Thursday, September 21, 2017

Mother Nature's Gold

"I cannot endure to waste anything as precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house. So I spend almost all the daylight hours in the open air."
- Nathaniel Hawthorne

Bitterweed in field along Refuge Road
Last week we blogged about sunflowers. Several other plants in fields along the roadsides on the way to Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge as well as at the Refuge are also gleaming gold! Wildflower "gold" that is...And this year, according to the Lady Bird's Native Plant Database, some of the "gold" we are seeing is Helenium amarum, commonly called Yellow Sneezeweed, Bitterweed, Yellow bitterweed, Yellowdicks, Slender-leaved sneezeweed, Fine-leaved sneezeweed, and/or Yellow dog-fennel. A member of the aster family, "The genus is thought to have been named by Linnaeus for Helen of Troy. The legend is that the flowers sprung up from the ground where her tears fell."  The plant is an annual and is valuable to Native Bees and tolerant of dry conditions and varied soil types.
Soon more gold will be provided by another member of the aster family is Gutierrezia sarothrae, with common names that include Broom snakeweed, Kindlingweed, Matchbrush, Texas snakeweed, Broomweed, Turpentine weed. Growing from 1 – 3’ tall, it is a small shrub-like plant covered in tiny yellow flowers. By bloom time the lower leaves have dropped off, giving it a delicate appearance.

Broomweed, by Dick Malnory
Broomweed is native throughout much of the western U.S. and blooms from August – November. It reproduces by seed and provides nectar for bees and butterflies and seed for birds. Dried plants can be tied together to fashion a “broom”.
Another yellow autumn wildflower, one that is considered a “bad actor” by many, is Goldenrod, Solidago canadensis L., also called Canada goldenrod, Canadian goldenrod, Tall goldenrod, or Giant goldenrod. Goldenrod is blamed for causing allergic reactions each fall, but according to NPIN, the reactions are caused mainly by pollen from the ragweed plant that blooms at the same time.

Goldenrod, by Dick Malnory

Finally, there is also a burst of gold in the Butterfly Garden at Hagerman - Maximilian sunflower, a cheery yellow wildflower blooms that from August to October and provides food as a range plant, and seed and cover for wildlife. Helianthus maximiliani Schrad., called Maximilian sunflower, Max sunflower and Michaelmas-daisy, was named after the German explorer and naturalist, Prince Maximilian, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center native plant database. Maximilian explored the Great Plains of the U.S. in 1832. In 2016, during the early stages of the fall Monarch migration, the Monarch butterflies swarmed this plant in the garden at the Refuge. We are hoping for a repeat this year!

Maximilian Sunflowers in the Garden 
Speaking of butterflies, mark your calendar for Saturday, October 14, Butterfly Day at Hagerman NWR.   You can find the schedule of events and activities on the Friends Butterfly Garden web page.

NOTE - several versions of this post have appeared previously.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Let's Hear It for the Sunflower

Lunch Break, by Michael Sweatt
There is one wildflower that is still a standout at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge and in area fields as well, in the heat and drought of August – the Common Sunflower – Helianthus annuus. Singly or in large masses sunflowers wave their golden faces in the hot breezes; according to the Native Plant Database, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, “The heads follow the sun each day, facing eastward in the morning, westward at sunset; the name in Spanish means turns toward the sun”. Other sources report that this turning or heliotropism occurs only in the bud stage and that the flowers face east.

Sunflowers are also growing in the Butterfly Garden at Hagerman, a legacy from pre-garden days! 

Sunflower, by Jim West

The state flower of Kansas, known as the Sunflower State, Common Sunflower is said to be one of the most common wildflowers across the U. S. 

Sunflower, by Dana Crites

From the Native Plant Database, we learn that:
“The plant has been cultivated in Central North America since pre-Columbian times; yellow dye obtained from the flowers, and a black or dull blue dye from the seeds, were once important in Native American basketry and weaving. Native Americans also ground the seeds for flour and used its oil for cooking and dressing hair. In the 19th century it was believed that plants growing near a home would protect from malaria. In the United States and Eurasia seeds from cultivated strains are now used for cooking oil and livestock feed.”Common Sunflower is an annual, spreading rapidly by seed, and grows from 1-1/2 – 8’ tall. The bloom period is from July – October. Sunflowers provide cover for wildlife and many wild birds enjoy the seeds.

Phases and Stages, by Carly Pryor

NOTE: Post has been updated -  originally published  August 15, 2013.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Beyond the Butterfly Garden, September, 2017

Text and Photos by Laurie Sheppard

Butterflies can be found at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge during any month or season, and throughout the year, visitors are encouraged to look beyond the Butterfly Garden to find them. With the shorter days and cooler temperatures, the roadways are lined with Sunflowers and Eryngo. Prairie Aster, Saw Leaf Daisy, and Frostweed are popular nectar plants now.

L-R, Pearl, Phaon, and Texan Crescents
The Pearl Crescent is one of the most common small butterflies at Hagerman NWR. It feeds on a wide variety of flowers and it can be seen in many habitats. Its larval hosts are members of the Aster family, so fall is a great time to find Pearl Crescents in all parts of the refuge.

The Phaon Crescent is similar in size and coloring, but can easily be distinguished by the contrasting cream or white band on the forewing, Phaon Crescent and Pearl Crescent often feed on the same nectar plants, but Phaon Crescent will lay eggs only on Frogfruit. Look for both of these on the lakeside ends of pad roads where you find spreading patches of Frogfruit.

The Texan Crescent is similar in size to other crescents and is in the same family, although it is much darker than its orange cousins and has a distinctive white band on its hindwing. A resident of south Texas, it regularly but infrequently strays north to the refuge. Look for it in open areas along roadsides and beside the lake, such as in the Goode Unit and Haller Haven Trail.

The Bordered Patch (shown at right) is slightly larger than
the crescents but is similarly shaped and belongs to the same family. The broad orange band on its hindwing and predominantly dark upper side make it easy to identify, although its coloring can be quite variable. This butterfly lays its eggs on Sunflower and Ragweed plants, which are plentiful on the refuge in the fall. It is found feeding along with crescents regularly but infrequently, as Hagerman NWR is at the edge of its normal range.

On woodside edges or open fields, look for the Common Wood-nymph (below, at left), a larger, brown butterfly, with prominent eye spots on its forewing. These are frequently found in the Sandy Unit between Oil Field Rd and Sandy Point Rd, or near the Goode Picnic Area. They lay their eggs on grasses in the fall. Larvae hatch but do not feed until spring. Instead, they overwinter as dormant caterpillars. Common Wood-nymphs hatch only one brood per year, but the adults are on the wing summer to fall.

In early fall, the Pipevine Swallowtail (above, right) becomes very common on the auto tour roads, especially on Plover, where its larval host plants grow wild. Caterpillars of this species feed on noxious Pipevine plants which makes the adults unpalatable to typical butterfly predators so they are avoided. Several other butterfly species use this to their advantage, which is why most black swallowtail butterflies appear similar. Look for an iridescent blue wash on the upper hindwing of the Pipevine Swallowtail, and a single row of large orange spots edging the hindwing below.

The White M Hairstreak (left, below) is rarely identified at Hagerman NWR but it is so similarly marked to the Gray Hairstreak that it may simply be overlooked. A single white dash on the leading edge of the forewing distinguishes it from other hairstreaks.

Clouded Skippers (above, right) have few distinctive characteristics, being very small and overall brown with just a few small white dots on the forewing. They may be found in open areas or woodside edges feeding on flowers but are also found on grasses, basking with open wings. They are common in fall and at times may congregate to feed.

NOTE: Laurie Sheppard is a Texas Master Naturalist and regularly volunteers in the Butterfly Garden at Hagerman NWR.  This year she has written a monthly edition of Beyond the Butterfly Garden, for the Friends of Hagerman. She will be a presenter at Butterfly Day, October 14.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

September Plant of the Month - Zexmenia

Zexmenia (Zexmenia hispida)

By Helen Vargus

Zexmenia is a Texas native perennial belonging to the native aster family.  Visitors can view this plant growing in the Butterfly Garden at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge. It is known under various names-- Zexmenia, Orange Zexmenia, Hairy Wedelia, Wedelia, or Texas Creeping Ox-eye. Independent and native plant nurseries will most likely be the source for purchasing plants.

Zexmenia plants are not fussy about the type of soil for growth as long as it is well-drained. It can be grown in sand, loam, clay, caliche, and limestone. For the first year, it may require supplemental water as it becomes established. Zexmenia is drought tolerant and can exist on rainfall, but in faster draining soils it may require more water during drought conditions. 

The 1 ¼” flowers of Zemenia have showy yellow to orange daisy like heads. The flowers vertically extend on long stems above the leaves. The first flowers in June are sparse, but as the temperatures rise they become more numerous. It will bloom from June to November. It will grow in sun or part shade. More shade will produce fewer flowers.

The upper stems are covered in stiff hairs pressed closely to the stem. They are rough to the touch. Both sides of the gray-green leaves are also rough and hairy which makes the plants deer and grasshopper resistant. If your skin is sensitive to plant materials, you will want to cover your arms and hands when cutting back this plant.

In its natural habitat, this perennial shrub can get three feet tall. In my Texoma garden, it has never been more than 2 feet high. It will creep along the ground three to four feet from its base. Too much water or shade will make Zexmenia leggy, so it may need to be cut back periodically. It is not necessary to prune this plant during the growing season, but if the plant needs fuller growth or reshaping you can prune it back to half its height in July.

Zexmenia is nonaggressive and has proven to be well behaved in my garden. It can be propagated from fresh seed, semi-hardwood cuttings, or layering. 

Even though Zexmenia is native from central to west Texas and south into Mexico, it will survive in North Texas. This plant has been growing in my Sherman garden for the past eleven years and has survived all kinds of winter weather. With the first frost it goes dormant so there is nothing above ground that can get hurt. I leave the dead branches above ground in the winter as protection for the roots and as a source of seeds and cover for small birds. In late winter I cut it back to the ground and wait for new shoots to appear from the base.

Many types of bees and butterflies are attracted to the flowers of Zexmenia. It provides a nectar source for butterflies and pollen for various types of bees. It is a larval host for the Bordered Patch Butterfly.

Bee, butterfly nectaring on Zexmenia

NOTE:  Helen Vargus is president of the Bluestem Chapter, Texas Master Naturalists.

Enjoy Butterfly Garden Walks at Hagerman NWR on the first, third and fifth Saturdays in September, 9:30 - 11:30 am.

Butterfly Day, at Hagerman NWR, 10 am - 4 pm - Saturday, October 14, will offer walks, talks, crafts and more, all butterfly themed.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Hungry Hummers

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the garden at HNWR, by Dick Malnory
The Turk’s Cap blooming in the garden adjacent to the Visitor Center at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge offers hungry Ruby-throated Hummingbirds an alternative to the nectar feeder there. During the warm weather season, the volunteers in the Visitor Center have the added job duty of making nectar and keeping all the feeders filled. Now the nectar consumption is increasing as we find 2 - 3, even  5 hummingbirds swarming the feeder rather than the usual one or two, a sign that their fall migration has begun.

Just keeping the hummingbird feeders available to the birds has been an ongoing struggle for the volunteers this year, as some critter, probably a raccoon has been regularly helping him/herself to the nectar, first pulling the feeder off the pole, then when deterred by a newly installed squirrel baffle, pushing the whole thing -  pole, feeder and all over onto the ground!  We tried bringing the feeders in at night, but then Refuge Manager Kathy Whaley suggested we try hanging a feeder from a beam outside the window.   So one was installed that way yesterday, thanks to Deputy Manager Paul Balkenbush, and hopefully, that problem is solved. Watch and learn!

The feeder is now suspended from an exterior beam of Visitor Center.
The hummingbirds we see are medium to long-distance migrants, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Most Ruby-throated Hummingbirds spend the winter in Central America, and most get there by flying across the Gulf of Mexico. Some birds stay in North America along the Gulf Coast, parts of the southern Atlantic coast, and at the tip of Florida; these are usually birds from farther north rather than birds that spent the summer there.

Here are some Hummingbirds Facts, from USFWS:

  • Hummingbirds are found only in the Americas, which are home to more than 300 different hummingbird species. Most are found only in Central and South America, but Arizona is a hotbed of hummingbird variety, with many Central American species reaching the northern limits of their range there. One species, the rufous hummingbird, summers in southern Alaska.  (Texas Parks and Wildlife notes:  "[Of the] more than 300 species, only 18 are found regularly in the United States. Of these, 9 are common to Texas, and an additional 6 have made accidental appearances in the state.")
  • Unique shoulder joints, wing bones, and musculature allow hummingbirds to hover and even fly backward. When hovering, their wings beat about 55 times per second. Inflight, that rises to 75 beats per second or more. Their wingspans range from about 2½ inches for the bumblebee hummingbird, a Central American species seen in Arizona, to 4½ inches for the ruby-throated hummingbird of the Eastern U.S.
  • It takes a lot of energy to power all those wing beats.Hummingbirds weigh about a tenth of an ounce – about the same as a U.S. penny – and consume about half that amount of sugar, in the form of flower nectar, every day.
  • Hummingbirds often conserve energy by going into a state of torpor on cool summer nights or during unseasonable cold spells. They become motionless, their bodies cold to the touch, but they’ll revive when temperatures rise.
  • The Eastern United States’ only breeding hummingbird, the ruby-throated hummingbird, builds a nest the size of a walnut, lined with soft mosses and held together with spider webs. The female lays two pea-sized eggs and tends them alone. The males have multiple mates and begin their long migration to Central America in August, with the females following a few weeks later.
Here are some “Cool Facts” about the Ruby-throated from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds:
  • ·The extremely short legs of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird prevent it from walking or hopping, allowing it to only shuffle along a perch. However, it can scratch its head and neck by raising its foot up and over its wing.
  • Like many birds, hummingbirds have good color vision and can see into the ultraviolet spectrum, which humans can’t see.
  • The oldest known Ruby-throated Hummingbird was 9 years 1 month old.

Also from Cornell -  "Ruby-throated Hummingbirds feed on the nectar of red or orange tubular flowers such as trumpet creeper, cardinal flower, honeysuckle, jewelweed, bee-balm, red buckeye and red morning glory, as well as at hummingbird feeders and, sometimes, tree sap. Hummingbirds also catch insects in midair or pull them out of spider webs. Main insect prey includes mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies, and small bees; also eats spiders. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds sometimes take insects attracted to sap wells or pick small caterpillars and aphids from leaves."

Photo by Bill Buchanan, USFWS
I recently read of a study by two researchers, Bradshaw and Schemske,  that reported finding that the hummer chooses red flowers because the red ones are invisible to bees and therefore can potentially offer more nectar than flowers of other colors.

Youngsters ages 4 - 12 will have the opportunity to "Hobnob with Hummingbirds" when The Refuge Rocks at Hagerman, Saturday, September 16.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Hey Ma! Is that Snow?

It must be late summer when you see Snow-on-the-Prairie! Driving along the roads to  Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, this plant with cool appearing green and white leaves actually does look like a light dusting of snow where it is growing en masse. This white flowering plant can blanket a prairie in no time at all, hence the name. Because livestock stay away from the poisonous sap that the plant emits, it doesn't take much for it to cover a field. 

Snow-on-the-Prairie, by Brenda Loveless
There are actually two plants, Euphorbia bicolor Engelm. and A. Gray, and Snow-on-the-Mountain, Euphorbia marginata Pursh; NPIN, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Native Plant Database, notes that the two are often confused.

As members of the Spurge Family, both plants have a milky sap that is irritating to humans with sensitive skin, as well as to the eyes and is toxic to cattle.  A volunteer at the Refuge told us that beekeepers try to keep bees away from the plant, as it makes the honey "hot".

Poinsettias are members of the same family. Growing 1 - 4 feet tall, in poor soils, the plants multiply by throwing seed, described by Dorothy Thetford in Wildflowers-of-Texas. Thetford says, “This ballistic dispersal of seeds explains the scattered arrangement of plants on the prairie.”

Both plants are annuals in the spurge family. The actual flowers are tiny white blossoms, surrounded by the green and white bracts. The bract of bicolor (in photos) is narrower than that of marginata.  The National Resources Conservation Service shows a range for Snow-on-the-Prairie including Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The bloom time is July – October. Anything that helps us think "cool" at this time of year in Texas is welcome!

NOTE: This is becoming an annual post!  Various versions posted in August 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2016.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Beyond the Butterfly Garden – August, 2017

Text and Photos by Laurie Sheppard

Butterflies can be found at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge during any month or season, and throughout the year, visitors are encouraged to look beyond the Butterfly Garden to find them. Although it seems the heat will never end, the blooming of Snow-on-the-Prairie signals a change. Thistle still blooms and Frostweed is a popular nectar plant on roadside edges.

Some butterflies can be found throughout the United States, while others are only seen in a localized area. A few stray into a different geographic area to feed but not to deposit eggs. While climate is a key factor in where a species is found, more important is the presence of a preferred food source for caterpillars and adults.

In Grayson County, butterfly watchers have documented 87 different species and most of those have been found on the refuge. The Painted Lady, at right, 
is a frequent visitor to all parts of the refuge because the adults are willing to nectar from a wide variety of blooms. They lay eggs on Thistle, Mallow, and many other plants. As you might imagine, this makes them one of the most common butterflies found, not only in the U.S. but around the world!

The American Lady, at left, looks very similar but it has a smaller range because of its nectaring habits and larval food sources.  You might find both feeding in the same location, especially if there is thistle in the area. The two primary ways to tell them apart are the number and size of the spots on the hindwing (Painted Lady has four equally sized spots) and the presence of a white dot in the orange area near the forewing’s edge on the American Lady. Look for “ladies” wherever you see flowers.

The Southern Broken-dash, shown at right,  is an uncommon butterfly in Grayson County. As its name implies, it is found in southern states and only in the east. It is one of the many skippers found on the refuge but may be difficult to identify without a photo. The adults feed on low flowers and their caterpillars feed on grasses. Look for them in the Sandy Point unit where grasses are not mowed and fall flowers grow undisturbed.

The Skipper family is widely varied in color and characteristics. The Common Checkered-skipper, shown at left,  is the most widespread because it adapts well to any environment. These are found in nearly all habitats but their larval food source is Mallow. Look for them in disturbed areas along roadsides, especially on any of the pad roads off of Oil Field Road. 

Reakirt’s Blue, at right,  is common throughout Texas and northward into Oklahoma and Kansas. Its range extends somewhat westward but is primarily found in the center of the country. It is in the family of Gossamer-winged butterflies and is easily identified by the four dark spots on its forewing. As with many hairstreaks and blues, look for these anywhere Frog Fruit and other low flowers grow, including along the Auto Tour. 

Another western blue is the Marine Blue, at right. These are found from Texas to California, but
since Hagerman NWR is near the eastern edge of their range, they are not always seen. However, they are far from rare and it’s worth a close look at every small grayish butterfly to see how many varieties you can find. As with most hairstreaks and blues, the pad roads are good places to look, where low flowers are abundant.

The strikingly colored Great Purple Hairstreak, shown at left, is also a Gossamer-winged butterfly, although it could never be mistaken for its gray cousins. It is only found in the south, from coast to coast, because its larval host is Mistletoe. Look up in the trees to catch a glimpse of one laying her eggs. 

Laurie Sheppard is a Texas Master Naturalist and regular blogger for Friends of Hagerman.

Please note:  Butterfly Garden Walks are set for August 19, September 2, 16, and 30 -  AND  - October 14 is Butterfly Day at Hagerman NWR, a full day of butterfly themed activities, talks and more!