The Poets’ Birds ~ Great-Tailed Grackle

Great-Tailed Grackle ~ Quiscalus mexicanus

Boat-tailed, Common, and Great-Tailed Grackles appear across Texas, their populations ebbing and flowing as the seasons change. Chattering among themselves, providing amusement to humans during mating competitions, and generally showing off to one another, they’re exceedingly social birds. 

In fall and winter, enormous flocks of Great-Tailed Grackles gather in ‘roost trees’ that sometimes contain thousands of birds; their morning flights show up on radar as expanding ‘doughnuts’ called roost rings.

Other birds, especially Purple Martins, often create the same effect. In Houston, there are locations where the various birds’ morning routines are so well known that people click on the radar just to watch and record. (For a beautiful animated .gif of a Houston roost ring, click here.)

Great-tailed Grackles don’t limit themselves to trees, of course. They’ll also fill electrical lines in the early evening or, in the case of my neighborhood, take over our local HEB grocery store. When the birds move in, there’s nothing to be done but laugh. They line the store’s rooftop and perch atop cart returns, but they also wander under and over cars, sit on SUV luggage racks, ride on grocery carts being pushed by bemused shoppers, and search through the outside garden displays for the occasional insect.

Poet Susan Elizabeth Howe has perfectly described their behavior and captured something of their mysterious appeal in her poem titled, “What Is a Grackle?” I don’t think she visited my supermarket while writing it, but she certainly could have.

A comfort common to Southwest desert
parking lots, a familiar, a messenger,
an overlooked angel oiled by asphalt,
consolation of the casino, supermarket
spiritual guide picking at a free-today
hot dog, a dropped grape or lentil,
its purple-green head iridescent,
its long keel of a tail.
Black birds but not blackbirds
with their showy epaulettes blood-red
as a war field. Grackles glint
like lacquered ebony, the females brunhildas,
if by brunhilda you mean “brown-headed,”
not the German “ready for battle.” Blind
to centuries of borders, of battles, they waddle
stiff-legged at your feet, a janitorial sweep
to their tails, checking cart tires and light poles
for moths, beetles, singing their seven songs —
slides, whistles, wheezes, catcalls, chirps,
murmurs, clucks — to console you
for your losses: stolen cars, mortgage
payments spun to mist at a roulette table,
the beloved who breathed fire and scorched
your wedding clothes. Folly, wreckage,
they mutter, down among the packs
of backerboard and spackle. We’ve fallen
from Mayan temples. In a past life
we prophesied. In a past life we were gods.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Prairies and People and Photos, Oh, My!

Tallgrass prairie in autumn ~ Chase County, Kansas

Over the course of nearly a decade, I’ve written here of Texas prairies I’ve come to love: Nash, Attwater, and Brazoria; the prairie-with-trees called Sandylands; coastal prairies like Anahuac and Aransas. From my first stumbling and laughable attempts to ‘find’ the Nash Prairie to my documentation of the land’s recovery after a prescribed burn at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the intricacy, beauty, and fragility of our remaining prairies.

In time, stirred by historical accounts of life on the prairies and botanists’ journals, I began to travel. Five years ago, I celebrated my 70th birthday with a weeks-long trip through prairies, grasslands, and bottomlands in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. I discovered the beauty of autumn grasses and saw my first Maximilian sunflowers — although it took some time to learn what I had seen.

Maximilian sunflowers

Through it all, innumerable people shared their own knowledge of and enthusiasm for our prairies and the plants they contain. Photographers offered tips, and land managers and docents took time to introduce me to their own special places. I learned to carry a tow strap in the trunk of my car, and made friends with the deputies and game wardens who stopped to be sure the woman in the ditch wasn’t dead.

Eventually, a choice had to be made. Either The Task at Hand would become a blog devoted solely to the natural world, or a second site would be required. At that point, I began Lagniappe: a blog devoted primarily to photographs of native Texas plants, although insects, birds — and alligators! — have claimed their own share of attention. What I never expected was that Lagniappe — a site taking its name from the Cajun phrase meaning ‘a little something extra’ — would itself be the recipient of lagniappe: the Native Plant Society of Texas’s Digital Media Award for 2021.** 

To say that I was surprised — even shocked — by the wholly unexpected award would be an understatement. Still, the timing was apt. This is Native Plant Week in Texas, and Lagniappe stands as a salutary reminder that every week offers something of beauty or interest from the natural world.

Even more remarkably, four of my five submissions to this year’s Native Plant Society photo contest were chosen as winners. Each year, members of the organization are invited to submit one photo from each of Texas’s twelve ecoregions. In 2019, I sumitted three photos; last year, I submitted four. This year, having traveled more extensively, I was able to submit photos from five regions; to have four of them recognized was pure delight.

Because of the rule that none of the entries could have been previously published, none has been seen on my blog. Rather than reposting the winners here, I’d invite you to visit this post on Lagniappe to see them.

I thought it interesting that a Native Plant Society Member recently asked the same question that commenters on Lagniappe sometimes ask: “How do you find these things?” My response always has been the same. Early on, I took to heart the advice offered by Georgia O’Keeffe, who liked to say, “Take time to look.” It’s the results of looking that have filled my blogs, and now it’s time to begin looking again.

 

Comments always are welcome.
** Observant readers may have noticed that the title on the plaque isn’t “Lagniappe,” but the blog’s tagline. A new, ‘edited’ plaque is on its way, and I’ll update the image when it arrives.

Morning with Monet

Claude Monet ~ Impression, Sunrise

Highlighted by savvy museum curators and hawked within an inch of their beautiful lives by mass-market retailers, the French Impressionists remain popular painters. Once derided and criticized, their landscapes, serial studies, and portraits have become as pleasing to the art establishment as to ordinary people seeking a pretty picture for their wall. It’s easy to imagine Messrs. Monet, Renoir,  Degas, and Cézanne sitting around the heavenly atelier, watching light play over the clouds and congratulating themselves on their remarkable staying power.

Less concerned with realistic form than with natural light, atmosphere, and color, Impressionists sought to paint the world as they perceived it rather than in accordance with conceptual guidelines. In a brief overview of the movement, the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes:

Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris), exhibited in 1874, gave the Impressionist movement its name when the critic Louis Leroy accused it of being a sketch or “impression,” and not a finished painting.
It demonstrates the techniques many of the independent artists adopted: short, broken brushstrokes that barely convey forms, pure unblended colors, and an emphasis on the effects of light. Rather than neutral white, grays, and blacks, Impressionists often rendered shadows and highlights in color. The artists’ loose brushwork gives an effect of spontaneity and effortlessness that masks their often carefully constructed compositions.

 Traditional landscape artists tended to depict the individual phenomena of the natural world – leaves, blossoms, blades of grass – as carefully as an illustrator, and with an eye to accuracy. Monet was more concerned with painting what he saw ~ not separate leaves or discrete blossoms, but splashes of constantly changing color and light.

According to William Seitz, art historian and author of the Monet volume for the Masters of Art series:

It is in this context that we must understand his desire to see the world through the eyes of a man born blind who had suddenly gained his sight: as a pattern of nameless color patches.

Reading Seitz’s words, I can’t help wondering if he knew of Marius von Senden’s 1932 study called Space and Sight. Quoted extensively in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, von Senden had collected stories of men and women blind since birth who regained their sight with newly available cataract surgery. For most, it was a difficult transition, full of necessary learning. As von Senden puts it, for the newly sighted, “Space ends with visual space…with color patches that happen to bound his view.”

Beginning with Manet, the idea of ‘color patches’ was integral to the development of the Impressionist vision; it’s possible that von Senden picked up the phrase from the painters themselves. In any event, it’s easy to imagine a painter like Monet roaming the countryside with his easel and palette, painting whatever he happened upon and in the process giving us a record of the world informed by these new techniques and his unique vision.

In his bookThe Impressionist Garden, Derek Fell notes the Impressionists’ commitment to “capture and record the fleeting moment” through their brushstrokes. Perhaps the development of photography and the new ability to take ‘snapshots’ influenced their thinking. The phrase “fleeting moment” certainly recalls photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous commitment to his own ‘decisive moment.’ Whether Monet’s reflections on his art were known to Bresson I can’t say, but the lives of Monet (d.1926) and Bresson (b.1908) briefly overlapped; they experienced the same technological advances and no doubt shared some of the same artistic concerns.

Monet’s Garden at Giverny

In 1883, Claude Monet moved to Giverny, and began to develop his garden. In the process, nothing escaped his attention. As avid a gardener as a painter, his legacy still lives in the water-lily ponds, wisteria-clad Japanese bridge, and grand central allée strewn with nasturtiums; the collection of paths and beds in the walled Clos Normand, the large, traditional Normandy flower garden just outside the house, is equally lovely. When Monet acquired the old farmhouse in 1890, he sacrified an old and tired orchard in order to plant new gardens and install the custom-designed metal hoops and pergolas that carried his roses and clematis.

Eventually, he turned his attention to the water garden. He rerouted a river, selected hybrid water lilies for their color, and designed his bridge in a deliberate act of creation. An artist creating his own subject, he left nothing to chance. Renoir built a glass-walled studio in his garden in order to paint his beloved olive trees, but Monet commissioned a studio boat, the better to paint his water lilies.

Claude Monet ~ Le Bateau-atelier 1876

“Apart from painting and gardening, I’m not good at anything,” Monet once remarked. Amusing self-deprecation aside, his talents in both areas resulted in the creation of the garden at Giverny. Composed as if it were a painting, and over time the subject of much of his best work, it is considered by many painters and gardeners to be his greatest legacy – as beautiful, inspirational, and pervasive in its later influence as it was for Monet himself.

Until a trip to Mississippi some years ago, I hadn’t fully appreciated the significance of Monet’s double role in shaping our vision of the world. Despite my affection for his paintings, I’d never considered the possibility that his gardens, and his interpretation of them, might one day shape my own experience of the land.

Turning down a gravel road in the midst of the old Doro Plantation, halfway betweeen a clapboard house flying the Confederate flag and a cluster of fishing shacks moored along the levee, I discovered a landscape so purely Impressionistic it was hard to believe it wasn’t already on canvas. Rippling curtains of white and lavender wisteria hung everywhere, recalling Giverny.  A multitude of greens sprouted from bushes and trees, and the grasses were filled with glowing purple and pink spiderworts. Scrambling across barbed wire and piles of fallen brush into a pecan orchard, I found my footing and looked up in astonishment.

It wasn’t that the orchard reminded me of Monet, it was as though Monet himself already had been there: dappling the leaves with light, capturing the pristine translucence of new growth, and washing the world’s canvas with a sheen of unnameable colors. I’d have been less astonished had I walked into Monet’s studio and discovered the canvases suddenly come to life,  or walked into his garden and surprised him painting a few new shrubs into place.

In Giverny, Monet constructed a garden for himself. That day on the Doro Plantation, where accidents of nature and history had rerouted the Mississippi, reshaped the land, and left a secret, unexpected collection of trees, flowers, and grasses to shimmer in the springtime light, the only thing missing was the artist himself: recording the miraculous beauty of a world akin to the gardens he had grown.

Looking at the photographs today, I remember those unexpected bits of beauty tucked away into the silence of a Mississippi morning.

Seeing the play of light, imagining the warming breeze, and re-experiencing those first, memorable impressions, I realize an unexpected truth. For a few moments, I had seen the world as Claude Monet saw it: tumbled into light and patched with color so piercingly pure no response beyond a sigh is possible. For the first time, I appreciated the enormity of what Monet spent a lifetime revealing: that brushes, paint, and canvas are sufficient to capture our first impressions of the world, and to provide a lifetime of enjoyment in the process.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Migration

Snow geese above a Texas rice field

Empty as the space surrounding it, the hummingbird feeder hangs: bereft of jewel-like flashes and the whir of tiny wings. The wire above the bayou no longer supports the flycatcher; the swallows, too, have flown.

In their absence, other birds return: the osprey to its mast, white pelicans to bayside pilings, teal and coots to the ponds. The cry of early sandhill cranes echoes from the sky; geese swirl over already-harvested fields of milo and rice.

Above autumn’s colored leaves and seeding grassses, the sky is filled with movement: thrilling in its inevitability, and heart-rending in its beauty. Poet Anne Porter has captured something of the risks, the rewards, and the natural rhythm of migration in her poem, “The Birds of Passage.”

 

THE BIRDS OF PASSAGE
You are the one who made us.
You silver all the minnows in all rivers;
You wait in the deep woods
To find the newborn fox cubs
And unseal their eyes.
You shower the sky with stars.
You walk alone
In the wild royal darkness
Of the heavens above the heavens
Where no one else can go.
When the fragile swallows assemble
For their pilgrimages,
When the hummingbirds
Who are scarcely more
Than a glittering breath
Set out for the rain forest
To drink from the scarlet flowers
On the other side of the world
With only now and then
The mast of a passing ship
For a resting place and an inn,
When the Canada geese
Are coming down from the north,
When the storks of Europe
Stretch out their necks toward Egypt
From their nests on the chimney tops,
When shaking their big wings open
And trailing their long legs after them
They rise up heavily
To begin their autumn flight,
You who speak without words
To your creatures who live without words
Are hiding under their feathers
To give them a delicate certainty
On the long dangerous night journey.

 

Comments always are welcome. Click here for more information about poet Anne Porter.

A Little Hike to a Big Tree

The Big Tree ~ Goose Island, Texas

For years after being designated Texas’s State Champion Coastal Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) in 1966, the tree affectionately known as The Big Tree reigned in leafy splendor at Goose Island State Park near Rockport.

Thirty-five feet in circumference and forty-four feet tall, the Goose Island Tree is more than a thousand years old. It would have been little more than a sprout when Dirk III, Count of Holland, defeated Holy Roman Emperor Henry II at the Battle of Vlaardingen; when England’s Buckfast Abbey was founded; or when Aeddan ap Blegywryd, King of Gwynedd, passed on.

More recently, the giant oak survived an 1864 Civil War battle that destroyed the nearby town of Lamar. After doing battle with Hurricane Harvey, although battered, somewhat broken, and stripped of leaves, it remained firmly rooted to its ground.

The Big Tree after Hurricane Harvey ~ September 5, 2017 (Texas Parks & Wildlife photo)

Today, the Goose Island tree continues to recover, but it’s no longer our champion live oak. That honor now belongs to a tree on private property in Colorado County. Certified in August of 2016, the Colorado County oak is 61 feet high, with a circumference of 338 inches and a crown spread of 114 feet.

The current champion live oak ~ Colorado County

Between the reign of the Goose Island oak and the designation of the Colorado County oak as Texas’s largest, a third, equally impressive tree served as state champion. Still the second largest live oak in Texas, and one of the largest in the United States, the so-called San Bernard Oak was discovered in 2000 and officially entered into the record books in 2003.

Estimated to be 200 to 300 years old, the San Bernard Oak is hidden away in Brazoria County, on the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge. The area, sometimes called Austin’s Woods in tribute to Stephen F. Austin and the settlers he brought here in 1823, is more commonly known as the Columbia Bottomlands: another historical reference. Established in 1826 by Josiah Hughes Bell, Columbia (known today as West Columbia) served as capital of the Republic of Texas from September to December 1836.

The Columbia Bottomlands extend through four Texas counties — Brazoria, Matagorda, Fort Bend and Wharton — and share a forested floodplain network of rivers, creeks, ponds, and marshes.

Finding the San Bernard Oak isn’t difficult, but it does require a bit more effort than driving up and snapping a photo. This satellite image shows the upper half of the trail. At the bottom edge, toward the right, you can see the trail crossing a utility easement. Nearer the center of the image, another section of the trail is visible; the San Bernard Oak is to the north and west of the visible trail.

The Columbia Bottomlands, one of the few forested communities within the Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes ecoregion, consist of interconnected floodplains of the Brazos, San Bernard, and Colorado Rivers. Historically a patchwork of forested bottoms and prairie uplands, they extend approximately 75 miles inland, and serve a variety of critical funtions: lessening the destructiveness of floods; reducing soil erosion; retaining river-borne sediments; and filtering out pollutants.

While some protected bottomland areas now are closed or only partially open to the public, the San Bernard Oak is accessible, and the trail leading to the oak is as interesting as the tree itself.

 

After a short drive from the main section of the San Bernard Refuge, a sign marks the beginning of an ecotone: a word used to designate transitional areas of vegetation between two different plant communities. Here, the transition is between wet prairie and bottomland forest; evidence of plants’ adaptations to increased shade, less sandy soil, and constant fluctuations in water levels is obvious even to casual observers.

At the trailhead, vines and a few palmettos suggest the changes to come.

As the trail narrows and shade becomes deeper, a wall of green thickens on either side. Still, at the woods’ edge, enough sunlight flickers through to encourage a variety of flowers:

Purple bindweed (Ipomoea cordatotriloba)
Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)
Turk’s cap ~ Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii

On either side of the first boardwalk, no water is apparent, but soils are moist, and more flowers appear.

Heartleaf skullcap ~ Scutellaria ovata
Panicled ticktrefoil ~ Desmodium paniculatum
Texas pinkroot ~ Spigelia texana

Here and there, deer trails intersect the main path. Follow one, and the little dramas of woodland life appear everywhere. Impaled on a broken segment of vine, a moth  — perhaps a Virginia tiger moth — may become another creature’s midnight snack.

Close by, an Eastern Pondhawk struggles to contain a Pearl Crescent butterfly.

Sometimes, there are mysteries. I can’t identify either this plant or the spider who did the work, but the shape of the shadow suggests something else tucked away for safe keeping.

Scattered throughout the leaf litter, older bones bespeak earlier struggles. Snake, raccoon, and deer are easily enough identified. Other fragments require more knowledge, and a sharper eye.

Eventually, dry leaves give way to water, and the value of the boardwalk becomes obvious.

Some plants thrive in the wetter conditions, blooming and apparently thriving despite being anchored in standing water.

Brazos penstemon ~ Penstemon tenuis
White swamp milkweed ~ Asclepias perennis

As the trail approaches the utility easement, the canopy opens, and flowers more closely associated with prairies and full sunlight begin to appear.

Evening primrose (white form) ~ Oenothera speciosa
Mexican hat ~ Ratibida columnifera
Gulf vervain ~ Verbena xutha
Pyramid flower ~ Melochia pyramidata
Clasping Venus’ looking-glass ~ Triodanis perfoliata
Carolina elephant’s foot ~ Elephantopus carolinianus

Here, too, the practical skill and artistry of the spider is evident.

Black and yellow Argiope cocooning its prey ~ Argiope aurantia
Golden silk orbweaver ~Trichonephila clavipes

Eventually, the boardwalk turns and runs parallel to Little Slough, and a true ‘wet bottomland’ emerges.  In especially rainy years, the area may remain saturated for months. Thick groves of palmettos indicate poorly drained soils, while trees such as cedar elm, green ash, hackberry, and water oak thrive in the watery glade: well-adapted to prolonged flooding.

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Dwarf palmetto ~ Sabal minor

Hidden among the trees and vines, a variety of butterflies, moths, amphibians and snakes secret themselves, motionless and nearly invisible.

Ilia underwing ~ Catocala ilia

Rushes and sedges abound, while long-stemmed, woody vines called lianas root in the soil before making use of their tendrils to climb or twine around the trees.

Short-bristled Horned Beaksedge ~ Rhynchospora corniculata
Vines represent one structural difference between tropical and temperate forests; where lianas have formed a hanging network of vegetation, their presence provides a good indicator of older, more mature woodlands. In the Columbia Bottomlands, rattan, trumpet vine, Virginia creeper, and mustang grape twine toward the canopy, adding a certain ‘atmosphere’ to the woods.
Where oaks are more prevalent, the canopy opens, allowing a glimpse of blue sky and sunlight. If you look closely, you’ll notice that some of the limbs seem fuzzy, and in a sense they are.

The limbs are covered in resurrection fern, one of three fern species on the refuge. An epiphyte that uses the trees for support while gaining nutrients from sunlight, air, and rain, the fern grows on the upper side of the live oak branches.

Without rainfall, the fern shrivels and appears dead; it can lose as much as 75 percent of its water content during typical dry periods. After a good rain, it rebounds within a day, once again appearing green and healthy. This remarkable ‘resurrection’ gives the plant its name, even though it never actually dies during the process.

Resurrection fern on a live oak limb ~ Pleopeltis polypodioides
Dried fronds of resurrection fern, awaiting rain

Finally, the San Bernard Oak comes into view. Its bifurcated trunk is immense; only the bench provided for visitors at the end of the boardwalk offers some sense of scale.

Given the tree’s size and the tangle of surrounding growth, photographing it in the same way as the Goose island or Colorado County oaks is impossible. On the other hand, the San Bernard Oak’s isolation has kept it safe from humans, just as the forest has helped protect it from storms.

In time, I’ll return to the tree, eager to experience it in a different season. For now, I’m happy to have made its acquaintance. Those whose work established the refuge and allowed the land to return to its natural state deserve to be honored; like the San Bernard Oak, they’re providing a legacy for future generations.

The San Bernard Oak

 

Comments always are welcome.