Friday, March 30, 2012

Texas Rat Snake

Texas Rat Snake, Elaphe obsoleta lindheimer
Often confused with the venomous Cottonmouth/Water Moccasin, Agkistrodon piscivorus, the Texas Rat SnakeElaphe obsoleta lindheimer, sometimes called the Black Rat Snake, is a harmless non-venomous snake that can grow to impressive size. As the weather warms, more and more snakes are coming out of their dens to bask in the warm sun and  go hunting. Sadly, one of the first reactions many people have when they see a snake is to find a shovel and kill it. Whether or not snakes seem creepy, and whether or not it is actually venomous, it's always good to remind others that these creatures are the reason your carpet is not covered in mouse feces, why the large invasive Norway Rat isn't hiding in bed sheets. Snakes are one of the most important defenders for worse rat invasion to come. Next time a snake crosses your path, give him plenty of room and be on your way so that he may continue hunting that rat eating your pet's food.

This particular photo was taken only yesterday with a simple phone camera. He is the third snake in just four days that I've seen, but by far the largest. As crinkled as he looks in this photo, he straightened up just fine to enter the nearby tall grass. Don't forget that snakes are just as afraid of your presence as you might be of theirs.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Crane Fly

Crane Fly, Diptera
Often incorrectly identified as a "Texas-sized mosquito" or mislabeled as a "mosquito hawk" for belief they feed on mosquitoes, the Crane Fly seems to be a misunderstood common household pest, and an indicator of warmer days to come. The adult phase of this insect is harmless as in this phase they do not even feed. The larvae though do have chewing mouth parts used to ingest decomposing matter, helping to speed up the process. Crane flies live in moist environments which means a wet spring can bring out more than usual. One note of interest, thanks to the size of these flies you can clearly see the haltere, an organ that helps stabilize flight for insects in the Diptera order. If you ever find them in your house, know that they do not want to suck your blood, but rather find out where that bright light is coming from.

If you were wondering, this crane fly was taking a rest on my shoe.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Blackland Prairie

Protected Blackland Prairie
Historically, the Texas Blackland Prairie was once a sea of tall grass stretching 10.6 million acres, but now an estimated 1% is all that remains. For all we know of endangered ecosystems abroad (the Amazon Rainforest being the standard answer), this ecosystem is one of the most critically endangered habitats within North America. The reason for this lies in part from the development of agriculture, specifically livestock grazing, and the farming of cotton, corn, and wheat.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Coral Honeysuckle

Coral Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens
Ranging north and south from the Central Plains to the Eastern Coastline, Coral Honeysuckle, also sometimes referred to as Trumpet Honeysuckle, is a common native vine. Unlike its invasive cousin, Japanese Honeysuckle, this native variety is more selective of areas for growth. It is also not as fragrant or giving of nectar which leads many to prefer the Japanese Honeysuckle even though it is listed as a noxious weed. This invasive cousin had once been used to prevent erosion due to its great adaptability and fast growth, but was left unchecked leading to the crowding out of many other native plants. The lovely red shade of the Coral Honeysuckle flowers are known to attract hummingbirds and butterflies, while the fruit often attracts other birds later in the season.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tropical Raspberry

Raspberry?, Rubus?
As many would imagine, the tropical rainforest is host to a variety of fruits and other edible plants, more so than a temperate region. One of the seemingly common fruits we kept passing in this section of the Atlantic Rainforest was what could be described as a raspberry. A proper botanist could likely identify whether or not it actually belongs in the Rubus genus or possibly Vaccinium family, either by identifying features or molecular study. What I find interesting is that this well-known temperate fruit might have a tropical cousin, which certainly doesn't seem to be common. Either way, the locals knew it as a sweet treat off the trails.

One word of advice, as given at a lecture in college: never gorge yourself on what you think is a safe plant. I'm unsure if it was ever picked up in the news, but a team of scientists exploring a region of South America plateaus were stranded due to weather preventing helicopter pick-up. Thinking themselves lucky, they found a bush of blueberries which is one of the safer genuses in botany. Some members gorged, other had one or two then waited. Unlucky to the gorging members, they happened upon a previously unknown toxic genus member. Thankfully, no one died, but they did need treatment. Those who waited, didn't have to wait too long before seeing that this was not an edible fruit.

The point being, the locals knew this raspberry-like fruit as safe, but even then we'd have been careful for you never know what immunity they developed that we foreigners hadn't.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Blue-faced Honeyeater

Juvenile Blue-faced Honeyeater, Entomyzon cyanotis
The Blue-faced Honeyeater is an extraordinarily easy bird to identify if you happen to be near either the eastern or northern coast of Australia as no other bird quite looks like it. While the adults have the namesake blue face, the juveniles such as above are more a yellow-green face. The olive feathering and white underbelly are the distinguishing factors from other birds of similar size if spotted from further away. Contrary to the name, this species also feeds on invertebrates and fruits along with nectar. They have a preference for wetter environments, but can sometimes be seen in urban areas. This species is also sometimes seen in areas with or near Little Friarbirds, either feeding alongside with them or occupying abandoned nests. I mention this as this particular bird was not attacked by the Little Friarbirds living just a few branches away, unlike most other birds who so much as flew meters too close to the nest.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Tropics of Brazil

Parque Nacional Chapada dos Veadeiros, Brasil
One of the interesting pieces of information I learned before heading off to Brazil was about weather and natural disasters. The size of Brazil is 8,511,965 km² compared to the United States of 9,826,630 km² (about a difference of Alaska and Texas combined). Within the United States we have everything from tornadoes, to hurricanes, to earthquakes, blizzards, and flooding thanks to a combination of tectonic plate positions and weather patterns. For being quite close in size, the only major disaster Brazil must worry about is flooding. This is due to the position of the country being relatively far from the edges of its tectonic plate, the lack of dry air combining with humid in a way to form supercell storms, and the lack of ingredients to form cyclones in the southern Atlantic Ocean. The issue lies in being mostly a tropical environment where the season are two: wet and dry. That means, when it rainsit pours. In wilderness relatively untouched, adaptions for these flooding rains can be spotted in the buttress roots of trees to the the structure and behavior of ant colonies. In urban areas lacking the plant roots to prevent erosion and concrete that prevents draining, heavy rains averaging up to 1500 mm (59 inches) mean constant fears of flooding for near half a year.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Australian Magpie

Australian Magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen
In honor of Pi Day, I thought it'd be great to have a related post if only because I'm a bit of a nerd. I figured a good post could be about a bird whose name includes the word pie or possibly a post about some sort of blackbird, like in the old nursery rhyme. As both were already covered earlier, I opted for yet another bird with pie in the name, the Australian Magpie. A large bird with an unusual flute-like song, the magpie can be found throughout most of Australia and are a very common sight in urban areas. As they are very rarely seen alone, have little fear of humans, and can be found in most neighborhoods, these birds can be best compared to the Common Grackle found in great portions of the United States and Canada. The big white beaks with black tips of the Australian Magpie are the best way to distinguish it from the common coloration of black and white birds in Australia. As with many other birds, they can become very aggressive and territorial during breeding season. Since they can thrive in urban areas, this may result in dive bombing of people and pets.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Shumard Oak

Shumard Oak, Quercus shumardii
Shumard oak occurs throughout the Great Plains, east and south to the Atlantic and Gulf Coastlines, and north into Ontario. It is highly valued for its high survival rates and steady growth, while in the Great Plains in particular it has great heat tolerance and fire resistance. It is also one of the few "distinguished autumn color" trees which is quite uncommon of trees in areas such as Texas. As sturdy trees, they have a long lifespan living at the least 480 years. One of the main concerns for this and other species of oak especially in Texas is a fungal disease known as Oak Wilt where the fungus prevents water uptake. As with other oaks, the Shumard oak does produce acorns which a variety of animals such as squirrels, raccoons, and deer love the eat. The white-tailed deer also prefer this oak as browse in some parts of Texas. Once the tannins are leeched out, acorns are considered edible for human consumption. The Native Americans often used acorns to make flour, the process of which leeched out the bitter tannins making it safe.

One reason I love this particular photo besides making the Shumard oak stand out, is the extremely rare sight of measurable snow in this part of Texas.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Mute Swan

Mute Swan, Cygnus olor
The Mute Swan, named for being a less vocal swan, is a species native to Eurasia that was introduced multiple times during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Valued by some for their beauty in ornamental ponds and gardens, this highly aggressive species is a threat to many native waterfowl species. The establishment of this swan has become a huge concern mainly along the Atlantic Coastline, especially near Long Island which was unfortunately a location for one of the largest known releases of this bird.  Very recently, Texas, specifically Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, has become a possible new spot for the Mute Swan. As of when this photo was taken, only one swan has found its way to the refuge, but if it ever finds a mate it could spell disaster. Sadly, it seems that this particular swan was likely a pet that has not been search for or recaptured. It will come closer when whistled for. While the current age of this one is not known, it should be noted that in the wild these swans can live for about two decades. From what I was told, due to certain laws and regulations, there is nothing they can do at the refuge to remove this swan except hope that a coyote might get his paws on this exotic meal.

Just to clarify the potential disaster this could spell, remember that Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge is home to thousands of migratory waterfowl due to the location of the refuge within the Central Flyway. The highly aggressive Mute Swan, who has remained year round, can readily establish a stable non-migratory population that could disrupt the nesting habits of multiple local and migratory species.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Nessie of Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge 
I decided today to have a bit of what I consider a simple post that will be followed up with explanation on the next. For an unplanned shot, this Loch Ness like capture speaks many words. What exactly it is a photo of, I'll let you know on Friday, but keep in mind the myth of the "monster" known as Nessie.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Whale Mountain

Whale Mountain of the Cerrado region in Brasil
This iconic formation within the Cerrado (pronounced Say-ha-do) is known as Whale Mountain (seen on the far right) located just kilometers from both Alto Paraíso de Goiás and Parque Nacional Chapada dos Veadeiros. The Cerrado is the lesser known and least protected tropical savanna of Brasil that is almost, if not equal, to being as threatened as the very well-known Amazon Rainforest. It encompasses close to one-fourth of the land of Brasil, and became heavily impacted when the capital, Brasilia, was moved further in to encourage growth within the Cerrado as opposed to just the coastline. One of the biggest threats is from soy farmers who wipe out tons of Cerrado land for their farming, leaving one or two single non-native eucalyptus trees among fields of soy. Cattle ranching is second as the biggest threat to this amazing and highly endangered ecosystem.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Eastern Redbud

Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis
While I had a different post planned originally, I decided instead to post about the iconic eastern redbud in honor of Texas Independence Day. While not the state tree, it is a very common sight as spring approaches. It is native to the region and one of the first blooms spotted as the weather warms. One reason for the commonality of the redbud is that it is fire tolerant with roots sprouting after fire. Both butterflies and hummingbirds are attracted by the nectar, honeybees for the pollen, whitetail deer for the foliage and twigs, and some songbirds for the seeds. The Native Americans made good use of this tree from using the bark and roots to treat whooping cough, dysentery, fever, congestion, and vomiting, to frying the flowers and eating them. In addition to fire and drought resistance, an animal attractant, and the versatile uses of this tree,  the beauty of the blooms makes for a wanted and loved garden ornamental.