Thursday, December 29, 2016

January Plant of the Month - Yaupon Holly

Yaupon holly
Ilex vomitoria

Larval host for Henry's Elfin Butterfly

By Jean Flick

Yaupon Holly at HNWR, by Jean Flick

During the gray of winter when little is blooming at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, the bright red berries of yaupon holly add a splash of color to the refuge landscape. Popular in north Texas yards, Yaupon is a perennial plant, grown as a shrub or small tree with evergreen, shiny leathery leaves that are 1/2 - 1 1/2 inches long. The tree usually grows no higher than 25 feet, but can grow as tall as 45 feet. Yaupon is slow growing, becoming thick and twiggy inside, a perfect cover for nesting birds (1).

You can easily see them growing at the Refuge in the Butterfly Garden, in the parking area and on the lawn adjacent to the Visitor Center.

Photo by Jean Flick

The pale gray bark is marked with white patches. The leaves and twigs contain caffeine and can be used to produce tea. In fact, Native Americans drank large quantities of the tea ceremonially for purification that involved purging, leading to the plant species name of vomitoria. During the Civil War, yaupon tea was used by Southerners as a substitute for scarce coffee and black tea (2).

These native members of the holly family range from the southeastern coast of the U.S., west to Texas and north to southeast Oklahoma. The plants are versatile, being both cold and heat tolerant, are low in water use and can grow in moist or well drained sandy, loamy, clay, limestone, or gravelly soils (1).

In the spring, the shrub puts forth tiny, whitish flowers that may be scattered or densely clustered along the branches. Look for blooms in April and May. Yaupon fruits are drupes (often called stone fruits, meaning a fleshy fruit with a seed inside) that are shiny red and spherical, up to 1/4 inch in diameter. The female shrubs produce fruit the best when they receive at least a half day of sun or more. Many species of birds eat the fruit, typically in late winter after several freezes and thaws (1).

Henry's Elfin Butterfly, by Laurie Sheppard

Yaupon are a larval source for Henry's Elfin butterflies. Henry's Elfins typically stay near their larval food source. When not taking nectar or moisture, courting, or laying eggs, they are usually hidden among the foliage (3).

(1) Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at
(3) Butterfly Gardening for Texas by Geyta Ajilvsgi. Texas A&M University Press. 2013

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Northern Cardinals Cheer the Landscape

Northern Cardinals, or “redbirds”, are flocking to North Texas backyard bird feeders this week, and are an especially cheery sight with their red or reddish brown plumage contrasting so well with the winter-browned trees and lawns and occasional evergreens. The bright red color makes them a favorite subject for holiday cards also.  Bird Watcher's Digest points out that the  Northern Cardinal, also known as  Cardinal grosbeak and Virginia nightingale, is not the "reddest" bird in North America.  This honor goes to the male summer tanager; the male northern cardinal is not entirely red; notice the black around his bill. The male northern cardinal is the only bright red bird with a crest on this continent, however.

Northern Cardinals at HNWR by Charlie Hernandez

Cornell’s All About Birds has this to say about Cardinals:
The male Northern Cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. They’re a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off. Even the brown females sport a sharp crest and warm red accents.

Northern Cardinals do not migrate and are found primarily in the Eastern half of the United States, as well as in Texas and Arizona, and in Mexico and Central America. During the 2015 Christmas Bird Count at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge,  185 cardinals were reported.

Cardinals mainly eat seeds and fruit and also insects. Hands down, sunflower seed are their favorite at the backyard feeder. While large numbers of cardinals may be seen in flocks much of the year, when breeding season begins they fiercely defend their territory. They will nest in shrubs in residential areas as well as in the wild; cardinals may have one or two broods in a season, with 2 -5 eggs in a clutch.

The cardinal is a popular choice as a mascot for athletic teams and has been chosen as the state bird for seven states. According to Bird Watchers' Digest, the bird's name comes from the red-robed Roman Catholic Cardinals. Its crested head is also said to resemble a bishop's mitre.

These colorful birds were once sold for caged pets but this became illegal with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

This post was originally published in December, 2014 and has been updated.  A note about the photo - Hernandez always enjoys photographing the cardinals at the Refuge when he visits, as they are not normally seen in his home state of California.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Frozen! Frostweed Lives Up to Its Name

Text and Photos by Laurie Sheppard

Without question, the Butterfly Garden at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge was a huge success this year!  It was host to thousands of butterflies and other nectar feeders as well as hundreds of human visitors.  It was a place of quiet reflection and explosions of color, attracting several new county record butterflies and many more common residents and migrants.  Butterflies fed and mated and laid their eggs for the next generation of their species.  Caterpillars feasted on the leaves of their host plants and pupated in time.  Fresh butterflies emerged and repeated the cycle.  So, too, flowers blossomed in their season and pollinators spread each plant’s genetic material to the next bloom.  Through it all, one of the stars of the garden was the Frostweed, standing tall in the back row.

Frostweed grows in a clump that can reach six feet tall by the first frost.  Large, bushy leaves emerge on growing stalks in early spring, providing a green backdrop to more colorful flowering plants. By late summer, clumps of white flowers spread out atop the Frostweed’s slender stalks.  These drab seeming flowers attract a multitude of butterflies, and those attract photographers and butterfly watchers daily.  Among the many butterfly species to nectar there, you could find Gossamer-wings like Gray Hairstreaks, Eastern Tailed-blues, and the uncommon White M Hairstreak.  The county-record Mallow Scrub-hairstreak was often seen on Frostweed and dramatic Great Purple Hairstreaks, as shown below,  were also frequent visitors.

Monarch butterflies’ peak migration occurred simultaneously with the peak blossoming of the Frostweed in the back of the garden and throughout every day, the air was filled with orange wings, as shown above.  Sharing the blooms were other Brush-footed butterflies, including Painted Ladies, American Ladies, Goatweed Leafwings, Queens, Gulf Fritillaries and many others.  Not only did the Frostweed attract nectar feeders, it also was a larval host for the Bordered Patch butterfly (shown below), which frequently nectared on mistflower elsewhere in the garden.

Summer ended and with the first frost, most butterfly activity died down.  Leaves of the Frostweed dried and curled and other plants in the garden also died back.  Then, overnight on December 9, 2016, the refuge experienced its first hard freeze of the winter season.  Ice formed in puddles and plants that had managed to survive that first light frost finally succumbed.  That is when the Frostweed showed us how it got its name!  As each plant became cold, water and sap inside their stalk expanded and the outer bark split, allowing moisture to leak out.  The liquid froze in the cold temperatures.  The plant responded by pumping more water out of the ground to replace what was lost and that, too, leaked out, causing the ice crystals to grow.  This continued all night and in the morning, each Frostweed plant had a unique ice sculpture at its base.  Thin ribbons of ice curled and spread, only to drop off and melt as the day warmed.  This phenomenon will not repeat itself until next fall when a new batch of Frostweed freezes for the first time.

Frostweed (Verbesina virginica) is a member of the Aster family, along with Ragweed, some of the wild Daisies, and Roosevelt Weed (Baccharis neglecta).  Frostweed is also known as White Crownbeard, Iceplant, Iceweed, Indian Tobacco, or Squawweed.  Native Americans are said to have used the dried leaves as a substitute for tobacco and other parts of the plant for medicinal purposes to treat gastrointestinal, urinary, or eye issues. Like its relatives, Frostweed is easy to grow and it tolerates many different soil, water, and lighting conditions.  It grows from central Texas eastward and north into the mid-Atlantic states.  A biennial, it readily reseeds and also may form sizeable colonies through spreading rhizomes. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Duck, Duck, Goose

The Youth FIRST program met  Saturday, December 3, at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, to learn about the geese that are wintering at the Refuge. Here are some fast facts about geese and ducks for our readers.

"The Gathering" - Geese at HNWR, by Michael Sweatt

Migrating birds, especially waterfowl, follow migration routes called flyways or migration corridors. There are four primary corridors in North America. From east to west, they are the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central (which includes Hagerman NWR) and Pacific flyways.

So - why do geese fly in a “V” formation? It would be too hard to fly in an “S”... Actually, it conserves energy and makes it easier to keep track of each other.

What is a gaggle? A group of geese on the ground is called a gaggle or flock. A skein is a group in flight, and if flying in a “V” formation, they are called a wedge.

"Three in Flight", by Skip Stevens
Snow geese may spend as long as three months migrating one way, stopping over to feed and rest along their journey.

Geese are vegetarian - feeding on grasses, stems, leaves, grains and berries.

Snow and Ross's Geese feeding in field at HNWR, by Bill Powell
A nickname for the Canada goose is “the honker”.

A Blue Goose is a dark morph Snow Goose, with a white face, dark brown body, and white under the tail. The Blue Goose mascot for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife is named Puddles and is bright blue!

Snow Geese, with Blue Goose at left, by Rick Cantu
Love to hear the geese call? Listen here.

Have your ducks in a row? You might have a

Brace of ducks - a pair; Flock of ducks – on the ground; Flush of ducks – taking flight; Paddling of ducks or raft of ducks - group swimming; Team of ducks – group in flight

"Ducks in Flight", by Dana Crites
If you've heard one quack…you haven’t heard them all – most species have their own quack and male and females may have different quacks.

A goose or duck by any other name: Baby ducks - ducklings; Baby geese - goslings; Male ducks - drakes; Male geese - ganders

Eggs laid are called a clutch – there may be 10 – 20 in a clutch

Certified swimmers – goslings and ducklings can swim as soon as they are ready to fledge.

Diving ducks are found on oceans, seas, and inland water; dabblers are found on creeks and inland pools.

The lowdown on “down” – the small, soft feathers that provide insulation for birds, and when collected, for man. Down from Eider ducks is believed to be superior.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Inside Story on Fall Foliage

Just today we had our annual conversation, trying to remember what creates the colorful fall foliage. Here is the answer, first published in 2011, in a blog by Helen Petre, college biology instructor who was a volunteer at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge at the time:

Every autumn, usually in November, nature puts on a brilliant show of color at Hagerman NWR. This is attributed to mild autumn days coupled with cold, but not freezing nights. Each autumn the amount of sunlight decreases as the days grow shorter. This is the signal for the leaves to stop making chlorophyll. When the leaves stop making chlorophyll, the other pigments become visible.

Autumn Color at HNWR by Laurie Sheppard

Leaves produce food by photosynthesis. They use the sun’s energy, water, and carbon dioxide to produce carbohydrates. Leaves produce carbohydrates for the tree or shrub all during the spring and summer. They do this so well, that by autumn, the tree or shrub has enough food stored in the trunk and roots that it can live through the whole long winter without making any more food.

The sun’s light is actually white light and consists of all the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Most leaves have lots of chlorophyll and some carotenoids. Some leaves also have anthocyanin, tannin, and flavones. Chlorophyll absorbs all of the colors of light in sunlight except green. Green light is reflected, so a leaf that has mostly chlorophyll looks green.

Carotenoids are carotene and xanthophylls. Carotenes are similar to vitamin A and they look orange, like pumpkins, carrots, and sweet potatoes. Xanthophylls are the pigment in sunflowers, dandelions, corn and egg yolks.

Some leaves also have anthocyanin, which can be red or blue. If the plant is acidic, the color is red. If the plant is basic, the color is blue. Tannins are the brown color in tea, bark and blackjack oak leaves in the fall. Flavones are the yellow in horse chestnut and onions.

Autumn leaf color is due to newly made red pigments as well as yellow and orange carotenoids that were already present in the leaf and are rendered visible because the leaf is no longer making the dark green chlorophyll in autumn.  

Each species of deciduous tree and shrub has its own unique colors. Red oak and winged shining sumac leaves turn bright shades of red in autumn. This is because, as the amount of sunlight decreases, a layer of cells develops at the point where the leaf joins the stem. This blocks carbohydrates from moving out of the leaf and the increased amount of carbohydrate is used to make anthocyanin, the red color. 

Female shining sumac trees also produce red fruits that stay on the tree until frost. Anthocyanin production is inhibited by frost, so when it freezes the leaves can no longer make the red pigment and they turn brown from tannin. If the daytime temperatures are too warm, the colors will be less intense because the chlorophyll will still be masking the other colors.

Besides trees, poison ivy abounds at Hagerman NWR and it is one of the most beautiful plants in the fall. Be careful not to touch it. Many people mistake poison ivy for harmless foliage and gather it to use in decorations. The red, yellow and orange color is due to the anthocyanins.

Honey Locust trees at Hagerman turn yellow in autumn. They have no anthocyanin, but lots of carotenoids. Other fall plants at Hagerman that turn yellow are pecan, muscadine grapes, black walnuts, and cottonwood. Sycamores turn brownish yellow. Wild plums turn reddish yellow and rough leafed dogwoods turn purplish red. Persimmon turns yellow, orange and reddish purple.

When you come to Hagerman in the fall to view the migrating ducks and geese that come to feed in the fields and marshes for the winter, spend some time noticing the vibrant and beautiful colors of fall. The yellows and oranges were there all along, but they were not visible because of all the green of summer. Now is your chance. Enjoy.

For more photos of the Refuge as well as information on activities and events of the Friends of Hagerman, see