Nature Trail Tour October, 2006
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High school students Devin and Ryan earned Legacy and Texas Scholar community service hours by photographing along the trail.
The young men were the first photographers to photograph the signs of the trail. Beyond is the lush growth of Espantes Vaqueros, an annual plant that will cover the ground after rain in the late summer. Mesquite pastureland is in the background.
The hint of fall colors mixes with the lush growth at the pond. In places where the tall weeds of disturbed soil grow in clay soil, the vegetation presents a barrier to a walker. People should never walk through tall weeds in West Texas. Rodents like tall weeds, and rattlesnakes like rodents. To get to the photography blind overlooking the pond became a harrowing challenge, until Sibley volunteers cleared another trail.
In the foreground is kochia, introduced as an ornamental plant (Summer Cypress). Beyond are Black and Dog Willows. The suckering Dog Willows are native to the northern Llano Estacado and were planted. The Black Willows are native here on the southern Llano Estacado.
The groves of trees around the pond are favorite sitting places of visitors. The shade is welcome on a hot day. Besides Siberian Elms, hackberries, russian olives, soapberries, two species of willow, burr oak, cottonwood, and edible mulberry are found in the groves.
During October many migrating birds hang out in the trees. One day in 2006 a visitor found 8 species of migrating warblers in 10 minutes. Another visitor found over 100 monarch butterflies at daybreak on October 10th.
At the top of the picture are the gray leaves of Russian Olive. At the bottom are the green stalks of ragweed, and in between are brown and green leaves of cattails. This "hidey hole" is often the drinking places of the foxes that live on the property of the Sibley Nature Center.
During October the pond "turns over" and becomes murky and brown. The water at the bottom of the pond becomes warmer than the water at the surface, so it moves up, and mixes all the fine mud into suspension. Soras and Marsh Wrens hide in the cattails, and thousands of blackbirds spend the night in the cattails.
The Sora Trail runs through the heart of the playa. It is mostly above a long abandoned wastewater pipeline. The area between the trail and the pond is usually filled with varying species of "weeds" which produce lots of food for wintering sparrows.
In an open area along the trail, subtle fall foliage is seen. The pinkish color on the middle right is a patch of annual portulaca. Green mounds of broomweed are also seen, and one large gray groundsel in the middle background. The whitish mounds are Espantes Vaqueros. Clumps of yucca and mesquite are also present.
To the southwest of the pond is a small gravel hill left from long ago construction. On its left is a seedling burr oak surviving without any irrigation, and the rest of the ground is covered with Espantes Vaqueros and mesquite.
Chris Cherry found this hurt cottontail. Notice its front leg - the skin is off and bunched around the "knee" below the open wound. A coyote probably did the damage, but the rabbit otherwise seems to be in good shape.
Cutting from the left foreground to the right background is a rabbit trail through the mesquite. Critter trails always pass through good "cover" before crossing open ground, so the animal can survey the trail ahead for predators. (photo Chris Cherry)
Around the pond are several hackberry trees planted by birds (in their scat.) In October the fruit turns reddish and orange. Indians would boil the berries down into sweet syrup, and before European brought honeybees, hackberry was one of the major sweetening agents in west Texas.
Chris Cherry, mentioned above, is a retired Midland Police Officer. He now teaches course on law-enforcement ethics, photographs, writes, substitute teaches, and volunteers at the Sibley Nature Center. As shown by the photos above, he has a superb eye for detail. The remaining photographs are his - most are from Sibley Nature Center property, but a few are from his rural property and home near Greenwood.
The yellow and black pattern of the box turtle carapace is superb camouflage in low plants under the bright sun. When escaping a threat, the box turtle behaves like a bulldozer - plowing through whatever is in the way.
The caterpillar is probably becomes one of the swallowtail butterflies, but it is doubtful it was eating the broomweed. A better possibility for its behavior might be that it was looking for a place to pupate.
This tarantula wasp scurried along the ground, entering various holes along the way. It will paralyze tarantulas and wolf spiders, then lay an egg on the spider, and bury both. The egg will hatch and the larvae will eat the spider while it is still alive (for awhile).
In the left foreground is the empty "shell" of a beetle. It possibly was eaten by a grasshopper mouse, which will jam a stink beetle tail first into the ground so it won't get sprayed. To the right are the seeds of the spiny yellow aster... a clump of seeds blown off the plant together. What superb observation by Mr. Cherry!!!
When the mudtubes of the termites are broken, the termites themselves are sometimes exposed. The termites cannot stand dry air - they must work in high humidity. The tubes provide the correct living conditions.
Underneath mesquite along the trails, large piles of sticks are sometimes visible - the homes of packrats. Note than the nest is freshly covered with short stems of tasajillo, and in the foreground are fresh cut stems of broomweed. On the ground in the left are some of the resident's droppings. The hole leads down to storage rooms, likely to be full of mesquite beans. Coyotes will tear apart packrat nests, eat the rat and its stored beans, but maybe the tasajillo will prevent it happening to this nest.
This yucca was pushed over - all of the leaves laid out on one side of the rootstalk. Some of the leaves had all of the base, while others had most of the base eaten away. Something liked the leaves - if a yucca skipper butterfly larvae had eaten the top of the rootstalk, it might have caused fermentation on the leaf bases, which would have made those bases more edible, more edible for something like a porcupine. Such mysteries are wonderful challenges for anyone and everyone to puzzle over - and what marvelous mental training for a young person!!!
The slender-leafed yucca species on the southern Llano (campestris, angustifolia, and constricta), normally do not have "trunks." Behind the lower yellow leaves, this one had a 6 inch trunk. But was it hardened root, or a trunk?
When a person gets on their hands and knees and examines the ground closely, things get bizarre. Why is this clump of cryptogamic soil shaped like a volcano? Why are the crust segments roughly the same size. The bluegreen algae in cryptogamic soil takes nitrogen out of the air and rainwater and transfers it to the soil, increasing the soil fertility. Hard crusts, however, often prevent the roots of germinating seeds from penetrating the soil.
Yucca seeds are flat and black. During a rainstorm the seeds fly out of the seedpods with the wind and then float along on the sheetwash until deposited somewhere, often in other detritus moved by the water.
Horsecrippler cactus produce a bright red and edible fruit in May and June. They are usually located under mesquites or a clump of grass, for a large beetle will deposit an egg in it if the plant is not in a hidden place. Birds drop the seeds in their droppings, usually under a mesquite.
Tasajillo fruit is also "primo" bird food. The berries are a favorite of scaled quail, mockingbirds, curved-billed thrashers, box turtles, and other critters of the brushland. In dry years the population of tasajillo increases , but in wet years disease and insects lower the population numbers. Tasajillo seeds germinate better on bare ground. A tasajillo branch will also root, if it is knocked to the ground by a passing animal.
A small mesquite bean, after detaching from the stem, fell into the crotch of the branches, and remained there, staying a red color, instead of becoming yellow, as they normally do after they fall to the ground.
This gray leaved perennial ground cover has no real common name - the Latin name is Tiquila. Sibley Executive Director calls the plant pygmy sandbells, but no one else does. A down feather of a bird adorned the plant.
The feather had blown from this old verdin nest, now torn apart by other birds and mice looking for materials for their nests. A verdin had spent the winter of 2005 in this nest - and verdins are the only other bird besides cactus wrens that utilize a winter nest on the Llano Estacado. Verdins are tiny gray birds of brushland habitats. Their head reveals yellow when the bird is agitated.
Cory ephedra is one of three species of ephedra on the Llano Estacado. Mr. Cherry noticed the small green barbs along the stems - are these actually leaves? The plant normally does not have those tiny projections.
Portulaca, a succulent annual with red blossoms will produce hairy seeds. As the plant dies, the seeds are held on the skeleton. Hairs on seeds usually means that the plant relies on the wind for dispersal - so why do the portulaca stems hold on to the seeds?