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Thursday, April 29, 2010


Our class has recently switched gears from bird watching to wildflower studying and identification. I must admit that I am excited about the change due to a plant’s immovability compared to that of birds. I did realize that identification is a little more difficult since to my eyes the plants all look alike, but I guess that is the whole point of this experience. Thus, in order to help myself, and you of course, I will not only tell you about my experience but attempt to create a guide.
The best way to identify a flower is to know the location that you are in and the flowers that grow within that region. Since I live in Lubbock, it would be smart for me to acquire a field guide or list of local flowers. This is crucial due to the fact that the climatic characteristics of a place greatly affect what kind of vegetation can be found within it. So lets imagine that you find a flower, here is my guide to identifying:

1. Concentrate on the flower first.
a. Look at the size of the flower. Is it small? Large?
b. Look at the number of petals and the pattern in which they grow. Is there a specific number? Is there multiple? Do they grow in a specific pattern? Are the petals bound to each other, or separate?
c. How do the flowers originate in relation to others? Is there only one flower per plant? Multiple? Is the flower a combination of two, an outer ray flower and an inner disk flower as in daisies.
d. Is the flower symmetrical? Irregular in patterns?
e. Where do the petals of the flowers originate?

2. Now look at the leaves and stems.
a. What is the pattern of the leaves?
b. In what numbers do they grow?
c. Are there any spines? Hairs? Substances?
d. What is the shape of the stem?

3. Now look at other characteristics?
a. Does the flower have a specific smell?
b. Is there an irregularity in the plant?
c. When does in bloom?

After answering these questions, you can go ahead grab a field guide or flower list in order to pair up your answers with the descriptions of the different families of flowers that are available in the area. Here is an example of the one in my field guide:

• Cactaceae (cactus family): Succulent stems (pads or barrels) with spines; flowers having numerous petals and stamens.

• Compositae (Daisy, sunflower, or aster family): Small flowers grouped together in compact heads usually displaying outer “ray” and inner “disk” flowers with the entire head often appearing to be the “flower.”

• Cruciferae (mustard family): Flowers typically small, having only four petals, arranged in pairs across from each other; fruit having various shapes but always with two chambers and arranged scattered down the flowering stalk below the flowers. Flowering in early spring.

• Geraniaceae (geranium family): Regular (radially symmetrical) flowers with five non-fused petals, fruit with an elongated, beak like projection with the seed around its base (thus “stork’s-bill common name).

• Labiatae (mint family): Plants with square (quadrangular) stems, opposite leaves, and highly irregular (bilaterally symmetrical) flowers; crushed leaves often have a minty smell.

• Leguminosae (bean or legume family): Plants with compound leaves and fruit (legumes) that are pea pod shaped. Flowers of one subgroup are highly irregular (bilaterally symmetrical) as in sweet peas; another subgroup has mimosa-like flowers with inconspicuous petals and many stamens, forming spherical clusters.

• Malvaceae (mallow family): Regular flowers with five petals and numerous stamens fused by the filaments into a “stamen tree.”

• Onagranceae (evening primrose family): Regular flowers with four sepals, four petals, and, usually eight stamens. The petals arise from a tube that comes off the top of the inferior ovary; fruit four chambered.

• Scrophularianceae (snapdragon family): Broadly irregular flowers with five fused petals (two upper and three lower) and an open throat with four stamens together on the upper surface of the flower throat, which is often hairy or “bearded,” leaves commonly opposite.

• Solanaceae (potato or nightshade family): Regular flowers with five fused petals whose lobes flair at right angles from the floral tube; fruit tomato like with two chambers.

• Verbenaceae (vervain family): Closely related to the Labiatae; square stems and opposite leaves, but with only slightly irregular flowers clustered together in a tight inflorescence (each flower looks similar to a gingerbread man in outline).
Source: Zoe Merriman Kirkpatrick’s Wildflowers of the Western Plains: A Field Guide

Of course these are not the only families of plants that exist, but the most common in the area of Lubbock.

So, now that we have the basic knowledge of flower identification, lets practice with a few flowers that I got do identify in class!

Look at the flowers first and notice that they are not small and not clustered. There are five fused petals that are separated by the dividing lines that arise from the center of the flower. The flower is symmetrical and its sexual organs originate from the middle. There is no presence of other flowers within it or near it. Through this description we can clearly narrow down the list to snapdragon and potato families. At this point you would grab your field guide to the corresponding sections and look for similar pictures and descriptions.
Page 208 of my field guide clearly shows a picture of this flower: Purple Ground Cherry. It turns out it belongs to the Potato/Nightshade family. Fun!
Here are a few more photographs that I took or got from the internet. I decided to leave it to you to identify, in the case that you are unable to go out and do so. Leave me your answers on the comments section if you wish to check for accuracy. Good luck!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

High Plains Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival

Last weekend, our NHH class headed over to the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival in Milnesand, NM. The trip from Lubbock was short, yet the surroundings changed greatly. New Mexico seemed to maintain much more of the native prairie habitat than Texas, and the change was more evident at the border between the states. Milnesand is a small town with about 5-6 buildings. We were to camp in the back yard of a house, and the celebrations where held at the town’s convention center, a small building located adjunct to the fire fighter department. The people surrounding us were depictions of the serious birders that Dr. Tomlinson had told us about at the beginning of the semester. There were individuals from Florida, California, and even Virginia. I felt a slight sense of intimidation, being that most of them knew much about birds and I was still young in the sport.

The biologists for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service seemed to have a great presence in the area. Being a threatened species, the lesser prairie chicken (LPC) has acquired great priority in this governmental agency. The LPC used to be “found across eastern New Mexico, southeastern Kansas, western Oklahoma, and west Texas,” according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Habitat destruction has been a major reason for the decrease in the size of the LPC’s existence. Human population has decreased the amount of prairies available for the bird to live in. This has mainly been due to the use of land for farming, grazing, oil and gas use, and also due to drought. The biologists made it known that a factor contributing LPC numbers are also due to the placement of fences to divide properties. Birds running away from predators can fly up to 60 mph, unable to see the fence at such speeds they may suffer from fatal collisions. Through studies done in the past, scientists for the US Fish and Wildlife determined that LPC deaths due to collisions are high. In order to decrease the collision frequencies, scientists for the US Fish and Wildlife have developed a method of marking the fences in a manner that the LPC can distinguish it and avoid it. Nancy D. Riley is the State Coordinator for the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. Along with the residents in the area of Milnesand, she has been in charged of the fence marking program. With the permission of the land owners, volunteers mark the fences with strips of vinyl placed four feet apart along the fence. I got the opportunity to help and this project. Together, my friend Will and I marked at least ¾ of a mile of fence. While it is an easy task to do, the marking provides a lot of benefits to the LPCs that we had met earlier that day.

Markings Will and I placed 3 miles south of Milnesand

Before I talk about the actual LPC mating dance, I would like to point out some specifics regarding the biological and ecological perspectives of such unique creature. According to a birder that accompanied us on the mating dance watching, not many birds behave are involved in mating rituals as the LPC. I asked her because she had mentioned that she was from California, and I was curious to see what attracted her to the festival. The LPC enjoy living in areas with Sand Sagebrush-bluestem and shinnery oak-bluestem vegetation. Their diet consists of mostly insects and seeds. Predators of the LPC include raptors and coyotes, and their eggs are usually consumed by ravens, badgers, skunks, ground squirrels and snakes. They mostly have one brood per year, so preventing nest destruction is crucial for the development of the population.

The males perform their mating rituals within a lek, which is a clear piece of land to where they return to every year. We arrived at the lek at five in the morning, early enough as to not disturb the arrival of the LPC. Our group stayed within the van, and we observed through the windows with our binoculars. Our conversation quickly ended with the noises that the males produced as they arrived to the site. I must admit that to me their dancing is a little robotic. Their calls sounded primate like, with the casual rooster call now and then. They stomped their feet, moved up and down their territories, faced each other now and then, and really put on a show for the mysterious human audience in the vans. I loved the manner in which they would suddenly stop at the sight of a bird flying over head, and then begin their dancing and calls in unison when they realized the passer by was of no danger. Towards the end of our stay in the lek, two females suddenly appeared. As the females picked their male, one could denote the differences between the two. While the males boasted brightly, the females ignored their requests and hid within the grasses. Finally, one of the females picked a male in the outer portion of the lek, and they copulated quickly.

Watching these creatures mate was fascinating, since the product of the union would shine a piece of hope towards the decrease in numbers of the species. The festival was a unique experience, and I find my presence there a great privilege. For those of you interested in attending one day, I must warn you that space is limited. You can find more information at:

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Las Grutas de Nombre de Dios

This weekend I decided to take a break from school and visit my girlfriend, Gaby, and my family down in Chihuahua, Mexico. On Friday evening, Gaby took me to visit the Grutas de Nombre de Dios (Name of God Caverns), located within a small mountain range east of the city. At first I had my doubts that such natural phenomenon would be located so close to town, but as we approached the entrance to the caverns I discovered why. The caverns are actually a crack within the wall of the mountain that created the chambers through which we were to walk through. The route consists of several rooms and passage ways that total 4364 feet in length, walked by the tour group in about an hour. One descends to a depth of 227 feet under the entrance level, to the point in which one looses any sense of direction, time, or reality. The patterns that one finds within the walls of the caverns are a magnificent artistic show put on by nature over more than 5 million years, forming objects such as food, animals, famous people, and common objects.

This is a scientific blog so I will point out some details to how the caverns were formed. The area where we live today, which includes the area of Chihuahua, was once part of the sea floor. There, organisms such as shellfish and coral died and deposited much of the limestone, or calcium carbonate, that is present in great amounts within the soil of the area. This along with other elements in the soil, such as zinc, iron, and sulfur adorn the walls of the caverns through formations created with the movement of water. Stalactites, which grow on the roof of the cave, and stalagmites, which form at the base, are evidence of the importance of moisture to the natural beauty of the cave. Both occur due to the dripping of water in limestone, which delivers much of the minerals that form it. Their great presence within the caverns gives you a hint to the enormous limestone deposits in the area.
However, much of the stalactites in the caverns appear to have been cut off. The tour guy told us at the beginning of our exploration that before the cave was opened to the public; many individuals would come to the caves and steal the rocks as souvenirs. It is crucial for the rock formations to remain untouched due to the fact that oils in human hands disrupt the passage of the mineralized water. If the water flow is interrupted, then the growth of the rocks deteriorates or the rock will loose its natural coloration. The rocks in the Nombre de Dios Caverns have been forming for over 5 million years; still, the contaminants in the air from the nearby city and the dry air caused by droughts have slowed down the delicate process.

The state of Chihuahua has recently taken over the maintenance of the caves in order to protect this underground tourist attraction. I seriously believe that the best way to defend nature from human mismanagement is to educate individuals regarding its importance and in this case rarity. This is exactly what the state has done. They made the caverns more accessible to the public by installing pathways along the natural floor of the caverns, and provide the individual with an education on how to enjoy them without harming their existence. This really made me think about what is being done at Lubbock Lake Landmark (LLL). The prairie within the area is being recovered while the staff provides the Lubbock community with the education needed to prevent future destructive management. However is there a cost to what LLL is doing? At the Nombre de Dios caverns, the incoming of tourists through the caves has dried up some of the moisture, adding to the decrease in growth rate of stalactites and stalagmites.

The caverns are opened Tuesdays through Sundays from 9 am to 4 pm. For more information you can contact the office at 01(604) 432 0518 or visit and for more general information. The city of Chihuahua contains many museums, historical sites, and recreational attractions that are surely enough fill in a weekend.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tree Planting

I have talked a lot on previous posts about the consequences that human activities have had on the prairie. However, this past Wednesday I got the opportunity to do something about it. Our class, along with several employees of the Lubbock Lake Landmark took up the task to plant native trees throughout the property. The staff had selected several sites for the native trees previously with the help of the archeological department to ensure that no artifacts were uncovered during the transplantations. We had Soapberries and Hackberries to plant. While I looked forward to the planting process all week, I must admit that I did not expect to plant such mature trees as we did that day. With more than 20 trees to plant, I started to regret volunteering to dig the new homes for the woody specimens. Still, I was driven by the inspiration that someday I would have to opportunity to come back and see the full grown trees that we have planted. While we did not finish planting all the trees, I feel as if the exhaustion my body felt will one day turn into a sense of pride. I have not only added beauty to the surrounding, but also an opportunity to recover from an ecological disaster. Go plan a tree!