring, followed by over a month of no rain in summer, with large cracks developing in the ground and very brown foliage. We were worrying that the ponds would evaporate again like they did in the Big Drought of 2011.
Quickly, this condition was followed by what has seemed to be never-ending dampness and mild weather all through the autumn. We’ll have a few nice days, and then the sky opens up again.
I was happy that the Master Naturalist Conference coincided with a break in the weather so we could do all our field trips, but right after that, it’s been dark and wet again. My Geometry post has images of the fog in Austin from this week; in fact, three days in a row there was enough fog to make driving a bit scary.
Here at the Hermits’ Rest it was just as foggy, and there was a lot more rain than in Austin. When I arrived to the ranch yesterday, it had just rained a lot, and Walker’s Creek was at the top of its banks. The arroyo was flowing away, and the dogs had a blast running through the output of the dam culvert.
Last night, just as we went to bed, another downpour began. There was .8″ over night, which made almost two inches in 24 hours.
Usually you can’t see the front pond from the house, because the water level is too low. This view through the second-floor window (and screen) shows you it was visible this morning!
The back pond had even spread farther to the east than usual.
And the creek was flowing into the flood plain meadow. I tell you what, I am glad to be enjoying some sunshine this afternoon as I take a break from work to type this! Maybe the ground will be a little less soggy when I head out to feed animals.
My time with the Master Naturalists ended on a high note with a post-conference outing to Old Settlers Park in Round Rock. The idea was to observe how a declining species, the loggerhead shrike, has adapted to using the park as a habitat, and is thriving.
Before the outing, I’d attended a session led by Jim Giocomo on “The Geography of Grassland Birds: How International Bird Conservation Efforts are Linked.” He talked about how agencies and Master Naturalists can help provide these birds with more appropriate habitat, track their locations, etc.
In that talk, he mentioned his own work with the loggerhead shrikes (the only songbird that is a predator), which conveniently nest right near his house and showed us some great footage of baby shrikes. In one film, the parent birds keep trying to stuff a dragonfly in the mouths of the babies, but it keeps getting stuck. It was hilarious.
Jim’s luck in finding birds to observe over entire breeding seasons has given him lots of insights, so it was really fun to go with him and fellow biologist Tania Homayoun out in the field to see what he sees.
Back to the Master Naturalist Conference postings, which I know you’ve been looking forward to (maybe?). Finally I get to share all the land snail information I learned on Sunday of the conference. This was a topic I knew very little about, so it was all new to me.
Ben Hutchins gave the presentation, and wow, that dude knows a lot about snails. He told us so much about the snails that live all around us. His enthusiasm was very contagious, and by the time he was finished with his in-class presentation, we were all dying to get outside and look for some land snails. So, we stepped out of the hotel and went to the conveniently located riverside park just a short distance away.
We immediately started finding snails! First we found the tiny globular drop snails, which are the small white ones we’ve all seen, but had no idea what to call them.
Then we found the decollate snails I’d always thought were broken. Nope, they all lose their tips as they mature. Huh. We found lots of living examples of those.
We ended up finding at least five kinds of snails in our short walk. Others included white-lip globe snails, the very common Rabdotus, and the Asian Tramp snail.
We didn’t find any milk snails. Those are the ones I find a lot around Cameron. It turns out they aren’t native, but ARE the same escargot that the French eat with butter and garlic. My friend Pamela was extremely thrilled to learn this. She apparently has many meals’ worth at her house.
Salient Snail Stuff
Did you know that most of the land snails crawling in our leaf litter are so small that they are hard to spot with the naked eye? The best way to find them is to sift leaf litter, which he demonstrated using a really nice hand-made sifter.
Did you know they have “teeth?” The teeth are really sharp protruberances on the shells.
Also, snails need moisture to be able to get out and about and do their snail activities. If it gets dry, many types of land snails just go into hibernation until it rains. And some of them have been known to hibernate months or years!
What do they eat? Well, your pet snail will love carrots and lettuce. I’m sure they are hours of entertainment…
The Key to Land Snails?
It turns out that it’s not easy to get more information on land snails, because the last comprehensive book on the subject came out in the 1950s. Good news, though! Ben is working on new material that will grow up to be a book. He’s also developing a key to help identify snails that you find (a key uses a series of questions do narrow down genus and species in a type of organism).
We all got a sample snail, and a microscope to look through, and we practiced identifying our snails using the key. It was really fun, and Ben figured out a place where he needed to add a question or two to make it easier to ID a particular type of snail. We did science!
I’m really glad Ben shared copies of his work in progress. I’m putting my copy of his text, photos, and key in a binder for future use. He was right. Land snails are fascinating!
I interrupt my sharing from the conference I attended to share what a lovely afternoon my spouse, dogs and I had at the Hermits’ Rest yesterday.
I came home from work, and just felt like taking a long walk. I gathered a few dogs and started my usual route around the property. As I went down toward where the arroyo stream meets the woods, something smelled wonderful. I realized it was a large bed of fall asters. The little valley had trapped the aroma.
The aroma had attracted more than just me, too. The flowers were literally abuzz and aflutter with bees of all sizes and at least six types of butterflies. I was really happy to see Lee come down to see me, so he could enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds with me.
I really didn’t take all that many photos, because we were just observing. Still, I have to share that we got at least one migrating monarch in the bunch! There were also Gulf fritilaries, a red admiral, fiery skippers (lots), and some painted ladies.
My next Master Naturalist conference field trip was to see the part of the Balcones Canyonland Preserve that abuts Concordia University, in the beautiful western hills of Austin. This area is full of endangered and rare plants and animals, including the beloved golden-cheeked warbler (who is not here right now). In addition, this series of preserved areas is interesting because it’s administered by multiple agencies, which is unusual. It’s also very big, as you can see from this interesting map.
So, an intrepid group of naturalists took a van over to the beautiful Concordia University campus (it’s beautiful, because they made a ton of money when they sold their very valuable but confining old location and bought this large property with plenty of room to grow).
We were met by the people in charge of the piece of the preserve that we were going to tour, and some really nice student workers who all really seem to love this property and know a lot about it. One student even had roots in good old Cameron, Texas (shout out to the Davenport family). I really enjoyed talking to the young people about their observations of the area. If they keep it up, they will sure have a fun life ahead of them.
While we were exploring the Avery Ranch cave, I remembered where I’d seen other caves in the neighborhood over from the one we were in, Oak Brook. I suggested that, if anyone wanted to go look at other local caves, I’d take them there. Unfortunately, my memory issues made giving directions stink, and since I didn’t remember the name of the place we could not look it up. So, only one carload made it.
However, we had a great time at the Oak Brook Karst Preserve once we found it. I have some bittersweet memories of this spot, because I used to go over there long ago, when I was sad about marital issues, to be sad where my kids couldn’t see me. I gave my troubles to Mother Earth, I guess. On a happier note, my traveling companions liked it for more Master Naturalist reasons—flora and fauna!