A few weeks ago Mom and I decided to go for a hike on the LBJ National Grasslands. It was one of those clear, bright days that seems like it should be warm but it’s not. We headed down the hill hearing crows and Blue Jays. This area had a hot fire during the spring, so the usually brushy hillside was bare and with the lack of rain, little grass had grown back.
So we didn’t really start to see more birds until we got to a more brushy area.
There Mom spotted a mockingbird on top of a live oak. Down in the cedars and brush below, several juncos were flying away as we got closer. Then there was a bigger bird – I got a quick glimpse of a towhee. I assume it was a Spotted Towhee, our common species, but it didn’t call and I didn’t see it well enough to be sure.
The other option is the Eastern Towhee, a very similar species that lacks white spotting on its back. The two were formerly considered a single species and sometimes interbreed.
Down across a ravine we heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker. We kept walking downhill along the main ravine to our left until we got to an area with a new ravine starting on our right. Here I heard a Hairy Woodpecker’s high “peek!” call in the distance. A chickadee called.
Mom spotted a Black Vulture as we followed an old fence line through the woods back up the hill. A cardinal called. Usually there are lots of cardinals out, but this seemed to be a quiet morning for them.
I heard thin, wavering “seep” notes which were likely to be White-throated Sparrows, but never saw them. Many songbirds give these “seep” notes.
A few species you can tell apart with practice because of little differences. The White-throated Sparrows waver in their drawn-out “seep” notes. Golden-crowned Kinglets repeat “see-see-see.” The related chickadees and titmice are also distinctive with “sip” notes from other species, but I can’t distinguish the “sip” notes between the two species.
As we walked up into the woods, we found a burned-out tree trunk with a hole in it so that you could look into the trunk and see the world on the other side. We kept going and noticed the many small green plants growing on the ground. Our local ecosystem is adapted to fire, and the plants do recover.
Here the only odd thing that happened was that very little rain had fallen during the growing season after the fire, so the Little Bluestem on the hillside and open areas hadn’t grown back to its usual height.
As we looped back up the slope we came to the edge of the ravine that had previously been on our left. We followed a game trail down into the ravine. Before we went in, we saw two hawks, a male Northern Harrier flying low in the open areas and an American Kestrel flying over.
This ravine always has water in it from numerous seeps in the ravine’s sandstone walls and floor. Despite the chilly day, with the sunshine it was warm enough for a dragonfly to be flying. I didn’t see it well enough to determine what kind it was, but I would guess it was a Variegated Meadowhawk. That brown, red, yellow, and white-patterned species is the one I usually see on warm winter days.
The shelter of the ravine from the wind made it warm enough for a few butterflies to be out, too. We saw three Common Buckeyes chasing each other and two Dainy Sulphurs, which are fun because they tip their wings to the sunlight. They flitter and flutter around, land and then suddenly TIP! at a slight angle to put their wings at a broadside to the sun for more warmth.
A year or two ago, the tiny seep-fed creek meandered around the broad floor of the ravine. Now we found that in the wooded area, the creek was now sunk down about a foot. We’ve had a few heavy rains now, so it may have washed out. Parts may have also just sunk, because we saw a section that looked like it was a narrow tunnel (about a foot wide and five or six feet long) that we hadn’t noticed on our previous visits.
Other parts of the ravine had definitely changed with erosion since our previous visit. For example, one section of the floor had been broadened with washed in materials.
We finally climbed up out of the canyon to head back to the car. As we left, near the top edge of the ravine were more seeps. The moisture from one seep made the layers of orange, yellow, white, gray and lavender in the sand really stand out.
Keep your eyes peeled as you explore our winter landscape. From birds to butterflies to interesting geology, you never know what you will find!
The next monthly field trips on the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands will be Feb. 1 and March 7. We will depart at 9 a.m. from the Forest Service District Office in Decatur. For more information, contact Mary Curry or the forest service at (940) 627-5475.