Sunday, August 30, 2009

Courtship of a pair of Giant Swallowtail Butterflies

This fairytale is my own of the Southeast Texas forest. One of our prize sightings here in The Woodlands and nearby parks and forests is the Swallowtail. This particular species, the Giant Swallowtail or Papilio cresphontes, is very prevalent at this time of the year in our area, that is, if we are not spraying for mosquitoes. This story is based on an actual courtship in Mercer's Arboretum on Cypress Creek. The photographs are from an observservation on a morning in late August.  These butterflies have quite a strong courtship that lasts for hours. I recommend viewing the large version photographs by clicking on each one. Hope you enjoy this in the context of a child's fairy tale...

Once upon a time, there was a lovely seƱorita butterfly called Bella. She was named that by her father who knew that some day she would be the most beautiful and grand butterfly in the park. When she grew up, she indeed was very beautiful. Her colors were outstanding. All the boys watched her when she flew through the forest. She would sail past  trees with lightening speed to find the right flower which would give her the sweetest nectar to drink. Each time she drank her nectar, she would think, my food is just as sweet as I am, that is what my mom says. So I must act my part to be sweet as well as beautiful.
Also about the same time as she was born, there was this guy butterfly called Handsome. He learned to dance in the air and do all sorts of acrobatics in the air from his dad. He admired his dad and wanted to grow up to be just like him. Yes, he did just that. Now he is a grand butterfly, admired throughout the park for his ability to fly and for his bright colors. He knows which flowers makes him safe and which flowers make him more handsome.  You can see in these photos that he is not much different than Bella.

Both Handsome and Bella have two sets of wings and use them like two arms. They can do amazing things with their wings. They can push the back wing down so that they do cartwheels or flips in the air. Handsome does especially good with that maneuver.

One day they met in the park and instantly liked each other. In this picture, they are meeting each other. "Hey, my name is Handsome. I've seen you around here. What's up?" Bella responds, "Nothing much. I've seen you too. What's up with you?" Then Handsome did a mid-air flip in joy, because Bella seemed to like him too!  When Handsome and Bella got to know each other better, Bella liked how many things Handsome knew about safety of foods and eating correctly. She also admired his skills in flying, especially his ability to do somersaults. Handsome liked Bella's gracious style. She glides though the air like a princess. She can change direction with ease. So Handsome thought to himself. "Bella would make a great wife and mother for my children." She would be the person for him all his life. How can he get her to say yes to marriage? - he thought. She will like him if he just is himself and dedicates his energy to her and takes good care of her. Little did he know that Bella was asking the same question. She  said, "how can I get  Handsome really interested in me? I want to get to know him.  I think he would be a great father for my children."   Handsome said, "Hey Bella, you want to hang out?" Bella said, "well maybe."
So Bella flew like a jet in the sky and soared to show handsome that she was pleased that he asked.  That surprised Handsome. He could not keep up! She came back. "Why are you so slow?", she asked.

Handsome had the right answer. He said, "I do acrobats best. You soar so beautifully. I know why your mom called you "Bella". Watch this. I bet you can't do this as good as I can! So Bella watched with great admiration as Handsome turned flips in the air with the skill of a great butterfly!   

So they hung out together and got to know each other very very well. They learned about each others family, what kind of flowers each other liked the best,  what they would like for the other to do for them, and many other things.

After a while, they both decided that they had made the right choice and were ready to have a family.
They played together and enjoyed being with each other.
It was time to have baby butterflies. And soon that would happen. They would have little caterpillars. When the caterpillars left the house, they out be out in the world on their own.

Then they got married and had children. Bella laid eggs under a leaf and built a house for the eggs.

And they lived happily together forever after in the great East Texas forest system.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Mushrooms in the backyard

A mushroom in The Woodlands apparently can be one of a wide variety of species. With the arrival of the mushroom growing season (August), I am seeing several varieties and decided to "discover" some of them. With 10000 species in North America, you can imagine how high a mountain this is to climb. To tell you the absolute truth, I got a macho notion to prepare for survival in the wilderness. I may never get out of this deep hole! Humbled beyond what I thought was possible, I now would still like to identify my first mushroom species. Who knows if any of these can be eaten? I learned to be observant when I found a "simple guide" to mushrooms got me no where. Yes, I observed what they said to observe and could not zero in on a species. Then I went back to the books and researched some more. Now I find there are 22 things I have to find out to be able to identify one1, and that may not be enough, maybe just enough to get me in the ballpark! I am lowering my expectations rapidly.

After announcing to one of my life long friends that I had a way to identify mushrooms and see if they can be eaten, he wrote back this: "I tell you what, if you will not eat that mushroom, I will take back my claim that I caught one more fish than you when we went to catch perch 50 years ago. Remember? I caught 62 and you 61?" Well, I remember that outing and maybe I can claim that I won that contest now, but somehow, that is so not filling! Wish I had that offer 50 years ago. So I let him keep his claim (it was not valid but what the heck, he told it to a million people). I tossed the specimen away and just photographed it. It had no smell and looked great. I wanted to do the taste test but chickened out. My family and my friend convinced me I was on a dumb mission.

So here are several specimens. I am really amazed how beautiful and diverse these things are. They are not a plant nor an animal.
They are a fungus, in a totally separate organism kingdom that indicates a separate evolution or creation branch of life. I revert back to just appreciating their differences and their beauty.

Tomorrow or the next day, I think I will go find a field guide and see what I can do to classify these. Until then here are a few photos taken in my yard this month and in a neighbor's yard.
One thing for sure, I am not going to eat a wild mushroom anytime soon and would tell any wannabe woodsmen, don't do it without an expert who is very comfortable living off of the land.

1 Kuo, M. (2007, January). Key to major groups of mushrooms. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site:

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Native Grape Vines in The Woodlands, Texas

The Woodlands has an abundance of Muscadine (Mustang) grapes. If you are a Texan, you might call them the Texas Black Grape. I guess we have to name them different just because we like to call things by their color. It’s easier that way; everyone knows what you are talking about. It is not Muscatine, a European grape. The Texas Black Mustang Grape is a species that goes way back in Southeast Texas history with Native Americans. It is native to our area, because it thrives in the sun and humidity. I think everyone here appreciates that any plant that thrives in this climate should certainly at least be considered native, but this one is indeed very native, as native as Native Americans! These are found not only in Southeast Texas, but in Central Texas as well, where it is very dry, where you will find it principally in places having a lot of humidity in the mornings, such as near a riverbank. Here it thrives everywhere you put it. It especially likes to grow under the protection of a tree. That fact turns out to be a problem for us.

So the Texas Black is well known to native Texans and appreciated for its jelly primarily. Some even like it converted into a wine. In the old days, folks definitely made wine with it. If you were going to have any wine, you had to use this grape! It is not very sweet as the grapes used to make wines, but with enough sugar, one can get it there. I looked around in the Internet and found a recipe for Muscadine Wine1.

Some personal experiences with this grape took me to places I tell children not to go. Don’t smoke it! Yes, in Boy Scouts, we smoked Muscadine Grape vine, because the stems are very porous. Smoking will burn your lungs! So don’t do it! Not a good experiment for a child or for an adult. In Boy Scout Camp one year, I climbed up in a vine. Then I picked some stems just the right size and cut them for the whole gang. We were emulating cigarettes with them. When a vine reaches maturity, it will grow 3-4 feet in one year and the vine structure thickens over the years, where a child can climb into its branches.

Texas Black makes good jelly. It is best not to use the thick skin. It is bitter and just too chewy. A fine grape jelly requires that you cook, mash and filter them. I have found a jelly recipe2, but do not recall how I made my Black Jelly in the past, but I do know that it tasted very good. This recipe looks like it should do the job.

Texas Black makes a good raisin. Dried by the sun, it is chewy and full of healthy nutrients. Native Americans used raisins in the winter and as a light food in other times to carry on hunting trips.

Today, we know about the effects of certain chemicals on our digestive system and on health. This grape has antioxidants and resveratrol, purported to lower one’s risk to cancer. It also has high fiber content.

Here are some hints to identify the vine. It is very easy, especially in July and August when the berries ripen. The ground will always have the black grapes scattered and rotting and often squashed by human feet. This is not something you want to step in with your shoes and enter your home, especially if you have carpet! I am not going to suggest ways to get it out of carpet except to replace it.

Unfortunately for The Woodlands, this plant does so well, it threatens some of our trees. It gets plenty of sunshine along our pathways but has the shade of the trees while propagating. It can use the trees as a trellis. Therefore, it eventually overcomes a tree and deprives it of light.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Forest Natural Noise Pollution - the Cicada

If you live just about anywhere in Texas, you know what we have here in The Woodlands. Cicadas abound in the summertime along the Gulf Coast and into the forests. I had not noticed them so much here until last year when they seemed to be everywhere, especially on the pond near my home.

Go outside in June-August and get bombarded with sounds of insects, typically more intense in the evening. The sounds are originating from trees. Sighting a Cicada which is an insect louder than a cricket, is not easy unless you know where to look. You can follow the sound and if you look hard enough, you will see one crawling on a tree limb. When you see one, you will recognize it by its translucent wings.
One evening recently, I heard a whop on the window after dark. What was that!? I went to the patio and saw a Cicada on the ground under the window. Another one was close by on a plant. A third was also nearby. I said to myself – photo opportunity! My wife and daughter even showed interest.

My family is no stranger to a Cicada. My second eldest and his brother used to go hunting these insects and come back with trophies. There are many in Southeast Texas. It is a fun outing with the kids to capture some. I believe they are all of the same species here. They will not bite or harm a human in any way. Their wings and their song distinguish them from all other insects. Depending on the species, the song can differ. I provide a link to the species we have here singing. Go outdoors in the evening and listen. You too will hear and appreciate the song of the Cicada!

A jeweler I ran across makes earrings and other jewelry out of the wings of a Cicada. This practice is fascinating. She waits until they die and then takes the wings and embeds them in clear colored material to form beautiful pieces of jewelry. Check it out here. Let me know if you get one of these. I have not seen one personally yet, but want to see one.

Video of a Cicada singing its song :

Monday, August 10, 2009

A huge day spider - commonly seen in The Woodlands and elsewhere

Here in The Woodlands, I have seen this spider of the family Araneae several times before. It is the Black & Yellow Argiope, or Argiope aurantia. It is very big and scary to many people. Go to swampy areas in Southest Texas and you might find these in abundance. These were found on plants next to a pond in a Woodlands park. This large one is the female. Although like most species of the family, its bite is venomous but not dangerous to a human. It eats small insects captured in its web.

The small one is the male.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Red Spider of the night

In The Woodlands as in other parts of Southeast Texas, we have a multitude of spider species. By a brightly lit full moon, I observed this bright reddish orange spider that on close examination, was not really red at all. I would like to identify it but have not succeeded yet. As quickly as this little lady spun her web, she laid eggs and posed for a while this evening. The next morning it was all gone.
I went out early to see how the web did and there was nothing, so I have to assume the little guys hatched and left. The web could have existed for a couple of days or been destroyed overnight. It was watering night, but no water goes as high as the eggs were laid.

My kids call them Bambis

In The Woodlands, my children call a Texas White Tailed Deer "Bambi". "Look, Bambi's". They are not little children; they are teenagers. But it tells us the special place deer have in our society and hearts. Walt Disney made sure of that! This morning, I went to photograph a park. On the way, one doe ran across Lake Woodlands Drive. It was not so early, so I was not expecting that at 7:30AM! That woke me up. The doe disappeared quickly into the forest.

After photographing a park, I started home. On crossing the Bear Branch Creek bridge on Research Forest Drive, I spotted a beautiful buck down on the creek along with several does. Since I had the camera on this outing, with all the necessary gear, I decided to park and walk back to the creek. On doing so, as soon as I could see the area below the bridge the buck also spotted me. He ran; I hit the shutter button. Then he paused for a second, as if to satisfy a curiosity. "What was that noise?" I clicked again. He ran again. So you have the story behind these two photographs. I rarely have my cameras with me on these occasions, but this time yes!
When I used to take my daughter to the Woodlands High School, we would see deer grazing, usually on foggy mornings. Last night, we had a full moon early. I suspect that the deer wanted to feed late in the morning because it turned dark fairly early as well. Notice the ribs showing on this beautiful creature. The drought has been tough on their lives, but there is plenty of grass. Water may not be so abundant however. I noticed a few weeks ago that water was indeed much less abundant than in the past when I was on the creek. My brother, a hunter, tells me that a rack like this indicates a healthy deer. Perhaps there is a lack of protein due to the green grass it is eating. Bambi is alive and well here in The Woodlands.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Meet the Queen (of the backyard)

This may be a little bird, but it is a terror when it comes to another Hummingbird or other birds who threaten its habitat. I call her "Queen of Sheba" or "Queen" for short. If we are watching TV in the den, sometimes we see this little lady in the window, like a helicopter watching some drama on the freeway. She is soaking up what she sees. There is no telling what is going on in her pea-size mind. She is curious what is happening inside the house. If I have my camera at the window, she will investigate what it is. If the scenery around the place changes, such as putting the BBQ pit near the feeder, she wants to know what it is. She will also investigate when she has no feeder outside to look inside to see if she can spot her feeder. I sometimes wonder if she knows that we are the providers of the free meals. It really does appear that she knows. Each person in the family has at one time or another said something to the effect, "I don't believe that bird is at the window! Why?". Hummingbirds have some sort of intelligence that other birds do not normally exhibit. 1They are also exceptionally territorial and inquisitive.
One evening Miss Queen was off on an outing. Actually, I think she was tending to her brood. In came Mr Wannabe. He took over the territory. In the side yard, he swooped down to the feeder, took a good long drink and went back up to a twig twig to perch and guard his new territory. Sure I said. I gotta see this! He returned to the feeder several times. In 30 minutes, here came Miss Queen. He took off without a challenge. She is a very tough cookie!
I often will spend a few minutes observing behavior when I see one close to the house. We have three, but only one has dubs on the territory - Miss Queen! A male will visit a feeder on the side of the house. I call him Miss Wannabe (sorry buddy). Another female shows up there also. Depending on what Miss Queen is doing at the time, the other two get run out of Dodge. They are not welcome if detected. She just sits on a perch sometimes and watches for them, then like a speeding bullet, there are flashes of light as the unwelcome guests are on the run.

But this goes further. Ask the sparrow. He will tell you she is "h..." on wings! How would you feel is this little thing was aiming her sharp and long mouth at you and flying what seemed to be the speed of light! How much damage can that mouth cause? People have found the bird with its bill stuck in wood! I see a lance being used as a weapon. Well, the poor sparrow which is some 10 times larger then the Hummingbird kept being hit with the bill. It was not comfortable and you see its just finally giving up and saying, "you can have it". What a nuisance in a yard full of birds! Miss Queen owns that section of the yard completely. No one is welcome there but her.

Thank you Miss Queen of Sheba and Mr Wannabe. You create hours of backyard entertainment and you are much smarter than I would have ever thought! I wonder what is in that little head of yours.


1Might Smart for a Pea Brain