Tag Archives: cross timbers

Water in Far Field

Central Texas in the last week had rain.  My Far Field (shown in photograph above) shows a marshy area on the south section of the field.  The rains this week have broken the record for the wettest November in the Fort Worth area.

I walked and viewed the marshy area yesterday, parking my F-250 along State Highway 108 because the road into Far Field lacked gravel or cliche for pavement.  The temperature was 44 degrees F., wind calm, and sky cloudy.  Crows inevitably cawed, killdeers pipped, and some type of finch perched and chirped in the pecan tree above me.  I had intended to cut down a tree that was blocking the gate, but the low temperature and wetness forced me back into the pickup, my axe never unloaded from the cabin.

I retired from teaching college in June of this year, having either been in college or teaching for fifty-five years.  Shortly after retirement, I sold the front part of the farm, including the house, barns, stables and arena, keeping the Far Field of 29.151 acres.  Moving into Fort Worth, some sixty miles to the east, I took an apartment that is adjacent to the Trinity River.  Since in the apartment, I have seen owls, falcons, hawks, Sandhill Cranes, and numerous species of waterfowl that fly along the river, turning as a flock at the bends of the river.  Wild turkeys inhabit a ranch across the river from where I live and I have seen a seven-member troop of them walk up into the homes and yards when it rained heavily last week.

My Far Field qualified for agricultural use.  It consists of native grasses and various inserts of Johnson grass and other “invasive” species.  The field is still wet today and will remain so for a couple of weeks.  To what use shall I put the field?  Cattle grazing, crops for wildlife?  I am not sure, but the decision  “to do” something with the soil has raised some philosophical questions about my behavior towards the land.  For now, the field is wet, the crows and hawks perch on the only tree in the field.  Nestled in the field grasses and burrowing into the earth are skunks and voles.  So, leaving it alone for now is practical and respectful.




Filed under Flying Hat Ranch, Life in Balance

Wind and flag football


I read the weather forecast last night, fearing an outbreak of fire with such oxygen rushing through dry brush and grass.  From the back porch, I see eight miles to the Cross Timbers hills and ridge lines toward Stephenville and Hannibal.  Neither smoke nor fire can be seen, only dust and the affect of wind.

I seek to take photographs that will reflect the aridity, the drought conditions as well as today’s fierce wind.  As I have written before in another post, if you wait for the wind to die down or cease in Texas to work, you will never get anything done.  True.  A good pair of sunglasses and sunscreen provide protection as well as a sense of humor to work and play here in central West Texas.  To play hard and lose one’s self, one forgets the wind.

In the 1970s, at holidays with family in the Panhandle, near Canyon, Texas, we played football after dinner (served at noon), and we played with windy conditions.  Across a large front yard providing turf for, say, forty yards of a playing field, we had to compensate for the strong prevailing winds out of the southwest or northwest — low, short passes.  The teams were co-ed and young wives and female cousins ran and fought for every yard along side their husbands and relatives — one female cousin became a colonel in the Marines.  Touch football rules prevailed, sometimes flag football with a bandanna hanging out of our blue jeans.  The wind begone, we played anyway.  Of course, we forgot about the cold and wind as we played together at Thanksgiving, Christmas and once in the summer.

Here at the ranchito, the wind blows today, but there are no contests in the front yard, only birds tucked fast in the branches of the live oaks or nestled in pasture grass.  Here are some photos I took about an hour ago.

This view is towards the southwest, showing the dust in the distance and the leafless trees.


Wind whipping grass blades on terrace.


View towards Lilly's rock cairn and the Blue farm beyond the mesquite tree line.


Looking towards the west.


From the back terrace, I shot a thirty-second video of the landscape to the southeast.  Not much excitement in the footage, but it’s the middle of Winter.


Filed under Flying Hat Ranch, Recollections 1966-1990

Dickcissel on Bluestem for Mother’s Day

Dickcissel (Spiza americana), the bird perching on the stems, Flying Hat Ranch, north Erath County, Texas, May 8, 2011 (see photograph below for closeup).

Closeup of Dickcissel on Big Bluestem, Flying Hat Ranch, May 8, 2011.

This morning I drove over to the Pecan Tree Pasture to check on the spring growth of grasses.

The Big Bluestem erupts into the old clumps of Bluestem from last season.  I heard a bird, a familiar call, that I vowed I would photograph and identify.  I walked fifty yards into the field and looked in the direction of the call.  I saw nothing.  Looking at several Bluestem clumps, I finally spied the bird and fixed it with the sound.  (If I had had my wits about me, I would have recorded the sound.)  The sound was a rendition of its name (I found out later), dick-ciss-ciss-ciss.

I focused the camera on the bird and it looked like a meadow lark, but smaller, yet yellow.  I took several shots and walked closer each time.  A sudden movement way across the pasture near the Hall’s place caught my attention.  A deer bounded through the high grass, gracefully jumped the fence and disappeared into the Grove.  I was pleased and I’m sure the deer was also that grass and trees provided foliage and food.  That was the first deer I’ve seen on the property in months.

Returning to the ranch house, I got down the Peterson and Audubon field guides to identify the bird I saw.

It is a Dickcissel (Spiza americana) male.  The species was on the 2005 Audubon Watchlist, but it has since been taken off.  The Dickcissel used to inhabit the eastern coastal states, but it now resides in the Midwest this time of year.  It had been placed on the Watchlist because in Venezuela its feeding habits damaged crops.

The major threat to Dickcissel comes from its wintering grounds in Venezuela. Because of the species’ propensity for gathering in enormous flocks and feeding on cultivated plants such as rice and sorghum, it can be a serious agricultural pest for Venezuelan farmers, who have sometimes taken to trying to poison flocks. Dickcissel flocks in Venezuela can number over a million birds, meaning that the wintering population can become highly concentrated at certain favored roosting sites. A single “successful” poisoning event of a large flock of roosting birds could significantly reduce the world population of Dickcissel.

On its North American breeding grounds, Dickcissel faces several additional threats: cowbird parasitism, the destruction of nests and nestlings by mowing machines, and loss of habitat due to changing agricultural practices and succession [1].

I have neither mowed nor shredded the field for six years.  In 2007, I ran twenty-seven Angus stocker calves in the field, but did not let them overgraze the pasture.   Other than Hija, Star, Lilly and Fanny, no livestock have been placed in the field since 2007.  In 2004 and 2010, I reseeded the field in native grasses.

I did not make a count of how many Dickcissels I saw or heard.  A very rough estimate is about 10-12 within the western half of the 35 acre field.

Of the Dickcissels nesting habits, the female lays 4 or 5 pale blue eggs in a cup of stems and grass set on or near the ground, often in alfalfa and clover fields [2].

Happy Mother’s Day, Ms. Dickcissel!  My field is your home — our world together.



1.  http://audubon2.org/watchlist/viewSpecies.jsp?id=72

2.  The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds Eastern Region.  Also references to Peterson’s field guide.

The ecology of the Dickcissel as stated in the Audubon Watchlist link above is as follows (for Wild Bill and others):

Dickcissel nests in grasslands, meadows, savanna, and hay fields. Its nest is a bulky, loose cup of woven grass and leaves, usually placed in a grassy field. Males arrive at breeding territories about a week before females, and may have more than one mate. Females are responsible for nest building and incubation, usually of a clutch of four eggs. Young birds fledge a week to ten days after hatching, but are not capable of flight until a few days after leaving the nest. The diet of breeding adults is 70% insects and 30% seeds, while for young birds, it is the reverse: 70% seeds and 30% insects. Outside of the breeding season, Dickcissels feed mostly on seeds, including weed seeds and cultivated grains. Dickcissels migrate in flocks, sometimes gathering into groups of several hundred birds, and on their wintering grounds in the llanos of Venezuela, they are extremely gregarious, forming flocks that can number over one million birds.


Filed under Birds

Typing duck in flight

Since so much of our ranch is a Texas Cross Timbers habitat with one large pond, I find ducks most interesting since they have uncommon presence and seasonally come and go.  I do not know with graceful skill the typing of these water creatures.  I tentatively identify the duck below as Canvasback (Aythya valisineria).  Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds states, “A very white-looking duck with a rusty-red head and neck, black breast, long blackish bill.”  I am not sure and will correct my identification if anyone can discern factors I have missed.  In any case, here is what I regard as a Canvasback.  Please let me know in the comment section of this post or e-mail me at matthewsranch@msn.com or tweet @sage2m if you have an opinion.  Thanks for your help and assistance.

March 17, 2011, 1:00 p.m., CDT.  Wild Bill of Wild Ramblings blog has opined it may be a redhead duck.  The short bill of this duck indicates something other than a Canvasback.

Tentatively a Canvasback.


Filed under Canvasback, Ducks

Little bluestem with iPhone

On February 26, Saturday last, when in the field, I applied the iPhone to take photographs and upload for a field test: short bursts of field notes and photographs as I surveyed 53 acres of Cross Timbers prairie, creek and woodland. I attempted to snap a photograph and upload it with commentary as I went about my survey. While in the field, miles from cell towers, I was unable to coordinate photos and commentary. In addition, the “thumbing” of data on the iPhone was too slow. I was absorbing data much, much faster than I could thumb the phone. I did send a few in-the-field updates onto my blog, but later trashed them. I composed a long post with photographs taken with the Nikon when I got back to the ranch office.  In the field I did not think the photographs had been uploaded.

Today, however, as I was going through the media library on Sage to Meadow blog, I discovered that the photographs with the iPhone had been uploaded! I uploaded one photograph twice, thinking it had not been uploaded the first time. And, here it is, Little bluestem grass that is coming back on the prairie.

Little bluestem grass, Pecan Tree Pasture, Flying Hat Ranch, Texas, February 2011.

I think the utility of the iPhone in field work is evolving.  It is portable and lighter than a camera.  Composing commentary can exceed 140 characters.  It’s not going to replace the steno pad and camera, but it may have some further use.  I like the idea of field work live, or with a minimum of time lapse, as a light and useful activity.


Filed under Bluestem Field Log, Plants and Shrubs

High grass in the pasture 1:46 pm

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Flying Hat Ranch, Texas, February 2011.

[February 27, 2011, added comment.  In my field work, the constant tools (carried in pockets or small rucksack) are stenographer’s pad, pens, tape measure, compass, topographical map and watch.  Close by in the pickup are engineering graph tablets, colored flags, binoculars and camera.  The camera is ofttimes carried around the neck.  I have also been using a GPS lately.  I’ve not used a laptop in the field, but I can see its utility with uploaded topo maps and data entry.  The iPhone may have some applications in field work, but the fundamental tools are steno pad, topo map, compass and tape measure.]

The experiment with in-the-field short note taking has come to an end.  I am back up at the ranch office and am writing on the desktop, not the iPhone.

The use of the iPhone in the field for short bursts of updates works, but the photographic uploads into my blog via iPhone did not work.  Part of the problem is that our ranch is way out in the brush and our cell towers are at Bluff Dale and Morgan Mill, Texas, miles and miles away.  For any extended commentary, a laptop with a wireless connection is much preferable to the iPhone although I will try the iPhone mode again.

While in the field today I kept a written journal and took photographs with another camera.  I am posting the photographs of high grass in the pasture.  The Big bluestem is “big,” reaching six-feet tall.  The Little bluestem is about three-feet tall.  For now, enjoy the field photographs.


Unidentified duck taking flight from the stock pond.

Still waters on the stock pond, ducks have taken flight to Blue's pond to the north.

A typical Cross Timbers life zone that has been harvested and cut for several generations. The tree grove is rebuilding itself.

Big bluestem, Flying Hat Ranch, Texas, February 2011.


Filed under Bluestem Field Log (Live)

Interstate 20 Kestrel

Sparrow Hawk (Falco sparverius, from Peterson's Field Guide)

In my long commute to Abilene from Mingus, Texas (87.2 miles), I see flora and fauna of Cross Timbers and west Texas plains along Interstate 20.  The Clear Fork of the Brazos River is the major river in the area, meandering north of the interstate at a distance I cannot discern from the highway, but within sight of the wind turbines that I see turning swiftly with the wind.

Between Abilene and Clyde, Texas, I have seen for several years a particular type of hovering bird above the interstate that dives down, usually on the median, to take a field mouse.  The angle of the sun has not been right for me to identify the bird nor have I minimal traffic to definitely type the predator.  (Trucks carry a lot of cargo on Interstate 20 between El Paso and Dallas-Fort Worth and must be respected.)  Yesterday, however, at the same spot (about a two-hundred-yard splotch) that I have seen these birds over the years, I was able to identify a Sparrow Hawk (Falco sparverius), as my elusive companion for the commute.

The Sparrow Hawk or “American Kestrel” flashed a rufous back, wings spread with blue-gray color and a rufous tail, signifying a male, as it dove onto the median.  Returning home, driving east, the sun on my right side at 3:30 p.m. in the afternoon, I saw brightly illuminated the plumage and color of this beautiful hawk.  The sighting occurred within five seconds, but I will remember this Interstate 20 Kestrel for a long, long time.

* * *

How can we ever think ourselves alone when in the absence of our own kind we have kestrel, oak and four-legged companions about?  But we do feel estranged.  I have and will feel alone again.  Yet, so, and despite it all, our senses become filled with flapping wings, stamping hooves and trees swaying in the wind among ten thousand sights and sounds.  Our yearning for connectedness disappears with a self-loss in nature’s rhythm, even along the interstate.  It is a kind of sacred hoop, Black Elk once said.


Filed under Birds

Yucca Meditation 1.0

Three terraces form the foundation for our home on a hill.  The hill stands out in the Turkey Creek Quadrangle map, but it has no name.  We refer to our knoll with its expansive view in west Texas as Poprock Hill, but the numerous swallows gliding about our home prompt us to rename the hill: Swallow Hill.  We’ve not committed to the change, but the possibility lingers.

Pale-leaf Yucca grows and roots along and down each of our three terraces, providing nectar for moths and fruit for deer although we have seen no deer in several months.  The yucca stalks are several feet high, the blossoms are so heavy that most of the stalks are weighted down, drooping bulbs, yet still a vibrant yellow-white for weeks in mid-spring.  By now, the last days of July, all of the blossoms have fallen.

It is said that plants grow in assemblies, like a family of sorts.  If so, then our yucca family on Poprock Hill prospers and grows haply.  I do not see the yucca as a plant to be uprooted, but as a succulent that prevents erosion of our terraces, an ornamental of natural spikes guarding our home.  A protector.  Someday because of erosion we will have to reinforce the terraces, but we will not uproot one yucca, one family, one blade, to do so.  Bayonets, stakes on the plains, these yuccas have been named in history.  For us, however, our Pale-leaf Yucca are our cousins that enliven the daily family reunion we have with nature.


Filed under Plants and Shrubs