Natural History Notes

Saturday, February 28, 2015

cornbread for a snowy day

Oh, the weather outside is frightful…actually it's lovely but much too cold to go out in, let alone drive! The cardinals and friends have been mobbing the feeder all day.

There were some mentions of cornbread on Facebook, and that made me think of the best recipe, and here it is. If you want traditional southern cornbread, that does not contain so much sugar that it tastes like cake, make it according to the "receipt" of my grandmother Willie Elvie Chumley Miller, born in the hills of northern Alabama in 1881.

You will need:

pre-heated 400° oven
8" cast iron skillet, or equivalent Pyrex dish
three mixing bowls, large, small, and tiny (or a coffee-cup)

2 cups stone-ground cornmeal
1 cup boiling water
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1-4 tablespoons butter

Put the butter in the skillet in the oven to melt and get sizzling hot.

Put the soda, salt, and sugar in the tiny bowl and mix them. Get all the lumps out of the soda.

Beat the egg and mix with the buttermilk in the small bowl.

Pour the boiling water on the meal and stir till it's all absorbed. There will be some meal still dry. Then rapidly stir the salt mix into the buttermilk, and immediately dump it over the damp cornmeal. Stir briefly. A few lumps are OK. You want to get it into  the oven before the bubbles of the soda and buttermilk have dissipated.

Scoop the thick batter into your sizzling butter and return to the oven for about 45 minutes. When it's done, hold the skillet upside down over a plate, and it will fall out, with the buttery bottom crust uppermost. Cut in wedges and enjoy!

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Sunday, July 06, 2014

was it hunting sour grapes?

Eight pm July 5th. The temperature has dropped below 90° on the porch. Sunset is still half an hour away, but the horizontal rays through the screen have lost most of their power - the cooling from the breeze outdoes them.

Just as I left to go downstairs at 6:30 there was a fox calling, down the hill toward the tank. Sounds like a dog with a VERY sore throat. Just single barks, one at a time, unlike most dogs.

I heard it, briefly, very close and loud, in the night a few days ago. It was somewhere to the south of the house. 

And day before yesterday, I had a good view of it, a native gray fox, for several minutes in the backyard. While I was looking out the sink window, it came bounding across the yard from the right. It didn’t seem to be running from anything, or in pursuit, it was just running - sort of a lolloping, high-bouncing gait.

At first I thought it had kept going, past the garage and down the hill. Then I realized I could still see a disturbance in the high grass. (The black-eyed susans have been blooming, and I have put off getting most of the back yard mowed this month.) I watched glimpses of gray fur fossicking around for some time, and finally took a chance and hobbled off after the binoculars. It was still busy when I returned. Mostly it seemed to be prospecting around at the base of the grasses, but a few times it raised its head and gave me a beautiful view of its surprisingly slender head and neck.

Of course I didn’t have the camera; it was upstairs. This image is cropped from a Wikimedia Creative Commons one,, that was taken in the Sierra Nevada. I don’t believe mine had as much red on the head, though there was red down each side of the neck.The body was more ashy-gray than charcoal. Almost exactly the color, in fact, of our fox squirrels.

Once I thought of it I tried to get a notion of whether it was a dog-fox or maybe a lactating vixen, but it never bounded up above the grass again. I just caught glimpses of the head and sometimes the back; mostly just a stirring in the grass. I never could tell what it was doing. Catching grasshoppers? But it wasn’t jumping or snapping. It worked its way around this way and that till it finally disappeared past the corner of the garage.

Here’s where it was. Just imagine this scene at three o’clock in the afternoon rather than sunset. It came bounding in from the right, spent a good while in the weeds and high grass beyond the little berm, and finally disappeared off to the left.


Tuesday, July 01, 2014

almost berries again

Just about dusk yesterday, I went down to check on the approaches to the blackberry patch that Tommy was mowing yesterday morning. He had said he thought they would be another week or two ripening, that there were plenty of berries, still mostly red.

Well, they are mostly red still, but there are definitely ripe black ones to be found, mostly on the tips of the twigs. I had planned to check on them, and then continue on my way on the loop, just over half a mile, through the old white gate.

Instead I spent ten minutes gathering a half cup of berries, and came trudging up the hill again, barely a quarter mile.

Not much exercise, but breakfast sure was good.

Tommy has made a nice broad approach path, and mowed in close to the bearing canes.

In my fridge last night.

Breakfast - with blueberries, peaches, milk and cream. Yum!

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Monday, June 30, 2014

rain lily reproduction!

This morning I took my coffee out to the front-yard sitting area to wait to catch Tommy when he finished mowing down in the pasture. As I looked around, I was very gratified to see that my 'Prairie Sunset' Zephyranthes had reappeared. I bought it from Painted Flower Farms last fall. It had leaves and one bud then, which opened after Steve planted it, but then of course it all disappeared in the winter.

When I got up to move my chair out of a sun-spot, I discovered more of them! Behind my chair was a clump with two flowers and two buds. This has to be where the original pot was planted. So a seed from that one flower last fall evidently germinated 4 feet away, and was able to bloom its first year.

This speaks well for the possibility of their spreading over the yard. And also urges me to get seeds right away (if the County doesn't mow them) from the golden ones blooming now at the Bayless-Selby House.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014


Somehow I have lived all my life without becoming aware of the identity of the katydid’s call, though I am perfectly familiar with the cicada. But the last few nights there has been something, very loud, apparently in the creeper leaves just the other side of the porch screen. I have recorded it a couple of times on my little mini digital recorder, but I haven’t yet learned how to put those files on the computer.

I thought maybe it was some kind of tree frog. Though I have just now become aware of the sound, and I would have thought it too late and dry for them. On the other hand we have been having a LOT of thunderstorms recently.

The cicada makes a long drone of a sound, with the individual clicks of the stridulations stretched out in a long even series, “r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r”. The call I've been hearing has separate, individually more strident notes, “ranh, ranh, ran-anh, ran-an-an-anh”. A sort of denser sound than a cicada.

Then Tuesday evening about dark I heard a couple of sharp notes of it from the middle of the dining room floor. I investigated, and found Agate uncertainly eyeing this critter, trying to decide whether or not to pounce. I stuck an inverted glass over it and then got it into this jar. Yesterday I got photos and then sent it on its way outside. It may be a common true katydid, Pterophylla camellifolia .

Still sounds to me like it might be saying a froggy “ribbit, ribbit, ribibibibit, ribibibit, ribibibit”. It starts out with some one- or two-pulse calls, then gets into its stride with four or five, and keeps it up half the night.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014


…and the livin' is easy -- don't know about the fish swmmin' or the height of the cotton they don't grow in Denton County any more, but the Doak Orchards "Bowie Peaches Guy" is back on station in the corner of the bowling alley parking lot across from the mall, and summer is oh-FEE-shully here! Last year the late freeze did in their crop, and it was terrible. They had east Texas peaches at the farmers' market; they were good, but not the same.

Summertime flowers at the Ridge - the bull-nettles and spiderwort are gone and the black-eyed susans are passing. The tall yellow evening primrose is beginning to make a show. And there's a lot of horsemint this year. It will be showy for a long time.

But the speckled, creamy blossoms that the bees love, hiding under the bracts, will be gone I think by early July.

Got critters. Lots of birds, of  course. Mammals - I saw the gray fox a few weeks ago, first time in years. I came downstairs after I heard a metallic rattle in the front yard the other night, to find a 'coon that had failed to get into the birdfeeder, hoovering up the sunflower seeds underneath it. I see a cottontail in the lane often, especially down in the woods near the mailbox. And one night I slowly followed a young 'possum up the lane for a lo-o-ong way, till it finally went off into the grass to one side.

 This lizard was on the outside of the upstairs porch screen last week. Clearly it has never lost a tail to a cat.

The grasshoppers are very numerous, hopping up in front of the car in clouds, even when I seem to be travelling on a bare dirt section of the lane. They have been getting noticeably bigger the last couple of weeks. Today I photographed some that were posing on the windshield.

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Monday, May 26, 2014

snow ... or mostly sleet

(This was written almost six months ago, on Dec. 6, I think, but never posted.)

Two days ago it was sunny and almost 80°. Today is completely overcast and fifty degrees colder. In between we had, besides a blue norther, about eighteen hours of sleet and a little snow - the yard is completely white, though the wind all night means the branches and fence-rail are clear. No destructive ice coating the branches, thank goodness.

Tom helped me fill the sunflower seed feeder on the last day of his visit. The yard has been full of cardinals, plus a towhee, Harris' sparrow, white-throat, red-bellied weedpecker, chickadees, and of course a squirrel head-down on the feeder.

Meanwhile I sit inside by the fire, though I only have about enough wood for today, and will have to make do with sitting by the space heater tomorrow. Ben has returned my sharpened chainsaw, though, so next time Steve comes out, I should get some fuel.

The plum thickets turned a nice orange-bronze a couple weeks ago, and are now bare and gray. The big pear and the red oak by the gate, however, remained green until a few days ago, and are now bright. I was afraid they would lose all their leaves in the gale yesterday, but so far not.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

honeyvine, bluevine, swallow-wort

I think the milkweed vine down  by the lane is a Cynanchum laeve, though now that I have looked it up I need to go see it again. Probably I need to resurrect the plant press.

Aside - I washed out and refilled the hummingbird feeder yesterday, and it apparently tastes good again. Hummer just visited for maybe a dozen swallows  Of course I picked up the phone to try a picture just too late.

Here is the photo from the Natural Resource Conservanion Service (public domain via  Wiki Commons), and then two of mine.

Wikipedia says it's considered a noxious weed in some areas, but it doesn't seem to be here. I can see that it could be kind of kudzu-like, but it doesn't compare to greenbrier and Carolina snailseed. I am glad  to have found it.

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Wednesday, July 03, 2013

almost blackberry-time...

We are having an incredibly pleasant first week of July, with days in the upper 80s and nights in the 60s. However, it has started to  warm up again. Back to normal by next week.

Yesterday Tommy mowed around
the clumps of berries that have arisen in the field south of the tank. Since he mowed into the clumps till he got to where there were thick berries, the surrounding ground is pretty rough. Most people will find it pretty convenient picking though, even if the third-mile round trip and a few minutes picking took ME 53 minutes.

 There are lots of green and pink berries, and a few ripe ones. I found one spot where there were several branches more advanced than the rest. I got about two dozen, just about an ounce. YUMMMMM...

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

yay, bees!

Today was a picture-perfect January day, from the point of view of a beekeeper. Temperature in the low sixties, sunny, no wind to speak of. Ben headed out to the Ridge around two to do some work, and gave me a ride.

I lugged the cedar bench over by the front hive, though as it turned out, I did not remove any frames and didn't really need it. Kay and I had left four frames in the top box of three. The first, in the center with open space in front of it, had an overgrown lump of comb projecting into the space, and some stored honey. The next was quite heavy and pretty full. The third had some honey, and the fourth, by the hive wall, had not very much. I was able to look down at the frames in the second box, and I could see quite a lot of capped honey and bees. So I concluded it was doing OK.

In the backyard the hive also has three medium boxes, ten-frame rather than eight. The top - the cut-down deep with silver paint from my first hive, contains 9 frames. I recall that some were just empty frames in October. Not so now. The first is an almost completely built comb, with the inner side capped with honey. The second was HEAVY -- full of honey on both sides. On the other (east) side of the hive, the situation was about the same, not quite as much honey. I tried to look down to the frames below, and could see capped honey and bees down there too.

If there is a day even warmer next month, I will try to get the boxes apart and see what's happening on the brood frames. Need to make sure there's room for the queen to lay down there. If there is brood, I may need to feed some pollen substitute. Also I am concerned that the back hive still may have an empty box on the first floor.

The winter honeysuckle is beginning to bloom, and a few bees are working it. But what is the source of all that honey they have capped since October?

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