Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Archive for March 2012

Death camas

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Believe the name: death camas can kill you if you eat it. This was one of at least a dozen plants of Zigadenus nuttallii that I found in an undeveloped lot in northwest Austin on March 6. If you see a resemblance between an individual flower here and one in the recently featured crow poison—which may or may not actually be poisonous—it’s because both plants are in the lily family.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 23, 2012 at 5:21 AM

Huisache

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In 2010, a lush year for wildflowers in central Texas, the huisache trees, Acacia farnesiana, didn’t flower. In 2011, though their spring bloom period came before the worst of the drought, they didn’t flower either. Now they’re making up for lost time, as this picture from March 11 in north-central Austin confirms. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this tree, I’ll say that its blossoms are so numerous and perfumed that you can smell them from a block away if the wind is blowing toward you. And for those not familiar with Spanish, I’ll add that huisache is pronounced approximately wee-SAH-cheh. The word is Mexican Spanish, based on Nahuatl (Aztec) huixachi, from huitzli, which means thorn, and ixachi, which means many. A huisache tree does indeed have many thorns on it; they’re mostly small, and hard to see in this picture, but they’re sharp, as I can attest.

Huisache trees grow in Mexico and across the southern tier of the United States, as the state-clickable map at the USDA website confirms.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 22, 2012 at 5:42 AM

A light encounter

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As you learned in the previous post, on August 24 of last year I photographed two turkey vultures in a tree in northeast Austin. I was drawn to that place because I’d caught a glimpse of a large structure looming in the woods on the north side of E. Braker Lane where nothing of that size had a right to be. After photographing the vultures, I walked around the corner and along the edge of the woods, and then into them, where I found not only plenty of poison ivy but also the ruins of two concrete silos that no previous drive-bys had led me to suspect were there. Here from last year is a picture of the lush but poisonous plants and one of the silos. Up the side of the silo you can make out a column of windows that will be relevant for what follows.

In some ways this creepy scene could be the dark encounter referred to in the title of yesterday’s post, but it isn’t. And some of you may have wondered why, with all the wildflowers coming up in Austin and in so many recent posts, I’ve abruptly forsaken them and jumped back to last year. The reason is that a week ago, on March 14 of this year, I returned to the place you see here. The poison ivy was just beginning to leaf out, as I’ve seen it doing in other places around town. The two silos were still there, and as I walked around to the openings in one of them, a vulture that had been on the dirt floor inside was startled by my sudden appearance; it flew up and landed briefly on the base of one of the windows slightly above the level of my eyes and pretty close to me, then flew out and away. When I climbed through the lowest window and entered the silo, here’s what I found on the ground at the opposite side of the circular earthen floor:

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The turkey vulture had apparently been sitting on these eggs when my arrival scared it away. I hope the bird returned after I left, and I hope the graffiti on the walls inside the silo aren’t a sign of continuing human presence there. Whether the little snail shell and others like it nearby had any connection to the vulture, I don’t know.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 21, 2012 at 5:42 AM

A dark encounter

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On August 24, 2011, well into that year’s terrible drought, I went to the prairie in northeast Austin to see if I could find some early occurrences of the aptly named snow-on-the-prairie. While I did locate some, my biggest find of the day was accidental, and it was at the opposite end of the brightness scale. At one point in my driving around I caught a glimpse of a large structure looming in the woods on the north side of E. Braker Lane where nothing of that size had a right to be. What was it? I turned around, drove back past the place, then around the corner onto Pioneer Farms Dr., where I parked so I could go exploring. No sooner had I gotten out of my car than I noticed two vultures in a nearby tree. As you’ve heard me say before when I’ve encountered birds, I put my longest lens on the camera and proceeded to take pictures, in this case of the vultures singly and together.

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Most of the pictures I took during the session show one or both birds sitting in static poses. There came a moment, though, that I managed to record, when the vulture shown here seemed to get leery of me and made a move as if to fly away, but in the end it didn’t and settled back down. In photographing such a dark subject against a bright sky, I exposed for the bird—actually overexposed slightly, knowing that the sky would appear somewhat washed out, but the important thing was to retain details on the shaded body of the vulture.

As best I’ve been able to determine, this is a turkey vulture, but an immature one that hasn’t yet developed the red head that explains the common name. Cathartes aura is probably the largest species of bird in central Texas, with an adult wingspan up to six feet (two meters). It’s impressive that an animal so large can fly.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 20, 2012 at 5:42 AM

The puff in silverpuff

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If you’ve wondered why Chaptalia texana, which you’ve already seen three times in this blog and as recently as yesterday, is called silverpuff, wonder no more. Note the same nodding posture that characterized this wildflower in its budding stage. Also notice the resemblance to the seed head of the more familiar (and in North America both alien and invasive) dandelion, which is likewise a member of the sunflower family.

Once again this photograph comes from a March 5 session on the property of native plant lovers Pat and Dale Bulla in northwest Austin.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 19, 2012 at 5:32 AM

Silverpuff opens

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A picture that came to you five weeks ago from the parking lot of my neighborhood Costco showed Chaptalia texana, called silverpuff. This diminutive wildflower seems to have two local varieties (or possibly species), one whose flower heads stay mostly closed, as you saw back then, and another whose rays emerge and can even fold back. This latest picture is obviously a close encounter of the second kind, courtesy of the wildflowers growing on the property of native plant lovers Dale and Pat Bulla in northwest Austin.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 18, 2012 at 5:23 AM

Ant on silverpuff

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Do you remember the silverpuff, Chaptalia texana, that I found in the parking lot of my neighborhood Costco on February 1? Today’s picture, from March 5 on the property of native plant aficionados Pat and Dale Bulla, shows how the flower heads of this species usually develop: there’s a characteristic nodding posture, and in the upside-down U of the tightly curving stalk the plant’s woolly hairs often fill the space as if they were the strands of a spiderweb. Though there may occasionally be a real spider, this time there was an ant; it kept moving around on the silverpuff, but what it was looking for or trying to accomplish, I don’t know. (I do know that while silverpuff grows only in a small part of the south-central United States, and not at all in Ireland, I thought that on St. Patrick’s Day I ought to follow yesterday’s picture of an olive hairstreak with another one that has some prominent green in it.)

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 17, 2012 at 5:31 AM

A visitor to Mexican buckeye

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On March 5, as I was photographing the Mexican buckeye blossom that appeared in this morning’s picture, an olive hairstreak butterfly, Callophrys grynea, landed on it. I focused on the butterfly and was later surprised that so many of the lower parts of the flower came out in focus as well. Notice how shiny the red appendage of the flower was as sunlight fell on it. A hairstreak butterfly, by the way, has a tail end that mimics its head, even to pseudo-antennae that move up and down as the butterfly is gathering nectar. A predator may see the movement and chomp a piece out of that end, thinking it’s the head; the butterfly can survive with a chunk of wing missing, but obviously couldn’t with its head missing.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 16, 2012 at 1:41 PM

A hairy bulbous thing with a long red snout

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Here’s a native tree with unusual blossoms: if you were going to design a flower, would you include a hairy bulbous thing with a long red snout on it? I’m sure I wouldn’t, but every spring I’m happy to see the strange blossoms of the Mexican buckeye tree, Ungnadia speciosa, which grows natively not only in Mexico but also in Texas and southern New Mexico. I photographed this one on the property of native plant cheerleaders Pat and Dale Bulla in northwest Austin on March 5.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 16, 2012 at 5:48 AM

Prairie fleabane

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Here’s a little wildflower you’ve never before seen in these pages: it’s Erigeron modestus, called prairie fleabane or plains fleabane. This one was part of a group growing on the property of native plant aficionados Dale and Pat Bulla in northwest Austin on March 5.

Although the photographs in this blog often show subjects in sharp detail, here I took a different approach and focused on the front-most ray flowers, knowing that the rays farther back and all of the yellow disk flowers would come out with less detail or hardly any at all: let’s hear it for impressionism. Those among you who are further interested in photography as a craft can verify that points 1, 2, 5, 12 and 20 in About My Techniques apply to today’s image.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 15, 2012 at 5:46 AM

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