Moseying: Exploring the Natural World
Exploring wintertime brushland is anything but boring!
December 25, 2011
It is fun to take a walk along Sibley's trails (or any other trail through a wild landscape). Sometimes it is best to walk alone – because as you walk, you go through a sequence of perception, awareness, and discovery. The first gateway the walker must deal with is the fear of meeting another human being, and the chance of that someone being unpleasant. We have never had a robbery or assault at Sibley. The second gateway is the fear of being hurt by an animal. We have had only two rattlesnakes in 30 years, and never have had a rabid animal. A few times we have had a stray dog or two, but never a pack that seemed to threaten anyone.
After these "gutchecks" the solitary walker sets out (and takes the righthand fork just past the windmill). Here at Sibley, a common reaction is "hey, it is just a bunch of boring mesquite." The initial appearance of sameness is heightened in the winter, without the activity of insects or reptiles, or the presence of flowering plants. If a landscape seems repetitive, look for details. As you walk, you will notice that many of the mesquites have other plants that grow in association; the short pale discs of desert holly leaves, the bright red berries of tasajillo, the blue thorns of lotebush, the evergreen twigs of ephedra (popotillo) which is a wonderful tea, and the golden seedheads of broomweed, which once provided a bitter medicinal tea for sufferers of tuberculosis who moved to West Texas for their health in the early 1900s.
After walking a ways, the solitary perambulator comes to a trail shelter with large limestone rocks for benches, along with a sign about the mesquite brushland, with a dozen photos of what can be seen in the habitat. Have a seat and sit still for a few minutes. You may notice that birds will be flying, and that most are flying one of two directions; towards the building where feeders are, or towards the pond where water and dense cover can be found.
You also may notice one of the wintering hawks – either the Harrier flying low over the mesquite, the Harris' hawk sitting quietly on a pole, the flap, flap, sail pattern of the Cooper's Hawk, or if you are super lucky, the bullet fast whoosh of the Prairie Falcon on a hunting foray from his favorite perch on the water tower at the corner of Lamesa and Wadley. You may hear the curved bill thrasher whistling his two note warning call, as he serves as the pasture's sentinel. Mockingbirds might be squabbling over tasajillo berries, too.
By now, the solitary walker has passed through the most important gateway of perception, the realization that a whole new world awaits every day, full of organisms unmanaged by humans. You will be wandering through mesquite for a while, as you head east along the old gokart race track and Wadley waterfield pipeline. Quite a bit of sand washes in and down the road when it truly rains in a gully washer, so look for tracks. Coyote, fox, skunk, jackrabbit, cottontail, and with luck, even bobcat tracks can be found. Underneath the electric lines a significant amount of "whitewash" is found, the physical proof of the nightly blackbird gatherings (before they roost in the cattails in the golf course pond). Ten thousand redwinged blackbirds, cowbirds, and great tailed grackles gather nightly in cacophonous anarchy.
During the winter there is another phenomenon to look for – the tilling of the soil by frost heave. Small caliche rocks will look like they are sinking into the soil, as the expansion of soil moisture turning to ice expands and contracts. Cracks will litter the ground in places, and in some cracks mesquite seeds will fall for later germination, while in other cracks wildflower seedlings are emerging. The black mounds on the ground are cryptogamic crusts, which are a major source of nitrogen when turned greened by moisture.
As you perambulate through the mesquite, look for the brown egg cases of praying mantids, the goiter-like swellings of bacterial gall formation on the mesquite twigs, and the old grooves of the mesquite twig girdler on the skinnier twigs, as well as the crazy tufts of small twigs known as witches brooms. Sometimes the pasture is full of wintering sparrows, their numbers nominated by the skunk hairdo white crowned sparrows who have a most cheerful wintertime song that every Llanero (resident of the Llano Estacado) should know.
Nope... the wintertime mesquite brushland is not a boring landscape, not when the details are noted.