Plants of Indian Creek: Southwest Bernardia

Southwest Bernardia.  Photo by Jo Roberts.

Southwest Bernardia. Photo by Jo Roberts.

This plant, with its unusual wavy-edged leaves, is a first choice for deer, as seen in this very helpful brochure Common Woody Browse Plants for Deer in South Texas.

It is in the spurge family, and its Latin name is Bernardia myricafolia.  Other common names are mouse ear, mouse eyes, oreja de raton, brush myrtlecroton.

Full plant.  Photo by Jo Roberts.

Full plant. Photo by Jo Roberts.

This plant does not appear in the AgriLIFE Extension books Toxic Plants of Texas or Brush and Weeds of Texas Rangelands.  More information about it can be found at Texas Native Plants Database.

Plants of Indian Creek – Texas Bluebonnet

It’s early April, so all over Texas, people are following a grand tradition – pulling over to the side of the road and exiting for their yearly photo op in nature.  The bluebonnets are blooming!

Everybody knows that bluebonnets are the state flower of Texas — but did you know that there are actually five species in that category?*  In 1901, when the bluebonnet was made the official state flower, the species chosen was the Sandyland bluebonnet  (Lupinus subcarnosus), which grows better in East Texas and is less showy.  People preferred the fuller blooms of the Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texenis), so the Legislature decreed that all flowers of the Lupinus taxa would be considered the state flower.

Texas Bluebonnets.  Photo by Jo Roberts.

Texas Bluebonnets. Photo by Jo Roberts.

The other three species are Lupinus havardii, which is the very tall and thin Big Bend bluebonnet; Lupinus plattensis, which is the Dune bluebonnet found in the Panhandle, and Lupinus concinnus, the small Annual lupine,which is found near El Paso.  It has hairy leaves and small purple blooms.

Taking a closer look at the Texas bluebonnet, you can tell if one of the individual flowers on the stem has been pollinated, because the white spot on the flower will turn to dark red or purple.

Pollinated and unpollinated flowers on the same stem.

Pollinated and unpollinated flowers on the same stem. If you look closely, you can see some tiny insects too.  Photo by Jo Roberts.

And speaking of colors, what do you call one of these flowers if it is white?  A whitebonnet?

Ha ha, no, of course not!  We love our bluebonnets (and the proper flower name is one word), and don’t want to go confusing people with new-fangled terms, so it is a white bluebonnet.

And sometimes there are even pink bluebonnets, but as legend has it, only south of the Alamo.

You can read a lot more about bluebonnet history, how bluebonnets beneficially fix nitrogen in the soil, and even the breeding of maroon bluebonnets here.

*The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center says six species, but they don’t give details about the sixth, and my other sources say five.  If you can tell us about the mysterious sixth species, we would love to hear about it!

Plants of Indian Creek: Sotol

We are working on putting together a plant guide specific to Indian Creek.  This is one of a series designed to help us all become familiar with our plants.

sotolSotol is one of the plants that is easy to recognize, with its saw-toothed leaves and 10-foot-tall flower stalks.  However botanists are still not in agreement as to which plant family it belongs in – some place it with the agaves, and some with the nolinas (bear grass), and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center puts sotol in the lily family.

Sotol leaves close-up.

Sotol leaves close-up.

Last year's seed head.

Last year’s seed head.

Some of my research sources said that it blooms every year, and others said it blooms every 2 to 3 years.  However, there are 20 sub-species in northern Mexico and southwest Texas, so maybe that contributes to the conflicting information on the plant.  An article from Texas Highways magazine says that the Hill Country subspecies is Dasylirion texanum.  It would be interesting for us to watch for blooming patterns, and see if all the plants here bloom on the same schedule.

Regardless of differences between sub-species, sotol was an important plant for Native Americans, with useful leaves and edible hearts.  You can read more about its uses in history here.

And today, it is used to make a liquor similar to tequila!

leaning sotol

Elk in Texas

By David Heft

Photos by Gwen Lanning, taken at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in March 2013

(This article ran in a slightly different form in the newsletter, third quarter of 2014.)

Elk are large members of the deer family which exhibit very different behavior than our whitetail deer. Elk are physically adapted to more open environments and the males gather and defend groups of females during the rut. Female elk may vary in weight from 400-500 pounds with bulls weighing 600-800. Some larger bulls may approach 900-1000 pounds in weight. These weights are for the Rocky Mountain subspecies which is the elk we have on the ranch.

Elk bull.

Elk bull.

Elk may live to be 10-15 years of age in the wild. One research study on the Vermejo Ranch in northeastern New Mexico reported that maximum antler growth wasn’t achieved until bulls were 10 years of age on average.

The best data available for Texas indicates that 2 “subspecies” of elk occurred in Texas historically. Merriam’s elk occurred in the Trans-Pecos region extending into northern and central Mexico. This population was contiguous with elk populations in New Mexico and Arizona.

The Manitoba elk occurred in the northern Texas Panhandle and along the Red River area. These populations constituted the plains elk which also roamed Oklahoma and Kansas into Canada. Eastern elk occurred in Arkansas but no definite records exist for their occurrence in Texas. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on their website state, “Historical evidence indicates that elk may have been present over much of Texas.” Elk were considered extirpated in Texas by the late 1800s. All elk in Texas today are of the Rocky Mountain subspecies from transplant stock tracing back to Yellowstone National Park.

Elk at the National Elk Refuge, Jackson Hole, WY

Elk at the National Elk Refuge, Jackson Hole, WY

Biologists have debated back and forth for decades whether elk and red deer are the same species. I was always trained that they were since they freely interbreed and produce fertile offspring. However, about 7 years ago they were once again reclassified as separate species.

Legally elk are considered to be livestock in Texas at the present time. This is strictly a political designation as they have also been classified as native big game (which they biologically are) and exotics at various times. Currently the neighboring states of New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arkansas have free roaming wild herds which are managed and hunted as native big game animals.

Elk are primarily grazers but will use browse extensively when grass is not available. This is in contrast to our whitetails which are primarily dependent on browse. A good ratio for calculating range carrying capacities would be that 1 elk equals 3 deer.

The elk rut occurs in September and October with single calves being born in May and June. Elk are best known for the bugling of the males during the rut. Fights during the rut can be extremely violent with broken antlers and even death often occurring.

Engaging antlers.

Engaging antlers.

Most people are unaware that the cows also bugle but it is much less pronounced than the bulls.

Both sexes have the remnants of tusks in their upper jaws also referred to as the “ivories”. Sika deer which also trace their lineage back to a common ancestor with elk also have these remnant tusks. In some cases sika deer and elk may interbreed but the offspring are sterile. These offspring are referred to as “Silk”. Some game ranches have deliberately interbred them to produce a larger antlered variant of the sika for hunting.

Elk are a fairly easy animal to manage. Given sufficient space with some security cover, grass, and ample water they will usually flourish. The only common primary predator they have in our area is man.

 

 

 

 

Rio Grande Wild Turkey

by David Heft

(This article ran in a slightly different form in our May 2014 newsletter.)

Rio Grande Wild Turkeys

Rio Grande Wild Turkeys

The Rio Grande turkey is the most common of 3 sub-species of wild turkey found in Texas. Their numbers in the Edwards Plateau have actually declined since the highs of the 1980s but appear to have stabilized over the past 2 decades. Current statewide population estimates from TPWD put the number of birds statewide at about 500,000. That sounds like a lot but compare it to 3.8 million whitetail deer in Texas.

Wild turkeys on average only live 2-3 years but some individuals have lived to be 10 years of age. The three most critical components of good turkey habitat are roost sites, nesting cover, and brood habitat.

Roost sites in the Edwards Plateau are most often associated with drainages where larger trees grow due to higher moisture availability. Good roost trees have spreading horizontal branch structure and fairly open canopies that allow the birds to fly into the trees. The majority of roost sites on the ranch are large oak trees. Good roost sites also have open approach areas where the birds can detect any predators before they go to roost. It is critical not to disturb birds at the roost sites as they will abandon them with continued disturbance. It is also illegal to hunt turkeys on the roost in Texas and most states.

The most critical element in good nesting cover is tall grasses, approximately 18 inches in height. Most nests will be found in grasses near the base of some type of shrubby cover. One Texas study reported that 87% of all nests were in this type of grass cover. Most hens nest within ¼ mile of a water source.

Recent studies in Texas have shown that only 1/3 to 2/3 of hens will actually try to nest each year depending on the weather and habitat conditions. Each hen will lay an average of 9-11 eggs with up to 16 reported over a 2 week period. She will then incubate the eggs for 28 days until they hatch. A maximum of only 30-40% of the nests will be successful in hatching. The rest will be lost to weather or predation events.

The first 2 weeks of a poult’s life are also characterized by high mortality losses to a variety of causes. The poults immediately begin foraging on their own under the watchful eye of the hen. Semi-open grassy areas with high bug populations and nearby overhead cover provide good brood habitat in this stage of their life. After 2 weeks the poults can fly and will begin roosting in trees substantially increasing their chances for survival. Out of an average of 8-10 poults hatched from a nest only 2-3 are usually still alive at the end of the summer. The point here is that becoming an adult turkey is not a high percentage game for young poults even if the eggs do successfully hatch.

Once fully grown, turkeys are primarily herbivorous but will still take insects and other invertebrates. A large variety of grass seeds, fruits, nuts, and forbs make up the majority of their diet. Under severe conditions supplemental poultry feeds do seem to benefit turkeys but will not make up for poor natural habitat conditions.

Good habitat in a mosaic of open and wooded cover with available water will provide everything a turkey needs. Most recommendations suggest a 50-50 mix of open areas and brush. Some more recent research and my experience is that 30-40% seems to be sufficient. Brush is all species, not just juniper (cedar). Juniper berries are eaten by turkeys but heavy brush cover will deter turkey use since their primary defense against predators is their eyesight.

Two good publications for information are “Rio Grande Wild Turkey in Texas, Biology and Management” by the Texas AM Extension Service (publication number EB-6198, a free download), and “Texas Turkey Talk” by TPWD ( a free 14-page PDF booklet).