Houston: Brazos Bend State Park

gator

This week we traveled to see family in Houston.  While there, we visited two places that may be of interest to readers of this blog:  Brazos Bend State Park and Mercer Botanic Garden.

Brazos Bend State Park is a 4897-acre park on the banks of the Brazos River in rural Fort Bend County, about 45 miles from downtown Houston.  It contains prairie, bottomland forest, and various wetlands, and it is one of my favorite places to visit in the Houston area because of its varied wildlife.

The primary appeal of Brazos Bend–at least for our family–is the large population of American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis).  On a warm summer day, they are everywhere.

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Be careful if you decide to sit on a log.
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And pay attention if you go down to the water’s edge.
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Don’t dabble your fingers or toes in the duckweed.

In the winter, we sometimes don’t see any, but this week was hot (95 F) and very, very humid–perfect weather for gator viewing.  The kids stopped counting at thirty.

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The rangers recommend that visitors stay 30 feet away from alligators.  That can be difficult when they park themselves beside the trail.

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Discretion is the better part of valor, and it is usually best to turn down another trail. Nevertheless, some people get a bit too close:

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I prefer to trust in a good zoom lens.

In addition to the alligators, there is a lot of other wildlife in Brazos Bend.  On past visits, we have seen armadillos and feral pigs, but this year all of our sightings were in and around the water.  We saw three red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) laying eggs and a fourth lumbering across the path, probably on its way to build a nest or returning to the water after finishing.  We didn’t bother to count the turtles in the water.

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Red-eared slider on her nest.

There were also a wide variety of water birds, including:

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Black-bellied whistling duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis)
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Common gallinule (Gallinula galeata)
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A black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) who looks as though it is up to no good.
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Green heron (Butorides virescens).  There were also a number of little blue herons (Egretta caerulea), but none held still for a photograph..
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Great egret (Ardea alba)
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A bedraggled anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) drying itself after a swim.

Just about the only animals we saw that weren’t aquatic or semi-aquatic were the golden silk spiders (Nephila clavipes) that had spun their webs along (or across) the trail in wooded areas.

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We also saw some of the same animals a little closer to home.  One morning, I strolled down to the spillway near my parents’ house, where the neighborhood lake drains into Oyster Creek.  A handsome family of black-bellied whistling ducks was sheltering on top of the spillway.

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Mama duck was keeping all of the ducklings tucked under her wings, probably because several herons were skulking nearby, ostensibly fishing but probably keeping an eye open for stray ducklings.

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Great blue heron (Ardea herodias)
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Black-crowned night heron

The herons flew away, complaining loudly, when eldest offspring and I walked down to see what we could see in the creek, and as soon as they were gone, mama duck let the babies out.

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That’s probably enough photographs for one post.  I’ll save Mercer Botanic Garden for another day.

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Motherly love

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Green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans).  I think.

This spider was keeping a very close eye (or six) on me as I moved around the lantana bush in which she had woven her nest.  I believe she is a green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans), although she has more extensive red markings on her cephalothorax than most individuals of that species illustrated on the web (Ha!  web).

Female green lynx spiders bravely defend their egg sacs and are capable of spraying venom at targets up to 20 cm away (Fink, L.S., 1984, Journal of Arachnology 12:373.  PDF).

In the upper left corner of the photo below, you can see the reddish abdomens of recently hatched spiderlings, so the mother’s work is almost done.

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Eyes in the night

A few minutes ago, I went outside to take some trash to the garbage bin.  I was wearing a headlamp, so the leaf litter under the trees appeared to be liberally sprinkled with tiny jewels.  I often notice these beautiful little sparkles of light when I am out after dark.  They are the eyes of insects and spiders reflecting the light of my headlamp, and they’re not visible if I use a handheld flashlight.  I suppose that the light from the flashlight isn’t reflected back at the correct angle.

A few of the sparkles are moths, but the vast majority are wolf spiders, with an occasional fishing spider in the mix.  During the day, they hide away in the leaf litter or down in burrows, but at night they sit motionless on the surface, waiting for prey to wander past.

There are many of them. Very many.  Some of them are big.  And hairy.

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Dolomedes tenebrosus (dark fishing spider), a fairly common species in the garden.

 

Six on Saturday #6

After missing several weeks due to traveling, I’m back with Six on Saturday.  As always, check The Propagator’s blog for links to other garden bloggers who are also posting their six.

1. Lycoris radiata var. pumila (hurricane lily, red spider lily)

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Lycoris radiata var. pumila

Hurricane lilies (really amaryllids, not true lilies) are so named because because they bloom in late summer–hurricane season in the southeastern United States.  The classic heirloom bulb of southern gardens is Lycoris radiata var. radiata, a sterile triploid introduced from Japan in the mid 1800s.  It blooms in late August, and my bulbs are still slumbering underground.  L. radiata var. pumila is a fertile diploid, presumably the original wild type form native to China.  For some reason, these plants consistently bloom a few weeks earlier than the triploids.

L. radiata is one of the winter-foliage Lycoris.  Shortly after blooming it produces a rosette of leaves that persist all winter, dying back in late spring.  Since the plant grows in winter, it is less hardy than the spring-foliage types like those I discussed in a previous Six on Saturday, and I’m not sure it would do well much further north than North Carolina.

2.  Zephyranthes candida (white rain lily)

Zephyranthes candida
Zephyranthes candida (white rain lily)

After dry weather for most of July, August has been quite wet, and the rain has induced several rain lily species to bloom.  This is Zephyranthes candida, originally from southern South America but now more widely naturalized.  Superficially, it resembles a smaller version of the piedmont native Z. atamasco, but while Z. atamasco blooms in spring, Z. candida–like many tropical Zephyranthes–blooms in summer a few days after rain.

3.  Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower)

Lobelia cardinalis
Lobelia cardinalis

Lobelia cardinalis is native to the piedmont and can sometimes be found growing in sun or part shade along creeks or beside ponds.  Hummingbirds absolutely love the flowers.  These are volunteer plants originating from very tiny seed that drifted from a plant that I put in a flowerbed about twenty feet away.  After several years, I now have about a dozen blooming plants.  The best ones have taken root in wet soil at the point where the foundation and gutter drains empty, down-slope from the house.  I have been thinking about building a pond or bog garden there, but for now it is just a wilderness of Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium viminium), interspersed with these shocking red spikes.

Last week, while we were on holiday in eastern Maine, I saw some wild plants blooming along a stream close to the Canadian border, about 600 miles (965 km) north of my garden in North Carolina.  I find it interesting that the plants in both locations bloom at exactly the same time, despite the longer growing season and warmer temperatures here in the south.

4. Hedychium coronarium (white butterfly ginger)

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Hedychium coronarium

This ginger from the foothills of the himalayas is probably the hardiest and most vigorous ornamental ginger for cultivation in the NC piedmont.  The stems grow about 6′ (1.8 m) tall, and the fragrance of the flowers is amazing.  Unlike my cannas, which look pretty ratty after being chewed on all summer long by Japanese beetles and canna leaf roller caterpillars, the foliage of this H. coronarium is always pristine.

5.  Fuchsia ‘Sanihanf’

Fuchsia 'Sanihanf'
Fuchsia ‘Sanihanf’

After my paternal grandfather retired, he grew fuchsias in his garden and greenhouse in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  I wanted to remember grandpa by growing them in my garden too, but most fuchsias expire from the heat before spring is half over in North Carolina.  This Japanese hybrid, which was advertised as heat tolerant, seems to be the real deal.  I bought it in April 2016, so it has now survived two NC summers and continues to bloom even when the days are in the 90s (32-37 C) and nights don’t drop below 70 (21 C).  It might survive the winter outside in a sheltered spot, but not wanting to risk it, I grow it in a hanging pot and keep it in the greenhouse in cold weather.

6. Lilium formosanum (Formosa lily)

Lilium formosanum

Most L. formosanum bulbs produce a single stem topped with four or five flowers, but this plant has branched and re-branched to produce a large cluster of flowers.  The stems are slightly flattened and wider than usual, so I think it may be abnormal fasciation (cresting).

I started with two bulbs about eight years ago, but every year I scatter seed around, and now there are flowering plants throughout the garden.

6b.  flower crab spider (Thomisidae)

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Crab spider, perhaps Misumenoides formosipes,  in ambush

While trying to decide which photo of L. formosanum to use, I realized that I had inadvertently photographed a little white crab spider that was hiding inside one of the lily flowers.  Some species can change color to match the flower they are sitting on and are capable of capturing quite large prey.  I’m not sure if she would be strong enough to tackle one of the big sphinx moths that pollinate L. formosanum, but I have seen similar spiders ambush and consume swallowtail butterflies

 

Spiders of autumn

Argiope aurantia
Argiope aurantia

A sign that we are definitely in late summer, inching inexorably towards autumn:  yellow garden spiders (Argiope aurantia) have started to spin their webs among the flower beds.  Every year, they seem to appear suddenly out of nowhere, but I suppose they have been present all spring and summer and have finally become large enough for me to notice.  They are still not full size and will grow noticeably bigger and fatter in the next month.

They seem to love to spin their webs in the lantana bushes, where they capture many butterflies.

Sometimes they catch bigger prey.

One morning last September, I noticed that the cats were intent on something squeaking pathetically in a large Lantana ‘Miss Huff’.  It was a hummingbird trapped in the web of a very large garden spider.   In this somewhat blurry photo, the spider is at the top of the frame, slowly descending her web towards the trapped bird.

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Where is Bilbo Baggins wielding Sting when you need him?

At first I thought that I was too late and the bird had already been bitten, because when I pulled it from the web, it just lay quivering in the palm of my hand.

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I was trying to decide if I needed to administer the coup de grâce, when I realized that the bird was immobilized by a few strands of almost invisible spider silk.  After I carefully removed the threads from its wings and tail, it sat up in my hand and then zoomed away into the trees.

If you have a strong stomach, a web search will turn up photos of less fortunate hummers, so if you have a hummingbird feeder or plants that attract them, it might be a good idea to relocate garden spiders that build their webs to close to the flight paths.