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Prairie Notes are monthly photo/journal observations from Tandy Hills Natural Area by Founder/Director, Don Young. They include field reports, flora and fauna sightings, and more, mixed with a scoop of dry humor and a bit of philosophy. They are available free to all who get on the FOTHNA email list.

Mojo on the Meadow

Prairie Notes:
October 1, 2010

1) Cool... Clear... Waters of September
2) Prairie Fest wins "Best of" award
3) Parks-Library merger is dead
4) Flower of the moment: Side-oats Grama
5) Critter report
6) Fossils on the prairie
7) Close encounter of the Owl kind
8) Magic in the rain

1) Cool. Clear. Water
I don't use the word "magic" lightly when referring to the natural world. It can leave a false impression that Mother Nature of the Prairie is a sorceress, using supernatural sleight-of-hand, that she is not also delicate and vulnerable to the hand of man. But how else to describe Autumn 2010 at Tandy Hills Natural Area. There is some serious mojo on the prairie right now.

September began with a surprising deluge of rainfall that has transformed the withering prairie into an upside-down version of its Spring majesty. The timing could not have been better. A couple of weeks of super-high humidity and another deluge ushered in the Autumn equinox on a jet-stream of cool air.

The native grasses and Fall wildflowers are now back from the dead and ready for their close-up. The clouds have cleared, the temps are near perfect and the trails are dry. At press time the creeks were flowing with clear water. The stage is set for a perfect Fall visit to THNA. Come on in.

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Mojo on the Meadow

2) Prairie Fest wins award
Fort Worth Prairie Fest has been honored by the Fort Worth Weekly as Best Outdoor Cultural Event of 2010. We are humbled and grateful. Woo-hoo!!! A lot people worked very hard to make Prairie Fest a success. With your help we might do it again in 2011. Pick up a copy of Best of 2010 at retail locations over the Metroplex. See p.109 in the print edition or online. (see p. 2 in the Culture section)

3) Parks-Library merger is dead
Victory! The foolhardy proposal to merge the City of Fort Worth Parks Department with the Library Department is dead. Thanks to all of you who wrote letters of protest. The mayor and council finally got the message. But... blood is in the political water. Be prepared to fight this battle again next year.

BTW: More than one high-ranking Parks official thanked FOTHNA for supporting the independence of the Parks & Community Service Department (PACS).

4) Flower of the moment: Sideoats Grama
The Flower of the Moment for September is actually a grass. Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), is an amazing plant that has the potential to slow global warming and slay industrial polluters. Seriously! Read on.

When the 62nd Legislature of Texas recognized SG as the official state grass of Texas in 1971, I'm pretty sure they weren't thinking about climate change. SG is nutritionally important to wildlife and grazing animals, it is drought resistant and winter hardy, excellent at erosion prevention and widespread across the entire state.

Even more importantly, all Grama grasses have what scientists call, C4 metabolism, a special adaptation for arid environments that allows for effective capture of carbon dioxide and increased water retention. What does that mean to you?

C4 plants, like Sideoats Grama, make up only 1% of the Earth's known plant species yet they capture about 30% of the CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming.

The Apache Indians were hip to the powers of Side-oats Grama centuries ago. Child-of-the-Water is a culture hero in the Apache mythical tradition who used Grama grass as arrows to slay giants who were making the Earth inhospitable to humans. We need a hero like that today to fight the methane miners and developers that are paving over paradise!

Personally, I like SG for purely aesthetic reasons. The lance-like seed stalks with tiny red anthers are one of Mother Nature's masterpieces, as you can see in the attached photos.

Sideoats Grama is nicely complimented at THNA by it's C4 cousin, Hairy Grama (Boutelous hirsuta). Both are important, short prairie grasses and scattered widely at the park.

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Side-oats Grama grass can slay evildoers.

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The beauty of Side-oats Grama grass is more than seed deep.

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Hairy Grama grass (aka: Mustache Grass)

5) Critter report
There was an eyewitness report of fox at THNA in September. Also, I have lately received several reports of Rat Snakes in the park. These big snakes are non-venomous but frightening nonetheless, especially when you see one slithering up a tree as Mr. Durango did. A big ol' Texas Walkingstick bug crossed my path recently. Doing some research, I learned that they are not the innocent little bugs I had always thought. I also learned that people keep them as pets. Yikes! (see links below) Be careful out there.

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WARNING: Keep your distance. Texas Walkingstick at Tandy Hills. See links below.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walkingstick_bug
http://www.texasento.net/sticks.htm
http://www.richmondeye.com/news01_16.asp
http://www.oakwilt.com/walkingsticks.html

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Be the first to identify the strange moths feasting on Little Bluestem grass and win a prize.

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The remains of this colorful butterfly were photographed exactly as I found them on the ground.

6) Fossils on the prairie
After heavy rains, interesting fossils seem to bubble up from the limestone depths of Tandy Hills. According to an expert at the Dallas Paleontology Society, the Fort Worth Prairie (including THNA) is located over multiple layers of limestone including, the Goodland, Duck Creek, Kiamichi, Weno, Main Street and Fort Worth formations. See below a few of my recent discoveries.

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Fossil still-life from THNA.

7) Close encounter of the Owl kind
It was dusk, the day after the Autumn equinox when it happened. We were standing in the yard gazing impassively at the fat, full moon and a shining Jupiter. The twilight air was cool and thick. Nature seemed unusually alive.

Suddenly, a bat flew just over our heads giving us a little spine tingle. Seconds later, a fairly large bird swooped out of the Tandy Hills twilight and into the nearby trees. Then we heard a high pitched, downward whinny, like a horse makes, but more trill-y. As I have done since childhood, I instinctively tried to imitate the strange sound. "who-o-o-o-o-o-o-o. who-o-o-o-o-o-o-o."

Without warning the bird flew right at me and then up into a tree. I recognized it as an Eastern Screech Owl. The bird called again. Warming up, I called back, again. "who-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o." The bird came at me again. This time with more enthusiasm. Back and forth we went for about 15 minutes until we both tired of the game. Or was it a game? Who knows.

A little research revealed that the male Eastern Screech Owl has two common calls: A-song and B-song. The owl I encountered definitely used the B-song which, I learned, is often used in courtship. This reminded me of the dead owl I found nearby in August. I wondered if this new owl was searching for his mate and hoping I was it. Or perhaps, he was just following his bliss singing valiantly into the darkness. Either way, it was an awe-inspiring experience.

On reflection, the Owl encounter reminds me of the importance of cultivating a sense of awe for the natural world and the sacredness of life. As Joseph Campbell said, "Awe is what moves us forward."

Click below to hear sound clips of the Eastern Screech Owl songs:

http://www.owlpages.com/owls.php?genus=Megascops&species=asio
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/eastern_screech-owl/id

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This Eastern Screech Owl found at THNA in August, 2010 most likely killed by a vehicle.

8) Magic in the rain
Late in the afternoon of September 23, threatening thunderclouds were casting a surreal light on the prairie. Although rain was threatening, I was compelled to capture that light in my camera. We walked briskly not really wanting to get wet. Halfway in, light rain began to fall. Too late to turn back, we decided to just enjoy it. That's when the magic started.

With the intoxicating smell of the prairie driving us onward, we hiked up several hills looking for a good place to watch the Autumnal Equinox Harvest Moonrise. The rain stopped and sunbeams began cutting through the drifting clouds like a laser.

As we topped our hill a Coopers Hawk swooped just above our heads, aiming west into the sun. Looking east, we saw a rainbow arching across the TV towers. Looking up at the expanding, sun-lit clouds, we felt like we were on the doorstep of Heaven. Thinking back on that magical afternoon, I think maybe we were.

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After the rain. 9/23/2010

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Mystical light on the prairie.

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Heaven's doorstep

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Coopers Hawk sailing through a rainbow above THNA.

All photos by Don Young

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