Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Archive for the ‘landscape’ Category

A native grass, take two

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Click for greater sharpness and considerably larger size.

—Tell me verbatim.

Panicum virgatum.

—That’s which grass?

That’s switchgrass.

—That’s a rich grass.

The 29th of December.*

—A season that I’ll remember.


* In 2011, I should say,
which makes it a year ago today.


If pointers on nature photography are what you seek,
Check out items 6 and 15 in About My Technique.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 29, 2012 at 6:20 AM


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The whitened ghosts of last year give way to the growing greens of this one. So it is with giant ragweed, Ambrosia trifida, whose sturdy new stalk and upside-down flowers that push pollen out into the air long-time visitors to this column have already seen. Ragweed’s wind-wended release of pollen happens in the latter part of the year, but until then the desiccated stalks of deceased ancestors, often in dense colonies, linger in the landscape from the previous autumn and winter.

On July 4, 2011, when a few of you were reading about my visit in 2010 to the old Union Hill Cemetery, I went back to see what the cemetery was looking like a year later. Not long before getting there I stopped in northeastern Round Rock after I spied a large mound of earth that giant ragweed had conquered and planted its tall stalks on top of. With some difficulty I climbed part-way up the slope to photograph a new plant springing from the ruins left behind by the colonizers of 2010. As I was a traveler there, so had some purple bindweed vines been; you can see their curving remains left behind in a couple of places as well.


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 3, 2012 at 5:41 AM

Orwell that ends well

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“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

No, Eric Blair took that one a long time ago. Try again.

“It was a partly cloudy morning in February, and the thermometer was registering sixty-ten.”

Yes, that’s a much better way to describe the end of my photo foray along the west side of Mopac on the first day of this month. (If thirteen is a quaint way for a clock to chime one in the afternoon, sixty-ten is the curious way that the French say seventy, which was indeed the temperature when I returned to my car around 10:30. That afternoon the high was four-twenties-two, another charming French expression for the record-setting 82°.)

The last thing I photographed as I walked back to my car that morning was the first one I noticed after I’d parked: a yaupon with lots of fruit on it. This type of shrub or small tree, which has the great scientific name Ilex vomitoria, is close kin to the possumhaw, Ilex decidua, that you saw most recently playing host to a mockingbird. While the possumhaw loses its leaves in the winter, the yaupon retains them; the tiny red fruits of the two look the same, though it can be harder to see them on the yaupon because the tree’s leaves block parts of the view.

For more information about yaupons, and to see the many places in the Southeast where they grow, you can visit the USDA website.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 10, 2012 at 5:44 AM

… and blue

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You’ve heard me say that Great Hills Park is my neighborhood park, and fortunately one that because of its terrain is bound to remain almost totally undeveloped. On the afternoon of January 19, with temperatures in the upper 70s, I went photographing along an upper branch of the unnamed creek that runs through the park and whose presence is among the reasons the land can’t be built on. At one point, when I’d just finished balancing my way across the creek on some concrete steps, I suddenly glimpsed a large bird of a type that I don’t remember ever seeing before. It was aware of me and it was wary of me, but I quietly switched to my longest lens, cranked up the ISO on my camera to deal with the dim light in the woods, and began taking what pictures I could.

When I got home, excited at having photographed such a picturesque bird, I looked through my copy of John L. Tveten’s The Birds of Texas and managed to identify what I’d seen: it was a yellow-crowned night heron, Nyctanassa violacea. The bird was attracted to the water pooled up in that part of the creek, and that’s why I found it there that afternoon. In addition to new friend bird, you may recognize a couple of twining friends from recent posts: the sinuous, bark-covered form in the foreground is a mustang grape vine, Vitis mustangensis, while the smooth and slender green vines behind it are rattan, Berchemia scandens. But I doubt you’ve paid much attention to the vines when you’ve had this stately heron right in front of you.

For someone who’s not a bird photographer (I don’t have the requisite enormous telephoto lens and heavy-duty tripod), I’ve lucked out several times recently. One of those, in keeping with the red theme that today’s picture of a blue bird has put an end to, was when I found a mockingbird in a possumhaw tree just two days earlier. To see mockingbirds in suburban-style neighborhoods here is nothing new, but to find a heron like this in one of those neighborhoods—my own—surprised me. It’s one more reason to be grateful for the presence of Great Hills Park. (And thanks to Marie Laing, coincidentally a subscriber to this blog, who was instrumental in getting the land set aside as a park.)

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 28, 2012 at 4:51 AM

Posted in landscape

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Bright red fruits attract more than photographers

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So there I was on a cul-de-sac in my Great Hills neighborhood in Austin near noon on January 17. I’d been on my way home from taking pictures along Bull Creek when I spotted a well-caparisoned possumhaw standing out against the clear blue sky, so I slowed down, made a U-turn, and pulled back around into the cul-de-sac to take pictures of the tree as my last subject in that morning’s photo outing. Using my wide-angle lens, I was in the middle of photographing the possumhaw when I sensed something whooshing by. I took my eye away from the viewfinder and looked around but I didn’t see anything. When I put my eye back to the viewfinder and began photographing the tree again, I suddenly saw that a bird had landed in it.

I took a few quick pictures, but a wide-angle lens is hardly the thing you want for bird photography. Walking slowly back to my car so as not to frighten the visitor away, I quietly opened the car door, got my longest lens out of the camera bag, put it on the camera, and moved slowly back into position to do a better job than before. You see one of the results here.

Having almost no knowledge of the birds in central Texas—there’s only so much one person can delve into, right?—I e-mailed a copy of the picture to my birder friend Susan, who e-mailed me back and said it’s “a mockingbird guarding its stash.” At a time of year when not much is blooming and there isn’t a lot to eat, various animals rely on the small possumhaw fruits, and in fact I did see the mockingbird swallow one of them while I was photographing it.

For more information about Mimus polyglottos, the northern mockingbird, which happens to be the official bird of the southern state of Texas, you can read an article in All About Birds. For more information about the possumhaw, Ilex decidua, and to see a state-clickable map of the places in the southeastern United States where this tree grows, you can visit the USDA website.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 24, 2012 at 5:06 AM

3-D in 2-D

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a single eye must unfortunately be in want of an accurate view of the world.* If we take want in its original sense of ‘be lacking,’ that statement is indeed correct: in a three-dimensional world, it takes two eyes to truly perceive depth. And yet we go on year after year taking pictures using almost exclusively our one-eyed cameras that compress a solid world into the plane of a conventional photograph.

I bring all this up because a flat image can’t to justice to the geometry of the mustang grape vine, Vitis mustangensis, that runs diagonally from the lower left to the upper right of today’s photograph. To say that a vine of this species becomes ever more woody as it gets older is an understatement; some aged mustang grape vines grow so thick that they are easily mistaken for trunks of trees, even large trees. The one you see here is on its way to that venerable state. If you try to follow the vine with your eyes, you’ll see that it emerges from the ground near the lower left edge of the picture; it goes to the right, twisting as it goes, until it’s over the large rock; next, it turns back to the left; then it seems to rise vertically for a little bit; finally it rises diagonally until it branches near the upper right corner of the photograph, with both branches further twisting until they ultimately go out of the frame at the top.

But now let me explain why the first paragraph is relevant. What you can’t tell from this two-dimensional view is that where the mustang grape seems to change direction over the large stone and double back to the left, it actually makes a slowly rising loop that turns a full 360° before the vine begins its steeper ascent. If you could see that twisting portion from above looking downward, it would appear to be approximately a circle. I know because I was there and saw it like that, and now you know too.

This photograph comes from the same January 13 outing in Balcones District Park that brought you the detailed view of a Texas red oak leaf.

For more information, and to see a state-clickable map of the places where the mustang grape vine grows, you can visit the USDA website.


* Some perceptive readers will have noticed a vague similarity of that opening line to the first line in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 20, 2012 at 5:01 AM

Another complexification

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This past Wednesday, after a post that included a closeup of rattan fruits, I followed up later in the day with a view from much farther away showing how tangled these vines often are. Now it occurs to me that yesterday morning’s post showing a closeup of a Mexican devilweed flower head also needs a follow-up, this time in order to show how complex the slender, vividly chartreuse stems of Chloracantha spinosa can be; you can also appreciate the accuracy of the last post’s description of this plant as “strictly erect.” Because the flower heads of Mexican devilweed form at the tips of the stalks, you don’t see any flowers in this view that was taken closer to the ground.

Today’s photograph is from a session at Meadow Lake Park in Round Rock, a northern suburb of Austin, on September 23, 2011. It was at that late date that I first figured out the identity of this species and photographed it (what took me so long, I don’t know).

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 15, 2012 at 5:06 AM

Rattan: a clarification and a complexification

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In the first post about Berchemia scandens, commonly called rattan, I talked about the way this vine can strangle the trunk of a tree but I didn’t convey the density and complexity with which rattan vines can also entwine themselves in and cover a tree. With that in mind, have a look at the type of scene I often come upon in the woods in Austin. Toward the left you see some young rattan vines, with their typical smooth exterior that can be tan or later a yellowish green. Toward the right you see a lot of older rattan vines that have dried out but remain hanging. The orange leaves, as you saw more closely two posts ago, are from the rattan, while the red ones are from a greenbrier vine that had joined the tangle. I found this network of vines and year-end color on December 17 in the “panhandle” of St. Edward’s Park in my northwestern part of Austin.

To learn more about rattan, and to see a state-clickable map showing where in the southeastern United States it grows, you can visit the USDA website.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 11, 2012 at 3:00 PM

Sycamore seed ball

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As you learned last time, on December 28th I wandered along a stretch of a once-again-happily-flowing creek in my northwestern part of Austin. After photographing algae and bubbles (and inadvertently myself), I walked upstream and found a sycamore tree that had produced some of its characteristic seed balls. These start out hard and firm but eventually, in a way that’s reminiscent of cattails with seeds attached to fluff, they loosen to the point that a touch—be it of a hand or of the wind—causes them to unravel. That’s what you see happening here, illuminated by a shaft of warm light filtering through the surrounding woods and contrasting with a trace of blue sky that managed to make it through in the background.

If you’d like to be reminded of how majestic sycamore trees can be when their white bark shines in the sun, just have a look back at the post from December 23. To learn more about sycamores, you can visit the website of The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. To find out the many places in the eastern United States where sycamores grow, you’re welcome to consult the state-clickable map at the USDA website.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 3, 2012 at 5:10 AM

Color and curl

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Prairie flameleaf sumac; click for greater detail.

Not a beauty parlor, unless it’s nature’s own. My last outing of the season to photograph prairie flameleaf sumac took place on the beautifully clear afternoon of December 22 (after a morning at the Mueller Greenway with the wildflowers still blooming there), and it took me back to the thankfully undeveloped lot next to Seton Northwest Hospital from which I first brought you a picture of the changing of the colors back on November 12. The young tree you saw then followed the natural course of things and lost its leaves within a few days, but other flameleaf sumacs on the property, following their own calendars, took their turns at turning colors later in the season. Now, on December 22, the last of them were doing so, and I was lucky enough to see them on a day of blue sky illuminated by the warm light, both in hue and in 65° air temperature, of the late afternoon almost-winter sun.

If the color in the title of today’s post is obvious, the characteristic curl is less well known, but you see plenty of it in this photograph. Why the compound leaves of Rhus lanceolata curl and curve this way I don’t know, but I never get tired of seeing them do it. Notice here how the leaf arcs wrap around a little blue hollow near the center of the photograph.

Taking one thing with another, I think this is a good picture to wrap up 2011 with, and it’s my way of wishing all of you a colorful 2012.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 31, 2011 at 5:18 AM

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