Get Lost

Nature Trail
Photo by Carolynn Waites

Just looking at this photo makes me happy: surrounded by nature, with no idea what lies just around the bend. This nature trail is hidden at the back of a local county park. It’s not very long, and you can still hear the sounds of traffic nearby, but it is still a small slice of paradise to me. I took this picture a few weeks ago; I can look at it now while at my desk and recall the peace it brought me.

I encourage you to get lost as often as you can. You don’t have to spend the day traveling to a nature reserve. You can do it from your work cubicle if that is your only option.

Find your spot. Where can you go to get in touch with nature and away from the everyday world? No matter where you are, there are ways to get in touch with the outside world.

  • A park.
  • Your backyard (or front yard).
  • A garden center.
  • A florist.
  • A bookstore, library, or magazine rack–find the outdoor and nature titles.
  • Your computer–pick a place you want to go and visit it virtually.
  • A creek, river, lake, or beach.
  • Your stereo–listen to sounds of the ocean or jungle.
  • Your street–find a bird, a tree, or an insect and observe it.

No distractions. Put down your phone. No multi-tasking. No surfing the web. Just you and this small taste of nature. Observe the beauty of the natural world. Close your eyes and listen. Breathe. Absorb.

No timeline. Whether you are able to get away for 30 minutes or only 5 minutes, this break will make a difference in your day. It will remind you of what is really important. You will feel calmer and ready to face the rest of the day.

It is not how, but why. It is truly not important how you take your nature break. The important thing is to just do it. Lose yourself in the natural world today. It will refresh and revive your mind. Try it once, and I believe you will look forward to getting lost again.

Who Spit in My Garden?

Spittlebugs
Photo by Carolynn Waites

I have often seen this wad of spit on plants in my garden. The first time I saw it, I was wondering how in the world someone spit on a plant in my backyard. I did a quick Google search and learned that it is actually created by a bug. Okay, mystery solved. I never gave it much thought again.

Recently I discovered a small nature trail near where I live. I took the camera and documented several of the wildflowers that appeared there. I noticed this wad of “spit” and decided it was time to learn more about it.

This aptly named insect is called a spittlebug. It is a member of the Cercopidae Family. It is also known as a froghopper, because its face looks a bit like a frog. It is related to the leafhopper. There are over 23,000 species of spittlebugs, but chances are that you have never seen one. The winged adult is less than 1/4″ long and their dull green or tan coloring blends in with the leaves they feed on.

The spittle is a liquid secretion that the spittlebug nymph produces from its back end to cover its body. It will move and pump its body to make it foam, then use its hind legs to spread the froth over its body. This froth serves several purposes: it insulates the nymph from temperature extremes, it shields it from predators, and it keeps it hydrated. The saliva-like froth is commonly known as cuckoo spit, snake spit, or frog spit.

The spittlebug will lay eggs on old plant debris to overwinter. When the nymphs originally hatch in early spring, they will attach themselves to a plant and begin feeding. They are almost invisible inside the spittle. The young go through five stages before adulthood. Adult froghoppers jump from plant to plant. They can jump 100 times their own length.

They suck little sap from the plant, and rarely do any damage unless there are large numbers of them. To remove them from a plant, a strong spray from a garden hose is usually all that is needed. The best course of action is let it be. It is wonderful reminder of the wonders that nature produces all around us.

 

 

 

 

Summer Tanager

DSC01984
Photo by Carolynn Waites

I’m not a big birder. But I have realized that paying attention to birds is rewarding in some ways:

  • It gets you outside.
  • It gets you to pay attention to the nature that is around you.
  • You get to see some pretty cool birds that you have never noticed before.
  • You may actually learn something.

I work on Galveston Island. Other than the commute, it’s a great place to work. This time of year, it is spectacular with flowers and birds. A photographer told me that 80% of migrating birds come through Galveston. I have to believe that might be true based on what I’ve been seeing lately.

I was on my lunch break the other day, eating outside to take advantage of the beautiful day. I saw a yellow bird flying from tree to tree near me. I was trying to follow it and get my camera out to get a picture so I could figure out what it was. I lost it. But while looking for it, I found this red bird pictured above. The only red bird I am familiar with is the male cardinal. This is obviously not a cardinal. I ended up getting some great pictures of this red bird, though I never saw the yellow bird again.

When I had access to a computer later, I was able to identify this bird as a male Summer Tanager. Beautiful! The best part of the story is that the female Summer Tanager is yellow! So that was his mate that I was following. Apparently they nest together in the treetops (they like oaks and pines) and they eat insects, often bees and wasps. I read that they will take the bee or wasp in their beak and bang it into the tree to knock the stinger off before they eat it.

According to the book The Birds of Texas by John L. Tveten, The Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra) is the most widespread and abundant tanager in Texas. Why have I never seen one before??? Oh yeah– because I haven’t been paying attention. So once again I remind all of us to look up. Pay attention to the nature around you. You might just get to see something truly beautiful.

Look Up

Look Up
Stock Photo from StockSnap.io

Step outside. Don’t look at your phone. Don’t look at your feet. Look up. No matter where you are there is a good chance you will spot something beautiful. Something that may always be around, but you never notice.

Bird Watching

Birds are everywhere. Whether your surroundings are rural, suburban, or urban, nature has a way of blending in. Take a moment to notice. Take a moment to admire. Be grateful for this reminder that the world is a beautiful miracle.

We all need to reconnect with nature on a regular basis. Being outside benefits both mind and body. It does not have to take long. Take a 10 or 15 minute break and go outside if the weather allows for it. Watch and listen to the birds. Relax.

Even if you do not like birds and find them annoying, spend a few minutes watching them. I am not a fan of the aggressive grackles that seem to be everywhere in my city. But after watching one dig up a juicy earthworm in my backyard the other day, I had to give a tip of my hat to that grackle. We were coexisting, him and I, while enjoying the beautiful day.

Wherever You Are

You do not have to be “out in nature” to experience nature. We share our environs with birds whether in a large metropolitan jungle, a literal lush tropical jungle, or somewhere in between.

Trees are a perk, but not a necessity. Lamp posts, billboards, street signs, building overhangs, overpasses, and weedy lots are only a few examples of where birds can perch. Take a moment and look up.

This is a great story out of Pearland, TX: a dove built her nest on the windshield of a police car in the police station parking lot. The PPD took the car out of rotation until those baby birds left the nest. The story garnered a lot of love from local citizens and social media. The mama dove was named Pearl and she was the most famous resident of Pearland for a few weeks. Check out the pictures on Pearland PD’s Facebook page.

Spring Makes It Easy

Spring is the time of year when nature works harder than usual to capture your attention. Life is reviving after winter dormancy. Flowers are blooming, leaves on trees are unfurling, and life is basking in the warm sunshine.

During the spring, migratory birds travel great distances. It is a promising time to catch a glimpse of a feathered visitor to your area. Birds that are not traveling afar are building nests and hatching chicks. In backyards, on billboards, and in parking lots.

Come Out of Hibernation

Breathe. Bask in the sunshine. Stand barefoot in the grass. Admire the flowers. Enjoy the longer days. Rejuvenate. And look up.

Backyard Birding

Birds in Birdfeeder (2)
Photo by Carolynn Waites

It was a beautiful day yesterday. My husband and I took full advantage of the glorious weather by spending most of the afternoon on our back patio watching the birds hanging around our bird feeder.

I took photos so I would be able to identify the birds that visited. None of the pictures turned out great because I was zoomed in all the way, but they were good enough for identification purposes.

The three birds that are sharing the feeder in this photo above are (from left to right) a House Sparrow, a Dove, and a Red-winged Blackbird. These are all common birds in the Houston area, but before yesterday I did not know what the small brown and white birds were that love my backyard: House Sparrows.

House Finch 2
Photo by Carolynn Waites

On the right is a picture of another interesting bird that was spending time with us. We were fascinated by the impressive red coloring around his head and breast. I compared my photos with an on-line bird identification guide and learned that it is a House Finch. They are also supposed to be fairly common in our area, but I honestly can not tell you if I have ever noticed one before.

I have a number of books about local birds, but the pictures never seem to look like the birds that I am trying to identify. I have fallen in love with The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. If you want to know anything about birds, this is a fantastic site. I find their identification tools to be extremely helpful.

I have always enjoyed watching the birds in my backyard, but have never taken the time before yesterday to learn about our feathered guests. I enjoyed a beautiful day with my husband, furnished some local birds with a tasty treat, and educated myself on my own backyard ecosystem.

No matter where you are, when you step outside take a moment to breathe deeply and notice your natural surroundings. Even if you are in the middle of a concrete jungle, there is still nature coexisting with the city. Take a moment out of your day to enjoy the life outside of your own.

Bees in Bottlebrush

Bees in Bottlebrush
Photo by Carolynn Waites

I was walking back to work from my lunch break yesterday, when I passed by a row of vibrant bottlebrush shrubs. I noticed that they were covered with bees. Not being allergic to bees, I thought this was marvelous. Bees need our help and we need them to survive. One of the best ways to help the bees is to plant flowers and shrubs that attract bees. Bottlebrush fits the bill and is beautiful at the same time.

The Callistemon plant is more commonly known as the bottlebrush because of its cylindrical, brush-like flowers. The flowers are red on most plants, though there are some species with yellow,green, or white flowers. This plant is native to Australia, but has become common throughout moist, temperate areas of the world. They are certainly popular here in the gulf coast area of Texas. I am tempted to plant some in my backyard

If you would like to know about other honeybee-friendly plants, check out this article by the Mother Nature Network.

A Hidden Treasure in the Weeds

 

wavedsphinxmoth1
Photo by Carolynn Waites

I have several gardens that I keep for butterflies, birds, bees or whomever else might want to come visit. I plant native plants and then I just kind of let nature take its course. But there does come a time when some weeding or other upkeep needs to be done. There has been some kind of woody vine coming over my back fence and taking over my oleanders. It’s going to be a big project to get rid of it all and I have been waiting for the weather to cool off a bit. But the other day, I decided to tackle a little bit of it.

I was taking handfuls of the plant and pulling it off the oleanders, occasionally having to cut the vine attachment off of my plants. I was surprised by this green caterpillar as I was discarding this section of the vine. He sure does blend into the greenery. I re-homed him to an area that I had not cleared out. You can bet I was extra careful after that, checking for visitors among the vines before I disposed of them.

wavedsphinxmoth
Photo Courtesy of University of Kentucky

This green caterpillar is the larvae for the Waved Sphinx Moth (Ceratomia undulosa). This is a very common moth with a wingspan of up to 4 inches. It can be found in throughout the eastern United States. The caterpillars pupate in the soil and the adult moth emerges 2-3 weeks later. The moths are named for the black wavy lines on the wings. They also have a distinctive white dot on each wing.

This is a great example of how you never know what surprises Mother Nature has hiding in your own backyard.

 

Texas Star Hibiscus

Photo by Carolynn Waites

This pretty flower belongs to a Texas Star Hibiscus (Hibiscus  coccineus). It also goes by Scarlet Rosemallow and Swamp Hibiscus. It does not look like a typical hibiscus flower and the flower is one of the largest blooms in Texas. The five-petaled crimson flower grows anywhere from 3-6 inches wide. There is also a much rarer white-flowered version of this hibiscus plant.

The curious thing about this plant is its leaves. Palmate, star-shaped, and serrated, the leaves are often mistaken for those of a marijuana plant. Northwest Harris County resident Blair Davis learned this the hard way when the Harris County Organized Crime Unit raided his home. A neighbor had reported that he was growing marijuana in his front yard. But it was actually Texas Star hibiscus that he grows for his landscaping business. Here is the Fox News story.

This beautiful perennial is a low maintenance plant when planted in wet or swampy soil. It likes full sun and will grow in dry soil as long as it is watered frequently. I do not have any swampy areas in my yard and I am not a practitioner of frequent watering, so I will have to rely on enjoying this lovely shrub elsewhere. I found this fine specimen at the Houston Zoo in a butterfly garden. Texas Star attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.

Finally, I just want to add that the name Scarlet Rosemallow needs to be the name of a character in a book, don’t you think?

I Discovered Buttonbush Today

buttonbush
Photo by Carolynn Waites

Today I was at the Houston Zoo. I was attempting to take some pictures of butterflies, but they were not being very cooperative, especially the beautiful swallowtail I was trying to get to pose for me.

So I decided to start taking pictures of the beautiful plants and flowers instead because they pose much better than butterflies do.

I encountered this really cool looking tree. I asked one of the Zoo’s horticulturists what this amazing plant was and he told me it was a Buttonbush.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is a small tree found in wetlands that can reach 8 to 15 feet tall. The 1-inch diameter flower clusters bloom from June to September. Flowers mature to a fruit that turns golden brown in autumn. It attracts insects, butterflies, and bees with its nectar. Birds eat the fruit.

I’m sure the reason I am not familiar with this lovely tree is that is likes moist soil, which does not exist in my yard. Just goes to prove the wonderful world you can discover if you just look around you.

Passion for Plumeria

 

My plumeria plant bloomed this year and I am loving the beautiful, fragrant flowers. It never bloomed last year. I believe it is because I did not water it enough. This year we have had so much rain here in the Houston area, that many of my plants are happier than usual.

plumeria
Photo by Carolynn Waites

I have not had an easy time with plumeria. The first one I bought died because I did not protect it from the cold. I bought another plant the next summer. After some research I learned that it must be brought inside when temperatures fall below 40 degrees. So that winter, as soon as the temperatures dipped, I moved my potted plant into the garage. It lost its leaves, but survived.

I brought it back out in the spring and watched it green back up, to my relief. But it never bloomed that summer. So last winter, it went into the garage again. This spring I brought it back out and watched it green up again. Then it rained and rained and rained. Now my plumeria is blooming and I am thrilled to get to enjoy its beauty once again.

I found out some very interesting facts about plumeria while preparing to write this blog. Plumeria Rubra is also known as the Common Franginpani.  It is related to the oleander and also contains a poisonous sap. The flower is often used in Hawaiian leis. Also this wonderful tidbit thanks to Plumeria.Care: Plumeria flowers are most fragrant at night in order to attract sphinx moths. The moths are lured by the fragrance, thinking they will get some nectar. However plumeria flowers have no nectar, but they are pollinated by the moths as they fruitlessly search for the nectar. Sneaky!

Mostly what I have learned is that Plumeria likes a lot of water, and that I should be fertilizing it more frequently. So maybe I’ve just been really lucky this year, but now I know what to do in future years to ensure production of these gorgeous fragrant blooms.