Mr. Grumpy Gets His Bath

Mr. Grumpy (click image to enlarge)

If his verse is any indication, Ogden Nash met his own grumpy grackle, and wasn’t particularly impressed:

The grackle’s voice is less than mellow,
his heart is black, his eye is yellow.
He bullies more attractive birds
with hoodlum deeds and vulgar words,
and should a human interfere,
attacks that human in the rear.
I cannot help but deem the grackle
an ornithological debacle.

Despite Nash’s characterization, the grackle I came to know as Mr. Grumpy didn’t seem inclined toward bullying or attacks. Though loud, impertinent, and insistent, he wasn’t at all aggressive. He only wanted to be noticed: preferably by a female of his own species. That hunger for attention and approval appeared to lie near the heart of his aggravation. (more…)

Sloughing Off at the Slough

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One of my favorite Texas sayings, common as cornbread, certainly applies to turkey vultures. Hopping along roadsides, guarding their carrion, or awkwardly flapping away to cluster on the branches of dead trees, they’re so common they’re rarely noted, and more rarely remarked.

Vultures tend to feed and roost in small flocks, so this pair, relaxed and sun-saturated atop an old tank, seemed unusual. I stopped the car and stepped out, browsing the landscape for more birds. The skies were empty. So were the fence posts, the windmill, the ditches, and the roof of a small, nondescript shed.

At the time, I didn’t know that turkey vultures often seek solitude during mating season. Foregoing nests, pairs separate themselves from the larger flock in order to lay their eggs in the shelter of rocky ledges, hollow trees, or even deserted buildings. I may have found a mated pair: birds who’d found a cozy, out-of-the way place to raise their family. On the other hand, since it’s hard even for experts to distinguish girl vultures from boy vultures, the birds could have been a couple of hens trading gossip, or two dudes, just hanging out.

Unwilling to disturb them, I lingered at the ditch’s edge, toying with other explanations for their behavior. Maybe they’d found a nice, big carcass, and were indulging in a post-dinner nap. We’d had a stretch of wet, gloomy days; perhaps they’d found the warmth of the metal appealing. Then, it occurred to me. Perhaps they were the lazy ones of the flock: birds who’d decided to spend Sunday afternoon just sloughing off.


All around the sloughs and ponds of the wildlife refuge, it did seem as though sloughing off was the order of the day.

Seemingly captivated by a growing conflict across the water, this plump American coot (Fulica americana) and colorful Northern shoveler (Anas clypeata) could have been watching Netflix.

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In fact, they were watching a determined and quite noisy grackle harass a sleeping white ibis (Eudocimus albus). I watched, too, until the ibis woke with an expression that seemed to say, “Who let this guy into the hotel?”

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Stretching one leg, then the other, the ibis unfolded with a sigh, gave the grackle a look of consummate irritation, and headed for the water. I swear I heard him saying, “Well, as long as I’m up, I might as well get a snack.”

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This little pied-bill grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), was more courteous to his sleeping neighbor. Circling a coot, the grebe caused barely a ripple. Even its dives — for a fish, a crawfish, perhaps for an insect — were neat and tidy.

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Eventually, the coot awoke and began to preen, and the grebe slipped quietly away.

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(Click image for greater size, clarity)

A pied-bill grebe decked out for mating season is a delightful sight. Its thick, silver and black-banded bill is the reason for the pied in its common name. The word comes to us from Middle English, where it referred to the black and white magpie. Later, the word came to mean “decorated or colored in blotches,” as in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, “Pied Beauty”:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough
     And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

The pied-billed aren’t particularly sociable, and rarely flock. Shy and solitary, they’re quick to dive, often hide in vegetation, and sometimes respond to perceived threat by sinking down into the water until only their head remains visible. Water trapped in their feathers gives them a good bit of control over their buoyancy, so they can expose as much or as little as they please.

Like dabbling ducks, (mallards, teal, widgeon, and others) coots also “tip tail” when searching for food.

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More closely related to sandhill cranes than to ducks, coots belong to a family (Rallidae) which includes rails and gallinules. Awkward in flight, they’re even more graceless during take-offs and landings, and the long, running starts necessary to get them airborne are faintly ridiculous. They do migrate, but guidebooks say they travel mostly at night: perhaps to avoid embarassment.

Among their favored foods are the stems, leaves, and seeds of sedges and grasses, and a variety of algae. They’ll often dive down to pull fresh sprouts, and sometimes find themselves tangled in dinner when they resurface. In Cajun country, where coots are known as poule d’eau, or water hens, they may find themselves on the dinner table, served up in a tasty poule d’eau gumbo.

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Like coots, common gallinules (which used to be called moorhens) also dabble and dive. They’re quiet and secretive birds, but those candy-corn-like bills and facial shields tend to give them away. Even in a stand of thick reeds or other vegetation, it’s not hard to see the flashes of red, yellow, and orange that signal their presence.

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(Click image for greater size, clarity)

While vultures snoozed and other water birds dabbled, dove, or waded their way through the afternoon, this pair of Northern shovelers (Anas clypeata) were rousing themselves for an afternoon swim.

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(Click image for greater size, clarity)

Among the most elegant of water birds, the shape of the shoveler’s bill makes clear how it received its name. 

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the shoveler’s bill has about 110 fine projections called lamellae along its edges. It “forages by swimming along with its bill lowered into the water. Seeds of sedges, bulrushes, saw grass, smartweeds, pondweeds, algae and duckweeds, as well as aquatic insects, mollusks and crustaceans, are consumed by filtering the water, which is taken in at the bill tip and expelled from its base.”

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Several guides, including Audubon, note that the shoveler doesn’t commonly tip its head and upper body forward into the water. According to other guides, it seldom dives, and rarely up-ends.

Seldom and doesn’t commonly are ambiguous, of course, and rarely doesn’t mean never.

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Ogden Nash may have been thinking of other dabblers — particularly the mallards — when he wrote his verse, but it applies equally well to this pair of shovelers:

Behold the duck.
It does not cluck.
A cluck it lacks.
It quacks.
It is specially fond
Of a puddle or pond.
When it dines or sups,
It bottoms ups.

Meanwhile, back on land, grackles chattered and chirred.  One, obviously out of sorts, flew over to voice a complaint.

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“You think it’s all sunshine and shrimp dinners around here?” he said. “You think it’s easy, living among these preening water birds? Let me tell you — there are times this isn’t such an easy world.”

“What’s the problem?” I asked. “It can’t be food, since you don’t eat what a duck eats. Is it a territorial squabble?” “Unfortunately, not,” he said, “though I hope to find a girl to fight over. Right now, it’s getting a bath that’s the problem.”

That stopped me. “There’s as much water as land around here,” I said. “Can’t you find a suitable pool?” “I suppose I could,” he said, “but I have a favorite, and I can’t use it. Look.”  He tipped his head, pointing with his beak to the bank across the road.

Following his gaze, I stared at the bank. “I think it’s time for Plan B,” I said. With just the slightest tremor of a wing and a spread of his tail, he said, “I don’t have a Plan B.”  “Well,” I said, “I think you need to make one.”

(Part 1 of 2: to be continued)

As always, comments are welcome.

A Tale of Two Centuries

Agave americana ~ Chisos Mountains, Texas
(click for original)

Call it what you will — century plant, maguey, American aloe — any glimpse of an Agave americana bloom stalk rising up against West Texas mountains, or made to glow by the last rays of the setting sun, is thrilling. A common enough plant, especially in Mexico and the American Southwest, its flowers appear infrequently. When they emerge, it’s an occasion.

Known popularly as the century plant, Agave americana is the largest plant in a large family. In his Agaves of Continental North America, Howard Scott Gentry lists 139 agave species and 197 taxa. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum lists 150 North American species, while other sites simply generalize, saying there are “nearly two hundred agave species in the Americas,” or “over a hundred.”

Often found at mountainous elevations of 4,000 to 6,000 feet, century plants appear in a variety of other settings, and are hard to miss. Their mass of leaves, called a rosette, can reach six or seven feet in height, and span as much as twelve feet in width.Their smooth, rigid leaves are edged with sharp teeth, and terminate in a needle-like tip. For landscapers, finding a nice, out-of-the-way corner for the plants is important.

Clustered century plant rosettes~ Presidio La Bahia, Goliad, Texas
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Because the slow-growing plants require between ten and thirty-five years to bloom, the waiting period may feel like a century to someone hoping to witness the event, but the myth of the hundred-year bloom is just that: a myth. Writing in the Scientific American Supplement of July-December, 1903, field naturalist E.W. Nelson noted:

All agaves require years for their development before flowering, and this has given rise to the popular name, “Century Plant,” borne by Agave americana. It is doubtful if any species under natural conditions actually spends more than fifteen or twenty years in maturing.

Nelson goes on to describe the plant’s life cycle:

The large, fleshy leaves…are persistent, and spend all the years of their immaturity in slowly storing up quantities of sweet sap. At the expiration of this long period, which might almost be called a period of incubation, a change occurs in the plant’s organism…
With marvelous rapidity, a gigantic central flower stalk shoots up 20 to 50 feet. This stalk, which is sometimes a foot in diameter at the base, is fed generously from the store of sap in the base and leaves.

The process triggering the agave’s bloom remains somewhat mysterious, but the results of its flowering are predictable. The plant is monocarpic: that is, it blooms only once in its lifetime. After forming its seeds, the leaves and base wither and die, leaving smaller, younger plants to repeat the process. Benito Trevino, a rancher and naturalist from Rio Grande City, Texas, has seen the process multiple times:

 The plant only blooms one time and then it dies. The stalk can grow as fast as 12 to 16 inches a day. When I was at the University of Texas, the botany professor had several growing outside the botany building. When one started to bloom, he had a fiberglass pole that was marked in inches, and we were able to monitor the growth rate. I remember one growing to 22 feet.
Agave americana bloom stalk ~ Mission Espíritu Santo, Goliad, Texas
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The flowers themselves grow in clusters at the end of horizontal branches arrayed near the top of the stalk. Facing upward, they give the plant a delightful, candelabrum-like appearance. Despite attracting Mexican long-nose bats, hummingbirds, orioles, and a variety of insects with its nectar, the profusion of flowers can seem a little untidy. The buds are more elegant, if not nearly so tasty from a diner’s point of view.

Agave americana buds, complete with leaf-footed bugs
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Buds into flowers, and a feast of pollen and nectar to enjoy
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The species we know today as Agave americana was mentioned as early as 1552 by Francisco López de Gómara, in his Historia general de las Indias. Charles de L’Ecluse, first director of Holland’s Leiden Botanical Gardens,viewed one in a monastery in Valencia in 1576, sent offsets to a friend in Antwerp, and coined the name American aloe. (Note that aloes and agaves are not related. Aloe is a genus in the family Xanthorrhoeaceae. Agaves belong to the Asparagaceae: a different family which does include the vegetable called asparagus.)

In Agaves of Continental North America, Gentry notes that:

Agaves for ornamental and fiber uses were apparently first carried overseas by both Spaniards and Portuguese: Agave americana to the Azores and Canary Islands; A. angustifolia, A. cantala, and others to Asia and Africa. By the eighteenth century A. americana, A. lurida, and others were established along the Mediterranean coasts.
The spread of the genus to the Old World reached its height in the nineteenth century, when agaves became popular throughout Europe as ornamental succulents in both private and public gardens.

Baron Alexander von Humboldt, the early 19th century Prussian explorer and naturalist for whom California’s Humboldt Redwoods are named, described the agave as “the most useful of all the crops that nature has granted the people of North America.” Like hemp, its fibers were used by indigenous peoples for clothing, rope, bags, and a form of paper. Its leaves and heart (called piña, because of its resemblance to a pineapple) were roasted as food; its leaves used in roofs and fences; its spines turned into weapons. Most delightfully, the sharp tip at the end of each leaf is attached to fibers running the length of the leaf: a combination which makes for a most convenient needle and thread.

The roasted piña, called mezcal (from the Náhuatl word mexcalli) became such a staple for eastern Apaches that Spaniards began calling them Mescalero. And, as Gentry notes:

When the Spaniards began colonization of more northern regions, like Durango and Saltillo, they took Náhuatl people with them as interpreters, laborers, and farmers. The farmers took maguey with them and established the pulque culture which still persists as the northern fringe of the pulque complex.

Prior to colonizing Mexico’s Central Valley, the Aztecs consumed both aguamiel (“honeywater”) and the fermented version called pulque. Later, the Spanish refined the distillation process to produce mezcal (from Agave americana) and tequila, made only from the blue agave (Agave tequiliana).

¡Para todo mal, mezcal ~para todo bien, también!
(For everything bad, mescal ~ for everything good, the same!)

An agave must be at least six to eight years old before its sap can be harvested. After leaves are removed from the center of the plant, sap begins to pool in the hollow at its base. Several liters may be collected each day for a period of weeks or months. The harvested aguamiel is sweet, with a bit of a bite: not unlike the edges of the plant which produces it.

Pulque gatherer in Mexico ~ c.1900

In 1903, Nelson described pulque production in the valleys of central Mexico:

Pulque, the national drink of the Mexicans, is made from the juice or sap of the Pulque Maguey. The valley of Mexico is the center of cultivation of this plant, and many extensive haciendas or plantations that are devoted entirely to growing it yield large revenues to their owners.
The plants, when two or three years old, are set out in long, parallel rows. They reach maturity in from twelve to fourteen years. In order to insure a succession of harvests, new settings are planted yearly, and even with the long delay in the first crop, the business is very profitable.

Today, cultivation of the maguey continues, but pulque is struggling, undone by the increasing popularity of beer and tequila, and by the difficulties of storing and shipping a continually-fermenting beverage that tends to blow up its own bottles. In 1886, there were 817 pulquerias in Mexico City, and only 9,000 homes. At the turn of the 20th century, thousands of pulquerias served up the traditional beverage; today, there might be a hundred. The answer may be a new image, a better marketing strategy, and a cohort of hipsters ready, as one said, to “get their Azteca on.”

History, botany, and cultural traditions aside, the unique appearance of an Agave americana in bloom is guaranteed to draw attention.

During a brief stay at Goliad’s historic Presidio La Bahia last June, I was delighted to find two century plants vying for my attention.  One bloom stalk had emerged from the group of rosettes shown above. Considering that the wall is about fifteen feet high, and that, standing atop it, I still wasn’t at eye level with the lowest seed clusters, it’s easy to imagine that this one had grown to a height of 40′.

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Its stately silhouette dominated views from the fort’s chapel and parade ground.

Seen from the doorway of Our Lady of Loreto Chapel
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Looking through the Quadrangle gate
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Longer visits allow for quite different images of the same subject. Here, the Quadrangle gate offered a lovely sunset view.

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Looking skyward, it was easy to imagine the agave as a Christmas-tree-in-waiting.

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And, given events that transpired at the Presidio during the Texas Revolution, it was impossible to avoid imagining Colonel Fannin and his men watching an equally beautiful sunset.

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Meanwhile, back at the parade ground, another agave had come to an early, unhappy end. Only a day or two before my arrival, a combination of ground-saturating rains and a fierce, wind-filled storm had toppled the shallow-rooted plant.

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Unfortunate as it was, a prone plant does offer some opportunities. Thanks to the storm, I was able to see both its root system and the fascinating, fibrous interior of its stalk, which resembles nothing so much as a bundle of fiber optic cables.

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Perhaps best of all, the fallen plant allowed for images of buds and flowers which otherwise would have been difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. It isn’t every day there’s a chance to photograph century plant flowers while sitting on the ground.

Col. James Fannin’s room was in the south extension of the chapel.
A doorway, now sealed, opened into the Quadrangle; its outline is visible above, in the upper left.
(Click image to enlarge) 

As interesting as the agave itself was the location of its fall. Inside the fort’s quadrangle, near the church, it could not have been more than a few yards from the spot where Colonel James Fannin was executed during the Texas revolutionary event known as the Goliad Massacre.

On March 27, 1836, after being held captive for a week, Fannin’s men were divided into three groups and marched away from the fort under heavy guard. One group set out on the San Antonio road; another, on the road to Victoria; and a third, on the road leading to Copano, on the coast.

A short distance from the fort, each group was halted. Guards took up positions on only one side of the prisoner ranks, then opened fire at close range. The few survivors who managed to run were pursued and killed by the cavalry. Returning to the fort, soldiers removed about forty wounded men from the chapel, laid them on the ground in front of the chapel doors, and shot them. 

Fannin was the last to be killed. After being taken into the quadrangle from the chapel, he was blindfolded, and made to sit in a chair. After requesting that he not be shot in the face; that his personal possessions be sent to his family; and that he be given a Christian burial, Colonel Fannin was shot in the face; a Mexican officer claimed his personal possessions; and his body was burned.

What happened next is another tale, for another time. Suffice it to say that, while Hollywood and popular history always have remembered the Alamo, the true revolutionary cry in Texas was, “Remember Goliad! Remember the Alamo!”

Fannin’s death wasn’t the end of the struggle for Texas independence: nor was the toppling of the beautiful century plant the end of its story. When I returned to Presidio La Bahia in November, I found the agave had been tipped upright, trimmed, and tucked into place. Despite obvious damage to some of its leaves, new leaves were forming, and the young plants clustered around it seemed to be cheering it on.

I was doing a little cheering, myself. And those voices I heard in the middle of the night, echoing through the quadrangle? Perhaps they did belong to Fannin and his men: partying on the ramparts, and offering up a mezcal toast to the indomitable little plant.

Agave americana ‘Redivivus’ 
(Click image to enlarge)

As always, comments are welcome.
Thanks to Texas Flash Dude for allowing use of his century plant photo from the Chisos Mountains. The source for the pulque farmer photo is noted above.   All other photos are mine.

 

Published in: on January 18, 2016 at 6:53 pm  Comments (101)  
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An End to Autumn Envy

My Iowa Autumn, 1949

Let big people call them leaves. My dollie and I knew them for what they were: piled-up heaps of love, colorful and crisp, raked and arranged, ready for fort-building, rolling, jumping, falling again and again into the safe, soft cushion provided by the trees.

It was a season of falling: falling leaves, windfall apples redolent of cider or sauce, drifts of smoke falling from chimneys and sloping around our ankles. We pressed fallen leaves between sheets of waxed paper, to hang in windows. We carried leaf bouquets to favorite teachers, and decorated supper tables for the pleasure of our families. We named their colors to suit ourselves and reflect our world: bittersweet, cornstalk, snow-fence brown.

And we traveled. Sometimes near and sometimes far, far beyond the boundaries of our maple and elm-filled yards, we gloried in even more dramatic autumn colors along the rivers and hills. Brilliant as sunsets, heart-rending in their beauty, the riotous mixture of oak, hard maple, and ash blinded us to the realities of a winter yet to come.
(more…)

Published in: on December 13, 2015 at 7:19 am  Comments (107)  
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Rainbows, Reconsidered

(Click to enlarge)
The
rainbow
is itself
the gold, its arc
a wealth of color;
 no pot suffices to
 contain its shimmer of pure
promise. Slanted light, glinting drops
dare to stand as witness; life still shines
beyond the storm, to light this world’s darkness.
Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click HERE.
Published in: on November 20, 2015 at 8:30 pm  Comments (98)  
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