This month’s column comes from nature in a local community in Woodway called Sugar Creek.
In our front yard and adjacent Sugar Creek nature preserve of deciduous forest are a few big, old trees with cavities in their trunks and limbs used for day roosts and spring nests by the preserve’s large barred owls and small eastern screech owls.
Looking outdoors at Sugar Creek’s forested nature preserve, where I see some falling yellow and green tree leaves, I am reminded of two books: “Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems” and “The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable.” Both are paperback and suggested reading to learn about life’s dependence on nature’s gifts.
When we arrived home from a week of enjoying nature in a west coast pine forest, the first thing my wife, Nancy, and I noticed walking through our gate into our front yard were several giant white butterflies feeding on a white, blooming patch of frostweed. We were relieved to finally see Monarch butterflies feeding as well.
I just returned to two nature viewing spots on our Sugar Creek Nature Trail. One is a high point straight out our front door into our community’s forested nature preserve. Then I walked downhill to a large log that fell down across a tiny east-flowing creek with a good view of the main ravine-bottom, flowing creek, and both forested sides of our nature preserve.
August is a hot-dry time, although rain has begun near month’s end as it has in several past years. Heavy rain can stimulate another wildflower season with native frost weed, goldenrod, and rain lilies visited by new generations of butterflies, while the July-August natural sound of “buzzing” cicadas ceases this month.
I am constantly reminded that nature is necessary for all life on Earth. So I was saddened reading an article written by Japanese and British co-authors titled “Extinction of Experience: The Loss of Human-Nature Interactions” in the March issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, a professional journal I receive.
Nature changes pitch during June, and my senses switch to seasonal newcomers like rasping cicadas, large wasps and parent owls defending their fledged youngsters. My wife, Nancy, just found a cicada-killer wasp holding its captive on our front porch. Remember that she is a naturalist with a graduate degree in biology like me.
I started writing this column upon the return of Mississippi kites (mid-size hawks) from winter in the southlands. My wife, Nancy, and I were alerted because Mississippi kites spend a few spring days perching in and calling from the top of the 50-foot-tall dead oak tree in front of our house.
My wife, Nancy, and I have just returned home from Tonto Verde, a retirement community in the Sonoran Desert north of Phoenix, Arizona, where we spent five wonderful days with Nancy’s sister and husband inside and outdoors at an adobe house like all others in that community.
My wife, Nancy, and I welcome the many green leaves on trees and shrubs in yards. We are also refreshed by our 6 inches of rain through March 13, and warmer temperatures.
There are flocks of migrant songbirds in the Waco area this warm winter. Most numerous in my area are American robins, cedar waxwings, and ruby-crowned kinglets.
Despite cool temperatures, January sends many of nature’s colors, sounds and changes reminding us of worldwide seasons.
December sent nature lovers many colors, sounds, and seasonal changes, reminding us of local nature’s and the world’s seasonality and nurturing.
Let us all think more about nature in this month of Thanksgiving. Nancy and I give thanks for nature, among other things, since it is necessary for all life today and since life appeared on Earth.
At the end of September, as I was watering our yard, a sprinkler filled our patio corner’s shallow bird bath. It is a three-toed dinosaur footprint impression in concrete. In its half-inch deep water and behind it were migrant Nashville warblers, flocking and drinking with local-nesting Carolina wrens, tufted titmice, and Carolina chickadees. The birds brought nature’s local fall messages.
I’m sitting facing nature for about 30 minutes from a bench on our front porch in the late afternoon. I’m watching, listening and learning natural changes in our front yard and forest preserve, so I don’t use binoculars or a note book in order to stay still and not frighten wildlife. My wife, Nancy, often joins me.
When owls in my neighborhood are hooting (big ones) or whistling (little ones), it’s because their sons and daughters have left the nest and they are telling us and other owls about their place in nature.
Rains in June totaled 4.5 inches in two days according to our rain gauge, and kept me indoors longer than usual. As I write this, another deposit inthe gauge brought the total to 8.3 inches.
As my wife, Nancy, and I began a recent morning walk in our suburban community, we noted a Mississippi kite perched on a dead branch in the top of an oak tree 60 feet from our house. It’s a recent immigrant and now a nesting bird invited by our warming climate. It eats mostly insects. Soon it was chased away by long-time resident mockingbirds.
Native wildflowers blooming in our front yard and forest preserve and alongside our nearby country roads are gorgeous. If you’ve never visited Whitehall Park in Woodway, you should and walk or run the trail around the “Bluebonnet Sea.” If you’ve never driven slowly on a county road in grazing land, do it slowly. You’ll love the flowering nature outside fences, where there is beauty of several colors besides our Texas’ bluebonnet symbol.
As I observe a live-trapped invader of bird food — an adult northern fox squirrel — I recognize the transitional season of spring.
My wife, Nancy, and I were greeted on Jan. 25 by the year’s first blooming (white) trout lily at ground level on the edge of our front yard. By Feb. 10, there were at least a dozen more blooming in the same area. This dainty wildflower “ties” with other native color bloomers like white honeysuckle.
A windy native leaf fall from trees in December and early January brought a black witch moth (wingspan 5 inches across by 8 inches long) from South Texas to our house. It resided on part of “a stage,” the underside of our bedroom porch over part of our patio, during the huge fall of large leaves from native deciduous trees. Oak leaves up to 5 inches wide and 8 inches long paved our nature preserve trail inches deep.
Given nature’s changes because of humanity, I wanted to experience nature’s life signals while dedicating this month’s column to the memory of my good friend, the late naturalist Roy Smallwood.
Because nature tells us of the past as well as present, I want to introduce nature from the past, starting with the passenger pigeon, once the most prominent and probably most numerous bird in the United States before they were killed by the millions.
I started writing this month’s column in late August after a good rain that stimulated activity by native wildlife, plants, and nature-seeking people. Several locally hatched and grown-up Mississippi kites were still here whistling along the forested edges of our daily walking route before flying south for the winter. About the same time, a friend, Janet Wallace, counted 60 to 76 Mississippi kites circling together over Lake Waco.
Cavities in trees made by storm damage or drilled by woodpeckers attract native, hole-nesting birds such as Eastern screech owls, tufted titmice, and Carolina chickadees. They always have nested in such holes and now use your nest boxes. If you want to build a nest box for a tree-hole nesting bird, check out the Audubon Birdhouse Book “Building, Placing, and Maintaining Great Homes for Great Birds.”
I am concerned about global nature in this time of climatic warming. I would hate for creatures — such as fireflies and the small, rough earth snake that crawls on our patio — to disappear. That is because I love what I have learned from nature in the 21st century. Our vanishing, natural world has taught me well.
It is wonderful to return home from visiting family in El Paso and find that we had a significant amount of rain, along with cool, early morning temperatures. Now it really feels and looks like spring, even if it is a bit late. Rough-stem sunflowers are blooming yellow on the forest edge beyond several white-blooming, twisted-leaf yuccas in our forest-yard.
One recent morning, my wife, Nancy, walked out of our garage and discovered 20 Mississippi kites perched atop the dead branches of a live oak tree. They all flew off when I emerged, but we will find a nest and see their aerial acrobatics on our morning walks.
Let the average gardener hear “Grubs!,” or worse find a grub while a digging in the dirt, and all kinds of panic will commence.
Spring abruptly began for me at the end of March with the arrival of dozens of white-eyed vireos, black and white and black-throated green warblers along our nature trail, and a second singing Eastern Screech Owl in our yard. I didn’t have to evict a nesting squirrel from our owl nest box because it was empty, but I found female screech owls on eggs in two other nest boxes.
Baylor University and the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District plan to publish a Texas Nutrition Environment Assessment this summer in an ongoing investigation into how to improve the health of McLennan County residents.
Recently, as I sat on our patio watching and listening to nature, I heard a car engine running. Then, during a 7 a.m., 2-mile walk, I saw and heard an empty car running, presumably warming up in a driveway. It was beneath a wintering flock of cedar waxwings. Do people know what their car engines do besides get them where they want to go?
Because of such unusually low temperatures in the first week of January, my wife, Nancy, and I decided to see if the frostweed in our wild frontyard garden exuded fresh sap (frost) daily in the consecutive days of below freezing weather. We discovered that it did, but only for three days in a row.
I write this in late November to the sound of sandhill cranes flying overhead toward the Texas coast. Will we have our first freeze tonight? Leaf colors also are sending a winter message.
Despite our summer and early fall drought, it is not too late for hummingbirds to linger and feed as long as we have blooming wildflowers. With the inch of rain our nature preserve had in the third week of October, Turk’s caps bloomed again, all of them in several patches amidst blooming tall goldenrods, as if nothing ever happened. One southbound ruby-throated hummingbird just loved the “party” for nearly 15 minutes at 8 a.m. on a recent day.
It happened again this year as soon as my wife, Nancy, and I heard the first gun shots to start the dove hunting season — flocks of doves by the dozens left their rural homes and invaded suburbia.
At least 1,000 children and their parents are expected to attend the Children’s Garden Fair from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Carleen Bright Arboretum.
Hummingbird feeders and late-blooming wildflowers like Turk’s caps are attracting our local ruby-throats and black-chinned hummers in my yard. I haven’t seen a rufous locally, but its presence in Central Texas could represent climate change or eviction via forest fire. It nests only in the far northwestern United States and Canada.
It’s time to get get your garden ready for fall.
At the edge of our forest preserve on a recent hot and breezy August afternoon, a constant parade of ruby-throated and black-chinned hummingbirds feeds on a patch of red-blooming Turk’s Caps.
Holes in native trees attract several species of native birds, including Eastern Screech Owls. They always have nested in old woodpecker holes and storm-damaged cavities and now also in nest boxes. Our local Eastern Screech Owl eats rats, mice, birds, insects, and small snakes. They may add small fish and crawdads caught by wading in shallow water and they will do a “midnight dunk” in our birdbaths.
One dark, cloudy afternoon in mid-May, Nancy and I were driving home to our forest preserve when a strong “norther” cold front hit Waco.
Legions of botanists, researchers, explorers, horticulturalists and gardeners are constantly finding and breeding new plant varieties. There are as many plants available as places to grow them.
Recently I was asked why I hang out in nature, so I responded by quoting myself from the back cover of my book, “Messages From The Wild, an Almanac of Suburban Natural and Unnatural History”: “I am one who cannot live apart from the wild. Natural values are important to me, particularly the reassuring cycles of wild lives. I am fascinated and instructed by nature’s repeated patterns, because they are so ancient and work so well. I want to know how and why humans respond the way they do.”
Master Gardeners love their plants. Ask a question and you may get photos, diagrams and a garden tour.
May garden to-do list:
In February as my wife Nancy and I watched, listened to and learned from our North American warblers, vireos, thrushes, catbirds, buntings and flycatchers wintering in Belize’s lowland tropical forest, I thought again about how natural lives, especially those of huge trees, clean our poisoned air by removing carbon while gifting us with oxygen.
Puff balls on oak aren’t damaging