As I continue to see how crowded so many western outdoor spaces have gotten this summer with everyone seeking outdoor places to go, I’ve been glad that we live in area that sees less crowds. In general so many of the southern and eastern forests are less trekked than popular haunts out west or in New England. And summer really changes that up because who wants to walk in humid, moist forests when temperatures are in the 90s and 100s? Not too many, that is for sure.
Our second trip to the Big Thicket had us traipsing a bit past the pitcher plant bog and off into an exploration of a cypress-tupelo swamp. We arrived early and thus no one at the boardwalk as they had been the previous time we went in May. Just the humidity and us on the trails.
As we hiked, we warned Forest of the potential to run into a snake and he was the one who ended up finding our first and only snake, a water moccasin. We’d disturbed its sunning spot and it meandered over to the other side of the slough, far enough to be way from the pesky humans who had invaded its territory.
Veilwort, Pallavicinia lyellii
It is really exciting when I find veilwort out on our hikes. I’ve only come across it a few times but it is increasingly interesting to me. It is a bryophyte, part of the group of mosses. I just started reading Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer and only a few chapters in and I am very hooked. I know very little about mosses so I hope this opens the doors a bit to my veilwort friends.
The cypress and tupelo trees in this slough weren’t enormous but there were some sizable specimens along the way. It just felt nice to be walking in somewhat familiar territory, a swamp. I will forever miss finding epiphytic orchids and bromeliads like I would in Florida but it just means I have to look harder to find the interesting tidbits along the way.
Another find that reminded us of south Florida, a Dolomedes sp. fishing spider! We decided to poke into one of the tupleo trees with an open buttress and found the spider waiting for unsuspecting prey.
I really could have spent much longer walking along the slough, digging further back and closer to Turkey Creek. When we visit these places during dry times it is always hard to imagine what they would look like during the wet season. Each time they offer a different perspective and sense of places, these swamps whether they are dry or full of water to your waist. I do miss walking in the cool swamp water of the summer. Forest needs to be a bit taller before we delve into that world!
Common Whitetail, Plathemis lydia
If early summer felt like a bit of a drought in regards to pollinators, August and September always make up for it. This, I should know. And back with a fury they came!
The giant swallowtails are out in force, some of the most abundant I have seen them here. They bounce through the yard searching for plants to lay eggs on and then go off in search of nectar. As of tonight we now have 8 caterpillars that I am raising on some rue. Forest and I collected 7 eggs on the rue and brought them in to raise and they have been doing great. Tonight I was inspecting for more eggs and found a caterpillar I had missed last week when collecting eggs and now it is in the cage with the others. I will be curious to see how they do over the coming weeks and if they decide to hang out in diapause in the cage or eclose before winter.
Now this insect was a stumper for me. Forest found it in our bedroom and I put it outside. It was incredibly docile and had no problem chilling on my hand until I let it out. Even then it was reluctant to leave my hand and stay on the railing. As it turns out, it is a cuckoo wasp, native to the Old World and likely introduced here after WWII. It seems they live their life as parasites of wasp nests. If I had known they weren’t native and they worked off of being a parasite I would have probably killed it but I thought it might have been some kind of native bee.
I have always wanted to see a saddleback caterpillar, Acharia stimulea, in person. Chris found one in the field a few years ago and texted me a photo of it and that has been the closest I’ve ever come to seeing one.
Last week that changed. Forest and I were in the garden and he was asking for some of the small bananas that fruit on our pink banana trees. He likes to play with them and has since he was a toddler. So, I walked into the flower bed to grab some and on the way my right wrist grazed the side of one of the leaves and I felt something poke it. I paused because it was weird having something sharp on the end of a banana leaf and thought it was a pine needle or maybe a piece of a pine cone or tiny twig stuck that jabbed me.
It kept stinging and so I flipped the leaf to see what had got me and was face to face with a younger instar saddleback caterpillar! Imagine my shock to see that! The sting continued so I went inside to rinse it off and it felt better. Forest and I returned to get a better look at the caterpillar and then we found two more!
I don’t have a photo of all four that we found but Forest and his keen eyes found the fourth one the following day! I’ve been keeping tabs on them all week but about two days ago we went down to one caterpillar. I’m not sure if wasps or spiders got the other three or if they moved on—I’ve been surveying leaves but not finding them—but I’m hoping I can watch this last one long enough to see where it pupates eventually.
It seems larvae need four to five months before they pupate so it is possible they have been around all summer over there. And they are quite the generalists when it comes to host plants and will eat a range of different plants. (More information here).
They are gorgeous caterpillars and I’m glad I got to see them up close! I do wonder that if the adults have finally found the garden if that means we are likely to have more instances of occurrence in the future? As in, do I need to be more careful in the garden?
My first thought is—I was overly ambitious to want to try a 10 mile bike ride at 1pm during a heat advisory day (I’m drafting this on Saturday)! *Laughs in Texas in August* I cut it short to 5 miles and hope to do the other 5 this evening. Tomorrow (or today when this posts) I’ll go earlier.
My second thought is, Hurricane Laura delivered us barely any rain from a far outer rain band on Wednesday afternoon and that was that. The shift into Cameron, Louisiana really put most of the Houston area out of the range of anything and other than some storm surge in Galveston it was also unscathed. Even Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange, and Sabine Pass managed to stay on the left side of the storm and thus escaped the dramatic damage they were expecting. During the summer of 2000 I spent some time along the area of the Louisiana coast that the storm hit during a sea turtle tagging internship in college. We worked out of Sabine Pass, Cameron, and Grand Chenier (Mermentau Pass) so I am familiar with these areas. I haven’t been back since but I spend so much time looking at aerial imagery in Louisiana for work that I often feel as if I’ve been there a million times.
So, with no rain means our drought conditions persist. And extreme heat—welcome to August in Texas.
School started for Forest back on the 12th. I went the Monday before and waited in the longest parent pick-up line ever and got my taste of that awfulness to get Forest’s tablet for online learning and a packet of school work. That mostly consists of coloring sheets, writing pages, and other materials. We’ve since had to go back once a week to pick up work because Forest isn’t attending the once a week face to face days they are doing for certain grades. This will end after Labor Day when everyone will go back at once, at least those who don’t want to do online learning. And we are so far committed to online learning. A few thoughts on that.
First, we are both still conflicted about this, just as I think many other parents are. It kind of broke my heart on that first face to face day when his teacher shared photos on the parent/teacher messaging system of the kids in the class and a few of them on the playground. I wished Forest was getting to go there. That said, as we hear more and more from various education systems throughout the country of Covid cases it helps me realizes we are doing the right thing. That doesn’t stop me from thinking that maybe if there aren’t any cases after the first 9 weeks we can switch him in. I know better in thinking this will all be great and we can send him but I still hope.
The second is that the online learning is kind of a pain in the butt. We got the tablet for him and Chris had to set it all up completely. And then of course log in issues that first week but I think the kinks are mostly worked out, though links to YouTube still don’t work properly and I have to pull them up on my phone for him to watch. So, on the face to face days the teacher isn’t zooming with us. We get our lessons for the day and can do them at our own pace. So far that has meant I’ve been with Forest on those days so I’ve been trying to get everything done in the morning so I can work in the afternoon and while he does some of the lessons. I actually like this set up much better as I feel as if even what is done with the teacher is kinda not great either—she’s on the screen and facilitates some things like when they do a color or letter show and tell (bring something from the around the house, talk about it, she draws it on a marker board at school) but most of the time she’s on the screen and switches to a video about the alphabet or coloring, or talking about science or something like that. And it takes a million times longer because you’ve got 12 kids all trying to talk and be interested in the lesson. Lots of “mute yourself” and “unmute yourself”—you as a parent have to be attentive because 5-6 year olds haven’t quite grasped that yet. So there goes any kind of uninterrupted working while in he’s doing school. Luckily we only zoom between 2-3 times a day, maybe we’ve done 4 once??? But they aren’t terribly long either, 30-45 minutes. I can’t imagine those grade levels that have multiple teachers and lots of zooming like my niece is going through right now as a middle schooler.
It’s a mess but we’re making it work. That’s the simplest thing I can say to all of that.
I haven’t shifted my thoughts to fall gardening yet. Still too hot and dry, but maybe in mid-September I’ll begin thinking about that.
+The shifting light
+Finding our first saddleback caterpillars in the garden!
I’ve read a few books lately:
+Hiding in Plain Sight by Sarah Kendzior about the rise of the current president and the people around him. Sarah has been banging the drums about authoritarianism since before 2016 and is a scholar of authoritarians so she’s not talking about of the side of her mouth. It’s good, I highly recommend. We’re in for it if he wins again.
+The Daughter’s of Erietown by Connie Schultz. This is a fiction book about life in small town Ohio in the 1950s-1970s, about going with the status-quo, teenage pregnancy, and breaking out of bad patterns. Really great and easy read. Connie is an acclaimed writer, Pulitzer Prize winner, and the wife of senator Sherrod Brown.
+The Last Flight by Julie Clark. Another easy fiction ready about two women who trade places in life, each running from the bad situations they are in. A bit of a thriller!
I’m still trying to read Cross Creek but it is so racist that it is really hard to handle. Even if you try to put it into context of the time it is pretty distasteful. I’m honestly not sure I will (or want to) finish it.
I finished another painting in July but haven’t done a whole lot recently.
Watching & Listening:
Listening—podcast listening is sporadic. I really liked this episode of Outside/In about The Darién Gap, the roadless rainforest area between Panama and Colombia.
I’m rewatching Alias because nothing sounded good on any streaming service. Might as well stick with what I know! It’s been about 8 years since I’ve done a complete rewatch so it has been fun to see how it holds up now that it is coming up on 20 years old.
Forest turns 6 on Thursday!!! WHAT???!!! The kid continues to amaze me every day and I can’t believe he’s mine!
We made some camping reservations for fall but I’m unsure of how that will work. I’m a bit squicked to think about using public bathrooms.
And I would love to figure out how to see our family soon, too.
In late June we trekked back to Watson Preserve and the Big Thicket to see what might be blooming in early summer. I’d had word that the snowy orchids, Platanthera nivea, were blooming and they were a species I had not seen before. Chris says he had seem them but I wanted to get my own glimpse. They weren’t a disappointment!
Found primarily across the coastal south and southeast, east Texas is their western most part of their range. Found within pitcher plant bogs, wet savannas and seeps, these are species you will only find in certain locations and of course being that these locations are increasingly scarce, the orchids are not always the easiest to find unless you know where to look. Thankfully Watson Preserve has this orchid and so many other species available to see that folks might not otherwise be able to find. As with so many orchids and rare plant species, location information is hard to get unless you know where to look, stumble across a plant, or have ties to someone who knows where to find a population.
Pollination of the orchid appears to be by skipper butterflies according to the North American Orchid Conservation Center.
I had hoped we’d make it back out to Watson again this summer but that wasn’t in the cards. Instead maybe we can make an early or mid-fall trip to see some fall blooming plants, though I’m not sure how it looks after Hurricane Laura. Thankfully they took a glancing hit instead of the direct hit that was possible so I suspect it won’t be terribly bad over there after a few weeks.
Last weekend we ventured out to do a new to us section on the Lone Star Trail. We originally wanted to hike starting at the Cotton Creek Cemetery Road trailhead near Huntsville but when we pulled up to turn down the road we found it looked like it went through a ranch and there was a no tresspassing sign. A man in a truck pulled up after he saw us sitting there contemplating our next step and after we told him what we were looking for he said that it was down a different road behind us. I pulled up the PDF maps and he was referring to the Bath Rd. Trailhead. I still haven’t figured out what is up with the other trailhead and the no tresspassing sign but I suspect we could actually access it. We didn’t want to deal with it and the other trailhead was just as easy to get to so we opted to head there.
The trailhead wasn’t really labeled and we had to look for the metal blazes to make sure we were at the right spot and not wandering off into someone’s timber land or hunting club. Needless to say, no one else was on this section of trail! That said, it was actually maintained fairly well except for a couple of small sections between some creeks where it would be hard to haul out a lawn mower.
A lovely nearly ‘alba’ beautyberry! This section of the Sam Houston NF must have had rain recently because none of the beautyberries were drooping. The section closer to our house had beautyberries wilting under the pressures of our drought.
This stumped me for a while. I thought it was nandina at first but it was in the middle of the forest (which means nothing, birds can drop seeds) and usually there are a lot around if you spot one nandina. There were three plants and I think it might be Maryland Senna, Senna marilandica
This was also a great section to look for Texas Dutchman’s Pipe, Aristolochia reticulata, which we found! Now that we know the habitat it is pretty easy to keep an eye out for them. I suspect there are far more out there than anyone knows because no one is actually looking for them!
At an overgrown forest service road (FSR 243) we stopped to look in a creek and Forest and I crossed the creek and walked in the very overgrown road on the other side. It looked as if the road once went across the creek as there were exposed metal culverts there but that had since washed away in some previous storm event.
Forest enjoyed the little meadow and wanted to take photos and luckily I had his camera in my bag from a previous trip. I need to download what is on his SD card to see what he’s got on there that might be worth sharing here.
This was a later hike than we had been doing this summer but it wasn’t terribly hot—I’m mean, yes, plenty warm, but not so suffocating that we were miserable. It had a slight tinge of light that reminds me of autumn hiking and I’m really looking forward to the next couple of months and getting some trail time in.
Hey! Yes, I’ve fallen off the face of the blogosphere! I should probably do this as a Life Lately post but I’m short of time so this will be a quick update and eventually I’ll do something a bit more in depth.
+Online school is going. That’s about it…going. I wish he was at school but we’re opting for online at the moment. Needless to say, during the week trying to navigate that plus work keeps Chris and I both busy. We are alternating who is doing school during the week so we can each get time at the office to actually work. More on that later!
+Tropical systems—are they coming here, are they not? First it looked like Marco was going to be the one with the impact but increasingly it is now Laura who will have the impact around the upper Texas coast. Just where—we don’t know. We’ve been preparing through the weekend, picking things up in the yard, cleaning the house, getting on top of laundry. I’ll probably do another go through on Tuesday/Wednesday so we aren’t caught with a backup of anything should the power go out. Since we’re on the north side of town we won’t have as much impact as everyone towards the coast but any kind of high winds means the chance for power to go out. Luckily this doesn’t appear to be a Harvey rain event (hey, just about three years ago now!) and we’re in a deficit for rain so any rain will be good to a certain point. I took photos of the pond to compare just how much we actually end up getting.
+I’m going to be pushing hard to edit photos this week and get some posts scheduled in case things go sideways for power so I’ll have some writing out into the ether. We’re coming up on a year from our Alaska trip here in a couple of days so I really should finish all of that plus a trip to the Big Thicket back in late June and then a short hike on the Lone Star Trail we did today on a new to us section.
That’s really the highlights for now…to keep it interesting here’s a short video I took of some long-tailed skipper caterpillars!
Last weekend I noticed that the mountain mint was abuzz with insects so I grabbed my camera to see what I could a snapshot of. It turned out we had quite a few interesting characters in the garden!
I caught this one out of the side of my eye and thought it was a small bird at first. When it finally settled I realized it was a really large dragonfly and one I hadn’t seen before. Since it was quite distinctive it was relatively easy to figure out what it was when I popped it into iNaturalist. My reading say that it isn’t a species of concern but sightings were scattered in east Texas and along the Gulf Coast with most sightings in central Florida. So, relatively uncommon around here!
The gulf frits are back in force as per usual for August. We’ve had several transients throughout the summer but their peak really starts happening right about now for us.
I just love how she’s grasping onto the leaves in these two photos! It makes me see her and all of the other beings in the yard as these remarkable individuals and parts of a community, the circle of life if you will. Doing their own things, living their lives, and interacting with every other creature they come across. It is probably a bit anthropomorphized but I really appreciate them so much!
And one of the few monarch we had from a mating pair of adults from a few weeks ago. Which I found the wasps had been picking off and Forest and I watched it happened in action twice! I ended up saving two of them and putting them in the cage to let them finish out their larval stage.
I later learned the wasp chews up the caterpillar, rolls it into a ball, and then takes it back to the nest for the larvae to eat! I knew wasps were a major predator in our garden, they are constantly patrolling, but hadn’t realized how quickly they take down caterpillars! It was very interesting and sad at the same time!
I will probably get back out there this weekend to see what else I can see since it is high summer and everyone will be making the most of nectar and availability before the season changes!
One of the highlights on any trip to Denali is of course the chance to see brown bears! And while we had encountered them from a distance on our way into the park, seeing them up close like this was amazing! This is really just me spamming you with brown bear photos! Gah, it really makes you want to reach out and touch them–they look so cuddly! Instead, they would rip you to pieces!
(Oh, yeah, something I’ve been meaning to share here but haven’t yet but this seems like the appropriate place: Grizzly Bear Attack: A Breakdown. This is by a hiking acquaintance I met back at Billy Goat Day in Florida in January, Larry Boy. (I later had him on my FT podcast here.) As the that link suggests, he had an encounter with a grizzly in Wyoming a few weeks ago and managed to live to tell what happened!)
And of course all of this traveling and early rising and wacky still-light-late-at-night shenanigans were wearing on the newly minted 5 year old but the adults all got some zzz’s in as well on the way back!
And that was it for our sightseeing adventure within Denali National Park and Preserve. We did a short hike closer to the visitor’s center that I will share and I have a few more scattered photos from around the cabins we stayed at and the town that I will share as well. But since we’re coming up quickly on a year from this trip I really should work to get everything posted before then!
Eventually we made it to the Eielson Visitors Center, where a decent crowd from earlier buses were already inside. Bathrooms, water bottle refilling stations, a gift shop, and other exhibits were open to learn more about Denali.
I was captivated by the artistry of these art quilts that captured the essence of the park. I had my long lens on and for some reason I’m not finding a lot of photos that didn’t involve my zoom lens so I guess I didn’t take any phone photos. Why, past self, why????
This was our view of Denali! Socked in with clouds! Visibility was very poor. Should visibility have been better I think we would have stayed around the visitor center longer to explore and enjoy being able to see Denali. As it was, we decided to stop back at the Toklat stop and explore the river there.
I think we spent a good hour or so wandering around the river, poking around, and Chris was looking for any kind of animal prints to take castings of. Eventually he found what he was looking for and while that was setting we moseyed around the river and gift shop.
We came around from the river and up an embankment and found this chubby ground squirrel who immediately posed for us in a manner that looked as if he was accustomed to begging for food from tourists. Instead of food I took plenty of photos of him and we moseyed on down the way.