Pandemic Spring II

I like keeping up with the news of the world most days and especially during this time of our Covid -19 stay at home. I watch the daily White House Corona Virus Task Force press conferences live so I can hear what they are saying without it being chopped up into incomplete sound bites later on. Watching from a comfy chair in my bedroom while playing solitaire I often glance away from the puffed up orange haired human on the screen and check on the scene outside my window. I distract myself from the insanity with the natural calming beauty of my backyard.  I can see red admiral butterflies and monarchs sipping nectar from the pink and yellow lantana blossoms. There is also a hummingbird feeder with a lovely black chinned hummingbird in attendance. I scold the humming birds for fighting each other over the feeder. “There is enough for all of you!”, I tell them, at the same time knowing that it is in their best interests to be territorial. The butterflies calm me and the hummingbirds distract me. But, the creatures that bring me the most pleasure lately are the little green lizards who are in abundance this year.

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Anolis carolinensis

Almost anytime I turn away from the puffed up man on the screen I look out and spot these guys puffing up their bright, pink throat pouches (dewlaps). They move along the tree branches or fence top and stop. Then they puff out the pink pouch a time or two and then move on. Then they stop and do it again. This behavior in these male Anole lizards (Anolis carolinensis) is to attract a female. My grandmother used to say they were “showing their money.”

AnoleDewlap
Green Anole with partially inflated dewlap
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Anoles Mating?

They are among many Iguanid lizards in the Family Iguanidae. They range throughout the south eastern United States from Oklahoma south through much of east Texas and east to Florida. They are not true chameleons, but change color from brown to bright green.

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Green Anole in brown on brown branch

Just like the ubiquitous face masks and empty store shelves, these little lizards seem to be everywhere. I see them on walks in the neighborhood. There is one that hangs out near the front porch and I have seen at least three different ones at the same time in the back yard.  Or maybe there were always that many of them around. It is just that now I have more time sitting at home enjoying nature from my window. Making lemonade out of pandemic lemons.

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Green Anole on gargoyle statue outside my window

*Photos taken by author

*Reference: Texas Monthly Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Texas-by Judith M. Garrett and David G. Barker

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.

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Tiger Swallowtail on Horsemint
Indian Blankets
Indian Blankets
Milkweed Pearl Vine
Insect nymph on Milkweed Pearl Vine
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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)

Mother Nature’s Playground

A family member recently sent me some photos of her husband sledding down a sand hill at Monahans Sandhills State Park in west Texas. This brought back memories of climbing up and sledding down the white, gypsum dunes at New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument. We humans love playing on Mother Earth. We have our special accessories: sleds for snow and sand; pieces of cardboard for tall, grassy slopes or ice covered streets; skis and ice skates for snow and iced over ponds. We let gravity and friction take us on a ride. We go to the ocean to surf and sail. We go to the lakes and rivers to canoe or kayak. And then there is the fun of tubing on a river using the flow of water to power our ride.

But, we also have fun on earth without the accessories between our bodies and the elements. I remember rolling over and over down grassy hills when I was a little kid. And I had great fun jumping in puddles and leaping into piles of leaves. Maybe you made angels in the snow. Have you ever climbed a tree or gone up a cliff with only your hands and feet?

Here is a photo taken by my mother as I went hurtling down a slick, limestone incline at Pedernales Falls State Park in July of 1975*:

Photo taken by Barbara Downes (author’s Mother)

Last year I injured my back and right leg. I spent 5 months in chronic pain and outpatient physical therapy. I am much improved and can go on walks as long as the terrain is fairly flat. But, I don’t think I can do much physical playing on Mother Nature’s playground anymore. Just the idea of climbing up a steep hill seems impossible these days. I am mortal and age has caught up with me. I can’t do all I could do as a little girl or as a young woman, especially without some arthritis pain. The water is still my friend though. I can still float down the river on the current and swim in the lakes.

It is said that we evolved from the oceans and became land creatures. If I am lucky enough to get down to the coast this year I will body surf in the Gulf of Mexico. Guessing how the waves will break, I will try to be in the right place to float gently over the wave and down the other side.

*Swimming is no longer permitted at that part of the Pedernales River

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

The River And The Wall

U.S. On The Left-Mexico On The Right
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)

My parents loved talking about their visits to Big Bend National Park in west Texas. A few of the trips involved hiring a boatman to take them across the Rio Grande to the Mexican side where they hiked and camped. This was legal and the Mexican police even offered a pistol to my dad to carry as protection. I grew up hearing these stories and looking at their photos of the natural beauty of the mountains. My first trip there was during my college years. I have been back on several trips since then with friends and family. We have camped in campgrounds with amenities (water and a bathroom nearby), back country primitive sites with no amenities, at the park lodge, and in nearby towns.

Big Bend Bluebonnets
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)
Big Bend Mountainside
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)
Beauty in the Desert
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)

I have been thinking a lot about my trips and my parent’s trips after viewing the documentary movie “The River and the Wall.” The movie was filmed in 2018 and released earlier this year. It follows five people traveling the length of the Rio Grande in Texas from El Paso all the way to the mouth of the river as it enters the Gulf of Mexico. The group consists of four men and one woman and they come from a variety of backgrounds (photographer for National Geographic, ornithologist, river guide), but they are all conservationists. The goal was to document the existing border before a proposed border wall cuts through the natural beauty. They traveled 1, 200 miles using mountain bikes, walking, canoeing, and on horseback. They passed areas with a border wall and areas with border patrol agents, but much of the adventure is in wild and rugged territory with no man made border wall.

Sign Warning People Not To Buy Goods Sold By Mexican Nationals
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)
Mexican Made Items for Sale on U. S. Side of River
Hard to see in photo but there is a walking stick and some little scorpions made of colorful wire, some quartz, and a small can to put money in. The note says that the money will help the school across the river in Boquillas.
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)

The movie is directed by Ben Masters. We saw the film at the Austin Film Society Cinema theater and after the showing we were privileged to enjoy a question and answer session with two of the adventurers, Jay Kleberg and Austin Alvarado. I give the film two thumbs up for the stunning photography and the message that we need to protect our natural areas from being destroyed. It is entertaining and educational at the same time, as well as containing some laugh out loud humor. Go see “The River and the Wall.” I guarantee you will learn something you did not know about our Texas/ Mexico border.

Cooling Off In The Rio Grande
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)

At www.TheRiverandtheWall.com there is more information and a movie trailer. There is a The River and the Wall Facebook page with clips from the film. The movie is available in select theaters and you can rent or buy it if you have Amazon Prime.

Arachnophobia

     I have arachnophobia, which is the fear of spiders and other arachnids. From what I have read, my case of arachnophobia is a mild one. I used to be like most kids and had a curiosity about bugs. I don’t remember being afraid of them. I did have a healthy respect for red wasps and yellow paper wasps after some painful stings. My arachnophobia began one autumn when I was about 9 years old. I was standing up against a honeysuckle covered chain link fence talking to a friend who was in her back yard nearby. When the conversation ended I turned away from the fence and saw a large, yellow spider coming at me! At least I thought it was after me. I yelled and flailed and the spider ended up on the ground. What probably happened was that I had gotten caught up in the spider’s web and as I moved away I pulled her with me. This scared the heck out of me and for many years after that I had a real fear of all spiders. If a spider was in a movie scene, I had to close my eyes.

Fast forward twenty years to when I started to take photography seriously, especially the photography of all things “nature.” I started to lose a bit of my spider fear. As long as there was a camera lens between me and a spider, I was able to get pretty close to take their picture. Some spiders have really pretty colors and patterns that can only be seen and appreciated up close.

     In our household I am usually the go to person to get rid of insects inside the house. I would rather capture them and escort them outside than to kill them. My daughter and husband rely on me to remove what they consider pests. We took a trip to visit a family member living in Nicaragua a few years ago. My daughter came out of the bathroom telling me about a big spider in the shower. Mommy to the rescue! However, I took one look at the size of this spider and went and found someone else to remove it. I still didn’t want to get close to the really big ones such as tarantulas.

     I often go out with other nature lovers to help with the weekly fauna survey out at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center here in Austin. We are true nature nerds who get excited about almost any tiny insect creature we find, as well as the birds, cottontails, and reptiles. Learning about various spiders and their habits on that property has contributed to my lessening spider phobia.

     Recently I spotted a small garden spider in a web in a trash can half full of yard trimmings. I was excited to see her since it had been a long time since we have had one in the yard. I asked my husband to not use that trash can so she could keep her web. He said “Okay.” Well, he is not as excited about all of these little critters and forgot about her. I went back a week and a half later and I could not see the spider or her web. There was a pile of plant cuttings where her web had been. I was not happy with hubby! But, a few days later she and her web showed up again in the trash can. She is growing bigger and I check on her every few days. I have named her Charlotte. Her web now extends out of the trash can and onto the plant growing on our fence nearby. Guess what the plant is? You guessed it, a honeysuckle vine! I have come a long way from fearing to loving and protecting these pretty creatures. I am wishing her the best and look forward to seeing at least one egg sac this autumn. She will die before the eggs hatch and I will miss her and her lovely web.

Back view of Charlotte, the Black and yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia)
(photos by B. McCreary) (identification based on “Spiders of Texas-A Guide to Common and Notable Species” by Valerie G. Bugh)
Charlotte’s Underside