Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Get to Know the Creatures in Your Yard

Have you ever just sat in your garden and looked at the world of the insects, bees, reptiles, birds and the plants? I mean, get down on their level and see the world as they see it. My favorite thing to do is to take a cup of coffee and go to the garden just as the sun comes up. The smell of the flowers and herbs is almost overwhelming. Last week I sat and watched, for the longest time, an Anole and his antics sparked my curiosity.

The Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis) is indigenous to the southern United States. With a dorsal coat of lime to emerald green (very rare and gorgeous specimens are tinted blue), the green Anole is an agile climber and dines on spiders, grasshoppers and other insect prey. These green guys are personable little lizards that seem to enjoy being hand-fed too. That is if you like picking up spiders and grasshoppers.
 


These little herps (slang for reptiles and amphibians) are also sometimes referred to as the American chameleon due to its ability to change color from several brown hues to bright green. However, it is not a true chameleon. The color changes are caused by hormones, background color or mood. Anoles also do push-ups to regulate their inner temperature. They are ectothermic which means their environment determines their body temperature. On a hot afternoon if you see a male Anole doing push-ups and there is no female around, chances are he is cooling off. Green Anoles tend to remain green when temperatures are more than 70 degrees F., whereas they tend to remain brown during cool weather conditions or when stressed.  And get this - its toes have adhesive pads to facilitate climbing.

This little green guy that I observed was doing push-ups all by himself. I was saddened. I’m sure you’ve seen them where you live.



 Video courtesy of Courtney Neumeyer

This behavior is to catch the female Anole’s eye. Which leads to this.


Females pay attention to this display of fitness, sort of like watching Chippendale Dancers (not that I have ever seen any Chippendale Dancers).

Female lizards rate their guys by the size of their. . . .wait for it. . .dewlap. It is the bright-colored patch that the male lizard sports on their necks or on their bellies. Doing these push-ups is much like a body builder flexing his muscles.






So once in a while forget your gardening to do list and slow down, rest, relax and discover the soap opera that goes on daily in your garden. You may not get ahead of those weeds, but you will find unexpected drama unfolding. A leisurely pace has its rewards!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Why Pickles?

Holly Lake Ranch’s Pickleball Association has grown drastically since it was organized here in 2014. Back then, Holly Lake Ranch pickleball only had a handful of members and they played their games with portable nets on one tennis court (which equals two pickleball courts).
But, as membership grew, the homeowners' association had four new courts built and now, the game is truly booming. Holly Lake Ranch has outdoor pick-up games seven days a week, three leagues, and boasts membership of 100+ players. The age range is 19 to 80+ years.
So what is pickleball? The hybrid game, played with an over-sized ping pong paddle and whiffle ball, was born in 1965 in Bainbridge, Washington, as a cure for children’s summertime boredom. Despite its name, the only thing the game has in common with dilled cucumbers is a dog named Pickles. It earned its name when the dog would steal the founder’s game ball.

It is a sport created for all ages and skill levels, the rules are simple and the game is easy for beginners to learn, but can develop into a quick, fast-paced, competitive game for experienced players. Most players compare pickleball to tennis, played on a badminton-sized court that’s roughly one-half of a tennis court. Scoring is similar: two bounces in the play area or one bounce outside of it results in a point for the other team. The game is primarily played as a doubles game in recreation play. It requires little running; instead it places more emphasis on hand-eye coordination and dexterity. These aspects make it a life-long sport, one that can be easily learned at almost any age.

A year ago, I decided to play in one of these pick-up games to see what all the hoopla was about. I have played USTA tennis for the last fifteen years so I thought this should be a no brainer.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Ross



Photo courtesy Chris Waddell
I started in the novice group and was welcomed by all. This group was taught the basics of the sport. I never felt intimidated. . .well maybe, by the sheer number of players on the courts at all the times; but, what struck me, was the laughter, “good dig” comments, willingness to help and general friendliness of the group. As I started to play, I found the game easy to learn. Slowly, I started to understand the allure of a sport named after a bumpy green vegetable.





I would like to hit the person
who took this photo
As a newcomer to pickleball, I found that my tennis background did not help as much as I thought. I was under-striking the ball with the paddle and constantly hitting the net, even though the net was still shorter than those in regulation tennis. Argh! Even with the frustration and lack of a good serve, I still enjoyed pickleball. I never suspected that such a humorously-named sport would require not only physical but mental agility as well. A slight tilt of the paddle drastically alters a shot, which can give players an astonishing advantage. Also, when positioned close to the net, the game becomes very similar to ping-pong, with quick volleys that are often won on an unexpected spike.


The avid followers of pickleball at Holly Lake Ranch are a reflection of its budding popularity worldwide. It is one of the fastest-growing sports in the nation. Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) 2015 Participant Report reported pickleball currently has 2.46 million players. According to United States Pickleball Association, there are over 15,000 indoor and outdoor courts in the United States; and at least one location in all 50 states. Plus there are 138 places to play in the state of Texas. The game’s easy accessibility has gained a foothold with many folks.
I can say, now that pickleball is my favorite sport to play. With each game and practice I get better and better. The game is played to the score of 11 (only the serving team scores points) so a game can be short or go on what seems like forever. You can sit out one game and play the next. It is a great workout too!



If you are interested in taking up this new sport check out this useful web site. http://www.pickleballchannel.com/


You will love it!!!
 


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Getting Caught Up in the Garden

You have seen it if you live at Holly Lake Ranch. That vine with the shiny green leaves, beautiful red or black berries, and thorns, prickles or spines (depending on species). Like you care if it is a prickle or thorn when the vine is stuck in the middle of your leg!! We are talking about Smilax or Greenbrier.

Run-in with Smilax


If you are curious, a prickle is a sharp outgrowth from the plant’s bark. A thorn is a modified stem. A spine is a sharp pointed modified leaf. Even more confusing is all true Greenbriers are Smilax but not all Smilax species are Greenbriers. Here is east Texas we are “blessed” with many species of Smilax but suffice it to say, we will call it Smilax.  

The red-berried Smilax (Smilax walteri) creeps over bushes at the edges of sandy swamps or near streams. It is a thin woody vine, which may be spiny or nearly spineless. Its leaf surfaces are shiny green and it bears red berries during the winter. It has long underground runners, but is not tuberous.


 
Walteri - photo courtesy of Benny Simpson's Texas Native Shrubs
Sarsaparilla Vine (Smilax pumila) can be found growing in the open sandy woods of east Texas. This weak, “unarmed” vine has few tendrils at the nodes and prefers to climb over low plants. The young leaves and stem are densely pubescent (having fine hairs), becoming lustrous and smooth as it ages. It, too, has red berries but in the spring.
 
Pumila - photo courtesy of Benny Simpson's Texas Native Shrubs
China-root smilax (Smilax tamnoides) likes the damp woods and low areas near creeks. It has knotty rhizomes, while the vine runs over bushes and climbs into trees using its tendrils. The lower part of the stem is covered with needle-like spines. The shiny leaves are of different shapes.
Tamnoides - photo courtesy of Benny Simpson's Texas Native Shrubs

There are other species of Smilax: laurifolia, bona nox, routunifolia, smallii, and glauca, lasioneura that grow in Texas. One species is enough for me!

The one redeeming quality of this plant is that parts are edible. **DO NOT EAT ANY PLANT UNLESS YOU ARE 100% SURE WHAT THE PLANT IS.** On Merriwether’s blog "Foraging Texas", he states that tender vines, tendrils, tubers, leaves and berries are edible. He even makes vegan jello shots from this plant. Here is his blog: http://www.foragingtexas.com/2008/08/greenbriar.html.

You may not want this vine in your garden or yard and are having trouble getting rid of it. No amount of cutting or spraying will do the trick. The problem is tubers! Digging out the tubers is the only way to do away with this leg-eating vine. But if you read Merriwether’s blog, the tubers are high in starch and edible. Wonder if I can substitute tubers for potatoes in my diet?


Tubers from one plant
Baby Smilax - photo courtesy of Sonnia Hill


So, if you are out working in the woods, be sure to wear leather gloves, long sleeves and jeans. Be sure to tell your family where you are. If you should go missing, they will know you are being held captive by the thorns, prickles, and spines of Smilax!

And, as always, things could be worse. . . . 








Ann Reynolds










Monday, June 27, 2016

Gators Everywhere!


We have all read and seen the news reports of the death of the child being attacked by an alligator. It was such a very sad, sad thing. People never expected that creature to be in that location. For us in East Texas, alligators are a familiar sighting in ponds, streams, lakes and even the water hazards of the golf course. But, knowing they are here does not mean we humans are safe. Our HOA has had signage for years stating our swimming areas are also alligator habitats. I began thinking "do I really know much about gators except the meat tastes good at Rodney's Circle M Crawfish?" Since I like to be out on the water here, I decided  to brush up on these dinosaur-like creatures to be safe.

Alligators, crocodiles and gharials are in a group of animals known as crocodilians. Crocodilians are the world’s largest reptiles – yipes!! The American alligator (Alligator mississippenisis) is the least aggressive crocodilian – I guess that is a good thing. . . maybe.


Alligator
Crocodile (Wikipedia)
Gharial (Wikipedia)

Alligators normally avoid humans but become nuisance animals when they establish territories where there are humans. As we begin to move into their territories here in east Texas, there have been increased encounters between humans, pets and alligators. The current legal definition of a nuisance gator is “an alligator depredating livestock or pets or a threat to human health or safety.” The definition of all of this is located in the Texas Administrative Code (Title 31, Part 2, Chapter 65, Section 65.352) if you are in want of a little light reading.

Gators are ectothermic meaning the air temperature around them determines their body temperature. When the temperature reaches 60 degrees or less they burrow in the ground and remain dormant (mid-October to early March). This period is called brumation. March through May is their breeding season. During this time females stay close to home territories while male alligators can occupy ranges up to ten square miles.

They are active dusk-dawn and feed in the evening hours. In the summer a large alligator may only eat once or twice a week. Alligators have excellent sight, smell and hearing. They are very good at stalking their prey without being seen. They are carnivorous and will eat anything they can catch including fish, turtles, lizards, snakes, small mammals, waterbirds, crustaceans and other alligators. Alligator jaw muscles have little strength for opening their mouths, but the muscles that shut them are very strong and have awesome force, about 300 pounds per square inch in an adult. 



 








Other interesting facts are:
  • Large gators can hold their breath for 45 minutes.
  • Females seldom reach lengths of 9 feet but males can be 14 feet.
  • In captivity, female alligators may reach 30 years of age, however, males can live past 60!
  • They are very vocal and make sounds like a bark, bellow grunt or hiss depending on the circumstances.
  • They are very quick on land and are capable of running quickly over short distances. Generally, alligators will not flee when on land.




**Except when engaged in hunting, it is against the law to intentionally feed a free-ranging alligator.**

Texas Parks and Wildlife has a great article called “If You See an Alligator” that you may want to read. The URL is: http://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/species/alligator/safety/index.phtml

If you do not live in gator country and want to see them up close, visit Charlie Harris' East Texas Gator Farm which is located between Grand Saline, Van and Lindale, Texas. Charlie is an animal rehab person and has a small zoo on the premises. Call first and find out when he feeds them. You won't be disappointed in the action. 

http://www.easttexasgators.com/

Charlie at feeding time




Monday, February 22, 2016

Just Do One Thing!

My good friend, Liz the realtor, guilted me into the continuation of this blog about gardening, nature, the east Texas piney woods and dumb stuff I do. I think she just wants to read about the dumb stuff I do. If you enjoy my blog, please don't just like it on Facebook. Leave an anonymous comment at the bottom of this page. Heck, you can always say,"boy, Ann, that is dumb."

I want to talk about gardening for wildlife. I know, I know, we live in the middle of huge wildlife preserve here at Holly Lake Ranch. In talking about gardening for wildlife, I am not referring to planting so the deer will eat it (but actually that happens anyway). There is a type of gardening that sustains our wildlife and here are some ideas for attracting the kind of wildlife you really want in your garden.

Let’s start easy. . . . with just one thing. Imagine if doing just one thing for wildlife really could really make a difference in their existence. I know this sounds weird, but it’s true. We could make a huge difference for our local wildlife if each of us chose to do just one thing in our garden. Really.

You don’t have to re-landscape your flower beds. You don’t have to rip out your entire lawn (although doing that would be a great improvement for wildlife right there). You don’t have to become a native plant expert. You just have to choose one helpful task and do it. If we each did just that much, struggling wildlife populations would have a better chance.

One task could be to welcome bugs to your wildlife garden. Whaaat? Are insects good for the garden? The answer is yes. We tend to notice those that damage our plants and overlook the ones that are harmless or beneficial to the ecosystem that is our garden.

 

Worse yet, we use pesticide that kills all bugs because we paint all insects with the same brush. 

The fact is that many, probably most, insects are invaluable components of the ecosystem. You might want to consider organic gardening. Think of it this way – no bugs; no birds. It is wise to learn and recognize and appreciate these gardener friends. Here is a good resource published by Texas A&M. Beneficials in the Garden

Welcome pollinators and butterflies to your garden. Did you know there are more than 4,000 species of native bees and 725 species of butterflies on this continent? It takes 2 million flowers a bee has to tap to make a pound of honey and the estimated annual value of the honey bee to US agriculture is over $9 billion dollars. The honey bees are responsible for pollinating 1/3 of US crop species too. We need all kinds of bees even Bumbles and Mason! 















Consider planting the flowers they love, adding a water source and providing housing for them. Besides a hive, bees like upside down flower pots, old logs, or a board or two on the ground. Being a little untidy in the garden and on your property can be a big help. To make your butterfly garden successful,you need to supply both nectar and larval host plants. Nectar plants feed the adult butterflies and larval or host plants feed the caterpillars. Different species of butterflies have different needs, especially when it comes to the native butterfly host plants. Caterpillars are important. Without caterpillars, there are no butterflies. Well, duh!





Garden for the birds. I love birdscaping. It is one of the very few activities that truly follows the motto “If you build it, they will come.” By arranging your landscape or garden to create welcoming habitats for birds including rest stops for migrating birds, places for breeding and raising their young, and food and shelter for winter residents, you will provide for birds’ basic needs. Birdscaping is much more than putting up a few bird feeders.












Lastly, lead by example. Teaching your family, friends and neighbors to take the same action will magnify your efforts and help a lot more. Now I’m not saying there’s some kind of magic bullet that would solve all of the dangers facing our native wildlife, but doing one thing will certainly help to slow their decline.


Hey, I'm eating here!



Wednesday, June 17, 2015

You Say Tomato; I Say Tobacco


My family is used to my weirdness. Case in point. . .my hubby, finding a hornworm, still attached to a moonflower, laying on our kitchen island.


He just raised his eyebrows and did not ask. I tell him it is all in the name of science. I had the worm there in order to take a photo and then dispatch it to tomato hornworm heaven. I apologized by saying I got sidelined reading up on this green jewel.

I think most gardeners are inclined to immediately squish this green worm. I am guilty of that as well. But first lets take a look at what we have here. The tomato/tobacco hornworm feasts voraciously on plants of the nightshade family which include tomato, pepper, potato, nicotiana and moonflower. I have also seen them eat virginia creeper. 

A clue that you have a hornworm is a plant that looks like this.

Or, you see the little round frass. 


The hornworm caterpillars get their name from the signature horns that grace their hind ends. Loathed by gardeners in its caterpillar stage, the tomato hornworm, has eight V-shaped marks on each side and a signature horn on the rear.

The tobacco hornworm, which closely resembles its tomato preferring cousin, has seven diagonal white lines on its sides and a curved horn. But, hey, who is counting.


Both caterpillars turn into large moths, known as sphinx or hawk moths, with four- to six-inch wingspans in colors ranging from brown and gold to pink and gray. Sometimes we call these moths hummingbird moths because they resemble, wait for it, hummingbirds. Like a hummingbird, they feed on a deep-lobed flowers and are most active during late afternoon and dusk.

tobacco

tomato

Moths, the nocturnal brothers of butterflies, are generally under-appreciated and yet many are as striking as their celebrated butterfly siblings.  Like butterflies, moths  perform necessary pollination tasks and serve as primary fodder for bats, birds, even small mammals.
One very good reason in keeping the caterpillar form of this moth around is that it is the primary pollinator of the agave plant. The Arizona desert agave makes tequila possible. No worm; no tequila. And, that my friends will be a sad, sad day.
 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Is That an Eagle, Sparrow or Crow?

I get a plethora of few phone calls from time to time asking for an identification of a certain bird. The phone call goes something like this: "I have a little brown bird in my yard. Do you know what it is?" After many questions, the caller and I usually narrow the identification down. So to help you, I thought you might like what I learned at a Davis Mountain bird identification class. The first thing the park ranger told us was to put away our ID books. I knew I was doomed!!


Categorize the bird – there are many different categories of birds. One of the first things you should do is learn these categories and peruse the birds in them. No need to memorize these right now. But, as soon as you see it, try to put the bird into one of the following categories:
  • Seabirds
  • Heron-like birds
  • Swans, geese, ducks and duck-like birds
  •  Hawk-like birds
  • Chicken-like birds
  • Marsh birds
  • Gull-like birds
  • Shorebirds and small waders
  • Pigeon-like birds
  • Owls and other nocturnal birds
  • Jays and crows
  • Shrikes and vireos
  • Swallows
  • Chickadees, nuthatches, wrens
  • Thrushes, mimics
  • Warblers
  • Tanagers, grosbeaks, buntings
  • Sparrows
  • Blackbirds, Orioles
  • Finches


Size – How big or small is the bird? You can use size relativity to get a general idea. Size relativity refers to being bigger or smaller than a sparrow, robin, crow or pigeon.

Study silhouettes – this is an important part of identification because most times, when a bird is flying, you can’t see all field marks. So pay attention to body, beak, tail and legs. Then ask yourself:
  • Is the body short or long? Narrow or plump?
  • Is its beak fine, long, or short and stout (insect or seed eater)? Is it dagger-shaped, hooked or straight
  • Are its legs short or long? What color are the legs?
  •  Do the wings look rounded or pointed?
  • Do the wings have wing bars? Are they single, double, bold or obscure?
  • Is the tail notched or straight across?

What is the bird’s behavior? Different birds have different behaviors. For example: 
an Eastern Phoebe repeatedly bobs it tail,

Brown Creeper hitches itself up a tree,

Nuthatches
move down a tree,



the American Dipper does somersaults in flowing water
Use your bird book’s range maps – These maps show whether or not a bird is located in a specific area. Maps may have 1-4 colors (winter is blue, yellow is migration, brown is summer and purple is year round). Range is very important part in identifying birds. Here are two warblers and their maps:


Cape May Warbler


Magnolia Warbler













Do not depend on color!! Birds have different plumages at different stages of life, different times of the year and multiple birds have the same color. Use color as your LAST RESORT. Here are two DIFFERENT birds.

Male House Finch
Male Purple Finch













Female Pine Siskin

Female House Finch











Use a field guide – All the information you need about a particular bird is in one place. You can use a hard copy or there are some new electronic guides available for your iPhone or iPad. Field guides have the categories that birds are in and they separate them by family. Juvenile and adult, male and female photos in field guides are a tremendous help.

Oh, and get a good set of binoculars. With a field guide and binos you are all ready to bird and start your life list!!