Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Archive for the ‘animals’ Category

Stilt bugs

with 20 comments

People in Texas really do call these critters stilt bugs because of their long legs. I often find these insects, which I’m told are probably in the genus Jalysus, on downy gaura, Gaura parviflora; that was the case at Tejas Camp in Williamson County on the partly cloudy morning of April 26, when mating was the order of the day.


The daily posts that you’ve become accustomed to will continue while I’m away from Austin. Feel free to comment if you’d like, but please be aware that it may be a while before I can respond.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 6, 2012 at 5:49 AM

It isn’t easy being green

with 73 comments

Click for greater clarity.


No, it isn’t easy being green, not when you’re out there in the open, invitingly succulent yet defenseless against any hungry predators. But I was a predator hungry only for pictures when, after a couple of hours of wandering about with my camera in the increasing heat at Tejas Camp in Williamson County on April 26, I came across a caterpillar on some gaura—and there was a lot of gaura out there, let me tell you. And I think I can tell you that this chubby, two-inch-long caterpillar was the larva of a white-lined sphinx moth, Hyles lineata.

The caterpillar kept busily chomping away at the gaura and I kept busy taking pictures of it from various angles. At the point you see here, the caterpillar had lifted its front end away from the gaura stalk, but it continued working on the little piece of the plant it had pulled loose and partially chewed. The fact that the caterpillar’s head was now some distance from the stalk let me get in close for this portrait, a first of its kind for me.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

May 6, 2012 at 5:28 AM

A light encounter

with 23 comments

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:

Click for greater clarity.

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

with 48 comments

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.

Click for greater clarity.

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

Ant on silverpuff

with 19 comments

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

Lightning strikes twice

with 32 comments

So there I was on March 2 heading home after a couple of hours photographing. I was driving on Bluegrass Dr., just as I’d done after a session on January 17, when my eye was caught once again by the bright red fruits of the possumhaw, Ilex decidua, planted on the lawn of a house in a cul-de-sac to my right. As before, I slowed to a stop, then backed up into the cul-de-sac. What appealed to me this time was that, like all the other possumhaws I’d been seeing around town, and even more than the one I showed on February 25, this one was already well on its way to full foliage.

And now for the lighting-strikes-twice part: sitting on a branch of the possumhaw, just like last time, was a mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, and for all I know it was the same one I photographed on January 17. Repeating what I did last time, I switched to my longest lens and took pictures of the mockingbird, which didn’t mind my presence at all, nor, I think, would it mind your vicarious presence now.

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 12, 2012 at 5:26 AM

Nature comes to me for a change—take 2

with 10 comments

White-winged dove; click for greater detail.

In a September 30th post I wrote about the view from my computer room and offered up a picture I’d taken during a stare-down with an inquisitive squirrel on a branch of the Ashe juniper tree just outside my window. This past Sunday morning, as I sat at my computer once again, I looked out the window and noticed a couple of doves farther out along the branch that the squirrel had stared at me from. It was chilly for a November morning in Austin, with the temperature at about 48° and a brisk wind blowing. Because of the chill, the birds had their feathers puffed up and sat in sunny spots to warm themselves. I stood and moved closer to the window, and when I did I saw a third dove on a branch farther to the left, also basking in the sun, and in a much better position for me to photograph. Off came the camera’s macro lens, on went the telephoto, and off I went taking pictures, including the one above.

Not knowing much about birds, I consulted The Birds of Texas, by John Tveten, and found that his photograph of a white-winged dove resembled the birds outside my window. Looking at more pictures of that species on the Internet and comparing features, I gradually convinced myself that I really had photographed a white-winged dove. In spite of the scientific name Zenaida asiatica, the sources I’ve found say consistently that the bird is native from Central America north to the southernmost border regions of the United States. Some of those accounts add that the bird has been quickly expanding its range in Texas, so that over the last couple of decades it has become common first in San Antonio and then Austin. When this bird is puffed up to keep warm in its new northern range, it almost doesn’t look dove-like, at least not in my apparently limited conception of doves and pigeons.

Sources that mention the white-winged dove’s principal call are uniform in describing it as “Who cooks for you?” When I read that, I immediately remembered the many times I’ve lain in bed at night or in the morning and heard a bird call fitting that pattern. From having heard it, I knew that the phrase’s secondary stress falls at the beginning, on who, and its primary stress falls at the end, on you. And in answering the question I can even use the same number of syllables in almost the same rhythm, as she herself suggested: E-van-ge-LINE (who is indeed asiatica, even if the bird is not).

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 1, 2011 at 5:08 AM

Nature comes to me for a change

with 67 comments

Squirrel in Ashe Juniper 6748

Like many of us, I spend a lot of time at the computer doing research, processing photographs, writing articles, sending and answering e-mail, etc. To provide a bit of balance, I’ve arranged things so that if I turn my head 45° to the right of my monitor, I find myself looking out through a second-story window. Just five feet beyond the glass is the trunk of a good-sized Ashe juniper tree, Juniperus ashei, with its characteristic bark that peels loose and hangs down in strips. I often see squirrels bounding around on the trunk and branches of the juniper, and sometimes one of the squirrels catches sight of me and peers intently back through the window at me. And then we sit eying each other for a while; I think I have the advantage in those encounters, because I know I’m a man seeing a squirrel in a tree, but I don’t think the squirrel knows what I am, or that I’m sitting at a computer monitor with a phone, a keyboard, a cordless mouse, and a slew of external hard drives spread out before me on the desk, or even that it’s a squirrel. But then it has secrets in its life that I can only marvel at, like the way it runs down a branch so fast that I can hardly see the motion, and jumps to one neighboring branch after another without ever falling out of the tree.

But we were talking about stare-downs, and yesterday afternoon was the occasion for another one of those. It went on a lot longer than usual, starting when the squirrel was in the notch created by a large branch diverging from the juniper’s trunk. That was the usual scenario, but yesterday, after that phase, the squirrel moved off down the branch till it was twice as far away, turned around, and kept staring back for another interval that was even longer than the first. Today’s photograph comes from that second interlude. The sky was overcast (though it couldn’t manage to deliver a drop of rain), and the scene was backlit, but I put my longest lens on the camera and did what I could with the dim light and the brighter opportunity.

I’d planned to post the next picture from the Elisabet Ney Museum show today, but the squirrel intervened. Back to the other pictures soon enough.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

September 30, 2011 at 5:43 AM

Royal purple, sepulchral white

with 24 comments

Click for greater detail.

When I started wandering the prairies, hills, and canyons of central Texas 12 years ago in order to observe and photograph nature, I soon began coming across the tiny white shells of land snails. Most of these have been on the ground, sometimes several or even many in a small area, but occasionally I’ve found one attached in isolation to the branch of a living or dead plant. The shell that you see here was one of those; it was close to some of the bluebells I photographed on June 10 on the Blackland Prairie in northeast Austin. The picture I posted soon afterwards of a bluebell bud was from the same session, and in today’s picture you can see quite a bit of purple from the bluebell flowers that weren’t far away, yet were distant enough to remain obligingly out of focus.

Like the exuviae of a cicada, these empty snail shells linger in the landscape for months and years, gradually getting covered in dust and dirt and losing the pristine, almost idealized form they had when still an immaculate white. Unlike exuviae, which though empty of life mark a passage to the next stage in an insect’s development, each of these tiny snail shells is an ending from which nothing further emerged.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 23, 2011 at 5:49 AM

A tiny find

with 13 comments

My first find along Bull Creek earlier this week was dozens of roughstem rosinweeds in bloom, one of which appeared in yesterday’s post. Another find, much less conspicuous and much less conventionally pretty, came from a part of the creek that still had water, though only enough to form a large puddle. I saw something gray, probably not even an inch long, hopping near the edge of the water. At first I took it to be one of the very tiny frogs we have here, but I was having trouble seeing it because, as I soon discovered, it has a natural camouflage that lets it blend in with the sand, pebbles, rocks, decaying leaves, and other odds and ends that litter the shoreline of the creek. When I got close with my macro lens I was surprised to see that the object of my interest wasn’t a frog at all. Make a guess if you will from the roughly life-size image below, then click to enlarge it and find out what the little creature was. If you guessed right before seeing the enlarged picture, please say so in a comment and we’ll all proclaim you a notable naturalist.

Update on August 23, 2011: thanks to Valerie Bugh for identifying this little creature as a pygmy grasshopper (also called a grouse locust) from the family Tetrigidae. She says it’s in the genus Paratettix, probably P. mexicanus. I knew about the existence of dwarf dandelions, but not till now about pygmy grasshoppers.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 17, 2011 at 6:33 AM

%d bloggers like this: