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Saturday, January 11, 2020

A Charm of Finches

Lesser Goldfinches feeding on sunflower seeds, one of their preferred foods.
At times, winter in Central Texas may seem a bit drab, colorless, and dreary, but the season is usually brightened by members of a beautiful and diverse group of birds called finches.  These small, seed-eating birds have an undulating flight, and flocks of them often roam south in the winter.

A male Lesser Goldfinch
Found primarily west of the Balcones escarpment, Lesser Goldfinches (Spinus psaltria) are present year-round, but are more likely to be seen at bird feeders in the colder months.  At 4.5 inches long, males have an entirely black crown and back, white wingbars, and are lemon yellow below, while females have olive backs, black wings with whitish wingbars, and duller yellow underparts.  They can gather in groups of up to several hundred at a time, and are most commonly found in Texas and California.

A male American Goldfinch
The American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) is a slightly larger bird that is less common but typically present here from November to March. At 5 inches long, males have a bright yellow body, a black cap, and black wings with white wingbars.  Females are duller overall, with an olive body and black wings with prominent white wingbars. They are the only finch that molts its body feathers twice a year, in late summer and then again in late winter in preparation for breeding season.

A Pine Siskin
Most gregarious are the Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus), a 5 inch long finch with prominent brown streaking and yellow at the base of the tail and in flight feathers.  At first they may appear mostly grayish-brown, but they flash their yellow markings as they explode into flight or flutter while feeding.  Typically present from December through March, flocks of Pine Siskins may congregate at bird feeders one winter and be completely absent the next.  Their behavior is highly nomadic and their presence is erratic across North America in winter in response to available seed crops.  In fact, some individuals may stay near a dependable food source and breed far south of their normal breeding range, which is in Canada, the northern U.S., and higher elevations of the west.

While natural food sources are low in winter, these finches are most often seen at bird feeders that offer nyjer thistle and sunflower seeds.  Their conical bills are specifically adapted to pry open the outer covering of seeds, after which they shake their heads to loosen the husk, and then swallow the seed.  If you want to see these bright little birds at your feeders this winter, charm them by offering their favorite foods!

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Help Find Coco - Missing African Grey Parrot

REWARD:  Missing African Grey Parrot in NW Austin

While this is not a typical post for this blog, we feel we’d be remiss in not trying to get the word out on Coco, an African Grey parrot missing in Northwest Austin since November 24th.  Please read this post and keep a look out for Coco.  If you have any information that would be helpful in locating Coco, please contact her owner directly (contact information at the end of this post).

Coco, an African Grey parrot, is a silvery grey bird with red tail feathers.
She is about 13 inches long, with a wingspan of 18 to 20 inches.

Coco’s natural diet consists of fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
These parrots can live 40 to 60 years in captivity.  They are
companion birds that are prized for their intelligence and ability
to mimic human speech.

A flyer distributed around town describes Coco.  She is tame and
may be enticed by a grape and a bit of cheese. 

From Coco's Owner:

Coco has been missing since Nov. 24, 2019 in Austin, TX in the area TX Hwy 360 and Spicewood Springs Rd. Two weeks after her missing date she was seen twice on Courtyard Drive behind the Tennis courts and Scout Island drive, which is about 2 miles away from where she flew away.  Then, a few days later, an African Grey was spotted flying with a flock of Quaker Parrots in the 360/183 area - I am positive this was Coco.  When the temperatures drop at night, she will seek warmth. She may fly also into any openings like garages or porches, so please watch out for her. She may sit on fences, birdbaths, high branches, but maybe even around garbage cans seeking food.  If you find her, please approach her slowly. A piece of cheese, meat or fruit will entice her for sure. Speak to her softly, calling her name and SLOWLY approach your forearm to her. She will step up onto your arm and just look at you. Please avoid any sudden movements. That would startle her and make her take off again. Coco is not sexed, but I wanted her to be a girl, therefore "she".  She is a pretty healthy strong parrot with a decent vocabulary for a 10-year-old birdie.

I am offering a generous reward to the person who finds her and gives her back to me. I am still crying my eyes out, blaming myself endlessly... Thank you all for your generous support in helping me find Coco!!!

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Gone to Seed

The seed heads of Illinois Bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis)
contain nutritious seeds that are the favorite of Bobwhite Quail.

Often used as an informal figure of speech meaning to deteriorate or go downhill, ‘gone to seed’ can have a negative connotation.  But each seed contains a new beginning: a tiny plant just waiting for the right conditions such as water, warmth, and a good location, to germinate and grow.  Seeds and seed heads form fascinating shapes, varying sizes, and intricate patterns, often adorning the fall and winter landscape.

Texas Star or Lindheimer Daisy (Lindheimera texana) has a five-pointed
seed head in the shape of a star. 

Plants have many ways of dispersing their seeds, and most have evolved over millions of years.  While many of the methods are tried and true, certain seeds have developed in very particular ways to take advantage of such methods, and some plants only release their seeds in response to specific triggers. 

The feathery seed heads of Scarlet Clematis
resemble small galaxies.

Wind helps seeds float or flutter away, often aided by seed structures such as thin wing extensions or long, feathery tails like those on the endemic Scarlet Clematis (Clematis texensis).  Texas Bluebonnets (Lupinus sp.) employ the expulsion or explosion method, where the small, pebble-like seeds are forcibly expelled when the dried pods twist open in the warm sun.  Similarly, Flame Acanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii) has hood-shaped capsules enclosing seeds attached to a hooked stalk, ejecting the seed from the capsule when it dries and breaks open. 

The hood-shaped seed capsule of Flame Acanthus.

Gravity plays a part in many plants seed dispersals, where weighty seeds fall off the plant and roll to a new location.  The best example of this are the round, heavy fruits that simply fall off a plant when ripe, such as those on Mexican Plum (Prunus mexicana) or Texas Persimmon (Diospyros texana).  If the fruits have a tough outer shell, they may travel some distance from the parent plant, and if they have a soft skin, they may break open where they fall and scatter the seed or seeds within.  

Mexican plums are a favorite food of wildlife.

Some plants produce very light seeds, seeds with buoyant fluff, or seeds with air trapped in them, so they can float away from the parent plant that grows in or around water, like Common Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) or Black Willow (Salix nigra) or Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides).  Others employ the assistance of animals, which can come in the form of seed or fruit eating (where the seed can pass undigested through the animal), seed caching or burying, or seed transportation. Common examples of seed and fruit eating include Cedar Waxwings and American Robins consuming juniper and yaupon berries, and seed burying is a common practice of both ground and tree squirrels, who eat and cache acorns. Often unbeknownst to the animal, some seeds can be covered with tiny hooks or spines that catch on a passing animal’s fur, eventually transported to and rubbed off in another location. 

The cottony seeds of an Eastern Cottonwood.
This fall and winter, let the seeds linger, at least until early spring. Not only do they provide much needed food for wildlife, but leaving them allows for some beautiful and mysterious patterns in your winter landscape, and the promise of renewing the cycle of life that begins again each spring!

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Night Bloomers

Berlandier's Trumpets
Many night blooming flowers have white or light-colored blossoms, a strong fragrance (although not always to human noses), and open by night and close by day.  These flowers are extremely important nectar sources for pollinators, and they are attracted to these flowers’ nectar mainly by scent.  Two of our best night blooming native plants are Berlandier’s Trumpets (Acleisanthes obtusa) and Jimsonweed (Datura wrightii).

Closeup of Berlandier's Trumpets
Also known as Vine Four O’Clock, Berlandier’s Trumpets is an upright perennial herb or climbing vine up to 6 feet long, easily controlled but often clambering over shrubs and small trees if left unchecked.  Its opposite, bright green leaves are triangular shaped, about 1.5 inches long, with slightly wavy edges.  But it is its white to light pink trumpet-shaped flowers, about 2 inches long, that bloom from April to December, producing a fragrant scent when open at night.  Berlandier’s Trumpet does well in full sun to part shade, is drought tolerant, and easy to grow and maintain.

Jimsonweed is a 3 to 6 foot tall stoutly branched herb, with alternate, coarse, large gray-green leaves that are broad at the base and pointed at the tip.  While its foliage is often described as rank-smelling, its flowers are sweetly fragrant white trumpets, up to 8 inches long, sometimes tinged with purple at the edges.  It blooms from May to November, and its flowers open in evening and close during the heat of the day.  

Jimsonweed Bloom

The fruit of this plant is a very distinctive spiny, globular capsule up to 1.5 inches in diameter, which opens fully when ripe.  Jimsonweed has several other common names such as Sacred Thorn-apple, Angel Trumpet, Devil’s Trumpet, and Sacred Datura. Some of these names refer to its use as a hallucinogen in Native American ceremonies, but it is important to note that all parts of this plant are toxic to humans.

Jimsonweed Fruit
Both of these native night blooming species attract several species of Sphinx moths (sometimes known as hawkmoths or hummingbird moths) as well as other pollinating insects such as long-tongued bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.  But it is the Jimsonweed that has mastered the art of mutualism, with its partner the Carolina Sphinx.  

Carolina Sphinx
While it is common for this plant to benefit from its relationship with the Carolina Sphinx (Manduca sexta) in the form of pollination, in turn it provides nectar for the adult moth and is the host plant for the moth’s caterpillars.  These large caterpillars (known to gardeners as ‘tomato hornworms’), consume many or all of the Jimsonweed’s leaves. But the plant is prepared for the attack, storing resources in its massive root enabling it to produce more leaves for the next generation of caterpillars.  In effect, Jimsonweed grows its own pollinators to ensure its reproductive success!

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Aquatic Apalones

Spiny Softshell Turtle
The genus Apalone is thought to come from the Greek apo meaning ‘separate’ and the Anglo-Saxon alone meaning ‘solitary’, as well as the  Greek apalos meaning ‘soft’ or ‘tender.’  All of these terms apply to the members of this genus, which is comprised of the softshell turtles native to North America.  Turtles of this genus exhibit marked sexual dimorphism, or the condition where the two sexes of the same species exhibit different characteristics beyond their sexual organs.

Females grow to twice the size of males, in terms of carapace or shell length.  In males, the claws on their front feet are longer than those on the back feet, enabling them to better hold on to the female while mating.  In females, the claws on the back are longer, for digging into sandbanks in order to lay her eggs.  Lastly, males have a thicker, stout tail that extends well beyond the edge of its carapace, but the female’s tail is relatively thin and barely extends beyond the carapace.  From a behavioral standpoint, the female is much more solitary, wanders more, and requires deeper water, while the male often congregates with juveniles in sandy shallows and while basking along exposed banks.

Spiny Softshell Turtle
There are two species of softshell turtle in Texas. The more common Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera) is found throughout the state, while the Smooth Softshell Turtle (Apalone mutica) is found only in parts of the eastern two-thirds of the state. The Spiny Softshell’s olive-gray or tan carapace is leathery and flat, and has small spines along the front edge, which explains its species name.  At home in rivers, lakes, ponds, and other bodies of water with muddy or soft bottoms, its spends its time feeding on aquatic insects, fish, and crayfish, basking or floating at the surface, or buried in soft, shallow substrates.  Its long neck and snorkel-like nose allows the turtle to breathe at the water’s surface without having to leave its buried location. Females typically grow to 22 inches, while males top out at 8.5 inches in length.

Smooth Softshell Turtle
The Smooth Softshell’s olive-gray to brown carapace is also leathery and flat, but lacks any spines, bumps, or projections.  This characteristic is reflected in its species name, which means ‘shortened’ or ‘docked.’  It also prefers bodies of water with soft, sandy bottoms, and basks on banks, logs, rocks, or under shallow water with its long nose exposed.  Primarily insectivorous, it will also consume vegetation and small invertebrates and fish.  Smaller than the Spiny Softshell, females grow to 14 inches and males to 7 inches in length.

One odd but amazing fact about softshell turtles is that they are believed to absorb 70% of their oxygen through their skin.  The other 30% comes from pumping water in and out of their pharynx or throats, which contain many tiny projections of tissue with small blood vessels that provide a huge surface area for oxygen absorption.  This adaptation allows them to remain underwater for several hours.  Now that’s one highly aquatic Apalone!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

A Different Kind of Longhorn

Cottonwood Borer

The Cerambycidae are a family of longhorn beetles, typically characterized by extremely long antennae, often as long as or longer than the beetle’s body.  Also called longicorns, over 400 species have been described in Texas alone.  The scientific name of this beetle family is named after the shepherd Cerambus, a mythical Greek figure who was transformed into a large beetle with horns after an argument with nymphs.  Most of these beetles can fly well and are found on tree trunks, logs, flowers, or come to lights at night.  Some even squeak as a defense mechanism when held, making a rocking motion with their head which rubs tiny ridges against the inside surface of their thorax.

Cottonwood Borer
Two of our more common longhorn beetles are the Cottonwood Borer (Plectrodera scalator) and the Long-jawed or Horse-bean Longhorn Beetle (Trachyderes mandibularis).  The Cottonwood Borer is one of the largest insects in North America, reaching 1.6 inches in length and 0.5 inches in width.  It has a bold black and white pattern on its body with long black antennae.  The white portions of the pattern are actually microscopic masses of hair.  Adults are active by day, feeding on leaf stems and shoots of cottonwood trees.  The female bores small holes in the base of the tree to lay her eggs.  The larvae take up to 2 years to mature, then they pupate for about 3 weeks in a root below ground, and once metamorphosis is completed they chew their way out of the root and dig their way to the surface.

Long-jawed Longhorn Beetle
Long-jawed Longhorn Beetle has a glossy black or dark brown body with 4 generally large but sometimes reduced yellow to yellow-orange markings, and segments of its antennae and legs alternating between black and yellow-orange.  It can grow to a length of 1.3 inches, and is generally common from March to November.  Its species name comes from the fact that the males have much expanded jaws or mandibles. Active during the day, adults are mostly found near wounded trees as they feed on oozing sap, and its larvae feed on native hackberries as well as non-native ficus and tamarisk species.

Goes fisheri
One of the subfamilies of the Long-horned Beetles is the Lamiinae, or Flat-faced Longhorns.  This includes the 9 New World species in the Goes genus, one of which is rare and endemic to Central Texas.  This species, Goes fisheri, was first described in 1941, but does not have a common name.  Beetles in this genus are typically twig girdlers or stem borers, although the food plant of G. fisheri is currently unknown.  It is distinguished from a more common species, G. pulcher, or the Hickory Borer, by the grayish pubescence of its elytra or wing covers.  G. fisheri is just over 1 inch long, not including its antenna, appears to be nocturnal in its habits, and is attracted to artificial light. 

This large family of longhorns includes beetles called sawyers, pruners, and girdlers in addition to borers.  Most are found in dead or dying wood, and some mine live plants.  While many of these beetles are considered to be occasional pests, it should be noted that they literally help shape the forest canopy and assist in recycling dead wood into precious soil.  All the more reason to appreciate this different kind of longhorn!

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Some Like It Hot

Eastern Ringtails, a type of Clubtail, obelisking.
The dog days of summer are upon us, and a long stretch of sultry weather lies ahead.  It can be a challenging time for people and for wildlife, but for some, it is their chance to put on a show. 

Bouquets of Mountain Pinks
Mountain Pink close up
Mountain Pink (Zeltnera beyrichii), also called Meadow Pink, Catchfly, or Quinineweed, is an annual herb less than a foot tall and best described as a neat bouquet of small, pink flowers.  Blooming May through July, Mountain Pink sprouts up like an inverted cone 8 to 12 inches high, on hot, rocky hillsides, limestone outcrops, and along gravelly roadways.  Its leaves are threadlike and are held below the multiple 0.5 to 1.0 inch wide showy pink five-petaled blooms that provide nectar for moths, butterflies, bees, and other insects.

Woolly Ironweed
Woolly Ironweed (Vernonia lindheimeri) is a 10 to 30 inch high clumping perennial, with woolly gray stems and long, narrow leaves.  Its bright purple flowers lack true petals, but the disk flowers are arranged in showy, terminal clusters.  A well-behaved species that should be used more often in gardens and landscapes, Woolly Ironweed blooms from June to September, and prefers open hillsides, roadsides, and fields offering full sun.  It is a good nectar source for many species of butterflies during the heat of summer, and is highly deer-resistant.

Blue Dasher, a type of Skimmer, obelisking
To prevent overheating on hot, summer days, some dragonflies and damselflies assume a handstand-like position called ‘obelisking.’  They raise their abdomens until the tip points up toward the sun, which helps to minimize the surface area of their body that is exposed to solar radiation.  Both males and females of these species will raise their abdomens when the temperature is high, and lower them again if shaded. Laboratory experiments have shown that this behavior is effective in stopping or slowing the rise in their body temperature.  This method of thermoregulation is practiced by about 30 different species in the Skimmer, Clubtail, and Broadwing Damsel families.  All are considered ‘perchers’ or sit-and-wait predators that spend a considerable amount of time stationary.

A sure sign that we are in the midst of a hot summer is the sound of cicadas buzzing in the air.  For their size, cicadas make as much noise as a large animal, and can be heard up to a quarter of a mile away.  In fact, the word ‘cicada’ is a direct derivation from the Latin meaning ‘buzzer.’  Many common species of cicadas in North America are in the genus Megatibicen  and are generally called the annual or ‘dog-day’ cicadas because they emerge every year in July and August, the dog days of summer.

Resh Cicada, Megatibicen resh
Male cicadas have structures called ‘timbals’ on the sides of their abdomens, and it is with these structures that they create their buzzy songs.  Unlike grasshoppers or crickets that rub their wings or legs together to produce sound, cicadas vibrate these timbals against their hollow abdomens, which amplifies the resonance of the sounds. They can even modulate the sounds by wiggling their abdomens toward or away from the tree trunk on which they are perched.  Each species has its own distinctive sound, and they use different mating songs to attract the appropriate mate.

Even in the heat of a long Texas summer, nature is busy going about its mysterious ways, offering sights and sounds that can recalibrate our senses, and allow us to continue to appreciate all that it has to offer.