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