A Woods Full of Hackberry Emperors

Sounds strange, right? What exactly is running around trying to be ruler of the woods? Butterfly folks know that the hackberry emperor is a butterfly whose earth-toned wings are beautifully spotted, not bright and showy like monarchs or fritillaries, but really lovely nonetheless. They are called hackberry emperors because the hackberry tree is the host plant that feeds the caterpillars of this species.

A hackberry emperor

Anyway, today the woods were alive with butterflies, mostly hackberry emperors but also snouts and others. There were small yellow butterflies and little gray-white ones flying near the ground. It was one more sign of autumn, as butterfly activity ramps up.

This afternoon I was at Sheri Capehart Nature Preserve, the wonderful little remnant of Eastern Cross Timbers in Arlington and an oasis for butterflies and many other things. It has been a difficult year at the preserve, full of drought and record high temperatures. Then, briefly, there was drenching rain, and a return to drought.

The water level in the north pond was low today, lower than I have seen it in quite a while. I could see the bottom, or at least could see the ragged layer of reddish algae growing along the bottom. Above the water were dozens of dragonflies darting and dipping, floating on the air and perching on twigs and reeds. They brought to the pond what the butterflies brought to the woods: a sort of dancing, whirling energy.

A black saddlebags, a species of dragonfly (note the dark “saddlebag” patches on the wings)

There was one last bit of autumn, adding just a little more charm to this afternoon with the sun at a low angle and cool breezes moderating the warm sun. Maximilian sunflower, a native prairie plant that blooms at the end of summer through the fall, was blooming at the preserve. Those clusters of big yellow flowers are a beautiful sight every year.

Maximilian sunflower

A Morning at the Edge of Autumn

The change of seasons can be imperceptible when one day is mostly like the last one. Sometimes, though, there is a day that feels like change has come. September 11, this year, felt that way, and the LBJ National Grasslands was a great place to greet the new season. I drove toward Decatur in early morning, with the nearly full moon watching over me and the sun rising as an orange disk on the other side of the sky. But to the northwest, a blue-gray deck of clouds inched toward me. I reached the edge of the clouds at Decatur and left the moon and sun behind.

In a small pine grove east of Alvord, the pine trees swayed in a cool breeze. They made a beautiful sound like water rushing as each wave of air poured through the pine needles. My thermometer registered 66 degrees, and we stood under the trees with one of us commenting that she was glad to have a jacket. 

There was Dana, Erika, Carol, Carla, Kayla and me, most of them Master Naturalists and all of us naturalists in the sense of people who study the natural world and who return time and again to be lovingly, gratefully immersed in it. Kayla and I have started a community we refer to as the LBJ Grasslands Project in which we can be immersed in the grasslands, online and in small group visits there. The walk in the grasslands on September 11 was one of those visits.

A field with lots of croton

Under the deck of gray clouds we began walking across open prairie patches and through areas of oak and juniper woodland, looking at the green growth after the prescribed fires from some months ago. Very soon after the fire the new growth had appeared, but the grasslands then had to endure months of heat and drought. The recent rains triggered something like a second spring, with lots of new green vegetation and beautiful flowers. Some of the meadows were full of croton, also known as “dove weed” or “goat weed,” and those fields had the different texture and color of those grayish green leaves. Kayla examined branches for lichen and found several beautiful varieties. Then we looked up in a dead tree to see a young Mississippi kite perched there, watching us with little apparent concern. We took photos and wondered if that brown-streaked bird was really a kite. As we did so, I noticed that the clouds were beginning to break up and the sky beyond was a beautiful blue. 

A juvenile Mississippi kite

We came to a couple of small ponds within an area where the sandy soil was eroded and scooped out. One of the ponds had what was nearly an island, a steep mound on which several trees grew, including some persimmons. Most of the developing fruits were green, but I found a ripe one and ate part of it. The texture was a little like plum and the taste was vaguely peachy. What a wonderful place this was!

The boundary of this little place was a low eroded embankment where the woodland gave way to the basin that held the pond. My companions were scattered near the pond, sitting quietly to write something about what we were experiencing. A breeze came down and stirred a patch of ripples in the water. Above the embankment, some sumac was starting to turn red, and the oak trees moved with each current of air. Those trees sheltered so much life in feathers, scales, chitin and fur. Above the tree line, soft clouds drifted and the sky behind them was deep blue shading to pastel toward the horizon. In the distance, a group of crows fussed at something. 

This is the part I love the most – quiet, wordless moments just taking everything in or reflecting on where we had been. A member of our group wrote about the quiet, the rippling water and “sense of separation from today’s world.” This is a place of refuge from cities and never-sleeping machinery. This is a sanctuary in which we can be still, feel the sun’s warmth and the soft breezes, and listen to birds. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to sit among the bitterweed and sedges and talk with the cricket frogs.

A hatchling whiptail lizard, either a prairie racerunner or spotted whiptail

The time came to an end, however, and we started back. Somewhere we noticed some movement in the leaf litter and I was enthralled with a tiny striped lizard with the most beautiful blue-green tail. Stripes and blue tail send my mind immediately to the thought that it was a baby skink, but the details of body form and pattern made clear that this was a newly hatched whiptail lizard. A couple of us watched as this tiny reptile hunted invertebrates under the leaves, biting and shaking and then chasing the ant-sized insect again. I was grateful that he or she decided to ignore us and continue hunting as we watched. Just another moment of fascination and beauty within these woods and prairies. 

More summer-like days will come, but the sun is lower in the sky now and the heat of the day is nothing like July. There will be more walks as we slip into autumn. I look forward to joining friends for another day at the grasslands. 

Hairy ruellia, a kind of petunia, grew here and there in woodland openings
A false foxglove, as identified by iNaturalist

Goodbye, Winter

At LBJ National Grasslands yesterday, new green growth emerged from the soil everywhere. In this ecotone, this blended margin between prairie and woodland, what had been the sandy brown floor was now turning green. In some places it was hidden beneath last year’s grasses, and in other places around trees and shrubs the scattered green was unmistakable. In areas that were recently burned, where the soil now had the most contact with the bright, warming sun, the new growth was strong. 

It was March 19, the last day of winter. Tomorrow the Northern Hemisphere would be angled toward the sun just a bit more, reaching the vernal equinox. It would be the first day of spring. I spent most of the day at LBJ National Grasslands to say goodbye to winter in the biggest, quietest place I could wander through.  

It was bright and sunny, as if the weather had already passed the equinox and was intent on spring. I soon shed the hoodie I started my walk with, as the breeze warmed a little and the sun was higher in the sky. By the end of the day I would have a mild sunburn and no regrets for having walked and sat in so much sunshine. 

Limestone shelf at the top of an arroyo

I started up on a ridge where limestone lies beneath shallow soil. In places, erosion exposes the limestone from an ancient sea bed filled with small oysters. I walked around one spot where water had exposed a small limestone shelf and eroded back under it. This was at the top of one of those places where the land drops away from the top of the cuesta or ridge and forms a long arroyo down the hillside. Big junipers, hackberries, and woody shrubs fill these places where the land concentrates rainfall.  

On the top of the cuesta, prairie grasses grow where the soil is deep enough. In shallow soil, even in areas with bare limestone, you can find clumps of cacti such as the grooved nipple cactus with stems like rounded domes covered with spines. There are also prickly pear cacti whose pads in winter are colored in shades of faded brick red and pink. Elsewhere up on the ridge there are clumps of compass plant. I love those long deeply notched leaves that feel as if they were cut from stiff sheets of sandpaper.  

Mexican plum

A couple of hours later I was in the Cross Timbers woodland below the ridge, visiting a small pond. The breeze stirred ripples on its surface. The sunlight glittered brightly from the tops of those ripples, so that the pond’s entire surface seemed covered in sparkling jewels. When I let my focus soften, it was like a very fast twinkling of a field of stars. Even in simple places like this, the rest of the world drops away and there is only the pleasure of this moment in this spot. How we all long for such a refuge, and here it was. 

The stars in the water, only poorly represented in the photo

Throughout the winter the sulphur butterflies persist and dance across dormant prairies and sunny glades, but today more insect life was awakening. In one spot I began to see orange butterflies. At the edge of a clearing, two of them encircled each other and seemed to catch an updraft, swirling straight up to the crowns of the surrounding trees. When one landed, I saw that it was a goatweed leafwing. Their deep orange wings are scalloped, edged in ashen gray and the forewing and hindwing come to points. Their interesting name is based on description and natural history. The host for their caterpillars is “goatweed” or croton, and when closed the wings look just like a dead leaf.  

A goatweed leafwing

Finishing in this part of the grasslands, the practical but unimaginatively named unit 71, I drove to a couple of units near Alvord, including one of the beautiful and fragrant pine groves, and ended up in unit 30, one of my favorites. I let myself in through one of the green Forest Service gates and looked across the prairie and savannah toward the oak-juniper woodland. 

The prairie in “unit 30,” looking upslope

Here was that wonderful down-sloping prairie with little bluestem, Indiangrass, and flowering plants scattered throughout. Then the trail reaches the trees and turns sharply, losing itself in junipers, post oaks and other trees. The woods frequently open into little prairie patches as well as a few little ponds. I know the features of this part of the trail and I enjoy each walk there. I thought about why the places within LBJ National Grasslands have such an attraction for me, these “same old” trails. But the affection for the place holds. Walking here is visiting old friends, so why would I tire of it? And when I walk through spots in the grasslands that are new to me I usually see familiar landscapes, just arranged differently. Some of the appeal for me is the sense of being able to spread out, to be unconfined in grasslands and woods that keep on going. 

A nine-banded armadillo, oblivious to my nearby presence

So goodbye to winter, and welcome spring! I’m ready for frog calls and purple coneflower, and those spring evenings with distant thunder. And eventually I’ll come to miss the earth tones of dormant vegetation and quiet winter afternoons. In time I will welcome winter back again. 

In the November Woods

Hardly anything is finer than a green Forest Service gate opening onto trails that lead through the grasslands and oak woodlands of LBJ National Grasslands. Those meadows and woods change throughout the seasons, and each of those changes is beautiful. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be autumn (but ask me again in the spring). The low-angled sun highlights details of light and shadow, the colors of leaves and grasses are wonderful, and afternoons can be sun-warmed but cool at the same time.

A common buckeye

Yesterday I opened one of those green gates that was new to me and walked a trail back through rust-colored little bluestem grasses and oaks with leaves now tinged with yellow and caramel, and a little red here and there. Much of it was familiar, like the way the sun makes little bluestem sparkle when it shines through the little tufted seeds tucked away along the stems. What made it wonderful was that it was more of the things that are always on the verge of being lost. Ranches are sold and turned into houses and lawns, and so a walk through a new patch of Cross Timbers felt reassuring. 

Croton and bitterweed along the trail
A sulphur visiting a bitterweed flower
A small pond

Along with the taller prairie grasses were areas with lots of croton (“prairie tea” for some folks), western ragweed, and bitterweed. I love this last plant, whose yellow flowers bloom so late in the year. Clusters of yellow bitterweed blooms were visited by bees and butterflies. Grasshoppers jumped in front of every step I took, taking advantage of these last warm days to nibble at the remaining vegetation. 

A skipper visiting the bitterweed
A variegated fritillary
Sunlight through bluestem seeds
“Me and my shadow.” A harvestman (daddy longlegs) and its shadow, wandering the prairie

After about an hour, I went down the road to another of those green gates, this one opening onto a trail that Meghan Cassidy and I walked a year and one week ago. After crossing a nice patch of prairie that very gradually slopes down to a line of trees, the trail turns and traces its way through oaks, junipers, and prairie openings. 

I stopped at the same post oak where we had stood and watched leaves drop, the air so quiet that I could sometimes hear a leaf bump into a branch on the way down. And then we would hear a wave of breeze approach through the treetops, stirring the top branches and releasing a few more leaves to pinwheel down to the growing carpet of leaves on the ground. Although not many leaves were falling from that tree yesterday, there was some of that sense of solitude and peace in the quiet of the woodlands.

Further down the deep sandy trail some of the same young oaks were turning, with leaves glowing scarlet when backlit by the sun. The woods were full of shade behind the trees which really had yet to lose many leaves. In other places the low mid-afternoon sun struck grasses and leaves with bright, warm light. The sunlight seemed that much brighter for the contrast with the shaded and darkened places deep among the trees.

The pond

I reached a place where the soil is cut by erosion and drops, exposing red and pale sandy soil in an irregular set of steps and furrows down to a small pond. Meghan and I sat here a year ago on a stretch of slightly damp sand tilting down to the water. I was entranced by a play of the light in which the late afternoon sun was reflected by ripples, sending squiggles of light up onto a shaded bank under a juniper. The very same thing was happening yesterday, with a tiny light show playing on the shaded bank of the pond. It was a very small thing, and also an example of something that seems important to me: Nature is so often a consistent, stable presence in a world that can seem chaotic. Places in nature can be anchors in our lives to which we can return over and over for reassurance that some good things persist in spite of all the changes around us. 

Juniper berries!

On the way back there was movement in the leaf litter a small distance off the trail. It was a nine-banded armadillo, snuffling along the woodland floor, oblivious to the human standing nearby. Once again last autumn’s walk was being repeated, as we saw an armadillo on the return walk on that day, too. This one kept searching for insects and grubs to eat while I took a couple of photos. I shifted and made a little noise and the little armored one stood up to look around and sniff the air. I coughed, and he crashed off through the brush. 

The armadillo
Tiny asters blooming along the trail
Grasshoppers were everywhere
More prairie

It was getting near sunset, and my walk was done. It is hard to put into words just what this time of year, this quality of light, this quiet woodland feels like to me. In the “Autumn” section of the book Meghan and I have been working on, I wrote this: Things come to an end / Be still in the golden autumn light / And consider how to make a good end of the year / With affection and acceptance. This season does feel like an ending of the year, and it seems like a good idea to spend some time being still and quietly reflecting on all that the year contained. This November walk at the LBJ National Grasslands had been perfect for that.

Is It Autumn Yet?

A patch of Maximilian sunflower is a reminder of summer

I climbed the switchback trail up to the ridge at Southwest Nature Preserve yesterday, and it felt a little different. The high temperature was still in the 90s and there were no clouds to deflect a little of the sun’s radiant warmth, but there was a barely perceptible difference. Through much of the summer, the humid air has wrapped us in a blanket of heat, but not so much today. The slight breeze that previously could not penetrate that sticky blanket was refreshing this time. I wondered if this was the first hint of autumn.

The orange tones of poison ivy leaves

Autumn has a distinct personality. The sensory world of autumn is one of cool breezes, even a little chill, and in the fields there is the faint smell of ripening and even decay as leaves come to the end of their usefulness and fall from trees and shrubs. It’s a good sort of decay; it’s the soil-creating process, the vintage bouquet of oak and ash leaves, with notes of hackberry and possumhaw. I look forward to bright, cool days in woods and prairies and the chance to smell that legacy of what grew in the summer.

Where I live, autumn’s sensory world includes leaves turning color, gradually and in varying degrees. There are the brilliant colors of sumac (one species of which is “flameleaf sumac,” which gives a clue as to its contribution to autumn color) as well as the varied colors of poison ivy. The oak leaves sometimes become very colorful, but only sometimes. And then when the leaves have fallen, we get a look into woodlands where before there were curtains of green. On through the coming winter, sunny days flood the ground around the tree trunks with light.

The quality of that light is an important part of autumn’s personality. Our part of the earth is tilting away from the sun, and light reaches us from a slanting angle. In a trick of physics, it is more golden, with an end-of-the-day feel, a suggestion of sunset all day long. In a verse that introduces autumn in a forthcoming book, I said, “Things come to an end / Be still in the golden autumn light.” The sense of the year coming to an end suggests a time for contemplation, to “consider how to make a good end of the year / With affection and acceptance.”

Is it autumn yet? One way of defining the seasons says that autumn begins with the first of September. The other way, based on the position of the sun, says that autumn begins when the shortening days and lengthening nights are of equal lengths. The equinox, typically on September 23, marks the beginning of autumn.

Sunset at the preserve, with a crescent moon riding high

That day is less than two weeks away. I look forward to that day and to every little sign that autumn is coming.