Mesquite pastureland in January
[Published January 31, 2008]
The 2008 trainees for the Llano Estacado Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists were assigned to venture into the mesquite pasture at the Sibley Nature Center, or a similar pasture near their home. Armed with cameras they were to photograph specific plants and animals, plus other organisms that caught their eye. Most of the following photographs were taken at the Sibley Center (and those not taken there will be noted.) The students visited at different times of day, separately, and collectively wandered in the pasture for a total of 15 or more hours. The following students contributed photographs to this photoessay:
- R.L. Orth
- Mark Pelham
- Nina McCart
- Sharon Long
- Chris Cherry
- Leslie Harman
- Barbara Drissel
- John Drissel
- Taffy Armstrong
- Pat Porter
- Sean Patty
Burr Williams, the instructor, did the photo editing and contributed a few photos.
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Even when a person tries to look a little closer, it is still just "stuff" all jumbled up. However, in this picture a person can spot the red berries of tasajillo cactus, the green stems of popotillo (ephedra), the yellow seedheads of broomweed, and the gray bark of the mesquite bushes.
A bobwhite joined some scaled quail. Student Chris Cherry noted that the bobwhite behaved differently - never looking up for a potential predator and remained bent over the ground, while the scaled quail often looked around.
A packrat nest can be 4-5 feet across and 4 feet high. This is a small nest. Notice the bark stripped off the mesquite above the nest. In the winter, packrats that have run out of their stored food (or can find no other food nearby) will gnaw on bark, but it is only a brief respite from eventual starvation.
Ladderbacked woodpeckers are the native woodpecker species to the Llano Estacado. A number of insects utilize the seed stalks for egg-laying, so the birds will inspect every seed stalk and "listen" for movement within the stem. As cavity nesters, they rarely find a hole large enough in mesquite in which to nest, so hackberries and soapberries in draws, sand ridges, clay basins are utilized for the nest.
In the winter kestrels spend the winter hunting small birds, small rodents, and insects on warm days. They do sometimes nest in cavities the region - but it is a banner day to find nesting kestrels. In wet winters a kestrel can be seen on the average of one to every mile along electric lines.
White crowned sparrows spend most of their time on the ground, but when a predator approaches, they often hop up to the top of a mesquite to evaluate the danger. Their song is part of the winter landscape - a cheerful sweet song most often heard at daybreak and at sundown.
The side entrance, the large size, and its untidy shape reveal the nest to be a cactus wren nest. Read this essay to learn more.
Yet another student photographed the hawk on a different day leaving the building and heading back out to the pasture. The staff of the Sibley Nature Center "expect" to see the hawk every day during the winter.
A fox "scent station" has droppings of several ages. Many animals visit the same place for a week or two to leave a record of their presence. Other animals note the stations and may choose to go hunt in another area, knowing that the mice and rats in that area have been disturbed.
Jackrabbits will hollow out a small depression in the soil - sometimes to warm themselves, or cool themselves, depending on the temperature, or even to take a "dirt bath" to disturb fleas and ticks. Did the rabbit gnaw the yucca leaf, or was that the work of a packrat?
Cryptogamic soil sometimes forms peculiar craters. Read this essay to learn more about cryptogamic soil.
In a detritus pile of various sticks and other dead plant parts, a mouse had excavated a hole. Notice that jackrabbit scat appears in a number of the photographs of other items of interest. A person can calculate the population density of rabbits in an area easily - for every two droppings per square yard, there is a rabbit. At least 20 samples must be taken to reach an average to use in the calculation.
Feral hog droppings are large and full of everything - for they are omnivorous. Read this essay to learn more.
Canyon towhees prefer dense mesquite pastures. They are often found near ranchhouses and in campgrounds throughout the southwestern United States. They are companionable birds that unobtrusively and meekly hang around humans, but they do not like to live in the towns of the region.
Loggerhead shrikes prefer rural settings. They eat insects and small birds. When one leaves a perch, they always drop low and fly straight. In other regions of the United States their populations have diminished, but on the Llano Estacado they are commonly seen along the roads.
A whitewinged dove sat on a post in a sandstorm, the wind ruffling its feathers. When stronger gusts hit, it would close its eyes. Flying in high winds is dangerous, so it allowed the photographer to approach much closer than normal.
A few of the mesquite bushes still had a bean or two hanging from a branch. It is likely that an insect had damaged the bean and halted its growth at a stage where the cue for normal "dehiscing" would not occur.
The animal that left these droppings is a mystery - but notice the elytra of a small green beetle within the pile.The droppings might be of a fox with an intestinal problem, for the undigested material reflects an omnivorous diet, but the droppings are not normally shaped.