Nature Trail Tour February, 2006
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Fifteen minutes before sunrise, the air temperature was 24 degrees, with a stiff 10 mile an hour north wind. At the second entry gate to the trail, behind the old Sibley Nature Trail sign is an area that was cleared of mesquites 20 years ago. In the rainy eighties it was a wonderful grassy meadow, but after the long years of drought, the ground is almost bare, despite above average rainfall in 2005. In the foreground is a yucca. Yucca provided food, soap, string, rope, and even clothing for the American Indians. Just behind the yucca is an harvester ant nest a cleared area 5 feet across. At present they are underground. Beyond is the junction of the trail starting at the Nature Center with the second entry trail.
Sometime in the night, the local gray fox made a pit stop on the trail. The reddish colors come from the nandina and tasajillo berries he had eaten. Most animals run when they hear humans, so when a person learns to identify scat (droppings) they learn what animals live at each location. We see the gray foxes during July, when they are weaning the young and teaching them how to survive on their own. Night hikes on the trail during January and February are sometimes enlivened by the otherworldly cries and yelps that foxes make. Gray foxes have raised young in the ceiling of the Sibley Nature Center they are the only canid in the world that can climb vertical wooden objects such as trees and telephone poles. They rarely eat anything larger than a mouse, and are omnivorous, eating as much plant material as animal.
Still before sun has risen, a dried annual broomweed was ghostly white in the dim light. Near Albany Texas broomweed was once collected by the semi-truck load for the florist trade and sent throughout the United States.
In the winter Desert Holly turns gold. In the summer it has tiny pink blossoms. It is a daisy, but does not have ray flowers, and within a few hours turn into fluffy white seedheads. Even though each stalk is only 6 inches or less in height, all of these plants are connected by underground roots (rhizomes), Many species of rhizomatous plants are found in west Texas. When the land is laid bare by fire, drought, or human disturbance, the roots soon send up new leaves, holding down the soil so it does not blow away.
With the first ray of sunlight, the cottonwood at the Ani Motte at the western end of the Sibley Pond glows. This cottonwood and some of the Siberian elms nearby germinated in the 1950s when the old Hogan Park swimming pool was drained. Local birdwatchers found the first groove-billed ani seen in Midland County in that little grove of trees, so we still call the grove Ani Motte in honor of the nature study club Midland Naturalists who found the bird 40 years ago.
The reddish plant in the foreground is Swamp Fleabane, Pluchea. The Sibley Pond was the first place local botanists found the species, back in the 1980s. It is now found near other small ponds and human built places where water can be found during the growing season. It has pretty pink-purple blossoms in late summer. Beyond are cattails faded white with winters cold (and by a light dusting of frost). A young cottonwood is on the left behind the cattails, and beyond is the Hogan Park golf course.
As the sun rose further, the cattails reflected the light brightly. As of that moment, not a bird had been seen or heard, but just to the east of the cattails a flock of winter resident sparrows began twittering as they woke up, happy they had made it through the night. The immense flock of grackles, cowbirds, and redwinged blackbirds had left their roost in the cattails 30 minutes before sunrise.
Along the south edge of the cattails on the south side of the pond, the bottom of the playa where the Sibley Pond is located is filled with a mixture of weedy plants. In the left foreground is another seedling cottonwood, and beyond the tallest weeds are dried sawtoothed daisies. The winter flock of sparrows flew into the weedpatch over 40 birds of 5 species Whitecrowned, Field, Song, Lincoln, and Swamp Sparrows. The Hogan Park water tower looms in the distance.
Coyote willows, which sucker by rhizomes have made small clumps of small trees along the south edge of the pond. With no rain since October, and almost no new green growth provided by the winter rosettes of spring wildflowers, jackrabbits and cottontail rabbits have sought the juicy inner bark of the willows. Humans have long used willow bark as aspirin do the rabbits do so as well? Coyote willow is native to the northern Llano Estacado (Amarillo area).
If a person looks very carefully, four sparrows can be spotted among the dead and dried-up sawtooth daisies, trompillo and ragweed. Every morning the flock of sparrows seeks their breakfast about 15 minutes after the sun as risen above the horizon, and remain feeding for up to 30 minutes, with side sorties to the closest water of the pond for a morning drink.
On the north side of the pond is a huge buttonbush. Buttonbush grows with its feet in water all over west Texas. In the summer it is covered with white blossoms in the shape of a ball. Butterflies and other insects love the nectar of its blossoms. In the winter the seedheads remain until the sparrows clean them up.
North of the Sibley Pond is a big pond on the Hogan Park Golf Course. Many species of wintering ducks spend most of the day on the water. Often 10 species of ducks (both divers and dabblers) can been seen. This particular morning, Coots (the bird on the right) were most common. The duck on the left is hard to identify in the picture, but a few seconds earlier the sun hit its plumage just right, revealing it to be a redhead. Divers are ducks that dive to get their food, while dabblers just tip over and stick their head under the water.
In the foreground is a giant sacaton grass over 8 feet tall. It is found in playas and draws in a few locations in west Texas. Two were transplanted to the pond in 2000. In the far distance is downtown Midland.
Look on the concrete platform on the right side of the picture. An American bittern is standing there. This large marsh bird usually conceals itself in the cattails, catching frogs, fish, and water bugs. On this particular morning he was warming himself, remaining motionless. When the wind blows he will lean back and forth at the same rate as the cattails, as part of his camouflaging ability. His streaky plumage is hard to spot against a backdrop of cattails. He will probably leave in the spring, although the Midland Naturalists (JoAnn and Don Merritt) have photographed breeding behavior and breeding plumage in Midland County in years past.
As this photograph was taken a Sora sounded off in the cattails. Go to the Image Gallery section labeled birds to see a picture of this species of swamp bird, taken by Midland Naturalist Bill Lupardus a few days before this series of pictures were taken.
At the east end of the pond is The Thicket, a grove of coyote willows, black willows, fruiting mulberry, Russian Olive, cottonwood, hackberry and one box elder. All but the hackberry were planted in the 1990s. A trickle of water runs through the thicket at night from the old Wadley Waterfield well that once supplied Midland with water in the 1950s. The old pipe dates from then, and is left as an historical artifact. Originally it produced 400 gallons a minute of drinkable water. Now it produces 50 gallons a minute for 8 hours a night to keep the Sibley Pond at an even level. Now the water is full of calcium carbonates and is undrinkable. The water comes from the Oglalla Aquifer, fossil water that is not replenished.
In the foreground is Cory ephedra, an endemic plant to west Texas. It only grows from Monahans to Snyder and no where else in the world. Four species of ephedra (Mormon tea or popotillo) grow in Midland County. Three species grow on the Sibley Nature Center property of 49 acres. The tea tastes blue (like green tea with a smoky aftertaste) and about half of the people we serve it to like its flavor. (Just steep a bundle of stems in hot water for 15 minutes.) Hispanic residents of the area have long used the tea to calm a colicky baby. It is a primitive plant, a gymnosperm, and produces small cones in March. (There is a closeup in the plant section of the image gallery.)
A closeup of the wolfspider hole. They hunt by roaming around and then bring their prey back to the hole to eat in peace. The little balls of dirt are held together by spider web. Tarantulas do the same thing, but they do not build the turrets of tiny sticks and leaves.
Two species of ephedra are in this photogaph the Cory, and what is probably Ephedra antisyphyllitica, which produces a cone covered with fleshy red fruit that is tasty for the birds. Grazing animals will often eat ephedra and since it has been used medicinally by humans, it is another plant that could be used by animals for medicine as well. Despite the Latin species name, however, it was not a cure for syphilis.
During the drought that occurred during 10 of the last 11 years, even the mesquite bushes suffered. Twenty years ago this tree was surrounded by grasses, and even last year the ground was carpeted with cloth of gold or bladderpod, a cheerful yellow wildflower that blooms in March in years of ample rain.
This is a small packrat nest only 10 inches tall and 2 feet across. They can be 4 feet tall and 6 feet across. Despite the death of a large percentage of the packrats in the spring of 2005 from disease, the plentiful rainfall of the spring, summer, and fall guaranteed that every baby born would have the chance to survive. As a result, the numbers of packrats is higher than normal, but like the rabbits, they are eating bark. If they eat bark for more than a month or so, they will starve to death. High school students that studied the packrats at Sibley developed an interesting theory for their habit of picking up anything shiny. They placed tiny balls of foil around a nest and after the foil disappeared took apart the nest. They found the foil next to gnawed bones. Since rodents have to gnaw continually, they theorized that bone and shiny things reflect similarly at night, and that the packrats picked up the foil thinking that it would be good to gnaw.
In front of this clump of yucca (yet another rhizomatous plant) are two animal evidences. The long trench is a jackrabbit set, where he dug in the dirt to cool his belly. Just beyond is a closed up kangaroo rat hole.
At the base of this lotebush (blackbrush to some ranchers) is a jackrabbit observation post, as evidenced by the hundreds of jackrabbit droppings. Other animals have also dug at the base of the small shrub. Many lotebushes have similar digging marks, which lead an observer to wonder if there is a tasty fungus that grows on the roots of the shrub. Lotebush is one of two species of west Texas plants that bloom in May, but then do not set their fruit until the next April 11 months later. Mammalaria gummifera, a small cactus, is the other. This incredible adaptation to drought is amazing. Hundreds of small blue-black berries will be on the lotebush in April.
In the open area in the foreground is a clump of Tasajillo, or Christmas Cholla. In the winter they are loaded with red berries, which Scaled (blue) quail love. In the mesquite patch beyond, a badger has finally abandoned his den, and two of its three entry holes have collapsed. The third entry hole is not presently in use, but one of the skunks that live on the property will probably raise her young in it later this spring. Far beyond is the golf course with its grass and trees. The Sibley Nature Center pasture is a stark contrast to where humans yearly pour millions of gallons of water.