Monday, February 08, 2010

Race Field Week 01 - summary

Time has rolled around and is February once again. The leaves that continue to hang on fourwing saltbush have turned dull, the curly grass is getting torn and gray, the birds and critters have eaten every last berry and seed. Even the bright, sunny sky that we are lucky to have so frequently seems part of the conspiracy to wash out all color, all signs of vibrancy.

But it's February in West Texas, and that's the way it is.

In fact, certain things are more easily seen in this drab time of year. Yesterday, Race Field revealed things I had not noticed before, and drove home the point how tough things can be for the natural residents there. Although life and death goes on year round, in February for desert denizens, death is especially noticeable.

The next eight photos and text are my documentation of the inaugural visit to Race Field as my newly adopted child. There were signs of life, but there were a number of signs of death. All is as it should be.

As always, you can click to see any image larger, and for your convenience, this is a link to the posts of just this week's visit.

Race Field Week 01 - milipede "bones"

Okay, so insects don't have bones, actually. By they do have exoskeletons -- skeletons on the outside. In the case of this expired milipede, that fact is very apparent.

Milipedes are a common out here. I don't believe they bite, which would make them among the few things that don't bite, sting, or poke humans around here. That fact alone makes me like them.

Millipedes have an interesting relationship with Aphanogaster ants. The millipedes live with the ants. I believe Burr Williams said the millipedes eat the decaying food down in the ant nest. In return for this easy dining, the millipede will help protect the ants with its defense by emitting a foul smell. Burr has also seen millipedes accompanying an Aphanogaster ant nest relocation, done usually at night, by the light of a full moon. No, really.

UPDATE: I had the story a bit wrong, so I asked Burr to tell it to me again. In his words:
we have a small species of army ant that only moves its nest site in the dark of the moon. blind snakes travel with them, for the tiny snakes eat their diseased eggs and pupa. when the army ants find the aphanogaster ants hole, they go inside, the aphanogaster ants leave the hole, the millipedes release liquid from their spiracles (holes on their sides) which contains a tiny bit of cyanide, which makes the army ants leave. after the gas clears, the aphanogaster ants go back inside
What a sight that must be!

And another correction, from FBer Chris Cherry: As a kid, his brother took some millipedes home in his pockets and had welts to prove it. Perhaps from the stuff they excrete? Ah, alas, yet another desert defense mechanism to be wary of.

Outside Links:

Race Field Week 01 - goat bones

Here's evidence of knuckleheads who think West Odessa fields, and West Odessa in general, is a great place to dump.

At least animal carcasses are biodegradable. And when the dry desert and hot sun get done with them, they are quite beautiful even.

But not all trash is organic or remotely beautiful. Some of it is quite toxic. Even "just" household trash can contain some serious toxic waste.

Sometimes, I think of painting a series of signs, like the old Burma shaving cream signs:
"until you"
"get to the"

Sometimes, I think about adding "*sshole!" to that.

I'd join any crusade, any group, any legislation to prevent this sort of dangerous behavior.

Race Field Week 01 - my marking system

Here's a two-for-one photo. I took it to illustrate one of the plants I'll be watching for blooming so I can identify it. The red is 100% wool, so biodegradable. Unfortunately, I doubt the dye is all-natural. Maybe something I'll teach myself how to do one day. In any case, I'll remove them once the year is up.

You can also see a track to the right. Tracks were everywhere on this visit to Race Field. We had a few days of rain last week and tracks were still dark, wetter than the surrounding dirt. So many tracks — coyotes or dogs, pack rats, something with a cloven hoof, and more — criss-crossed the desert floor, so much so that it gave me a real sense of how busy it is when I'm not around.

Maybe some day I'll get good at track identification.

Race Field Week 01 - mantis egg case

I wish I had marked the location of this mantis egg case with a piece of wool so I would be sure to find it again! I'd love to watch it hatch in the spring. Baby mantises look like mini-me's of adults.

Better yet, maybe next time I see one, I'll bring it home with me, put it in a jar, and when the babies hatch, my grandchildren and I can release them into my garden.

After taking photos, of course.

Race Field Week 01 - nibbled ephedra

With all the good stuff gone, like berries and seeds, the critters begin nibbling the less favored morsels for sustenance. Here is some ephedra that has been used to get some one by, perhaps a pack rat since there was a midden near by. I'm guessing if the rodent was annoyed by sinus trouble, it is no longer.

So far, I've noticed only mesquite bark and ephedra stems used in this way. I'll be keeping note of others as the cruel month of February drags on.

Race Field Week 01 - pack rat midden

This isn't just any old pile of bones. These are bones used by a packrat to build his "midden," or nest. This particular midden is at the beginning of my traditional entrance to Race Field. The arrangement changes, but this rodent distinctly favors bones. It could be an artistic preference, but more likely it's a matter of convenience. Lots of SOBs dump their trash and dead animals along this road. This pack rat is just using what is plentiful for him or her.

Still, I'd like to think it is partly an artistic preference, a Georgia O'Keefe pack rat if you will.

Race Field Week 01 - impaled bird head

Ew. Gross, right? Imagine my surprise when I shooed away my dog Ansel to see what he was licking.

It's not everyday you see a bird's head impaled like this. In fact, I've only seen it once before and then it was a grasshopper, not a bird, that had met this gruesome fate. Like this bird, only the grasshopper's poor head remained.

I don't know for a fact this is what happened, but shrikes impale their prey similar to this. And until I did some research, I didn't know they ate/impaled other birds, so it's quite possible. I'm counting it still as somewhat of a mystery, though, because I've never seen a shrike. They look similar to a mockingbird, so perhaps I've overlooked them. I'll have to keep an eye out in the upcoming year, especially with this bit of evidence in mind.

If this is the handiwork of a shrike, I have some questions. Do shrikes typically leave the head to be eaten last, or not at all? And why would a shrike use a four-winged salt bush instead of a mesquite, lotebush, or a javelina bush, all plentiful, all having sharp thorns?

It does make for a sad photo. But, in that way of thinking, no sadder than a picture of a bucket of fried chicken.

Outside Links:
  • Here is an interesting video on Youtube of a shrike capturing a mouse and impaling it, from Israel.
  • According to, loggerhead shrikes can be found here year round. Both WhatBird and include audio also. I need to listen a few more times to commit its calls to memory.
  • This article by Ro Wauer on The Nature Writers of Texas blog (now defunct?) is where I learned that shrikes count birds, including larger birds like mockingbirds and jays, as possible prey.

Race Field Week 01 - mushroom

{UPDATE: A preliminary identification via Burr Williams and the FB crowd is: Podaxis pistillaris.}

The last couple of times I've got out to Race Field, I've found this mushroom. It is about 4-5 inches tall, very dry to the touch. I was able to easily disassemble it by just slipping off the cap. The spores inside were as fine as soot, and darkly colored like soot too. The inner stem was stiff, woody, surrounded by a furry-feeling structure.

What kind of mushroom is it, I wonder? (Click on any photo to see larger.)

Photos above were taken on 02-07-2010

These photos were taken on 01-14-2010. The middle photo is after I opened the mushroom on the left and tapped it to release the spores.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Old Indian Trick

Old Indian Trick
or How Long Until Sunset?
That's what my mother told me when I was a kid, that this was "an old Indian trick." It's probably not strictly Native American in origin and is no trick. It's a nice guide, though. Putting your hand on the horizon, each finger between the sun and the horizon is roughly 15 minutes until the sun sets. I use it when I'm out on my hikes, deciding how far I want to continue to venture away from my vehicle. I don't want to stumble back in the dark.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Four-wing Saltbush & Irregular Wax Scale

Four-wing Saltbush, Atriplex canescens
on the left with a new and on the right an old infestation
of Irregular Wax Scale,
Ceroplastes irregularis
(On the left, my dog in the background, Caninous DixieBellious v. Cates)

I've wondered about this orange stuff — now I know it's scale — for some time. So far, I've only noticed it on four-wing saltbush where sometimes it almost completely covers its host. I've also noticed that infestations are not sporadic, but rather grouped together, attacking most of the saltbush in a particular area.

There are about 8,000 varieties of scale, a kind of insect that usually is parasitic, sucking sap from its plant host. It is the female that we see, immobile, covered here in her waxy protection. The male has wings and can fly, but is typically short-lived, sometimes not even feeding in its lifetime. Generally scales are considered a pest because at some point their infestation will damage branches, or even kill their host.

Not always entirely a pest, though. The most well-known scale is probably cochineal that grows on prickly pear, and long before the infamous Red #5, was a valuable source of a much-coveted red dye.

While not as famous as its cousin, the irregular wax scale also was used ingeniously by Native Americans. The wax from the insect's outer covering was used to waterproof baskets, as a mastic on tool handles and bows, and even as chewing gum.

Out in the field one day, I decided to see for myself what was under that bumpy, cream-colored crust. I picked off a single insect. The waxy outer crust surprisingly came off with little effort, but it was difficult not to damage the inner creature, who exuded some reddish fluid under the pressure. It was apparent she was very definitely living, at least up until I plucked her from her food source. At another time, I had tried to see what was up with this crusty stuff, but then I must have worked with an older, dying infestation; the crust then was crumbly (I described it as "like granola") whereas the wax from this specimen was firm, but soft.

Not the prettiest insect I've ever seen. Still, I'd like to take some home to look at closer with a good light and magnifying glass. And I'd like to experiment with the wax as basket waterproofing since I've been making some yucca baskets. I confess that after seeing the scale insect inside, I doubt I will ever experiment with it as chewing gum!

Links (Four-wing Saltbush):
Links (Scale insects):

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Old Man's Beard

Clematis drummondi ((KLEM-uh-tiss drum-AWN-dee-eye)
common names are Old Man's Beard and Virgin's Bower
Photographed 2009-12-14 in West Odessa, Texas

I'm in love with this American native perennial, so very common in West Texas. But my affections took a while to develop.

I went many years without paying it any attention. The first time I recall seeing it, and wondering about it, was during autumn when it covers fences in a feathery but dull beige sort of way. I still had not begun to admire it. Not until becoming a digital photography enthusiast and not until taking photos of seed heads up close did I begin to count it among my plant favorites. Now, even when I see it from afar, climbing and cascading weedily, I feel the stab of knowing its immense beauty.

Most recently I've expanded to admiring its stems. They remind me of a starfish. That unusual intersecting design makes it a bit difficult to tease out a single stem to use, for example, in a fall native flower arrangement. Speaking from experience, that sort of jostling has the pitfall of dislodging many loose feathery seeds diminishing the desired effect. My advice for the would-be florist? Bring scissors.

A sampling of image links (all from my photo blog):

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Sing, baby, Sing

Cactus wren in budding fruitless mulberry
Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus, Morus alba Striblingii

Sitting at my computer this morning, my attention was diverted to somewhere outside by the undeniable call of a cactus wren. I grabbed my camera and in my stealthiest mode went searching. Turns out little did I need to be so secretive; this guy was high in the big mulberry out front and was serious about his need for a mate. His head would contort while he sounded his chucking call, then he'd look to his right, to his left, "any takers?" A few more looks around, and then again he'd sing out. I'm hopeful for him. Surely if he can attract the attention of a hard-working computer programmer, he can attract the attention of a like-minded female of his own species.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


Time only for a short post this morning. But time enough to share some symmetry in one of my favorite plants, the creosote bush. It has stripes!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Saltbush scale

Click to view larger

Here's something new I've noticed out on my West Odessa treks, this crusty growth. So far I've only seen it on fourwing saltbushes (Atriplex canescens) and so far only on young ones. That is to say, on salt bushes that have grown to be a few twigs only.

It doesn't come off the twig easily, but twig and all I crumbled some in my fingers. It felt and looked like crunchy granola. In this picture I didn't capture well the rust-red liquid that also was released. It didn't stain my fingers and wasn't sticky.

I didn't see anything identifiable in the mass, like insects or larva, but I could have missed it, or smashed it. I smelled it, but didn't notice anything remarkable. (And Lord knows, I certainly didn't taste it!)

This stuff -- whatever it is -- raises a lot of questions for me. It appears to be parasitic, is it? Is it a fungus? Or could it be the work of some sort of insect? Will it kill the saltbush? Does it only grow on the saltbush? Is there some reason it only seems to attach to the young bushes, or is that coinicidence? And heck, I might as well ask -- is it edible? Perhaps not to humans but to other critters? And my biggest question, what is that blood-like stuff in it?!

An inquiry to Mr. Burr Williams at the Sibley Nature Center is in order.

UPDATE: Burr has identified it as insect scale. He's seen it and yes, it does attack specifically the saltbush and can kill it. We still don't know what kind of species of scale it is (there's only what, a billion species of insects on the planet?) but I'll keep an eye out for its name.