Category Archives: Tales From The Ranch

Tales From The Ranch: this year’s Opuntia blooms

Opuntia clump

This week brings typically Texan temperatures to the area, along with typically North Texan (lack of humidity). When faced with the slow oven outside right now, it’s hard to believe that we already received nearly two inches of rain on Sunday morning, and that we were still dabbling in near-freezing temperatures at least once per week just over a month ago. Sure, that’s typical for Maine, but for Texas? Oy.

The upside to the odd temperatures and the fierce rains hitting much of West Texas is that the area’s most familiar component of the flora, the prickly pear, is doing all right. The vicious summers of 2011 and 2012 only slowed them down, and the odd 2013 spring meant that they bloomed later and stronger than usual. Normally, by the end of May, the blooms would be long gone, leaving only the developing fruit, known locally as “tuna,” attached to the cactus pads. This time, though, I lucked out, and managed to get quite a few excellent shots of an exploding semidesert and the life therein.

Opuntia in bloom

Among other things, the rains and cold brought out an anomaly. Normally, the flowers of Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri are a brilliant canary yellow, but the weather seemed to encourage the development of orange ones as well. If these appeared only on individual cacti, that might make sense, but any given clump might have one orange to every five yellow. It’s not completely unheard of at the ranch: my father-in-law showed me photos of the ranch in 1990 with the same phenomenon. Of course, 1990 was marked not only with an unusually cold winter (including the coldest temperature ever recorded in Dallas), but with torrential spring and summer rains that left the Brazos and Trinity Rivers flooding as far north as the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Are the orange blooms stimulated by similar weather conditions, or are other factors involved? Time for more research.

Orange Opuntia bloom

Opuntia bloom

Opuntia flowers

Opuntia flowers

Orange Opuntia flowers

As any entomologist will tell you, and Bug Girl in particular will tell you, the evolution of flowering plants and the domination of every landmass by insects go together like rum and Coke. Opuntia blooms produce impressive amounts of pollen, and the available protein in that pollen draws out any number of indigenous insects. Both native and honey bees go absolutely mad for prickly pear pollen and nectar, which made photographing them an aggravation. How are you supposed to get one to hold still when they’re practically rolling around in glee?

Opuntia with bee

Opuntia with katydid

That attraction doesn’t stop with bees, either. While its jaws are better suited for cutting than mashing, this juvenile katydid had no problem trying its best to down as much pollen as it could muster. Grasshoppers occasionally accompany the katydids in hiding within the blooms, but they apparently have no interest in either blooms or pollen as food.

Orange Opuntia with ambush bug

In any situation with lots of insect prey, you’ll find lots of predators, and Opuntia offers a handy hiding space and basking platform for them as well. Very occasionally, if you’re quiet and subtle, you might see a local fence swift (Sceloporus olivaceus) basking atop a prickly pear pad, snapping up bugs before returning to the top of the pad. No such luck this time, but closer viewing of this orange bloom revealed a rather large ambush bug hiding at its base. Considering the pain of their bite, I wasn’t so dumb as to try to capture it, so I settled for naming it “Irwin” before letting it go on its way.

Tales From The Ranch: Introducing Pogonomyrmex barbatus

Harvester ant mound

As mentioned in the past, I love torturing my Brit friend Dave Hutchinson with horror tales about the fatal fauna and flora of Texas. He’s already convinced that Texas is nothing but a semi-desert version of Peter Jackson’s Skull Island spider pits, where every last animal and plant in the state exists solely to eat us, enslave us, and steal our wimminfolk. This, coming from a man who lives in a country overrun with hedgehogs, starlings, sparrows, and Manchester United fans. Some people just don’t know when they have it worse than everyone else.

I’ll admit that some of our problems lie with misidentification, as well as exceptional expectations on the lethality of our wildlife. When I first moved here, my previous experiences with ants were as minor pests, but not anything that could inflict serious damage before stripping the meat off my bones. I’d heard about Argentine fire ants, but decent forms of identification were lacking, especially to schoolkids from out of state. One day, standing out in a big cleared patch of ground near a highway, I found myself being stung repeatedly by giant red ants, and those ant stings swelled and came to a head full of clear fluid after about two days of rather intense pain. Not knowing any better, I’d come across fire ants, right?

The reality was that I’d come across a mound of our indigenous harvester ants, Pogonomyrmex barbatus, and I was paying for standing right in the middle of the mound. I also got off lucky, as I only had about six stings. Argentine fire ants, when they sting, sting in the dozens. P. barbatus also pretty much inflicts enough damage as necessary to convince big dumb vertebrates to get the hell out of their nesting sites, and they otherwise leave humans alone. Fire ants, though, actively hunt around and in human habitations, nest in phone junction boxes and other electrified areas (for some reason, they’re attracted to electrical fields, so they’re commonly found chewing on the insulation of ground-installed spotlights and water sprinkler controls), and make lawn mowing into an endurance sport. If Dave ever discovers that they react to flooding by forming huge living rafts and balls that allow the ants to flow by the thousands onto any life form that comes in contact with them, he’ll be catatonic for weeks.

Harvesters, though, are positively mellow by comparison. They get their name from their tendency to collect grass seeds and bring them back to extensive granaries within their nests, and the granaries are large enough that the nests can extend for meters below ground. At the beginning of each year, most nests are only noticeable because the ants shred and prune any vegetation growing within the vicinity. By the middle of the summer, continued construction leaves a very distinctive pile of small stones around the nest entrance, resembling nothing so much as a very small volcanic crater. Finer dust is moved further away, and larger rocks worked around, so the stones generally range from about the size of a typical ant’s head to stones just large enough to be moved by two or three ants working in a team. Throughout North Texas, they’re usually our distinctive and ubiquitous ironstone, but occasionally such treasures as fossil mammal teeth can turn up in the mound spoils. I myself haven’t found anything other than the occasional tiny shark’s tooth in local mounds, but I also haven’t been looking that hard.

Harvester ant - closeup

Since I know that Dave will insist upon knowing why such abominations walk the earth, I’ll also note that harvester ants are a vital food source for many small animals, particularly the Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum). In fact, P. cornatum pretty much eats only harvester ants in most circumstances. Sadly, the horned lizard and the harvester ant are threatened by the same two organisms: fire ants and humans. Fire ants do a great job at hunting down and devouring horned lizard nests, thus partially explaining why they’re becoming threatened throughout Texas, but both lizards and harvester ants suffer more from habitat destruction and random pesticide application. In the process, harvester ant mounds become more and more rare, generally turning up in undisturbed areas such as those at the ranch. The horned toad…well, I haven’t seen a live one outside of a zoo since 1980.

Harvester ant - close closeup

Another aspect of harvester ant behavior led to a very interesting observation this last weekend. While harvesters have no interest in human habitations as food sources, they definitely appreciate any sources of water, human-caused or otherwise, that last through the summer. They march impressive distances to any steady water source, whether it’s from a natural seep or a leaking pipe, so long as the water is reasonably clean. When I first moved to Texas, I lived in the center of a large area cleared for construction of a new housing subdivision, and I came across a minispring formed by a leaking water line in the middle of the construction zone. Every morning, harvesters rushed out to collect as much water as they could get before the sands around the “spring” became too hot, leaving them open to predation from birds and the occasional spider. The few casualties they faced by becoming bird food was apparently worth the effort of having a water source both closer and cleaner than the nearest creekbed, and they kept coming up to the day a house was built atop that water line.

This weekend, I was reminded of that tiny spring when watching the behavior of multitudes of leopard frogs (Rana pipiens) around a seep close to the Brazos River. The whole area around the ranch was just starting to dry out after a series of rains, so I understood why so many frogs would be up away from the river itself. What didn’t make sense at first was why so many would be in such a shallow and honestly piddling puddle, until I stopped to take a closer look. The frogs had no interest in the seep for either residence or breeding, and all of the frogs were too small to breed in any case. However, it was irresistible to harvester ants, which piled up against each other while gathering water. The frogs just waited for the ants in the seep, ate their fill, and went back to the river. Confirmation came in finding frog scat, almost bejeweled in harvester ant carapaces, all over the area. Once the rains stop, the seep dries up, the harvesters find another well, and the frogs find other food sources. In the meantime, the frogs are fat and sassy, and the harvesters aren’t hunted to the point where they move elsewhere for their water. And the cycle continues.

–And a tip of the hat to Bug Girl, who regularly reminds me about the constant interaction between insect and flowering plant, and the odd stories therein. Go read every last post she ever wrote, and don’t be afraid to offer her a job if you’re in need of a professional entomologist.

Tales From The Ranch: Secret of the Lost Quarry

Rock pile

After a solid decade of trips out to the ranch, I know haven’t come anywhere near understanding or even listing the wonders and mysteries out there. Some may think “mysteries” a bit extreme, but it fits. They don’t have to be big mysteries, and unraveling observations to make sense of them works as well with understanding plant behavior as it does with solving murders. I’ll admit, though, that if Agatha Christie hadn’t added a big scoop of murder to them, her Miss Marple stories wouldn’t have quite the oomph.

In this case, the mystery starts with the background. One small portion of the ranch lies right on the Brazos River, and the fauna and flora of that area is typical for any similar area in the state alongside a steady source of water. The main trees are oak and cottonwood, with lots of scrub between the big ones. In spots, the right spots, you can even find wood ferns growing in that scrub.

However, taking a look at an elevation map of the ranch, you’ll see that it doesn’t make a smooth progression from riverbank to full desert. It effectively has four distinct levels from the entrance to the river, with long flat plains leading to each narrow and steep trail to the next. Anyone foolish enough to travel any distance along the ranch without 4-wheel drive would be walking back before too long, and a couple of the trails are getting rough enough that even an all-terrain vehicle needs a steady and calm hand to get up them. In the process, the ongoing erosion of old Pennsylvanian sub-period seabed produces distinctive habitats, with pockets of oddness in each one.

ferns_pile_52813_2

Another bit of background: while the ranch has been in the Czarina’s family for forty years, its history goes a lot further back. Six years ago, my father-in-law went on a trek of idle curiosity, intending to track down what showed up in old maps of the property as, quite literally, “the lost quarry”. A large limestone deposit near the entrance to the ranch had been used quite extensively in the late 1960s and early 1970s for building and landscaping stone, and a second saw extensive use in the late Fifties. The Lost Quarry, though, was a quarry for a particularly dense and tough sandstone used for the reconstruction of the Palo Pinto County Courthouse from 1940 to 1942, necessitating a full WPA work camp in the vicinity during that mining and construction. The general area comprising the Lost Quarry was well-marked, but the specific traces of it were extremely hard to find on the ground. It’s not that the quarry area was buried per se, but that instead it was inundated with recent explosions of mountain cedar (Juniperus ashei. With the trees in the way, it’s hard to see much of anything, especially after seventy years. In addition, the WPA crews did a very good job of cleaning up their messes when they were done, so not much other than a few wooden fences remained when they were finished. Seven decades later, even those existed only as chunks.

Rock pile and ferns

But did they? When we finally found the quarry, the tipoff was finding spoils piles roughly where the crews had been cutting the stone in preparation for transport. Mostly hidden in big stands of mountain cedar, these were now sporadically-lit rubble mounds, further hidden in weeds, cactus, and greenbriar. Oh, and they were covered with ferns.

Ferns

The popular perception of ferns holds that they’re denizens of dark, moist, soggy areas, and Texas, as always, makes a liar of that perception. Texas boasts many species of desert-loving fern, even if many are obscure or inobtrusive, so this isn’t that big a surprise. The problem, though, is that these ferns are only found in this one spot on the ranch. Why should this spoils pile matter so much?

Ferns

Well, the explanation is easier than you may realize. The sandstone making up this pile is very dense, so the core of the pile retains coolness as the outside heats up during the day. As the heat radiates off at night, the loose arrangement of the pile draws in outside air, and nighttime humidity is much higher, especially when the constant daytime southern wind lays off at night. That marginally more humid air enters the core and the moisture condenses on the cool rocks in the core, and you have an air well. It’s not enough water to keep humans alive, or even supply water for animals other than the occasional rattlesnake or spadefoot toad. For the ferns, though, it’s just right, and the thick spreads of mountain cedar all through the area discourage cattle, deer, or most other grazers from stripping the ferns right down to the soil line.

And as an extra, while the use of the term “Lost Quarry” leaves all sorts of implications, I’m sad to say that the Lost Quarry has no dinosaurs in it, fossilized or otherwise. Any fossil beds in the area dating from the Mesozoic Era were probably eroded away long before the last ice age, and every rock in the vicinity indigenous to the area dates to the Paleozoic. Depending upon your definition of “dinosaur”, the area may have some after all: what allowed me to find the Lost Quarry on this trip was being startled by a roadrunner so big that I was wondering if the ranch was raising acrocanthosaurs. The ranch already looks like the shooting location for a Ray Harryhausen movie, so this would just be par for the course.

Tales From The Ranch: May 2013

Lookout Point

When most couples finally get a spare weekend free, they have all sorts of options. They could decide to spend more time with their kids, roughly about the time the kids are finishing up college and asking their parents “Mind if I move me and my English Lit degree back to my old room while I try to get a job with the local Borders store?” Others, with much younger children, have a relaxing time, hoping that nobody notices the recent Google searches on their computers for “recipes for laudanum”. In our case, our only children either mew or capture wayward insects, so holiday weekends belong to the Czarina’s family. Yep, it’s time for a new assemblage of “Tales From The Ranch” photos, including even more natural history and Texas history than before.

Quarry Face

Those stories are due over the next few weeks, but let’s start with the biggest news. The Czarina made a really impressive fossil discovery while we were wandering along the bottom of what was a limestone quarry in the mid-Seventies. As is her wont, she looked down, chirped “I wonder what that is?”, and promptly started attacking it with sharp implements. Fond memories of our wedding night. A few minutes of chipping through limestone shards and thick mud revealed this little surprise:

Calvinosaurus egg

Okay, we know that the stone of the quarry itself dates to the Pennsylvanian subperiod, but with various workings from the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. There’s always the possibility as well that this may have been introduced by Palaeoindians from another location and left in what is now the quarry. When we excavated it, I wasn’t going to get overly excited until we had the chance to look at the other side and view any markings on a surface that hadn’t seen sunlight in over a quarter-billion years.

Calvinosaurus egg 2

The markings confirm it: it’s a Calvinosaurus egg, and it’s probably still viable. Just wait until the guys at the Arlington Archosaur Site get a look at this! Better yet, is there any chance of officially describing Calvinosaurus czarina before it goes on a madcap rampage through downtown Dallas?

Tales From The Ranch: more Opuntia tales

Opuntia with fruit

Most people visiting the deserts of the American Southwest are slightly surprised whenever they see any of the Opuntia cacti commonly called “prickly pear”. “Where’s the pear?”, they ask, especially if they visit in the winter or spring. Well, that’s because the fruit hasn’t developed yet. Like most fruits, they let you and everything else know that they’re ripe and ready, and the season for prickly pear fruit generally runs between the beginning of October to the end of the year. The season generally isn’t determined by whether the fruit goes bad, but whether or not it’s still on the plant, because it’s quite popular.

Opuntia fruit

Among other folks, prickly pear fruit is very popular among humans, and has been a staple in this area pretty much since humans first arrived in the Americas. Most popular guidebooks on cactus make a big deal about how the fruit is used for candy, jams, jellies, and the like, so a lot of tourists and new residents risk getting poked by spines and snagged by insect pests to grab a fruit or two. Without fail, they’re disappointed at the very subtle and mild taste, compared to what the brilliant purple coloration promises. They’re also disappointed by the number and consistency of the seeds, which have all of the thrill of sucking on aquarium gravel. (Do NOT ask me know I know this, because you won’t like the answer.) Even so, once you get used to the taste, you can understand why this is one of the two main commercially raised cactus fruits, with the other being dragonfruit cactus.

(The trick to eating prickly pear, by the way, is to slice them in halves or quarters and toast the cut surfaces slightly, because it carmelizes the sugars in the juice and really brings out the flavor. Prickly pear may never replace pomegranates, but they have their charms. As for the jams and jellies, just be prepared to boil it down a lot to concentrate those sugars. I’ve found that dropping the whole fruit, by the kilo, into a smoothie machine and draining off the juice is the fastest and most practical way to get enough juice to be worth your time.)

Opuntia fruit leftovers

Well, the seeds are as voluminous and as tough as they appear, but they have to be. In the wild, they’re a major autumn food source for a lot of local animals, including coyotes, foxes (red and grey), raccoons, opossums, peccaries, feral pigs, skunks, the occasional mockingbird wanting a taste treat, and cattle. The only thing more common this time of the year than prickly pear skins along clumps of Opuntia are the seed-filled scat of some critter that had a hearty meal a few days before. Since the seed coatings are as tough as they are, that predigestion seems to encourage their germination in spring, which is one of the reasons why prickly pear takes over most cattle land in West Texas. The other reason is that the rest of the plant is so unappetizing, both in flavor and in general inedibility (both from spines and toughness), that even goats won’t eat the cactus unless faced with starvation. The stories about ranchers burning the spines of prickly pear to feed cattle during drought? They’re true, but at that point, the cattle would eat plastic garbage bags first if given a choice. (Again, do NOT ask me how I know this.)

Cocineal bugs on Opuntia

This time of the year is also a great opportunity to see another bit of Opuntia natural history, tied to human history. In the autumn, many Opuntia pads have big clusters of white fluff on them, and many just assume that this is some odd mold. The more adventurous will scrape away the “mold” and find a small insect inside. Squish the bug, and it lets loose a disturbing amount of bright red juice, and every clump of “mold” has at least one bug underneath it.

Cocineal bugs on Opuntia

The bug in question is Dactylopius coccinus, and that red juice is commonly known as carmine or cochineal. Today, these scale insects are gathered, dried and processed as food colorings, among other things, but their value as an intense dye stretches back centuries.

And now a quick digression into a discussion on exotic invasives, and why Australia used to be rotten with prickly pear. When the Spanish conquered most of the Americas, they rapidly discovered the value of cochineal dye, and before long, it was as valuable an export to Europe as chocolate or vanilla. It was added to fat to make carmine, sure, but its real value was as a stable and intense cloth dye, and the famed red coats of the British Army used cochineal dye to give that eye-popping color.

Anyone looking on the Spanish occupation of the Americas notes that the Spanish weren’t just good at recognizing markets for American products, but at keeping a tight grip on intellectual property. While Spanish traders had no problems selling chocolate throughout Europe, for instance, in no way were they willing to give out any secrets about the trees that grew xocolatl or their care. (To give an example, while Spanish explorers and administrators had extensive experience with the common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, throughout Central and South America, they managed to keep that knowledge under control for over 300 years, and stories of bats that drank blood only started seeping into Europe about the time Bram Stoker was writing Dracula.) So long as the Spanish were a major force in the Americas, only they and their allies were allowed access to the scientific wealth of the new territories, and English, Dutch, or French explorers were driven off with extreme prejudice.

Well, that would have worked if Mexico, the center of cochineal production through the Eighteenth Century, hadn’t fought and won its war of independence, because that gave plenty of opportunities for explorers to learn secrets previously open only to the Spanish. (And when I say “Mexico”, remember that a big stretch of what is now United States territory, particularly a place you’ve never heard of called “Texas”, was Mexican territory at the time.) The secret of cochineal production got out, and now all anyone needed to do was establish a population of cochineal bugs and their necessary food.

Hence, while prickly pear was introduced with poor success to many areas, the botanist Sir Joseph Banks put bugs in ears (pun intended) about establishing a cochineal industry in Australia. It would have worked, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling chemists developing artificial dyes through the Nineteenth Century, and the market for cochineal collapsed almost literally overnight. The cactus survived, though, and rapidly took over the continent. Now under relative control, various Opuntia species still thrive in Australia, for the same reasons they do so incredibly well in the Americas. Namely, the individual pads sprout into new plants if given half a chance, and the seeds are spread by wildlife glad for the fruit bounty.

In this case, I don’t think the ranch is going to become a hub for cochineal production, no matter its value as a food and cosmetics colorant. Instead, I’m looking forward to pointing it out to my nieces and relate “Hey, if you want, I can make you your own lipstick while you wait. Let me get some beef tallow and a few bugs.” At that point, the responsibility of smacking me in the head while yelling “What the hell is WRONG with you?” will move to a new generation.

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Tales From The Ranch: Intermission 3

East Quarry

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Tales From The Ranch: Intermission 2

East Quarry

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Tales From The Ranch: Intermission

Ranch strata

Tales From The Ranch: Mystery Cactus

Bunch cactus

Yes, it’s time to go back to school. I can’t identify this bunching cactus without proper references, and I don’t know enough about cactus to know for sure. All I can say is that it’s rather common at the ranch, especially in fields covered with limestone slabs, and it’s exceedingly attractive both in and out of flower. Other than that, it’s time to study.

Bunch cactus

Bunch cactus

Bunch cactus

Bunch cactus

Tales From The Ranch: Surprise at Night

Cocoon in Opuntia leptocaulis

I generally don’t recommend driving around the in-laws’ ranch at night, particularly in an open-top vehicle. It’s not out of any worry about the local wildlife, although I’m pretty sure that any local mountain lion hungry enough would pluck me out of an ATV if I weren’t paying attention. The real danger comes from overhanging branches (mesquite trees have nasty thorns that will take chunks of meat if you hit them at sufficient speed) and cactus clumps, as well as the occasional steer or deer that won’t move out of the way. The occasional trip at dusk, though, reveals treasure.

Cocoon in Opuntia leptocaulis

Stopping at one particular point, the last of the sun’s rays were just enough to highlight a strange white blotch in a clump of Opuntia leptocaulis cactus. A closer look, and I found two silken lumps among the cactus arms, which I first took to be spider egg cases. A quick check, though showed them to be moth cocoons. What kind, though, I have no idea. Whatever they were, the caterpillars were rather large, about the size of my thumb joint, and the moths may be comparable. Either way, it may be worth a trip back to the ranch in early spring to see what emerged.

Tales From The Ranch: The Lepidodendron Layer

Fat Vulture Gulch

Out at the in-laws’ ranch, most of the available strata is former ocean bed. As such, it’s rotten with fossils, usually of crinoids, sea urchins, and other well-armored fauna. In a few very lucky areas, these have opal cores, sadly not of gemstone quality but fascinating nonetheless. The vast majority of the local rocks are very soft shale (including the now-famous Barnett Shale, which stretches all the way east to Dallas) or harder limestone, and that limestone was mined extensively as building stone since the Great Depression. However, right along the Brazos River is another formation, and it’s only accessible in one place on the ranch. That road is jokingly named “Fat Vulture Gulch,” because the combination of steepness and loose rubble promises that anybody attempting to drive it recklessly is going to become vulture food. As it is, the only way to get down it with motorized transport involves 4-wheel drive, and even then it’s a serious white-knuckle drive up or down.

Lepidodendron Layer strata

As mentioned before, most of the rocks on the ranch are oceanic in origin, but the strata that makes up Lookout Point is a bit different. This rather thick layer is otherwise only accessible from Fat Vulture Gulch, and it’s extremely different from the others above and below. Besides being much harder and more erosion-resistant than the limestone mud below it, it’s a relatively coarse conglomerate of sandstone and smooth pebbles. As the mud below it weathers away, it comes free in large slabs, most of which worked their way free before the road went in. Best of all, I gave it the informal designation “the Lepidodendron Layer”, because it’s rich with fossils of tree branches, roots, and sometimes leaves, very likely from the Carboniferous Period lycopod plant Lepidodendron.

Lepidodendron Layer - bent strata

Absolute confirmation of this formation’s origin either lie underneath the bulk of the ranch or were eroded away as the Brazos River worked its way across the desert, but those rounded pebbles give a hint as to where those Lepidodendron parts came from. At one point, while the main ranch strata is marine, a river emptied into the sea near this point, and both regular flow and the occasional flood dumped huge amounts of sand and stone over the local muds. Some of those floods transported wood from the forests along the river, and as that sunk, later floods buried it further. That river may have lasted a few hundred years, or a few thousand, but ultimately it was itself choked by rising ocean levels, and all that was left was the detritus caught in this sandstone layer.

Lepidodendron Layer - bent strata

Of particular note are some of the oddly bent slabs in the area. Since this area isn’t exactly known for its geologic uplifts, and since the material inside isn’t severely distorted by heat and pressure, the suggestion is that these slabs were deformed while they were still heavily compressed mud. Only a few show this distortion, so are we looking at alluvial deposits following an ocean slump, or did earthquakes cause a slump in the muds beneath them after they were already buried? It’s time to go back to school and find out, I think.

Lepidodendron Layer - individual slab

This slab may not have any especial scientific value, but its personal value is immeasurable. The Czarina and I spent our honeymoon on the ranch, and my first visit to Fat Vulture Gulch was during a particularly overcast and drizzly day in January. Because of the rain, a piece of turquoise showed itself atop this slab, and a couple of deft taps with a rock hammer freed it for the first time in a third of a billion years. The Czarina still has this chunk after all of this time, and one of these days, she’s going to mount it in a piece of her own jewelry. That turquoise has no real value, either, but that’s not why we still hang onto it.

Lepidodendron Layer - cliff

While it will probably outlast me, my relations, and anybody who might come across my name, the Lepidodendron Layer is doomed. As mentioned, the limestone mud below it is extremely soft, and it rapidly weathers away in every rain. West Texas doesn’t get much rain, but when it does, it comes in huge gullywasher storms, and without adequate ground cover, those gullies wash clean. Ultimately, all of the Lepidodendron Layer will end up in the Brazos, following the mud into the abyss, and those slabs will be torn apart by river, rain, freezes, and the occasional rockhound.

Fat Vulture Gulch - limestone overview

Before that happens, though, the mud needs to wash away, and Fat Vulture Gulch has a lot of it. The erosion in recent times is obvious, judging by the occasional lost tree still attempting to hang on as the mud disappears, but this is still a layer that’s at least 100 feet (30.48 meters) deep. We may be waiting for a while.

Fat Vulture Gulch - lone tree

Fat Vulture Gulch - lone tree nebari

In bonsai terminology, surface root arrangements are called nebari. This tree won’t have much but nebari before too long.

Tales From The Ranch: Brazos overview

Lookout Point over the Brazos River

One of the essential activities on visiting the ranch, summer or winter, involves standing on the overhang called Lookout Point and viewing the Brazos River. Many of the Czarina’s family race on ATVs down the ranch roads to Lookout Point, take a quick photo from the point, and rush back to beat the record time. Me, I could stand to be out here for hours, because this spot is one of the few spots in the area where you can really appreciate how big Texas can be. You can’t see Fort Worth from here, but you can come awfully close.

Brazos River at low point

As mentioned previously, the drought of 2011 wasn’t necessarily repeated in 2012, but this autumn is unnaturally dry compared to previous years. Usually, by Thanksgiving weekend, we’ve had at least two hard, thorough gullywasher storms within the previous week to bring up water levels through the area. This year, though, we haven’t had any appreciable precipitation since the middle of October. What sprinklings we’ve seen have evaporated away, and the south winds dry out ground and skin even faster. The Brazos River generally doesn’t go dry, but most of the smaller bodies of water in the area are threatening to do so.

Bend in the Brazos River

By way of example, this bend shows both the scars of the great floods of 1990, where all of that sandy area was under about three meters of water or more, and the current deficit. By now, that little promontory should be an island, even if the water surrounding it is ankle-high. Right now, the river is so low that you don’t need a boat to cross. In spots, you could use a ladder.

Pillar at Lookout Point

Right now may be dry, but the occasional violent storms that pass through the area leave their mark. 350 million years ago, this pillar of limestone mud was the bottom of a shallow sea, full of crinoids and other ocean life. Last summer, it had had a capstone of the same formation that makes up Lookout Point atop it, protecting the mud from rainfall. Sometime in the last few months, that capstone slid off in a storm, and the rest of the pillar will fall over the next year or so. As the seasons progress, the mud underneath Lookout Point weathers away as well, and it will ultimately collapse and fall into the river valley. It could happen tomorrow and it could happen in a thousand years, but the fractures on the Point show that it’s going to happen, sooner or later. I may enjoy loitering around the Point, but I’m not planning to sit there that long.

Tales From The Ranch: The Fall Visit

Moon over Opuntia

The heat broke back in October, so the Czarina and I did for Thanksgiving weekend what most people do: we spent it with family. The difference is that we spent it with her family out at their ranch in West Texas. She got her fill of wide open vistas, and I had the chance to explore natural history at a time when most of the local flora was out of the way. Not all of it, of course: the resident agaves, cactus, salt cedar, and mesquite were just as common as usual, but the various grasses and small herbs were either dead or gone, giving clarity to previously overgrown areas. Combine that with a nearly full moon rising just before dark and both Jupiter and Aldebaran rising in the evening, and this was a perfect time to come out for a visit.

Nearly full moon

Tales From The Ranch: Introducing Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri

Anyone care to venture as to what this might be?

Opuntia pad skeleton

Okay, that’s a little lacking in context. How about this?

Opuntia skeleton detail

That’s not really fair. How about seeing a few of these with the flesh intact?

Old Opuntia

My in-laws’ ranch contains at least five distinct species of cactus, and the vast majority of it is the common prickly pear, in one form of Opuntia engelmannii or another. Out of those variations, Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri is the most common. As with other cacti, O. englemannii protects itself with spines. Unlike all other cacti, Opuntia cacti also bear specialized hairlike spines called glochids, which catch in the skin and break off.

(Some of you may be familiar with the story of Commander Nishino Kozo, who led the first Japanese attack on the US mainland during World War II. The popular account of the shelling of the Ellwood oil fields near Santa Barbara was due to Nishino’s first visit to the area while a freighter captain: he fell into a prickly pear cactus and was so humiliated by oil rig workers laughing at him over it that he swore revenge. Having done the same thing, and having to wait for the glochids to fall out, a very long and uncomfortable process, we should be glad that Commander Nishino didn’t go a lot further.)

Sadly, by the end of May, the gorgeous yellow blooms on O. englemannii are already long-gone, and the fruit won’t turn purple when ripe until about the beginning of October. In the meantime, May is a good time to examine the growing fruit. An average prickly pear can carry anywhere between one to 25 of these fruit, depending upon the prior season. Last year, for instance, the drought caused most of the prickly pear to drop their fruit early, leading to a corresponding lack of autumn food for cattle, deer, birds, coyotes, raccoons, and pigs. This spring, though, the rains were both abundant and frequent, so expect a bumper crop of “tuna” come Halloween.

Opuntia fruit

In the interim, because growing conditions are so amenable, the prickly pear take advantage of late spring to do most of their growing. The young pads give hints of their relations to other flowering plants, at least until the fleshy spikes turn into standard and glochid spines.

Opuntia growing a new pad
As far as growing Opuntia is concerned, the trick isn’t trying to keep it alive. It’s trying to kill it off. Prickly pears are notoriously forgiving in their growing conditions, only needing very good drainage and no chance of sitting in overly moist ground for more than a few days. Because the pads are mostly water (the pads are technically edible if peeled and cooked, with a consistency somewhere between cantaloupe and raw squash and a flavor best described as “acquired taste”), prickly pear can’t handle long periods of sub-freezing weather, so they need to be protected if grown in areas with significant amounts of snow and ice. Other than that, though, they’re nearly unstoppable. As Australians learned to their peril when prickly pear was introduced to the continent, if the cactus is burned or chopped down, it resprouts from the roots. If a single pad is left behind, no matter seemingly how mangled, it can and will root and grow into a whole new bush before too long. Worst of all, each prickly pear fruit is full of incredibly tough seeds, and they can and will sprout just about anywhere they land. When birds eat the fruit, seeds and all, those little chunks of aquarium gravel can end up sprouting in cliff faces, atop sandy washes, and even in places you wouldn’t expect.

Opuntia in a dead tree

Yes, that’s an O. englemannii growing in a tree. It’s been there for at least thirty years, and considering the slow rate of decay of most wood on the ranch, it may be there for another twenty before the stump finally snaps and throws it to the ground. After that, it’ll probably scatter pads and form a whole new clump. So far, that cactus has survived two major droughts, although last year’s drought almost got it, along with cattle nibblings, several bad blizzards, and the occasional overly enthusiastic deer hunter. At the rate it’s going, it’ll probably outlive all of us.

Tales From The Ranch: Introducing Opuntia leptocaulis

For most people living outside the US, and for many inside the US, the word “cactus” brings up two images. The obvious first one is of a saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), even though the saguaro is (a) one of the most extreme in size of all cacti, and (b) restricted to only a small area of southwest North America. (I’m still amazed at how often saguaro imagery shows up in cowboy motifs in Texas, even though the nearest one in the wild is in Arizona. It’s that iconic.) The second is of some sort of prickly pear (Opuntia spp.), which is a little more reasonable. Prickly pear not only thrives in desert and semi-desert, but just about any place with sufficient drainage for its roots and protection from long freezes. In fact, most people are surprised to find them thriving in the mangrove swamps of the Ten Thousand Islands in Florida.

Once those cliches are out of the way, Texas cacti have a lot of charms on their own. The best cactus-viewing in the state can be done around Big Bend National Park, and I heartily recommend such trips in mid-March, when the cacti and associated succulents are in full bloom. In the Dallas area, most cacti are limited to collections and the occasional prickly pear in an especially viable area (the seeds are spread by birds, so lone prickly pears can be found hundreds of miles away from their nearest neighbors), but go a little west of Fort Worth, and both cacti and agaves become significant components of the local flora.

Opuntia leptocaulis

Out on the west side of the Brazos River, for instance, it behooves visitors to be careful underneath scrub trees such as mesquite. This is preferred habitat for Opuntia leptocaulis, locally known as “pencil cactus,” among the names that can be printed. The Czarina’s family refers to it as “break-stick cactus,” from its habit to break off in chunks on skin, hair, and clothing, and it can be a menace in places where it grows alongside roads, trails, and paths.

O. leptocaulis detail

As can be told from its habits, O. leptocaulis isn’t especially fussy about its soil requirements, but it needs shade when smaller. Like all flowering plants, it reproduces by seed, and produces bright red fruits in the late fall that often remain on the plant through the winter. Like its prickly pear cousins, it also reproduces from pieces caught on animals and dropped elsewhere, causing it to be compared to the famed chollas of the Joshua Tree National Park of California. This helps explain why O. leptocaulis ranges all the way from the Brazos to the east all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

O. leptocaulis overview

O. leptocaulis blooms

One of the interesting aspects on O. leptocaulis is that it is one of the only cacti on the ranch that blooms in the evening to night, instead of blooming in the early morning as with the other species in the area. Between this habit, the size of the blooms, and the understandable concern more about the spines than the blooms, most people are surprised to see one blooming. They also tend to bloom much later in the year, around late May into June, when most of the more spectacular cactus blooms are long-gone and those cacti are more focused on producing fruit. That said, they gravitate toward insect pollinators, based mostly on their extreme luminance under UV illumination, but they apparently also offer a few drinks to hummingbirds as well.

O. leptocaulis fruit

Now, what few guides contain information on O. leptocaulis mention that the fruit are eaten by deer and other mammals, but you’d never know it based on the huge loads of fruit on mature plants. Prickly pears are eaten with gusto by everything from cattle to skunks. Horsecrippler fruit is preferred by birds, native peccary, and feral pigs, while the other indigenous barrel cactus save their attentions for small birds and possibly the occasional lizard or box turtle. In the last decade since first coming out to the ranch, though, I have yet to see any vertebrate touch a pencil cactus fruit. The invertebrates seem to enjoy them, though, as the cactus offers both hotel and cafeteria for various species of grasshopper and katydid. As to how they encourage seed spread, your guess is as good as mine, and this entails more trips to the ranch to investigate. Oh, the absolute agony.

Grasshopper in O. leptocaulis

Tales From The Ranch: Introducing Megaphasma denticrus

I may have lived in Texas for nearly a third of a century, and definitely two-thirds of my life, but I’m constantly surprised. In fact, I think that’s what keeps bringing me back after I move elsewhere: well, that and the general state of the tech industry. Not everything is bigger in Texas, but the bugs…nobody’s going to argue that.

By way of example, while tromping through the Brazos River valley, the Czarina’s brother stops for a moment and comments idly “Hey, look. A walking stick.” Naturally, I assumed that he was talking about walking stick insects, members of the insect order Phasmida: I was familiar with them, but hadn’t seen one in years. The Czarina felt the same way, and she chirped about how she hadn’t seen any on the ranch since she was a little girl. That’s when she picked up a branch and brandished this monster.

Megaphasma denticrus

This, friends, is Megaphasma denticrus, generally held as the longest insect in North America. Ol’ Truzenzuzex here may not hold the record, but he’s definitely big enough, particularly for the phobic. Give the Czarina a few days, though, and she’d probably make a brace, bit, and saddle out of silver wire and bits of felt.

Megaphasma denticrus

Megaphasma denticrus

Megaphasma denticrus

From what the Czarina and her family informed me, the ranch had quite the population of these walking sticks in the early Seventies, and then they simply disappeared. One suspicion was the use of pesticides on local farmland that may have culled them back, or just simply that our ridiculously mild winter gave them an added impetus to emerge and spread. All I could tell you for sure was that we found them all over the place, and this was the first time in a decade I’d seen any at all. They were getting even bigger: we came back to the ranch house to find Truzenzuzex’s girlfriend N’Grath waiting for us.

Megaphasma denticrus

Boy, it’s a good thing that I like most insects. I don’t want to look for a rolled-up magazine or newspaper big enough to handle this beast.

Tales From The Ranch

Meanwhile, back at “Tales From The Ranch,” one of the more relaxing locales at my in-laws’ ranch is The Quarry. This actually was a limestone quarry in the 1970s, because of its extensive deposit of dense and strong Pennsylvanian limestone. Now, it alternates between being a cattle tank and an appreciated watersource for the indigenous fauna. Coyotes, rabbits, deer, the occasional pronghorn antelope, and the even more occasional bobcat or mountain lion…you won’t see them around it, but you’ll definitely find their tracks and their scat.

The Ranch Quarry

Quarry Wall 1

Quarry Wall 2

Quarry Wall 3

Quarry Wall 4

Quarry Wall 5

I know what you’re thinking. “What’s up with all that cactus so close to the water?” Welcome to the never-ending dichotomy that is Texas.

Tales From The Ranch: Introducing Dasymutilla klugii

While wandering around the ranch, the Czarina and I ran into an old friend, well, enemy, from my adolescence. We were tromping around close to the bank on the Brazos river, and spotted and surprised a rather interesting lizard. While circling around to get a photo so I could ID it later, she suddenly exclaimed “What the hell is THAT?” In a small sapling was what initially appeared to be a rust-colored ball of fluff, and the fluff was moving. That’s when we had a reminder that cowbirds weren’t the only parasites on the ranch.

Dasymutilla klugii

That fuzzball is most likely a female Dasymutilla klugii, commonly known as a velvet ant. Velvet ants are members of the family Mutillidae, part of the same superfamily of insects that includes wasps, stinging ants, and hornets. The velvet ants are flightless wasps found through North America, but they’re rarely seen by most people. It’s not that they’re incredibly rare, but that a combination of rough habitat and a tendency to stay away from human habitations means that they’re not encountered all that often.

More velvet ant

Eric Grissell’s book Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens still qualifies as one of the best general interest books on wasps published in the last fifty years, and even it doesn’t have all that much on velvet ants. That lack of knowledge is due to their being poorly studied. What’s known for certain is that they tend to be exoparasites of exoparasites. Many species take advantage of hunting wasps’ industriousness by waiting until a mother wasp digs a nesting gallery, gathers paralyzed prey to feed her young, and lays an egg atop said host. The velvet ant sneaks into the gallery while the mother wasp is away and lays its own egg next to the wasp’s egg. The velvet ant larva hatches first, and it first eats the wasp egg and then the host before pupating and emerging as an adult velvet ant. Other than that, it’s known that the females are flightless while the males are winged, and the females pack an impressive sting, to the point where they’re also called “cow-killers” or “mule-droppers”.

Dasymutilla klugii

Obviously, I wasn’t insane enough to test the stories, because I tend to pay attention to warnings along the lines of “much more painful than a bee sting”. I settled for watching it scramble through the sapling, desperately looking for something that it couldn’t quite find, before leaving it to go about its business.

And how was this an old friend/enemy? Being a kid of the northern US, my views on Texas were based on reading, particularly a copy of the book Poisonous Dwellers of the Desert by Natt N. Dodge that had been left at my house by a friend when I was nine. By the time I was thirteen, I had read that book to death, regaling everyone with horror tales of cone-nosed bugs, puss caterpillars, the multiple species of scorpion and dangerously venomous spiders to be found in the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts. After I informed a honeybee-stung neighbor that scraping out the sting is much better than pulling it out, she asked me how I knew this, and I merely pointed to the paragraph in question. At that point, nobody in the family questioned me about the arthropodal horrors we’d encounter in North Texas, even after my mother was playing solitaire on the floor of our new living room in Flowermound and put down the 10 of hearts atop a bark scorpion that was checking out the neighborhood. (Two days later, she found another in a huge crock bowl she used for making popcorn. That one became the basis for my first experiment in encasing a scorpion in epoxy, but that’s another story.)

Anyway, the summer of 1980 not only brought us the hottest summer in North Texas history, only possibly exceeded by the droughts of record of 1952 and 2011, but it brought out all sorts of critters. At the time, I lived on the edge of a huge subdivision that was under construction through the year, and honed my then barely existent tracking skills by chasing down the multitude of new animals that I’d never before encountered. One of these was a similar ball of fluff, and I knew well enough about not letting it sting. What I didn’t know is that velvet ants also bite. HARD. I yelled and flung it as far away as I could before it could reacquire a stinging target, and that was the last velvet ant I would see for nearly one-third of a century. And so it goes.

Tales From The Ranch: Spot the Horsecrippler

As mentioned several months back, I’ve become extremely fond of the West Texas barrel cactus Echinocactus texensis. It’s not impressive, like many other species of barrel cactus. In fact, the reason why one of its common names is “horsecrippler” is that between blending into the local soil and growing in areas with lots of grassy cover, only two circumstances allow most people or animals to see one before they step on it. If the cactus isn’t blooming or bearing fruit, they’re nearly impossible to see without a very careful view of the locale.

Don’t believe me? Let’s play the latest Triffid Ranch game, “Spot the Horsecrippler”. Within the photo below are fourE. texensis in plain sight. Can you spot them? (I’ll even give a hint: two are directly in the center of the photo, one is up and to the right, while the last is over on the upper left.)

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 1

Okay, to be fair, we’re looking at a smaller photo, with standard Web-ready resolution. Let’s go for a much closer view. Spot any of them now?

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 2

If you didn’t spot any, congratulations. You now see why these cactus can be dangerous to humans and animals. If you did, I know a few red-tailed hawks who want to steal your eyes and use them for themselves. The problem isn’t just that horsecripplers are down low. It’s that they flatten out over the ground, and with a bit of grass and some faded flower blooms, they’re almost invisible.

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 3

As mentioned before, at two times of the year is E. texensis easily visible, and for the same reasons. The blooms are gigantic compared to the cactus’s diameter, all the better for bees and other pollinators to see. The other time is when the fruit ripens, so it catches the eye of birds and other-color-seeking herbivores. Between the color and the scent, the fruit attracts everything from lizards to mice to pigs, and the seeds (roughly the size and consistency of buckshot) either scatter as the fruit is eaten or in the diner’s feces. Either way, after the fruit is gone, the cactus goes back to complete, welcome obscurity.

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 4

This isn’t to say that all E. texensis are, and forgive the pun, wallflowers. Occasionally, one comes across mutants with attention issues, growing well above the height of their neighbors. In garden and container environments, where nutrients and water are much more available than in the wild, horsecripplers will grow much larger and rounder, but not necessarily taller. This one is definitely E. texensis, based on the spine pattern and shape, but it may be interesting to see what happens with subsequent generations over the next few centuries. (Considering how slowly horsecripplers grow, this will have to be a multigenerational effort. Most of the cactus in these photos are at least 40 to 50 years old, and many out on the ranch may be two centuries old. Time for more research.)

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 5

All of this leads to speculation with, to paraphrase Joe Bob Briggs, absolutely no facts to get in the way of the story. Most smaller cactus species go for either cryptic coloration or impressive spines, and rarely do they go with both. If anything, most barrel cactus species herald their spines to encourage animals to walk and seek food elsewhere. Horsecripplers not only flatten out, but they also put down an impressive taproot to keep them anchored, and nothing alive today other than humans has the determination and the apparatus necessary to pull one out of the ground to eat it. What I wonder is if some form of the Pleistocene megafauna that used to wander this area during the last big glaciation had a taste for horsecrippler ancestors, deliberately seeking them out in grassland and pulling them up. If this was something that both had the time to dig up the cactus and had strong enough claws to scrape out the hard soil underneath, it explains why horsecripplers have such strong spines. Horses and cattle wouldn’t waste their time trying to chew on one, but what about ground sloths and glyptodonts?

Ah, now there’s an image you weren’t expecting to get from a gardening blog, were you? Naturally, this is all pure speculation based on E. texensis structure, and it can’t be proved without examples of glyptodont scat that show bits of chewed-up horsecrippler. The image, though, sticks. Texas gardeners already have enough of a problem with nine-banded armadillos digging up lawns and flowerbeds in the night in search of grubs and insects. Now just picture a vegetarian armadillo the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, galumphing into your back yard in a mad search for native cactus. Just remember: you have to sleep sometime.

Tales From The Ranch: And now for the horror

And before poor Dave gets into his head that I’m going to stop joshing him, I have to share the story of the ceiling fan birdnest. The area around the ranch is habitat for the black-tailed gnatcatcher (Polioptila melanura), and they spend most afternoons and evenings snagging as many insects as they can manage. When not hunting, they spend their time watching us crazy humans, mostly to take advantage of the situation.

Black-tailed gnatcatcher

“Taking advantage of the situation,” in this case, refers to using appropriate human structures to facilitate their own nestmaking. Specifically, they like using the house located on the property, particularly the big open deck on the back. Shortly after arriving at the ranch for the last big family gathering, my sister-in-law found this nest atop a ceiling fan over the deck, and a quick peek showed that it had eggs and at least one hatchling.

Gnatcatcher nest

Getting up to the nest to observe further had issues, the least of which was the lack of head clearance above the ceiling fan blades. Tilting the blades to get a better view risked knocking the nest off the fan. In the end, my nephew Bruce and I settled for putting cameras up to the nest, taking whatever pictures we could, and backing off before the parents came back. After doing so, we had a bit of a surprise.

Gnatcatcher nest contents

If you’re observant, you’ll note that the hatchling inside the nest, while still blind and helpless, is considerably larger than its eggs. You may also note that the eggs aren’t the same color. That’s because both the hatchling and one of the eggs both belong to a brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), which is also common to the area. Cowbirds get their name because of their otherwise encouraging habit of picking ticks and other pests from cattle, bison, and other big herd animals. Since bison herds are migratory, the cowbirds evolved to take advantage of other birds’ instincts and parasitize them. The mother cowbird arrives at a nest while the parents are gone, lays one to two eggs, and moves on, reasonably assured that the foster parents will lay on the clutch and feed the hatchlings as they emerge. Gnatcatchers seem to be particularly susceptible, with reports of 100 percent parasitism of all gnatcatcher nests in surveyed areas.

This led to quite the spirited debate. My sister-in-law argued for scaring off the gnatcatchers so the cowbird chicks would starve, being offended by the idea that the cowbirds were parasites. I argued instead for leaving well enough alone, because at least this way the gnatcatcher eggs wouldn’t be a complete waste. Besides, being very much unlike my own family, I could appreciate the cowbird chick’s situation. We left that weekend with the nest intact, and I suspect that I might see one of the cowbirds the next time I visit, inexplicably relieved that we left it alone. And so it goes.