Fort Worth Nature Center, October 30

It was a sunny mild autumn day and impossible to stay inside, and so I climbed up to the ridge at the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge to visit Lone Point Shelter. The narrow path hugs the ridge, and on the last part you climb a series of stone steps.

Lone Point, when built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935, offered a wooden roof as shelter, but now all that remains is the rock framework. Still you can sit on the inside rock ledges like benches, perfect for having a snack or writing in a nature journal.

Historic photo, from a sign at FW Nature Center & Refuge

I sat on the rock bench at 2:22pm, and it was sunny with scattered puffy clouds and a slight cool breeze. It was 74 degrees (and 46% relative humidity, according to the thermometer/hygrometer that I carry with me). Back to the northwest and away from Lake Worth, the trail circles a beautiful savannah with live oak, cedar elm, and open areas with grasses, prickly pear cactus, and Arkansas yucca.

Butterflies were everywhere – small yellow ones flying along the ground, bigger ones with pale yellow or brilliant yellow-orange bouncing among the yucca and cacti, American snouts, a red admiral, a hackberry emperor, and a big swallowtail (probably a tiger swallowtail from my glimpse of the yellow and black pattern before it disappeared around a possumhaw bush.

An American snout (lower center), camouflaged among the fallen brown leaves
A clouded yellow butterfly caught in flight

I chewed a few juniper berries, which I think were not fully ripe but they did have a little of that wonderful aromatic taste. It was warm (79 degrees) but still very comfortable, and the sky was a clear and fairly deep blue. I walked back to the Lone Point structure thinking that today was really remarkable and feeling very grateful.

Here the savannah slopes down toward woodland
A common buckeye

I would gladly have stayed, watched the shadows lengthen and seen the sunset, but the refuge was going to close. I looked around and this beautiful place a little more, got a glimpse of Lake Worth below the ridge, and headed back down toward home.

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

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. 

High Summer at Southwest Nature Preserve

After the long reprieve from Texas heat, with the rains of spring and early summer, we’re back to a more typical August. With temperatures climbing and the sun beating down, I decided it was time to take a walk at Southwest Nature Preserve. I was there from about 1:45-3:15pm.

The North Pond

Cricket frogs and turtles were busy at the North Pond, and dragonflies busily and silently did their dance, swooping and hovering. The Common Whitetail more than justified its name as the commonest of the dragonflies I saw.

A Common Whitetail, perched on a branch

I watched all this for a while, but the sun was merciless and I wanted a shadier place to roost. Up the red sandy trail and under some oaks, I turned to see a Texas Spiny Lizard on a Post Oak trunk, her body making an arc as she hung upside-down there, head pulled up to look at me and tail drooping a little away from the tree trunk. Like all such lizards who survive to adulthood, she was wary, and disappeared around the trunk as I moved in to ask for a photo.

Texas Spiny Lizards have had a heck of a year, with rain and runaway plant growth supporting a bumper crop of bugs. I hope they persist (as they always do, in some numbers) during the dry periods that may come. I never get tired of seeing these cute little reptiles that sometimes tolerate you coming close but always at some point scamper away, up and around the trunk, too fast for your eyes to follow.

I followed the trail at the back of the preserve and climbed up to the ridge where there could be more breeze. Around the little loop trail at the crown of the preserve, there is an old concrete pad left over from when it was a working farm, and I sat there for a while, enjoying the quiet. There is almost always some airplane noise, but the spot is on the other side of the ridge from most traffic and so you can escape much of the mechanized soundtrack of modern life, for a little bit.

A Sumac seed head

Sumac is common in places at the preserve, and their seed heads can be a bright, velvety red before drying and darkening into the color of dried blood. Rob Denkhaus tells me I could make a tea out of it, and I’d like to find some growing somewhere that I could harvest a seed head or two and try it!

Looking down from the ridge onto the trail below

On the walk back to the trailhead, I saw one more of a kind of butterfly that seemed familiar – was it a Hackberry Butterfly like one I’d seen on a previous walk? I got a photo, and it appears that I was right. (Thanks, iNaturalist!)

A Hackberry Butterfly, according to iNaturalist

At the end, Weather Underground was reporting that the temperature in Arlington was 101ºF, with a heat index making feel like 117ºF. So it got pretty hot today, though the lizards and insects didn’t seem to care. It’s a little more troublesome for those of us whose bodies only operate in a narrow range around 98.6ºF, but a little shade and a little breeze got me through.

A Shortcut to Nowhere

I climbed up “Kennedale Mountain” today, an old-ish man with pulmonary disease scaling the summit easily. Kennedale Mountain is a ridge at the Southwest Nature Preserve. A primitive trail gently climbs to a sandstone ridge at the top via a series of switchbacks. On the lower slopes there is a section of plastic netting that urges people to stay on the trail and not climb straight up the hillside, where they would damage vegetation, churn up the sandy soil and make erosion likely.

Eastern Cross Timbers woodland at the preserve

I wish that unsightly barrier did not need to be there. Why would people take the short cut to the top? Is there a race? Frankly, I’d much rather take that slow, meandering path and see all the little wonders that can be seen on the way up. If you’re not in a hurry, there is a lot to see.

iNaturalist tells me that this is Bluejacket, a type of spiderwort

Even the plants that some would consider a nuisance can be pretty spectacular. It seems that sunny openings where there is adequate moisture and sandy soil are just great for Texas bull nettle, a plant that I carefully avoid brushing up against. Its hairy, spiny branches and leaves and the pure white blossoms are a real treat, though.

Texas bull nettle

The ridge at the top has a flat, open area where Little Bluestem grows between scattered Blackjack Oak, and the shelf of iron-rich sandstone looks great, if you avoid places where people have carved initials.

Clumps of Little Bluestem, in little vertical brush-strokes of blue-green.

Elsewhere within the oak woods, which are a remnant of the Eastern Cross Timbers ecoregion, lichen-covered boulders are scattered among Blackjack and Post Oak, Sumac, and a wide diversity of other plants. Dragonflies hover and swallowtail butterflies flutter among the trees. There is really a fine diversity of butterflies and skippers to be found there.

The understory is like a beautiful jungle under the oaks
A skipper

The beautiful dark skipper was resting on sumac, a shrub which can easily get out of control but is a beautiful plant. Today the seed heads where brilliant red; in the fall the leaves will be even redder.

Seeds maturing on a sumac bush

This season, horse mint is growing like crazy in places; in lower areas the purple Lemon Bee Balm is common, and in other areas the Spotted Horse Mint grows in profusion. It’s a nice-looking plant, but if you look closely, it’s a spectacular plant!

Spotted Horse Mint
A crab spider waiting in ambush on a Spotted Horse Mint

Speaking of looking closely, there was a gorgeous little bloom growing low to the ground here and there in the woods, and you have to stop and really look to appreciate it. Bend down, spend a little time, and notice that it grows on a sort of trailing vine and that some narrow green seed pods are developing. According to iNaturalist, it’s “Fuzzybean,” which sounds like a Sesame Street character but is actually a legume.

iNaturalist tells me that this is a Fuzzybean

Looking closely and taking your time pays off richly at the preserve. There are all kinds of flowers that you could lose yourself in. I stood in the steaming sunlight, admiring and trying not to drip on my camera. (Most of the close-ups were taken with an iPhone, and while I don’t claim that they’re anything special, I think that phone may be my best close-up camera.)

(I have no clue)
Butterfly Pea, according to iNaturalist

On the way back, there were more butterflies, including a beautiful Question Mark, a kind of butterfly that is utterly camouflaged with wings closed but is a beautiful study in orange and dark brown when it opens those strangely-curved wings. It was doing what butterflies do, sipping on a clump of scat. We don’t like to think about such beautiful insects getting nutrition from feces, but there you are.

Question Mark

On the way back, I passed the place where that rogue trail joins the “official” trail near the top. Stacks of tree branches were piled there to discourage the cut-through down the slope. I still cannot imagine why anyone would come to this amazing place and want to take the short cut. I hope that they at least stopped somewhere, took a good look at something, in their race to do whatever they were doing.

Branches piled along the trail, suggesting, “no short cut; take your time”

(You probably noticed a lot of references to iNaturalist. I use it pretty regularly and it’s a wonderful way to get suggested identification of what you’re seeing and also to share your observations with other naturalists and with the scientific community. I’m pretty well-versed in reptiles and amphibians and have learned as much as I can about the bigger picture, but there’s an incredible amount that I don’t know. The iNaturalist app helps a lot.)