Creatures of the Night

Watching wildlife is fun! I like a good hike where some interesting birds and maybe a rabbit or snake might be spotted. I have seen multiple deer while on drives around central Texas. And live armadillos! (yes, I said live!) But, most of the time I just sit on my back porch watching to see what birds might come to my feeders or what the squirrels are up to. If I am lucky, I may spot a lizard or snake. Frogs and toads and dragonflies enjoy our small backyard pond. But, I have always wondered what animals might be coming around at night when we are tucked into dreamland. A couple of years ago we set up a wireless camera system (Arlo brand) and began to record images of animals that are not seen during the day. I want to share some of these with you. The images are not sharp, but most of the subjects can be identified.

From Our Backyard Cameras-

Two Raccoons (June 2021)

Momma Opossum with pouch full of babies and a Cottontail Rabbit (March 2018)

Two Rats! (August 2020)

Screech Owl (4:30 a.m. March 19,2021)

Skunk (August 2020)

We think it digs under the fence and have blocked up likely areas. Do not want my dogs to encounter this critter!

Sometimes we record something we cannot easily i.d. such as the following photo of what I think is a gecko tail.

Gecko Tail? (June 2021)

From Our Front Yard Cameras-

White Tailed Deer (August 2021)

Coyote (July 2018)

And on occasion we record spiders, moths, june bugs, rain, our pets, our legs while we are escorting our pets or when coming home from a late date. And sometimes a neighbor’s cat…we don’t have many of those around because of the critter in the previous photo.

But, my favorite so far is this pretty creature-

Fox Near Front Porch
(June 2017) (seen in backyard once)

Nature’s Distractions

I turn away from the once again worsening pandemic, the sadness of refugees and war, and the tragic realities of life in our world. I want distractions from the worries of the day. Despite what we continue to do to her, Mother Nature gives us plenty of things to enjoy and be in awe of. I especially appreciate her gifts right now. I am not turning away from reality. Her gifts are part of our reality too.

I am distracted by the colors…

Red

Blue

Green

Yellow

And the Interesting…

I even appreciate the distraction of the annoying…

Thank you delightful distractions! You help me make it through the tough times.

(photos by Betty McCreary)

Looking For Pearls

When you are out for a walk in the woods is there a particular thing you keep an eye out for? Maybe a type of rock or fossil? Maybe you keep your ears tuned to hear a favorite bird. There is a small plant I look for during walks on the nearby greenbelt trail. It is a small, green vine that twines its stem and heart shaped leaves up bushes and trees. It has the prettiest little flowers in the world. The small flowers are shaped like five pointed stars and are graced with streaks of white. In the middle of the star is a single pearl. At least that is what it looks like to me.

I photographed the first one I ever saw and later found out what it was named. It is in the Milkweed family of plants (Asclepiadaceae) and grows in Central and Eastern Texas. It is a Milkweed Pearl Vine (Matelea reticulata). When I see them I point them out to whoever I am with. They are small and can be easily overlooked.

Their seed pods are not dainty and cute like the flowers, but bulky and spiky. Inside the pod are many flat seeds with long, silky hairs to help them drift away. They are a host plant for butterflies such as the Monarch and Queen.

They are another plant that reminds me of my mother because she loved them too. The first one she ever saw was at McKinney Falls State Park. A few years later, she went through docent training to be a volunteer at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and chose this plant as her subject to research and write a short paper about. She dug one up on private land near Dripping Springs, Texas. Planted in her backyard it did pretty well.

After our horrible cold snap this past February, I expected so many plants to not come back this Spring. Surprisingly, some plants have come back stronger than ever. This spring I saw more of these Milkweed Pearl Vine flowers in the greenbelt than I have ever seen before. They will disappear next winter, but I am certain to see their sweet faces next year. They will once again be a sweet reminder of my mother.

When you find one of Nature’s little pearls, please share it with a friend.

Resources:

Wildflower.org

“A Hill Country Gem- the Pearl Milkweed Vine”-Barbara Downes

“Wildflowers of the Texas Hill Country” by Marshall Enquist

All photos by Betty McCreary

Madrones and Memories

There are two of you red barked madrones near the Emma Lowe Country Stream, a peaceful area on the grounds of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Your bark is a deep, brick red. The gurgling, perpetual stream runs down hill from you and along side your paler barked sibling. Did Lady Bird know you as a child?

Texas Madrone ,Arbutus xalapensis (A. texana) Ericaceae, Heath Family

I move closer to you. Your cream colored blooms are just past their prime. Your green leaves are so heavenly soft to stroke.

Your curving, delicate, yet strong, branches take me back to drives in the hill country outside Austin. My Dad, at the wheel, is proud to point you out. “Look kids! A Madrone!” You were on a hillside to the right of the steep road leaving town. Are you still there? Or were you chopped down to make room for a driveway into a subdivision. You are not common here. But, you are the more valuable to me for being such a rare sight.

Seeing you always brings back the happier memories of being with my Dad. But, you also bring me sadness for these past times. I love you and I will remember.

(Photos by Betty McCreary)

Fact Source: A Field Guide To Wildflowers Trees & Shrubs of Texas by Delena Tull and George Oxford Miller (Texas Monthly Field Guide Series)

The Voice of the Spiderwort

I am two and a half months above ground and about two and a half feet tall. My sturdy stalk and alternately placed, elegant leaves are a beautiful emerald green.

Up top, my face is soft and purple with pretty, yellow projections that are kissed and tickled by native bees…

And Honey Bees…

They like my sweetness. I look around and see many others that look like me and I wave my leaves to let my siblings know I see them.

I have been told that we are the descendants of beings that lived millions of years ago. I am a happy being and I know I bring joy to the mammals that live in the house nearby. The female mammal told me that her mother brought my ancestors here from her own yard twenty years ago. The female mammal planted them over there by what is now a pond. And from those few beings we have become many.

I acknowledge the other grounded ones, my cousins. They are different and yet the same as me. We are beautiful in our own way. Just like the mammals, especially the human ones, our differences make the world richer.

Each morning I open my three petaled face to a new day and close up and am done by evening. The next morning a new trio of petals opens. I am happy to be alive after almost perishing in the bitter, cold of last Valentine’s day. I think some of my family did not make it and that is sad. There are a few less of us this year. But, we will not be destroyed and we will probably outlast many of earth’s other, more mobile creatures.

I will lose my above ground body in the heat of the summer and lay dormant until my green shoots push, once again, up into the sky.

May I bring you joy and peace this season and in all the years to come. And may I inspire you to kindness.

(All photos by Betty McCreary 2021)

Deep Freeze Deep in the Heart of Texas

In Austin we are lucky to get one snow fall each winter and we had ours on January 10th, 2021. Only a couple of inches of snow fell, but enough for excited kids to build snow people and have snow ball fights. By the next day it began to melt. We had gotten our snow for the year and were satisfied with what we got. Little did we know that much more was to come.

We had seen the forecast for the polar air to sweep far south, deep into Texas and surrounding states. On the evening of Saturday, February 13th it got quite cold. By early the next morning we had a heavy sleet storm.

Sunday, Feb. 14th- Valentines’ Day- We woke up to an ice covered lawn and found a dead, frost covered squirrel at the base of our burr oak. I recognized it as one that had suffered an injured leg at least a month ago. I guess this round of cold was too much for it. Later, while taking bird seed and warm water out to the birds, I slipped and fell and hit my head on a rock. I got up quick, assuring my husband, “I’m okay!” But, he saw blood running down my neck. He cleaned the scalp wound (and yes, scalp wounds bleed a lot!) and we monitored me for any signs of concussion. The roads were too iced over to drive, so I am glad my injuries were minor. Even ambulances were having a tough time responding to all the falls and car accidents. The first responders were working overtime.

In the afternoon the snow began to fall. So, now we had snow over ice.

Millie our elderly dog late that night

Monday, Feb. 15-More snow had fallen in the night

Millie in even more snow 7:16 a.m.

Tuesday, Feb. 16th- Happy Birthday to Me! Had to postpone my Birthday dinner of chicken fajitas from Chuy’s restaurant. We still have power. Many people do not.

Cold Cardinal

25 degrees and it began to snow again.

Wednesday, Feb. 17th-Our water pressure was very low in the morning and my husband was quick to fill a couple of pots with water. Later in the morning we had no water at all from our taps. The high was 32 degrees and it began to sleet again. A neighbor stopped by to see what we might need. Later, she and another kind neighbor brought us 2 pitchers of water (she had filled all her sinks and tubs in anticipation of the storm). It was still not safe to drive on roads and we heard that many stores had run out of drinking water and most food. This was like what happened during our initial covid lockdown the year before. At least we had plenty of food in our fridge and pantry. Days of no sun started to wear on me.

Ice Covered Trees

Ice Covered Crepe Myrtle

Thursday, Feb. 18th-Still no running water. Our high today was 32 degrees and it snowed again! Our Desert Willow tree on the side of the house lost two large limbs under the weight of the ice. We melted lots of snow on our gas stove to use to flush toilets. We are lucky our power is on and our natural gas is okay. At 9p.m. a boy from next door brought us a large bottle of water!

Friday, Feb. 19th- Sun! Melting has begun and we gather more snow because we still have No Water! At 1:37 p.m. the temperature outside is a glorious 39.4 degrees. I have not bothered to record the lows because they are so low that I don’t want to think about it (I think the lowest it got was 5 degrees). With the sun come clear nights and we can see the stars again.

Happy Squirrel

Chipping Sparrows Bathing in Snow Melt

Saturday, Feb. 20th- Day #4 of no running water. Sun and 57.9 degrees! Our snow melt is running out.

Robin and Snow Melt

I am in my 60s and have never had to experience the lack of running water unless it was my choice (back country camping in Big Bend or a trek into an Amazon rainforest village). This is a life lesson in gratitude and recognizing how lucky and privileged my life has been. We are grateful for snow and kind neighbors and that our power did not go out and our pipes didn’t burst and that I did not get a concussion or break any bones when I fell. I am also grateful that I was not alone during this ordeal.

So many Austinites lost power and water. Many were left in the cold for days. Some died, including a young boy. And there were people left in the cold, without water, that were also suffering from the covid virus. A woman gave birth at home in the cold. A family with many kids lost power/heat at home and survived huddled in a van for several days.

Sunday, Feb. 21st- Our water came back on! But, we are under a boil water notice. And it is good the taps are running because there is no more snow to melt. Sunny and 72 degrees. I heard a screech owl trilling in the evening, so I know at least one owl survived the cold. I have heard many birds died.

Monday, Feb. 22nd- 75 beautiful degrees and I saw my first crane fly of the season.

Tuesday, Feb. 23rd- The City of Austin lifts our boil water notice. We are blessed to have clean, running tap water. This winter storm has been a humbling experience. Things have become more normal again. Knock wood, this will be the last of the Winter for us Central Texans. Repairs to burst pipes and water damaged homes are keeping plumbers and others busy. Our concerns will become “normal” again…like where we can find a covid vaccine shot.

Spring is Coming Soon

(photos by Betty McCreary)

Pandemic Spring

Ah! Spring! I don’t like winter. I need the promise of coming warmth, new growth, and renewal to get me through the cold, dreary days. I always look forward to visiting local parks to see the beautiful displays of wildflowers in central Texas.

Well, spring is here, but this year it will be different for all of us. We are now under city of Austin/county of Travis orders not to leave our homes unless it is for essential reasons. Buying groceries, walking our dogs, and exercising are considered essential. We are not allowed to gather with non family members and must remain 6 feet apart from all others when we venture out. This is new and scary territory as the number of coronavirus victims rises. As of this writing there are 179 cases in the county (up from 160 the day before) and there has been 1 death. I note my physical state each day and try not to leap to the conclusion that I’ve got it. I try for some sort of normality, but these are not normal times.

Last Sunday, March 15th, I ventured out to a nearby grocery store. There were too many bare shelves. I had seen some the week before, but somehow I thought those were anomalies. The bread shelves were bare. There was no milk at all in the dairy case. There was no cheese. No ramen. The frozen pizza area was picked almost to the bone. I walked around the store in awe. I did buy a few things. But, the only things on my grocery list that I actually found were wine and toothpaste. Driving out of the parking lot I started to cry and was pretty blue the rest of the day. At least we had some food at home. We are lucky. So far no one I know has gotten ill.

I am still trying to get used to the lack of freedom. At first I was sure that I would be able to go out and walk among the flowers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Then they closed some of their facilities (gift shop, cafe, classrooms, etc.). Okay. No problem. The grounds were still open and I planned a visit. I would get to see the owl, Athena, who had recently returned to nest near the entrance. Maybe her owlets had hatched. But, No! The Wildflower Center decided to close their grounds to all but essential staff.

Okay, I thought, I can still go out to my favorite nearby state park, Mckinney Falls, and indulge my wildflower and birding passions. Their grounds (400+ acres) were still open when I checked their website on March 19th. The site suggested reserving a park day pass online to minimize park staff interacting with the public. I planned a trip to the park with my husband. On March 22nd I checked the website. No! The park was now closed too!

Okay, I know I am whining. So many people are getting very sick and many are dying. Even doctors and nurses are dying. Celebrities and heads of state are getting sick. I am in the older than 60 group that has a greater risk of dying of the virus and I am grasping at focusing on Nature’s beauty and not on Nature’s ugly.

I can’t go see the park flowers in person during this pandemic, but I have photos from past years. I can do a virtual park tour. I share a few here for you to enjoy. Stay safe and I hope to join you next spring among the flowers.

img055
Tiger Swallowtail on Horsemint

Indian Blankets
Indian Blankets

Milkweed Pearl Vine
Insect nymph on Milkweed Pearl Vine

img056
Young White-tailed Deer Buck

Blue bonnets
Texas Blue Bonnets

**All Photos taken at McKinney Falls State Park by Betty McCreary

 

 

Tree Life

My right hip is starting to ache a bit from the walk and my legs move stiffly. I am thinking that much of my life seems to be a chore these days. Simple things, like walking, I no longer take for granted. We come upon a pretty tree. I hand the dog’s leash to my husband and walk up to the tree. I want to get a closer look at a flowering branch. It is a Redbud tree, although the small flowers are not red, but purple. The Redbud is an early bloomer. It is only February, but spring is here.

Texas Redbud

I wonder what it would be like to be a Redbud tree. I could go dormant in winter instead of feeling the depression that kicks in with short, dreary days. No thinking about everything I have to take care of each day. No laundry! No insomnia. No worrying about family and old pets. I would just “be.” I would be rooted in one spot. I could grow tall and wide and my roots could stretch deep into the earth. Bunnies might munch grass and cavort below me. Coyotes will move past me looking for prey. I could be a home to birds and squirrels. My flowers could provide nectar for butterflies and bees. My beauty would fade, but then return again each year. I could live a long time, longer than any human. There is an Oak tree on the coast that is estimated to be at least 1,000 years old. Redbuds are prettier than Oaks, though.

I am a Redbud tree. The air is cool and the sun is warm upon me. I am nourished by rich soil and spring rain. Beautiful purple flowers adorn me. My green leaves are shaped like hearts, but I cannot love. I will give birth to more trees like me as my flowers become seeds in sturdy pods. Someday I will get old. My grey bark will become scaly. I will topple into the dust and will become a log. I will be a bench for nature lovers and a home for little creatures. I will be gnawed by beetles and ants. I wil rot.

My husband is impatient, so I say good bye to my tree and my fantasy. When I get home I pull my field guide to Trees of Texas* off the shelf. I read that the life span of the Texas Redbud is only from 50-75 years! The length of their lives is the same as humans. And trees cannot love. I would miss loving if I was a tree. Oh, well. I will be cremated when I die and my ashes will be spread outdoors. I will become one with all life, Redbuds included, and I will be at peace.

*Trees of Texas Field Guide by Stan Tekiela (Adventure Publications, Inc.; Cambridge, Minnesota)

 

Heart Shaped Leaf of the Texas Redbud

**(Photos taken by Betty McCreary)

Thankful For A Single Tree

Bald Cypress

                I look at trees every day as a birdwatcher, but I don’t really “see” the trees.  Recently, a friend from Colorado has been e-mailing me of her encounters with various trees and this has prompted me to look at trees a bit closer.  Our native trees have been beautiful this fall. Not just beautiful, but spectacular: the brilliant yellow of the cedar elms and the big tooth maples; the reds of the cypress and the Texas red oak; the intense scarlet of the aptly named flame leaf sumac.

                 I had intended for this month’s blog to be a celebration of central Texas trees showing the rest of the country that:  “Yes, we do have seasons down here.” Driving down nearby streets, the colors would catch my eye and I would tell myself, “I will come back tomorrow and take photos of that tree.”  I kept telling myself I was going to do this, but I kept putting it off. Then, a few days ago I noticed that the tree colors were less vibrant and more leaves were falling off the trees. I realized I was missing, may have already missed, my opportunity. I thought I had already learned my lesson years ago when I did a lot of nature photography:  Take the photo now! “The sky will not look like this tomorrow.”  “That bird may not be in this spot tomorrow.”  

                This is a pattern of mine throughout my life, to plan to do something and then not follow through and then the opportunity has passed, never to return. There is a feeling of shame associated with this habit of procrastination, and a feeling of sadness.   

                On the 13th of this month while surfing the internet, I learned of the death of author Gary Svee. He was someone I had intended to contact.  I wanted to ask him about why he wrote what he did about an ancestor of mine.  I had been given a phone number of someone who knew him and was so anxious about calling a stranger out of the blue that I kept putting this off.  I put it off for a year and a half. Now it is too late.

                I went to his online memorial page and left a note. On the page it said that people were being asked to donate money to plant a tree in his memory. So, I did that.  There is some sort of meaningful connection between the tree leaves transitioning and people transitioning that I am trying to grasp as I write this.  The book of fiction this man wrote was entitled Single Tree and painted a sympathetic portrait of part of my family tree, a great, great uncle.   I wanted to thank him, whether or not my thanks would have been welcome by him. But, I didn’t do this. He will never know what his book meant to me. Maybe he wouldn’t have cared.  I cried when I read that he had died even though I had never met the man. I think maybe I cried more in disappointment at myself.

                So, I share with you here some of Austin’s color and my advice to take action. Colors don’t last. Lives don’t last.

*Obituary for Gary Svee can be found at:

https://smithfuneralchapels.com/book-of-memories/3924750/Svee-Gary/

(Tree photos by Betty McCreary)

Prairie flame leaf sumac
Sycamore- leaf snowbell
Big tooth maple