Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

August Butterfly Bucket List- Zebra Longwing

I'd given up getting any sort of shot of a butterfly at all for the August Butterfly Bucket List hosted by Anna at The Transmutational Garden every 4th Sunday.  I was actually out taking photos today of some clumps of century plants that I have big (BIG!) plans for.

I was trying to get some good wide shots of the beds the century plants currently dominate, when I spotted a dragonfly I didn't recognize.  Off I went to get a photo (of course!) and while I was wheeling around it trying to get a good shot of any identifying marks, my attention was captured by a narrow winged strongly striped black and yellow blur in the background.
It was one of a handful of Texas butterflies I recognize on sight, a Zebra Longwing (Heliconius-charithonia).  I was elated! A sighting for August in the nick of time! In the spirit of the Bucket List, I decided it was time to fill in some gaps in my information on this wonderfully striped visitor.

According to the information on the BOMA page linked above, Zebra Longwings grow to a length of between 2 3/4 and 4 inches, wing tip to wing tip.  Their preferred host plant is any one of the several varieties of passion vines.  I found it fascinating that such a strongly patterned winged creature flies around leaving eggs and setting their cats loose on vines bearing one of the most striking flowers around.
The adults feed on lantana and shepherd's needle preferentially.  I'd never heard of shepherd's needle previously (a parsley relative - butterflies of all stripes do love the parsleys) but we have loads of lantana around as evidenced in the photos today.

Zebra Longwings are reported to have a set foraging route.  They are considered "trap-line" feeders.  That means since I saw one out on our lantana this afternoon, if I am observant I ought to be able to catch it visiting again tomorrow.  And the next day.  I like that idea - that the zebra and I have a standing appointment, if I wish to keep it.
What I found really intriguing, is that adults roost communally in groups of 25-30 individuals.  I can barely imagine what that might look like, a cluster of 2-3 dozen of these beauties all in one place at one time.  It would be like winning the butterfly lottery - a bonafide Zebra Longwing Jackpot!
So, take that, August.  While I barely made the cut this month I am optimistic the return of slightly cooler temperatures and at least a chance for precipitation will see our winged visitors showing up in numbers again soon.

Thanks to Anna for hosting this wonderful incentive to get out and take a closer look at who is flying in and dropping by.  Be sure to visit her own August post and pick up the links to a whole host of great bloggers posting about their own butterfly experiences this month.

Thursday, August 27, 2015


This mature Datura (Datura wrightii/Sacred thorn-apple) planted close to our front door has been showing off this summer, demonstrating why it is allowed to dominate the area where it grows.
For several weeks it had been developing a record number of buds, each one reminding me a bit of okra pods.  We watched the pods get larger, and eventually a few began to unfurl each day.  Then, record numbers of the pods matured at once, and for two evenings in a row this one plant has treated us to an even dozen blossoms, all opening at one time.
Previously I'd tried in vain to appreciate the widely reported fragrance of the blossoms. Now I can smell them!
The bees have been taking advantage of the fact these blooms, shaded by the house, aren't exposed to direct light until the sun is high in the sky.
The flowers stay open all morning and drew the bees in droves earlier today.
I spotted multiple types, European honeybees and native bees alike.
We were all happy-happy.
Datura is a native, and the speed with which the one-day-and-done flowers draw pollinators in is testimony to a long-standing and well evolved relationship.  I've not had luck starting these plants from seed, but nursery stock is readily available year 'round, with spring planting recommended for more reliable success.

I have two smaller Datura plants out closer to the street, but they aren't the beneficiaries of extra hand watering and have only been in place for a season or two.
Exposed to harsh afternoon sun, my baby Datura haven't yet bloomed, but I'm confident if they make it through the winter yet to come, and become better established, they'll be sharing spectacularly sized white flowers all their own with passers by (and bees!) for years.
Datura wrightii.  Well worth the wait.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wholly Anole

Because it is past the halfway mark for August...
Because others have already blogged about the few things that are in bloom for us this time of year...
And because I didn't even have to go back for a few weeks to cull out the best shots...
I only had to go outside with my camera and pay attention this morning.
This guy was out sipping up what remains of water droplets from last night's watering.
Anoles are everywhere these days and nobody could ask for a more appealing companion in the garden.

This last anole almost completely escaped my attention.  Well camouflaged and all snugged up tight against the pole to the left of the butterfly, he seems to be waiting for a little privacy to make his move.
Or maybe it is just too hot to do anything more than look.   Here's to the winding down of August and to the easing off of Summer's worst heat.  Home stretch, people!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A (not so) Magnificent Obsession

I don't believe I have any need to go into the obvious human nature bits of this situation.  I can simply tell you we've had multiple coral yucca plants (hesperaloe parviflora - not actually a yucca at all) growing here for over a decade.  Local deer love to chew the bloom stalks down to stubs.  A process they will repeat over and over again.  We never had a bloom stalk that survived longer than a few days.

Events finally conspired however, and this year we have flowers, a series of pink and yellow long lasting blooms, for the first time ever.
I can't speak for the rest of my family, but I am completely obsessed with the flowers and developing seed pods both.
They are visual sirens I cannot ignore.

August heat or not, there are jobs that desperately need to be done, centrally involving cutting back completely overgrown opuntia, agave and countless volunteer hackberry seedlings intermingled in a wild run of sprinkler blocking branches.  Today I decided to get started on beds on the downhill side.

As I was working my way from drive to corner I discovered both types of paper wasps nesting in the overgrowth, polistes exclamans and polistes carolina. (These wasp photos are from earlier this year.  Today's work was not a photo op.)  9/7/15 Update:  While the wasp in this photo is P. exclamans, I now believe the wasps I ran across out front to be P. bellicosus.  See this post for more on the saga.
P. exclamans (top left) has a signature orange tipped antennae.
Both types of wasps reacted when I worked close by their nests.  The polistes exclamans went ballistic, flapping their wings and vibrating their bodies, becoming quite agitated.  Well warned, I backed away and stopped working in their vicinity.
Polistes carolina harvesting wood pulp aka our bench
The red wasp, or polistes carolina, had been consistently circling overhead while I worked.  When I got close to the nest, the wasp flew in and landed on it, which first served to draw my attention and then facilitated my choice to stop work for the day.

Temperatures will drop.  Both nests will be abandoned.  Most of the plants growing in the areas where the sprinklers have been blocked by wasp nest-bearing branches, are mature native specimens.  For today, I'm making no decision other than to keep a watchful eye on things.  And hope like crazy for rain.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Wildlife Wednesday - Mad Dogs and Garden Bloggers

August is upon us and though some long for summer days to last forever others are more than willing to welcome the beginning of the end of the heat in the central Texas area.

There have been a lot of dragonflies and butterflies this year, due at least in part to heavier than usual May and June rains.  These evocatively named Widow Skimmers, this one a male, according to the blue body, have provided near constant supervision and companionship out in the garden beds.

Skipper butterflies continue to visit daily, their erratic flight patterns reminding me of Charles Schulz's flittering companion for Snoopy, the adorable Woodstock.  Yes, Woodstock is a bird, a little yellow bird, but besides his random low-level aviation preferences (he got beak bleeds if he went too high) you may recall Snoopy pulling out a field guide and attempting to identify Woodstock, to no avail.  

I'm not sure the artist ever actually identified Woodstock "as" any specific bird. Snoopy gave up his attempt with a shrug. The point was not "what" Woodstock was, other than being Snoopy's close companion.

I can relate.  At times knowing is important.  Other times...not so much.

Here, what I think is a Sachem Skipper busily nectaring on a coneflower, while another different type of skipper butterfly can be seen clambering up onto the business end of a second bloom in the background.  
Coneflowers are an ongoing steady draw for skippers and other butterflies. Beautiful at every stage, these dramatic late bloomers fill in just as other flowers are fading for the season.

As well as attracting pollinators to their flowers, finches are drawn to the developing coneflowers seed heads. 
This Lesser Goldfinch might have been hungry when he got here, but there was no reason to leave that way.  This one could have been after the seed heads of some blanketflower nearby.  After snapping this I retreated rather than interrupt.  Finches can be shy, as behooves a bird small enough to perch easily on a flower stem.

Speaking of shy, the spiny lizards have sure been out in numbers all around our area.  Over the years we'd spot one or more of these a couple of times a season so we always knew they were around, but this summer we are seeing them daily, if only for a moment and often only as they are skittering to whatever feels like safety.
I think they are quite handsome, and hope their population micro-explosion continues.  I'm not sure what they feed on, I've purposefully avoided seeking that information out.  I'd rather enjoy the idea they are here without "knowing" what they eating.  In my horticultural haven, everything eats unspecified garden pests.  So let it be written...

Spider webs were absolutely everywhere all July long, and the entrance of August has not seen much of an abatement.  There are scads of messy webs in the tips of lots of tree and small shrub branches, originally leading me to believe we'd been invaded by web worms.  Closer inspection revealed they are webs sans worms.
They make for interesting photos as the webbing renders like a loss of focus by the camera lens.  I'm demanding all my future photographic portraits be shot through this stuff.
Here's an example of what I think of when I think of spider webs, the more traditional intersecting silk gridwork.  I wasn't able to capture the iridescence of this as it undulated in the morning breezes. the camera only able to "see" one color wavelength at a time.   

I've always wondered if spiders appreciate their work for being attractive as well as functional? Can't you just imagine a group of spiders gathered to critique each other's efforts?  The mouthy one (there's one in every group) is holding forth "So here is where Francesca went a little off grid, commenting on the disorganization of modernity as superimposed.." while Francesca leans over to the spider next to her to whisper "That is where I trapped and wrapped my dinner.  Disorganization of modernity, my ass!". 

In the very last days of July, I ended up taking a series of shots attempting to capture the antics of a pair of tufted titmice. I first noticed one bird hunting insects all around the Candyland bird bath.
This guy hunted for bugs in the water, and then went after a couple of unguarded wasp nests over the kitchen window.  At that point he was joined by a previously unseen hunting partner.  

The two of them investigated every clump of ball moss and patch of lichen in the oak trees overhead.  
They were nothing if not thorough.  Nobody is handing these guys anything, they worked hard, staying in near ceaseless motion.  
At least they're working in the shade.  It was 95 degrees when I took these and the temperature was still climbing.
And that is it for this August's Wildlife Wednesday.  Only mad dogs and wildlife garden bloggers go out in the sun in July and August, the bloggers no doubt working to chronicle fellow hot weather denizens for their own Wildlife Wednesday posts.  I hope you've enjoyed taking a quick peak at some of what is happening on the other side of all our lowered shades and closed curtains this time of year.   

Please note: all the identifications made here are my own amateur efforts unless specifically credited to another source.  If you are pretty sure I've labeled something incorrectly, feel free to point that out in the comments section.  We'll all feel better afterwards if you do, or at least I certainly will!   

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Thanks to the remarkable Tina at My Gardener Says for hosting the first Wednesday of each month's  Wildlife Wednesdays.  As she notes,  "A garden is never so alive and vibrant than when it is graced by wildlife." Be sure to visit her amazing blog and discover the potential rewards of enjoying your very own garden spaces along with the creatures who depend upon them for their daily sip, seed, or bug.   

Monday, August 3, 2015

Why try?

Identification of various insects and spontaneously appearing plants can be tricky.   I've complained written here often, bemoaning hours of time spent fruitlessly trying to match a photo taken to images online, hoping to establish the correct name of something.

Why?  Why even bother?  Why not just throw up my hands, assign my own names to everything and call it a day?

Part of the answer is that I am (extremely) stubborn.  Once I begin a search for a name, if I'm not rapidly rewarded with what I feel are reasonably accurate results my efforts become a Quest.  The more time I spend not finding what I am looking for, the more determined I become to find it.  (see "Top Management Mistake:Throwing good money after bad")...

Most of the rest of that "what IS it!?" energy comes from the fact we are trying to take a no-kill approach here.  If a plant appears that we didn't plant, we usually accept it as a gracious gift until it is proven otherwise.   Several plants others consider weeds, we prefer to regard as native ground covers.

To properly identify a plant I typically rely upon the LBJ Wildflower Center's Native Plant Database, but I also keep an eye out on local garden blogs. Common things being common, most if not all the plants I run across are not strangers to others in my area.  Just because I don't know what something is, rarely means somebody more experienced in my area does not.  And potentially, somebody else in my area is also wanting to know.

Recently I experienced a small frisson of recognition while reading a post on Sheryl Smith-Rodger's wonderful "Window on a Texas Wildscape" blog.  She was updating readers on the watchful-waiting attitude she'd taken towards a horseweed, or mane's tail weed, aka Conyza canadensis.  Her plant was tall, and getting taller.  She had decided to let it grow until it bloomed and then she planned to take it out of the ground to prevent its spread from seed.
Please understand Ms. Smith-Rodgers is a certified master naturalist and quite a skilled gardener.  I am neither, but I do share a great deal of curiosity about the world around me, so it was a bit of a thrill to realize that the mystery plant I'd been observing in one of our front beds is the very same plant she'd written about.
The Mystery Plant appears center stage, a bit spindly with the tiniest of blossoms up top.
So, not to steal any thunder, but Sheryl, here are those blooms we've been waiting for.  Such as they are.
I nearly missed the opened flowers, mistakenly thinking the blossoms might fan further out in wider fashion.  They never did, and the appearance of the first seed ball let me know it was "time!" to pull the plant.

And you'll have to forgive me - I didn't get a photo of the seed ball because I reflexively trapped and disposed of it safely before I thought of recording its appearance.  Imagine a miniscule dandelion seed head. That's pretty close. Rather than risk seed dispersing while I waited for a photo, I pulled the plant.
Take a closer look at the blooms to the right and left of center in this frame.  Those are opened blooms.  Easy to miss.
Update:  The bloom stalks I cut and put in a vase in my kitchen window (I think they're pretty) have yielded up a seed head.  Here for posterity...the seed head of Conyza canadensis.

Bloomed and seeded and gone.  Bye-bye horseweed!  I enjoyed your tall slender stalks while they were safe to keep around.  Next time (and place) you appear I'll know just what to expect.

By similar token, when a new (to us) creature appears in our midst, we'd rather find out about it before deciding the appropriate measure to take (if any). Co-exist, relocate, or potentially exterminate, as stewards we try to establish the wisest course. Those decisions all require accurate information.

Supporting that same no-kill approach with insects and arachnids drives me to other blogs and sites established to help amateurs make good choices. Toxicity, aggression, tendency to overrun a biome, we strongly believe all these factors must be taken into consideration before doing anything other than admiring these drop-in time-share partners.

Just yesterday my daughter and I were wrapping up a lovely visit and a swim, when I noticed a nearly 3 inch long spider sitting in the skimmer basket opening.  I wasn't really worried about it, but we do have other local family (including canines) who might take issue over sharing the water with such a large arachnid.

Does it swim?  Does it bite?  Is it aggressive?  I watched for a while and it seemed to be hanging there, waiting for prey.  I knew I needed more information to convince everyone involved it would be safe to let it stay there undisturbed.

I tried (and TRIED! I promise!) to make some definitive identification, but to no avail.  Finally I sent the image in to What's That Bug and asked for their weigh-in.  Soon I had my answer.  It is their opinion the Mystery Spider of August 2015 is Dolomedes triton, also known as a six-spotted fishing spider.
Probably a female, she might stay there by the pool and hunt until she's ready to lay eggs, at which point she'll move out into the vegetation, spin a nursery web, and then stay on guard there, protecting her babies.

I read these water bug hunters might dive to 7-8 inches and grab a plant to hide if frightened, but they don't live in the water and they don't really swim per se.  No need to stress, no need to relocate, and most definitely no need to exterminate her.  We can safely admire her and swim securely knowing she's keeping the water's surface patrolled for other bugs we might not be so happy with in close quarters.

So thank goodness for other bloggers and interweb identification helpers. They all make this attempt of ours to peacefully co-exist a lot easier to support with some peace of mind.

Do you ever struggle with identification?  If you aren't surrounded by knowledgeable gardening neighbors, here are a few of the other sites I rely upon frequently.

Bug Guide
     The experts there recently helped me pinpoint what to this beauty is called:  Melipotis indomita

Valerie's Austin Bug Collection
    I don't have a recent story utilizing this website, but I turn here frequently as a first step.  When searching out identities of the locals, it never hurts to limit the starting point to the usual suspects for your locale.  Valerie has done most of that work for Austin and the surrounding area.  (Thank you, Valerie!).

For those of us living in the Lone Star State, there are a whole host of other "fill-in-the-bug type here" of Your County or "Birds of Texas" type sites to consult.  Your results will vary depending on where you live, and occasionally on how prevalent agriculture is in your neck of the woods.

Not surprisingly, there's a wealth of information to be had from the extension agencies serving farmers and ranchers.  Granted, a lot of that information includes data on eradication and/or control, but armed with the facts, you can feel more secure in making your own choices about how to respond to the various surprise appearances life delivers into your yard or garden.

There you have it.  Now you know.  I am curious, stubborn, and I am trying (hard!) to co-exist peaceably with everything and everybody Momma Nature throws our way.   What's important about all those names?  Oh, only everything...