Saturday, April 23, 2005

Birdwatching notes

The afternoon is bright and cool. Common grackles fly overhead, sounding like malfunctioning electrical equipment. Crows are down in the trees by the creek, sounding like crows. Mourning doves, then whitewing doves, go twisting and barreling past with a whiffling noise. Cardinals are out, vocal, with lyrical songs ending with a bright gatling gun slow trill. Black vultures (which ought to be called white-wing-tip vultures since most vultures, after all, are black), are floating off in the distance. Nearby dragonflies fly above the pink evening primroses and hedge parsely. The new mesquite foliage is a lacy green. As I get closer to the creek I am in a waving meadow of bright green grass, spear grass, more properly called Texas wintergrass, but known to children as spear grass because you can pick the sharp seedheads with their long awns, and throw them like tiny spears which will stick through clothing. Other trailside flowers: a tall purple thistle, expanses of yellow cutleaf daisies, and bluebonnets. Texas prickly ash, occasional small trees which have vicious thorns and citrus-smelling oilyshiny leaves, are in flower, buzzing with bees.

A quarter mile from the creek the trail skirts the edge of a densely forested area, out of character for Austin, a surprise. Tall hackberries, trunks narrow and white, form a deep jungle darkness beyond a fencerow alongside the trail, a surprising contrast with the brightly lit path. I peer in, instinctively apprehensive at the hanselngretel forest gloom. The reason for the darkness at the forest floor is the profusion of mustang grape foliage that struggles for the light with the tree leaves high above, together forming a very dense canopy overhead. Some of the draping grapevines at ground level are thicker than my arm. A deep black forest. I hasten on, no birds or flowers there. I often see shadows of coyotes slipping in or out of the darkness, usually later in the evening.

Continuing along my trail (this seems to have become a plant-watching walk): wafer ash, with tiny yellow flowers, whose leaves also have a citrus smell, related to the pricklyash. Lots of boxelders, our sad central Texas excuse for a maple, usually nothing more than a bush. Here and there I see the white warning flowers of bullnettles, otherwise inconspicuous, horribly painful if you brush against them--they have tiny glassy barbs which break off and release an irritant into your skin.

I am getting near the creek. The trees by the creek are cottonwoods and pecans and baldcyprus. New poison ivy has blocked my usual winter access to the creek. So I turn along a trail parallel to the creek, where the giant ragweeds are getting started along some of the trails. By the end of summer they will be quite tall and will make susceptible people miserable all over town. I measured one of last year's stalks (pulled one down, stepped it off) at 15 feet. Most are 10-12 feet high.
Continuing on my trail parallel to the creek, 100 yards from it: a lone black walnut tree, the foliage hard to tell from a pecan. The walnuts, in the fall, require a hammer to break, increasingly hard blows ineffectual until the nut finally shatters explosively, yielding almost nothing.
Big white thistle poppies are blooming in the middle of an old pile of junked farm equipment--the rusted crankshaft of a tractor lies skeletal like the backbone of an animal. The twistleaf yuccca flowerstalks are coming out, but no flowers as yet--that will be in another week. Larkspurs. Silver nightshades, Purple verbenas. Blue, nodding mealy sage. Roughleaf dogwoods with big cymes of small white flowers. White flowered onions in the grass next to the trail.
The cedar elms have a compact dense habit of growth, and are found in this stretch of the trail between the creek and the live oaks on higher ground. Here and there we have a yellow-flowering invasive mustard species, I don't know what it is, but it has now become common along horse trails--maybe a component of horse feed? It grows tall, at eye level, and nods over the trail, so you can't see your feet when you push your way thru them, undesirable in rattlesnake country, not to mention chigger problems with short sleeve shirt (plus, as I write this at home, I remove a tick I feel under my shirt).

It's getting cool and I start home. Another couple of hours will be passover. The idea of Elijah's cup being filled, untouched, in every Jewish seder for two thousand years or more, and the door opened by children to see if Elijah is outside waiting to come in to announce the coming Messiah, seems somehow more hopeful than Easter, which always seemed religiously kind of dark to me, our guy barely returned from the land of the dead.

As I leave the creek a pair of big grayheaded Mississippi kites whip through the cedar elms and scare off a small bird I was trying to locate in the elm leaves.

Bullnettle--watch your ankle
watch your ankle

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