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Not a kind of predation I expected

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Click for greater size and clarity.

On November 15th I drove down to San Marcos, a town about 40 miles south of where I live in Austin, to explore a place I’d discovered on the Internet, the Spring Lake Natural Area. Near the farthest place that I hiked to was a small pond, and on it what I took to be a small duck.* I switched to my longest lens, which I wished could have been longer, and took a few pictures. Then I walked a short distance past some cattails at the edge of the pond, and when I caught sight of the bird again a minute later it seemed to have something white in its mouth. A look through my lens revealed, to my surprise, that the white thing was a frog. Holding the frog in its beak, the bird tossed its own head back and forth, a movement that seemed intended to injure or kill the frog, though I didn’t understand why the bird would want to do that to an animal that I thought was too large for it to eat. After a while I couldn’t see the frog anymore, and I assumed it had either gotten loose or died, had swum or sunk beneath the water. Or maybe I was wrong and the bird had managed to swallow the frog after all.


* Commenters [see below] suggested that this isn’t a duck but a double-crested cormorant or a grebe. I did some research that provided evidence for this being a pied-billed grebe, Podilymbus podiceps. In The Birds of Texas, John L. Tveten writes: “A pied-billed grebe might be mistaken for a small duck, but the beak is like that of a chicken.” In photographs that I took of this bird without the frog in its mouth, the beak does look like a chicken’s rather than a duck’s. I even found a page online that shows pictures of a pied-billed grebe attempting to swallow and finally swallowing a large frog.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 21, 2012 at 6:20 AM

Predation on the rays of a sunflower

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Crab spider biting a tiny caterpillar

Although lady beetles eat aphids and other insects, I’ve seldom seen them do so. In contrast, I often come across the remains of spiders’ meals in their webs, and sometimes I find their prey still live in their grasp. I witnessed one such encounter on an early sunflower a month ago in the prairie restoration at Austin’s old Mueller Airport. You can get an idea of the scale of the little drama shown in the photograph from the fact that the body of the crab spider, which Spider Joe Lapp has identified in a comment below as Mecaphesa dubia, was less than half an inch long from fore to aft. I watched for a good while as the tiny caterpillar continued to writhe in a vain attempt to break loose from the spider’s firm grip, a grip that never faltered even as the spider dragged the caterpillar around on the sunflower from time to time in response to my close presence and movements as I kept taking pictures.

Update on August 23, 2011: Valerie Bugh has identified the tiny (and doomed) caterpillar as belonging to the flower moth genus Schinia.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 13, 2011 at 6:45 AM

First wildflower for 2022

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Yesterday I went to an undeveloped lot on Balcones Woods Dr. where I’m accustomed to photographing ten-petal anemones (Anemone berlandieri) at this time of year. I found a smattering of those flowers, and on one of them I also found a tiny spider; it might have been a quarter of an inch (6mm) long.

For a closer look at the spider, click the thumbnail below.

UPDATE: Bugguide.net has identified the subject as a lynx spider in the genus Oxyopes.

Anemones typically rise only inches above the earth, so my normal photographic posture when portraying them is to lie on a mat on the ground and aim upward as much as possible. I took advantage of a dark area in the distance to “cap” the flower. Fortunately the closer distracting stuff on the ground stayed out of focus.


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Garry Kasparov is arguably the greatest chess player in our lifetime. “From 1984 until his retirement in 2005, Kasparov was ranked world No. 1 for a record 255 months overall for his career, a record that outstrips all other previous and current players.”

Garry Kasparov is also a Russian advocate for freedom and democracy, and currently chairman of the Human Rights Foundation. His years of experience give him better insights into Russian dictator Putin and the depredations now taking place in Ukraine than most Americans could ever have. You can profit from those insights by listening to yesterday’s interview with him on the Megyn Kelly Show. The interview takes up the show’s first two segments and lasts a total of 39 minutes.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 2, 2022 at 4:11 AM

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Light and shadow, and light

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Central Texas is home to several species of Sesbania, including the Sesbania vesicaria that botanists have now reclassified as Glottidium vesicarium, known as bladderpod sesbania or bagpod sesbania for the shape of its pods. In Bastrop State Park on September 23rd I played with the light and shadows on some of the many pods in evidence there that morning. I also took advantage of bright sunlight to portray a gray hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus) on the flowers of what I take to be tall bush clover (Lespedeza stuevei), a species I’d never photographed before and that is therefore making its debut here today.

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Here’s more from Xi Van Fleet, a woman who escaped from the depredations of Mao’s [Anti-]Cultural Revolution and who sees worrisome parallels in the increasing repression and censorship in the United States. (I have a personal connection to such stories because my father and his parents and brother managed to escape from the terror of the Soviet Union in the 1920s.)

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

October 19, 2021 at 4:26 AM

Two takes on a robber fly

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On July 30th I spent some time going around the Riata Trace Pond. After I spotted a robber fly on a bulrush stalk and gradually moved toward it with my macro lens, I was pleased that it stayed put and let me take pictures. I noticed that from a certain angle I could line up the robber fly with a spot of bright vegetation beyond it, as you see above. Still, with natural light alone I couldn’t muster much depth of field, so I walked back out through the brush to where I’d left my bag, put a flash on the camera, and returned. Aiming from a different angle, I saw for the first time that the robber fly had caught a bee.

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And here’s a bit of advice from the Dalai Lama: “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” In 2018, Mercedes Benz quoted that wise thought as part of an Instagram post hashtagged MondayMotivation. According to Suzi Weiss, “The line sparked an uproar in Beijing, and the German carmaker quickly apologized.” I invite you to read the full July 2021 article by Suzi Weiss, which includes an interview with Patrick Wack, who has documented the depredations that the Chinese government has been perpetrating against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 15, 2021 at 4:32 AM

Waterfall Wednesday #2

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Last week you heard how on June 3rd, before the day turned and stayed rainy, I drove three miles to a tributary of Bull Creek where a picturesque waterfall was flowing at full strength. In addition to many straightforward photographs taken at slow shutter speeds like an eighth or a half of a second, I experimented with even slower shutter speeds and zoomed the lens or otherwise moved the camera while the shutter was open. I’ve included two of the results here, each from a four-second exposure. Look how different these views are from the ones you saw last week; in particular, they’re more abstract and less recognizable.

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Yesterday I mentioned the horrendous depredations of the Anti-Cultural Revolution in China under the dictatorship of Mao Zedong. Today I’m following up with the story of Xi Van Fleet, a woman who managed to escape the terror of that Chinese Communist regime. She was fortunate to find freedom in America, but now she’s dismayed to discover that her school district in northern Virginia is indoctrinating its students by using some of the same kinds of techniques and lies the Chinese dictatorship did to keep its people brainwashed and in bondage. You can read about her testimony in a New York Post article from last week.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 16, 2021 at 4:23 AM

A plant that preys on plants

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Dodder (Cuscuta sp.) preys on other plants by coiling its slender orange strands around them, inserting tendrils, and drawing out nutrients. In this view from the Blackland Prairie in Pflugerville on May 4th the two preyed-on species were prairie bishop (Bifora americana) and greenthread (Thelesperma filifolium). I lay on the ground to get this towering perspective; the result justified my discomfort (we artists suffer for our work).

Once a dodder plant is nourished at the expense of its prey, it produces clusters of tiny cream-colored flowers, as you can see in the lower right quadrant of the second photograph. The greenthread flower head still looked normal but others that I saw nearby were shriveled and stunted from the predation.

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

May 11, 2020 at 4:39 AM

Olive or juniper, take your pick

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Callophrys gryneus is known as an olive hairstreak or juniper hairstreak butterfly. I photographed this one at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on March 14th. The plant is baby blue-eyes (Nemophila phacelioides). Notice the spiral at the tip of the opening bud near the right edge of the picture. If you’d like a much closer look at the butterfly and the flower it’s on, click the excerpt below to zoom in.

UPDATE on the previous post, which dealt with the strange events involving Josiah Wilbarger: On the website of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission I confirmed the surprising identity of the person who did the illustrations for Indian Depredations, including the woodcut of Wilbarger getting scalped. The artist was “T.J. Owen, better known as the author William Sydney Porter (O. Henry).”

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 23, 2018 at 4:46 AM

Bombs and blooms: strange connections

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Some of you have heard about the bombings in Austin over the last three weeks. This morning I turned on the local television news channel and learned that a little while earlier the bomber had blown himself up when police closed in on him in Round Rock, a large suburb bordering Austin on the north. Now investigators were apparently searching the house in the adjacent town of Pflugerville where the bomber lived. Police had thrown up a cordon to keep people from getting closer than a couple of blocks away, so the television station’s crew couldn’t approach the house. They did the best they could and showed a long shot, in which I made out a street sign at an intersection close to the bomber’s house: on the sign I read the name Wilbarger.

Wilbarger! In a 2012 post, which happened to appear during this very week in March, I presented the true and seemingly supernatural story of Josiah Wilbarger. After six years I see no harm in telling this marvelous story again, so I’ve copied it below with its original title. By further coincidence, I was already planning to go out today in quest of flowering huisache trees, which was the initial subject of the 2012 post.

UPDATE. On the website of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission I confirmed the surprising identity of the person who illustrated Indian Depredations: “T.J. Owen, better known as the author William Sydney Porter (O. Henry).”


Yesterday’s post told you about a venerable huisache tree, Acacia farnesiana, that I used to enjoy visiting and photographing, but that I found out on March 23 had recently been destroyed to make way for a new building. That tree was growing close to a creek in northeast Austin called Tannehill Branch, which continues under the adjacent street and forms the northern boundary of Bartholomew Park. The creek also nurtures half a dozen well-established huisaches growing along it. Those trees offered—and being in a park will continue to offer—some consolation for the destroyed huisache; I spent the better part of an hour taking photographs of them, including this one in which the nearest branches lean forward and in so doing create a ring of flowers surrounding the center of the tree:

This location on Tannehill Branch is close to the spot where one of the strangest events ever recorded in Texas history took place. It has nothing to do with plants or photography—the picture above has given you your daily dose of those things—but it’s such an unusual and compelling story that I’ll include it here for those of you who would like to keep reading; just be aware that you may find some of the details disturbing. The following account of what happened is from the 1890 edition of an 1888 book with a long title (as was common back then): Indian depredations in Texas : reliable accounts of battles, wars, adventures, forays, murders, massacres, etc., together with biographical sketches of many of the most noted Indian fighters and frontiersmen of Texas. The author was John Wesley Wilbarger, a brother of the Josiah Wilbarger described in the account. The Hornsby mentioned in the first sentence was Reuben Hornsby, one of the first Anglo settlers in what is now Austin; Hornsby Bend along the Colorado River near Austin’s airport was named after him.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 21, 2018 at 2:00 PM

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Christmas cactus

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Appropriately enough for today’s date, here’s a photograph of a dense and intricate Cylindropuntia leptocaulis, known as (desert) Christmas cactus and (desert) Christmas cholla, as well as pencil cactus and tasajillo. Notice how woody the stems become when tasajillo ages, and also in this case the way those woody stems bent downward as they grew.

I photographed this Christmas cactus at the Spring Lake Natural Area in San Marcos on November 15th, during the same session that brought you pictures of hierba del marrano, ball moss, and most notably a bird holding a frog in its bill.

To see the places in the southwestern United States where Cylindropuntia leptocaulis grows, you can check out the state-clickable map at the USDA website. In addition, tasajillo is native in parts of northern Mexico.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 25, 2012 at 6:16 AM

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