Portraits of Wildflowers

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Archive for the ‘landscape’ Category

Grackles revisited

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Grackles flocking at twilight; click for greater detail.

“Every day now, beginning around 6 o’clock and increasing as the sun goes down in the western sky, hundreds and hundreds of grackles fly in and gather on the electric station towers and power lines near the intersection of US 183 and Braker Lane in my northwestern part of Austin.” So I wrote on October 18. In the almost two months since then the phenomenon has continued at dusk every day, except that with the seasonal dwindling of the amount of daylight the birds begin gathering more than an hour and a half earlier, at least as our clocks measure things; unlike some of us, the birds weren’t confused by the change back to Standard Time and they insist on taking their clue from the sun. And I’ve insisted on going back at least three times since October 18 to take more pictures of them.

The last time you saw the grackles, Quiscalus mexicanus, most of them were sitting on some power lines, where many are content to stay put for short or long stretches. Others  forage for food on the ground or settle onto the tops of nearby trees. But if something startles these birds, they can suddenly rise up in large numbers and form dense flocks that turn and wheel as if all following the same split-second signals. It’s then, in many people’s opinion, that the grackles are at their most impressive, as you may agree when you look at today’s photograph from December 7. Who would expect to see such a large a swarm of birds, not at a wildlife refuge but above a freeway in an urban area of a million people?

Every time I’ve been to this location, the massive grackle flights reach their peak when daylight has faded to the point that taking pictures is difficult. So I crank up my camera’s ISO to 1250, as in this picture, or even as high as 2000 in some others; I also use an external flash to try to lighten up the birds’ dark bodies a little (and only a little, given how quickly the light falls off according to the inverse square law). Even then I often have to add exposure when I process the images on my computer afterwards.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 10, 2011 at 5:22 AM

Frostweed

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Frostweed; click to enlarge.

One fall-blooming species whose flowers I’m still occasionally coming across in late November is Verbesina virginica, although today’s picture goes back to October 6, when I wandered along the shaded banks of Bull Creek in my northwest part of Austin. In the stage shown here, most buds were still closed, while some had just begun to open. You may think, quite reasonably, that the common name frostweed is a reference to the white ray flowers—other species of Verbesina have yellow rays—but that isn’t why people call this plant frostweed.

To see the many places in the southeastern third of the United States where Verbesina virginica grows, you can consult the state-clickable map at the USDA website.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 27, 2011 at 5:15 AM

Flaming fruit and leaves

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Flameleaf sumac; click for greater detail.

You first saw prairie flameleaf sumac, Rhus lanceolata, in this column when I interrupted an aster sequence to show you a welcome display of fall color that I ran into on November 11. On the alert for more color from this species now that I’d noticed its leaves beginning to change, three days later I went to a place along Spicewood Springs Rd. near Loop 360 where I’d photographed some of these small trees last year, and I found the scene you see here.

Flameleaf sumac is known for the varying reds that its leaflets turn in the fall, but they may first turn yellow, the color that predominates in this photograph. Like other species of Rhus, this one produces clusters of small but numerous fruits; they start out green, turn red, then dull down to gray or grayish-black. From these fruits, with ample quantities of sweetener added to mitigate the tartness, people have made sumac-ade.

For more information about Rhus lanceolata, you can visit the websites of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the USDA.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 21, 2011 at 5:18 AM

Velvetleaf mallow

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Still another species that I found adjacent to the Arbor Walk Pond on the gray afternoon of November 8 was Allowissadula holosericea. The species name is a made-up Greco-Latin compound that means ‘all silky,’ a reference to the plant’s large leaves that are covered all over with soft hairs. That feature has led to the species’ common name of velvetleaf mallow, and I can attest, from years of irresistible touching, that the leaves really do feel like velvet.

For more information about velvetleaf mallow you can visit the websites of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the USDA. The map at that second site shows that in the United States this species grows a little bit in New Mexico but otherwise only in Texas, with Austin being at the eastern edge of its range. Lucky Austin, lucky me.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 17, 2011 at 5:24 AM

Which grass? Switchgrass.

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Switchgrass; click for a lot more detail.

Yet another species that I found at the Arbor Walk Pond on the gray-clouded afternoon of November 8 was Panicum virgatum, commonly called switchgrass. Many of our native grasses take on warm hues in the fall, and that’s certainly true of this one, which looks good enough to eat. Okay, it’s not really edible, but let your eyes feast on its curves and colors.

For more information about switchgrass, you can visit the websites of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the USDA.

For those interested in the art and craft of photography, point 6 in About My Techniques is relevant to today’s picture.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 16, 2011 at 5:02 AM

Mexican hat

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Another species that I found flowering near the Arbor Walk Pond on the still-cloudy afternoon of November 8 was Ratibida columnifera, commonly known in Texas as Mexican hat due to the resemblance of its “column” to the tall central part of the iconic broad-brimmed hats worn by Mexican men. These flowers have their heyday in late spring, when they can form large colonies, but it’s not unusual to see a few isolated plants flowering here or there during the summer and well into the fall.

Ratibida columnifera, also called upright prairie coneflower, made its flowering debut in this column in a supporting role in a July 26 picture showing a couple of Mexican hat flower heads beneath a snow-on-the-mountain plant that hadn’t yet flowered itself. In today’s view, the spiraling ranks of disk flowers are just beginning to appear on the central column.

For more information, and to see a clickable map of the many places in the United States and Canada where this species is found, you can visit the USDA website. Mexican hat also grows, appropriately, in northern Mexico.

For those interested in photography as a craft, points 1 and 2 in About My Techniques are relevant to today’s picture.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 15, 2011 at 5:06 AM

Fall color!

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I was going to show you a closer look at heath asters in today’s post, but yesterday some fall color intervened, so here it is, hot off the [Word]Press. Take that, you lovers of red and orange.

Central Texas doesn’t have the great displays of autumn leaf color that so many people in northern regions revel in (and that I remember fondly growing up with in New York), but down here we do have prairie flameleaf sumac, Rhus lanceolata, and it’s our most widespread and reliable source of color at this time of year. In saying “this time of year” I mean November or even the first part of December, months when for many of you in other places the deciduous trees have long since lost their leaves to the cold and the early dark. That’s one advantage of a southern latitude.

I found this young flameleaf sumac living up to its name alongside a utility driveway leading to a sump behind Seton Northwest Hospital in my likewise described—minus the Seton and the Hospital—part of Austin. Several of the older flameleaf sumacs on this property were great in 2010, but so far this year those trees aren’t doing much when it comes to warm colors; perhaps they still will. In the meantime, this little one is the best I’ve seen in 2011, and not at all bad in its own right, so I’m passing it along to all of you.

For more information about Rhus lanceolata, you can visit the websites of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the USDA.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 12, 2011 at 5:07 AM

Going for the gold

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Viguiera dentata; click for greater detail.

“The landscape view is nice, but can you give us a closer look at those goldeneye flowers that sprang up in the bed of Bull Creek?”

Sure.

The brown near the center of the picture is a dry sycamore leaf that had fallen into the goldeneye. In the bottom left corner of the image you’ll see a few bright green leaves of a new sycamore tree springing up.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

October 20, 2011 at 5:56 AM

Goldeneye

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Goldeneye in Bull Creek; click for more detail.

Bull Creek in northwest Austin was among the many creeks in central Texas that were dry throughout the summer and into the fall. Where water once flowed, plants sprang up and even flowered, including this goldeneye, Viguiera dentata, which was about as tall as I was (and still am) when I photographed it on October 12. At the left you can see the broad leaves of a couple of very young sycamore trees, Platanus occidentalis, also rising tall in the creek bed. When enough rain eventually comes to make the creek resume its flow, most of these plants will be submerged and die. In the meantime, not in the least apprehensive about what awaits them, they keep growing.

For more information about Viguiera dentata, which grows in Arizona and New Mexico as well as Texas, you can visit the USDA website.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

October 19, 2011 at 5:31 AM

They’re back

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The grackles, that is. Every day now, beginning around 6 o’clock and increasing as the sun goes down in the western sky, hundreds and hundreds of grackles fly in and gather on the electric station towers and power lines near the intersection of US 183 and Braker Lane in my northwestern part of Austin. For those not familiar with them—a negative that leaves out just about everyone in Austin—I’ll add that these are large blackbirds, known to ornithologists as Quiscalus mexicanus. I first became aware of their conspicuous flocking to this site last November, but perhaps the birds were massing here as early as October last year, too, and I just didn’t notice. Why they settle in such large numbers on the power lines and adjacent trees and other structures as daylight fades I don’t know, but on October 16, two evenings ago, I went out with my longest lens to record the grackles’ flocking. As I mentioned on July 4, I don’t normally include human elements in my nature pictures, but this is one of those times when I make an exception, because the birds have clearly adapted themselves to the electric towers and power lines.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

October 18, 2011 at 5:55 AM

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