Aeolian dunes of Cedar Lake

By Charlotte Burke

Published Mar 20th 2009 in Habitats, Habitat, sanddunes

We took the most enchanting field trip to a dry-land cotton ranch on the Gaines/Dawson county line on Saturday, March 14. A hardy group of us arrived at the Sibley Nature Center around 8:00 a.m. that morning to learn if our leader, Burr Williams, was going to cancel the trip or take us and the weather on. Chilly fog was slipping in and out around our legs as we conferred in the parking lot. It was a go!

We split into all the 4-wheel drive vehicles that had assembled and headed north on the Lamesa Highway. Along the way were the vast flat fields brown with winter, slumbering into the distance with the openness that soothes the eye and soul. So wonderful that this open terrain, totally devoid of people and buildings, even exists in this day and age. As we hummed further north, we spotted Chihuahua ravens standing watch on fence posts or flying in ones or twos along the road. A small bevy of cranes was heading south, barely visible on the horizon. We made a short rendezvous at a highway intersection to meet our host Nathan Taylor and his mother, and then turned westward until we reached the Cedar Lake sand dune region.

We first drove into the boonies where rolling sand dunes were covered with Hermelo weeping love grass. The swirling, wind-tossed grass leaves make circular patterns in the sandy ground around each plant and are far more stunning than man-made crop circles! The sand was a rich terra cotta color and very damp. It was sooooo bitterly cold that we were only out there half an hour, but the overcast weather made for some good photo taking. I took photos of the patterns in the sand and tiny rodent burrows, animal tracks, and scat. Coyote tracks leading up to tiny burrows (I wondered if the rodent made it back home alive!)

We found two types of stickers; inch-long cockleburrs and buffalo burrs. Nasty things! Cockleburs gave an inventore the idea of Velcro. I had to have help detaching them from of my chenille gloves and stuffing them into my collection bag. (A fellow naturalist yanked out a box of Zip-lock baggies and distributed them to us to corral our goodies. One gal held the bag that would go back to the nature center and we took to calling her The Bag Lady.)

I collected a handful of the rusty sand and tossed in seeds and bits of rock, not common in the area, as well as burrs. (These languished on my dining room table until I noticed something had sprouted! When I rinsed off the sand, I found a cockle-burr with an inch-long shoot: the damp sand and warmth inside the bag having been enough to bring it to life.)

We examined ‘blow-outs’: deep open depressions amongst the small dunes. The local farmers call them buffalo wallows, as playas are named back home in Odessa. I photographed gleaming drops of moisture on the waxy grey-green leaves of Penstemon where there was plenty enough for a small mouse or other rodent to quench its thirst.

The land is under the protection of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) that pays farmers to leave land fallow. In the 80's the land was replanted with grass but out of ignorance, the African weeping lovegrass was introduced instead of the native grasses that are being used today. The love grass turned out to be less than ideal for cattle. One source I read said, “Cows could not be starved enough to get them to eat it..” Trial and error showed that the grass was not edible unless it was burned and fertilized—such work/energy intensive methods on what should have been self-sustaining fodder seems such folly. What we have had to learn! With the current down-turned economy, it is possible the payments for this fallow land may be eliminated, which would be a tragedy if this terrain were flattened, ploughed under, and the abundance of natural life there eradicated.

The love grass is a stunning specimen; perhaps tourism could be cultivated instead! Clumps as large as whiskey barrels heavily dot the area, with hillocks of captured sand surrounding them. Walking amongst them proved to be a challenge as their stiff leaves could actually trip a person where the grasses grew in close proximity to each other. The clusters resemble mops of dense hair falling open on the tails of palace dogs.

Burr christened the area “Cedar Lake/Aeolian Sand Dunes.” Such an intriguing name! Aeolian dunes are formed from tiny particles of sand blowing progressively across a region. The smaller the grains, the further they are able to travel and the faster the dunes can form, in a process called ‘saltation.’ The particles not only travel themselves, but upon landing can strike larger grains of sand, moving them along as well. Flatter areas of the dunes had marvelous striated ripples extending down their slopes, also caused by the velocity (speed and direction) of the winds.

Then we bundled into the vehicles and drove over to the Taylor’s dry-land cotton farm. We gathered up our sack lunches and invaded Nathan’s kitchen for our simple meal and a chance to warm up, sitting on wooden benches at a large hewn table and feeling like countrymen ourselves, having come in from the fields. Nathan is a 15-year old boy in our class. His family lives in a home they have practically from scratch. His father is an artist and his mom a musician, so every room was rich with faux finishes and the floors were painted concrete. Touring the residence was worth the trip itself, like a French farmhouse nestled up against a small dune. They are a nice family with four sons; what an incredible backdrop they have for their lives. They had a black lab/Mastiff mix dog; she looked like a lab but three times bigger with a massive square jaw. Mastiffs get as big as ponies so she was quite a presence. She has alerted the family to rattlesnakes with her bark, we were told. The lot of us just fell in love with her and after an initial suspiciousness, Abby soaked up all the patting and scratching we could dole out.

The area around the house is vegetated with shin oak (which is, amusingly, shin high) and everything was just emerging in the approaching spring. The shin oak itself has the prettiest pink buds. Preying mantis egg cases almost 1 1/2" long were attached to the branches everywhere. Tiny rows of pale eggs ringing small branches like miniature corn on the cob only an inch long were later identified by Burr as Horace’s dusky-wing butterfly eggs, after some taken back to the Sibley Center hatched. The Star of the Earth puffball mushrooms were so pretty I could not even bring myself to remove a specimen lay scattered about in the leaf liter; I just wanted to leave them there gracing the rusty colored soil. (One taken home folded up, but reopened after it was moistened again.)

Galls (from salmon-colored to those looking like brown bubbles), wasps, lichens in orange, blue and green, bird nests in the mesquite, ball mushrooms as large as tennis balls nesting partially submerged in the sand, itself dotted with tiny craters from dropping moisture... I've never before seen most of what we examined. There were also bacterial galls on the shrubs, which look like messy knobby places where branches intersect, like arthritis shaded grey. Burr dug under a dock plant (Canaigre) and showed us the tubers once harvested by the truckload for its tannin. We saw a clumsy batch of woody debris piled up under a mesquite by a pack rat. Some of the shin oak had “oyster scale,” which look like tiny kidney beans about 1/4" long attached to the stems. These scale insects can be destructive enough to weaken or kill a branch of the plant, Burr explained.

We turned over the dried mounds of cow patties to see what we could discover. One revealed the shed skin of scorpions and another the green larvae of some winged insect (still waiting for ID). The patties as well as the ground underneath them are full of burrow holes, and are a nutrient-rich environment for many organisms. I asked Burr if it were true that cow patties were once burned as fuel, and he said wagonloads taking out supplies across the prairie would return loaded up with them, which were then stacked in warehouses for people to come get for fuel. We were laughing about names: The Cow Pattery? The Dungery?

Burr teased up a wasp for us to photograph, assuring us she was too cold to fly or sting. He was right. He also suggested running a slender twig down into a wolf spider turret, saying sometimes the spider can be drawn back out with it. “Oooo! What if we poked her eye out?” someone murmured, till one of the guys quipped that she'd just use her other seven. The bright golden berries of the poisonous nightshade were stuck like leftover Christmas ornaments to dried branches. These have been dropped into milk to make it split into curds and whey, then the whey was put into a bag, hung for a few days, turning into asadero cheese!

Only the earliest of wildflowers were out -- Puccoon, Scrambled Eggs (I've always loved the name!), and a few others. The sun eventually peeked out for a bit. Still, the temps were only in the 40s and 50s for most of the trip. It was a chilly day but ever so worth every second of seeing the uniqueness of another region of the planet. Lots of ooohing and aaahing, laughter, and gentle bonding with this new batch of naturalist trainees. We rode back almost in silence, cocooned in the fresh knowledge and breathtaking presence of Nature herself. Who but Naturalists could see so much beauty in a stumpy bunch of sand hills covered with scruffy oak?