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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.

Looking Deeper into THNA

Prairie Notes:
October 30, 2009

1) It's Raining 'shrooms!
2) A cautionary tale of Snails
3) Signs of Fall - Signs of life
4) Critter report
5) ORCHIDS: A Romance in one act
6) 350 is a magic number
7) Fall Bounty Barter Fair
8) Prairie Fest
9) Looking deeper into THNA

1) Anyone who's been outside in the month of October has likely noticed the mushroom invasion. Early Autumn rains and mild temps set the stage for dozens of strange shapes and colors of 'shrooms that popped up across Tandy Hills Natural Area. Tiny ones, huge ones, smoky ones, ugly ones, THNA has 'em all. Here's a few examples of some that crossed my recent paths:

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Magical mushrooms

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Bird's-eye view

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Egg-shaped mystery mushroom

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Quarter-sized Lilliputian mushroom

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Young, Puff-ball mushroom

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Mature Puff-ball

2) I have nothing against snails. I'm actually fond of the little critters. Nevertheless, I have unintentionally caused the death of hundreds of them lately. Like mushrooms, the weather conditions have been ideal for the little gastropods, bringing them into the daylight hours and into contact with the bottom of my shoes. That unnervingly crunchy sound under my feet every morning means that several lives are sacrificed so I can read the NY Times.

One muggy, October day, I noticed dozens of squished snails in the park roadway. Looking closer I saw dozens of them crossing the road headed in a northerly direction towards THNA at... a snails pace. I immediately saw an opportunity to atone for all the snail deaths I had inadvertently caused. With a little help from my four year old granddaughter, Isaiah, we rescued a few dozen, helping them to safety in the sanctuary of THNA.

I recall reading a new satellite study that found grazing cows tend to face north (in North America), similar to Monarch butterflies and migratory bird species. Could snails be oriented to magnetic north, as well? My layman's observations say, yes. One thing is certain, the soils of THNA have been nourished by untold numbers of land and sea snails for millennia.

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Heading due north

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Making whoopee on the run

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Tread carefully!

3) Signs of Fall are creeping across the Tandy Hills. Leaves of Prairie flameleaf sumac (Rhus lanceolata) are living up to their name, crowned by dark red fruit. Bouquets of Prairie broomweed (Amphiachyris dracunculoides) carpet some hills, often interwoven with feathery-red, Seep muhly grass (Muhlenbergia reverchonii). Long, stems of Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) and spiky, Fall-blooming, Gay Feather (Liatris sp.) have reached majestic maturity. Three varieties of Aster fill in the gaps with purple and white blooms. A cheerful sprinkling of yellow Greenthread (Thelsperma filifolium) recalls the recently departed Summer on the prairie.

On the dry side, stiff stalks of Purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) stand like mute soldiers guarding the prairie. Piles of antler-shaped Compassplant (Silphium laciniatum) and Rosinweed (Silphium albiflorum) drift back and forth through the grass as if pulled by a mysterious tidal force. The grass itself is oceanic in places. Big Bluestem (Turkey-foot) (Andropogon gerardii) has made an amazing comeback and is already over 6' tall in some places. Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) seems to be more widespread than recent years. Dried, Green Milkweed (Asclepias asperula) pods are blasting seeds skyward that drift in the breeze like alien spacecraft, searching for life.

But Fall at THNA is also about brilliant, azure blue. Giant Blue sage (Salvia azurea var. grandiflora) is always shocking to see in November and is having a fantastic year at THNA.

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Tree-like, Prairie Flameleaf Sumac framed by Aromatic Sumac

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Red-tinged, Seep Muhly Grass and Maximilian Sunflowers on Seed-ball Hill

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Helianthus maximiliani

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Dreamy clouds of Aster drift across THNA

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Greenthread brightens the Autumn prairie

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Antler-like, Compassplant leaves

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Milkweed seeds of change

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Giant Blue Sage belies the traditional colors of Fall.

4) You may recall the Texas Spiny Lizard report from last August, the one where I witnessed the laying of an egg clutch. I patiently waited and watched the site for over a month, hoping for a sign of baby lizards. None appeared. Curiosity got the best of me and I carefully dug under the dirt and rocks where the eggs were laid. Only empty eggshells remained except for a tiny, two inch long youngster who was still not ready to leave the nest. After a brief, hesitant look at me, it decided to scurry off to the big wide world before I could grab the camera. End of story.

Another side-effect of the September rain is an influx of Mosquitoes and other bugs which may explain why Dragonflies are extremely active right now. If you remain still for just a few minutes the flying carnivores start zooming in like squadrons of WW2 bombers. To watch them feeding in the twilight at THNA is better than television.

September 30, was a special day for bird-watching at THNA. I spotted a pair of Woodpeckers and the first Robin of the season. But the real show was watching a pair of Cooper's Hawks tag-teaming in a battle for survival with a squirrel who ventured too far from home. The squirrel escaped within an inch of his life.

On October 11, I ventured over to the far eastern hill, the highest, and had the pleasure of watching a pair of Red-Tailed Hawks, clutching one of the TV tower cables, in search of lunch. An territorially annoyed Mockingbird was pestering the heck out of them for reasons of her own. The little Mockingbirds' unflinching bravery reminds me of an inspirational quote by Jon Kabat-Zinn that all Prairie-Keepers should memorize:

"Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the taking of action in spite of fear."

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Texas Spiny Lizard

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Twilight of the Dragonflies

5) It was one of those extra special Fall afternoons at THNA. The sky was bluer than Hank Williams. The air was cool but not cold. Just a breath of wind. That lucky old ball of hydrogen was setting in slo-mo over the Indian Grass. Signs of wildlife everywhere. Olive and I were caught up in the wonderful loneliness of Tandy Hills. Then suddenly...

"Eureka!", said a not-so-still-small-voice deep within my olfactory receptor cells. "We've met someplace before, sweetheart." I smelled her before I saw her. It was overpowering, seductive. I felt like a snail being pulled by an unseen magnetic force. I looked down and there she was, all by her gorgeous, lonesome self.

"Her" being, my first Nodding Ladies Tresses orchid (Spiranthes cernua) of the season and, looking better than ever, I might add. "Long time no smell, doll-face", I silkily said. "Been about year since I had the pleasure of your company." She just nodded shyly while my heart pounded like a Barnett Shale gas compressor station. She looked nearly as good as she smelled.

To fully appreciate the goods on this gal you have to get on her level and, believe me, it's worth the trouble. Horizontal is the only way to go. Nose to nose. This little temptress must've just arrived on the scene because she smelled like a million smackers. She had that new-orchid smell that no one in their right nose can resist. I was helpless and she knew it. All I could think to say after that was, "Ahhhhhhhhhhh."

As Olive and I walked home in the moonlight, I felt a sudden urge for a smoke.

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Nodding Ladies Tresses orchid

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One of Mother Nature's finest creations

6) Paul John Roach's guerilla-style video shoot for the 350.org Project is in the can. Partially filmed on a wet and chilly day at THNA, the final, edited video is on YouTube, here:

Learn more about 350.org, here:

http://www.350.org/

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350.org film shoot at the neighborhood carbon sink known as, Tandy Hills Natural Area

7) Elizabeth Anna's Old World Garden, is holding their 6th annual Bounty Fair & Handmade Market Day on November 7th from 11am to 7 pm. Cool stuff on a Fall day in an outdoor setting with good food and live music. Check out the details here:

http://elizabethanna.net/fall.htm

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8) REMINDER: There are only 175 days until the 5th annual Fort Worth Prairie Fest celebrates our connection to the natural world. Start spreading the news! April 24th, 2010. Volunteers are wanted and desired.

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9) I used to worry that I had seen it all at Tandy Hills. That I had run out of things to share with you. That I might even get bored with the place. But year after year, season after season, wet or dry THNA continues to surprise me.

Like most people, when I first laid eyes on THNA it was the big picture that swept me away. Waves of tall grass, colorful wildflowers, the occasional bird or mammal were the obvious things that grabbed my attention.

But something strange and unexpected happened along the way. Something like love. The deeper secrets of THNA began to reveal themselves. Previously unnoticed things that I used to just walk past began to come into sharper focus.

Although I still get a charge out of a shimmering field of Little Bluestem, I now see patches of green moss clinging in crevices of limestone outcrops, tiny wildflowers hidden in the grass, the nearly invisible Damselflies and the gentle topography of the hills.

There is also something intangible I feel at THNA that I can't put in words. Something that keeps drawing me in and making me look deeper. Something that inspires me to protect it from harm and neglect. Some of you know exactly what that "something" is.

Come to the meadow and discover the wonderful loneliness of Fall at THNA.

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Another world under my feet

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It's very hard to get a hungry Damselfly to hold still

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Looking deeper into Tandy Hills

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Tandy Oceanic Natural Area

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A perfect day

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Intangible "something"

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