Among the Reeds, Muck, and Mire

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Ghost of the Saltmarsh – the Clapper Rail

It stank – the mud into which I sank to my knees emitted a lovely odor akin to a fridge full of rotten eggs.  The sun had barely risen early that June morning, and the heat and humidity in that marsh near Sabine Pass in Jefferson County, Texas were already oppressive.  The deerflies too, were wide awake and busily seeking out any patch of skin left exposed to the elements.  Sure, it sounds miserable, but these irritants and inconveniences are just one small part of the story.

I stopped moving a moment to catch my breath.  The marsh is as flat as a pancake, but traversing it is grueling work.  Stepping up and over mud and densely tangled grasses and sedges takes its toll.  The break afforded me the opportunity to really take in my surroundings.  Seaside dragonlets, no longer startled by my movements, landed all around me, coming to rest atop swaying blades of grass swaying in the breeze.  My ears honed in to the distance buzzy songs of Seaside Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Boat-tailed Grackles.  And then I was haunted by the ghost of the marsh.  The loud, unsettling cacophony of “keks” and “grunts” from a pair of Clapper Rails rang out within just a few feet of me.  But try as I might, I was unable to catch even a fleeting glimpse of these highly secretive marsh dwellers.


 

I understand that the saltmarsh isn’t for everyone.  It is a harsh, unforgiving, seemingly inhospitable landscape.  But for those who brave her less appealing attributes will find a wonderful world filled with beauty, biodiversity, and a host of plant and animal species that are found nowhere else on earth.  In Texas, these special places are restricted to a narrow band of tidally influenced wetlands along the coast.  They are declining and under threat from sea level rise, coastal development, and a suite of other pressures.  This is their story.

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Low Marsh along the Upper Texas Coast at Sunset

I have long had an affinity for the saltmarsh.  It is a love affair that began some 15 years ago, when my mom developed a passion for birdwatching and we began visiting sites like Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the upper Texas coast.  After finishing my undergrad I was lucky enough to land a seasonal job conducting bird surveys at Anahuac.  My transects included several areas of expansive saltmarsh deep in the heart of the refuge, in an area rarely accessed by visitors.  One particularly fond memory that sticks out from my time on the refuge is a long trek deep into a Spartina patens high marsh one evening just before dusk.  The refuge biologist invited me along on the annual Whimbrel count, when we tallied thousands of the curve-billed shorebirds as they flew over the marsh from foraging sites in tidal pools and mudflats to some unknown roosting site.  Trudging through the marsh we accidentally flushed a Mottled Duck from her nest, and discussed saltmarsh snakes, diamondback terrapins, and other species that find refuge here among the fetid mud and salty air.

After I finished my Master’s, I had another opportunity to spend a few months in the marsh.  This time in the diverse marshes that filtered the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia.  While there I helped conduct extensive surveys for secretive marsh birds like Seaside Sparrows, Saltmarsh Sparrows, Clapper Rails, and the mythical Black Rail.  The work involved setting out before 4 A.M. and trudging miles through marsh that was like Swiss cheese, with hidden holes that swallow one whole.  It was absolutely miserable, and I look back on my time there with great fondness.

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A Seaside Sparrow in an exposed flat that will flood with the incoming tide.

The coastal marshes of the Texas and the Chesapeake Bay are at the same time similar and different.  They share many of the characteristic plant species like Spartina alterniflora, Spartina patens, Distichlis spicata, Juncus roemerianus, and Iva frutescens.  Even many of the bird species were the same.  Seaside Sparrows (Ammospiza maritima) and Clapper Rails (Rallus crepitans) are present in both, though the subspecies (if such a thing exists) are different.  Other species like the Saltmarsh Sparrow are absent in Texas, and the Diamondback Terrapin, while present in both areas, is much more numerous and readily observed along the Chesapeake Bay on the Delmarva Peninsula.  There were days when I would see hundreds basking and swimming through various bays an inlets, their heads barely peaking above the water’s surface.  In Texas, terrapins remain generally uncommon and highly localized.


 

Back in the marsh in Jefferson County, I heard a Seaside Sparrow singing close.  These remarkable birds are found only in these tidally influenced marshes directly adjacent to the coast.  They range from the southern tip of Texas to Cape Cod and southern New England.  Some eight subspecies are recognized, with one, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow (Ammospiza maritima nigrescens) having become extinct and a number of others that are of conservation concern.  The birds of the upper Texas coast belong to the subspecies (A. m. fisheri), which differs from other subspecies by possessing a combination of buffy coloration on the breast and dark streaking on the back.

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A Seaside Sparrow among the saltgrass on a flat exposed at low tide.

Seaside Sparrows are year round residents in this marsh.  They’re easiest to see in the spring and early summer, when they occasionally poke their heads above the grass in to sing a song of mate acquisition and territory defense.  Mated pairs build their nest in tidal marsh with dense grasses just a few inches above the high tide line, a strategy that helps protect them from predators.  The parents feed the developing chicks a variety of insects and other inveterate prey.

I watched one morning as a pair foraged in a barren sand flat exposed during low tide.  They gleaned flies, grasshoppers, and caterpillars from halophytic (salt-loving) saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) and saltwort (Salicornia bigelovii).  I soon realized that this was a bird as comfortable on the ground as in the air, as I watched them mouse about the sand in a manner more mammalian than avian.  Once they had collected a mouthful of juicy insects, they would fly back into the marsh to feed their growing progeny.  I contemplated trying to find the nest, but feared that by plodding through the dense grass I might destroy it.  I returned to the same spot the following morning, hoping I might spot my friends again, but found the area completely flooded by the incoming tide.

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A Seaside Sparrow peers through the tangle of reeds and rushes that it calls home.

When the June sun gets high in the sky, the Seaside Sparrows and other marsh denizens tend to lay low.  I could hardly blame them, and Caro and I took a page from their book and went to lounge on the beach in Sea Rim State Park.  We had both been feeling the need to get away, and planned a way to do so while remaining socially distant and minimizing our risk of exposure to the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic of 2019-2020.  At Sea Rim we had an entire stretch of beach entirely to ourselves.  As we relaxed in the rolling surf we watched as Least Terns, Royal Terns, and Brown Pelicans fished just offshore.

As the sun drops lower to the horizon, the marsh begins to come to life again.  We returned to the grass jungle, and I found a stretch of marsh that seemed to have a different Seaside Sparrow singing every 100 feet or so.  It was the densest population I had ever observed.  It made me smile, knowing that this fascinating songbird has found a refuge here

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A Seaside Sparrow clings to sedge leaves deep in the marsh

The sparrows literally emerged from the grass as I sat still, watching seaside dragonlets come in to rest at the apices of the marsh grasses.  Seaside dragonlets are tiny dragonflies that are endemic to the saltmarshes of the eastern U.S.  They are one of only a handful of dragonfly species whose aquatic nymphs can survive in saltwater.  I wondered of a sparrow may be quick enough to capture one of these dragonlets, but they seemed preoccupied with much easier prey, like the tiny snails hunkered low in the grass.

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A Seaside Sparrow in a classic pose among the marsh vegetation

As most marsh vegetation is herbaceous and not particularly sturdy, the Seaside Sparrow needs to be creative in how they move about.  I witnessed incredible acrobatic feats as the sparrows hopped among the grass, from blade to blade, and performed the splits numerous times as they sought to stabilize themselves in the breeze.  To me, it seemed such a hard place to live.  But to the Seaside Sparrow it was home, and life was good.

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A Seaside Sparrow demonstrates the acrobat skills necessary to live among the dense and varied vegetation of the marsh

The saltmarsh is generally divided into two sections – low marsh and high marsh.  The low marsh is that area that is flooded daily by the tides.  It is generally only completely exposed during the lowest of tides, and occurs directly adjacent to bays, inlets, and the saline and brackish creeks feed them.  Low marsh is dominated by taller halophytic vegetation, most notably smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora).  As the elevation gradually rises moving inland, the community transitions to high marsh.  High marsh is dominated by species like seameadow cordgrass (Spartina patens) and is inundated infrequently, usually only by the highest of tides.

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The tide rolls in, flooding distant cordgrass low marsh

Some species show a marked preference for one type of marsh over the other.  Clapper Rails (Rallus crepitans), however, may be encountered in both communities, retreating from the incoming tide, and chasing the receding tide in search of crabs and other prey items.  People are often surprised when I tell them that the Clapper Rail is one of my all time favorite birds.  To most they seem drab, awkward, and uninteresting.  Admittedly, part of my fascination for this species is nostalgic, having spent time studying them in the marsh.  But they are also fascinating, enigmatic creatures.  They are at the same time secretive, but not shy, often willing to approach very closely under the cover of marsh grass.  I have also watched them hunt for crabs within mere feet of where I stood watching.

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A Clapper Rail forages in a shallow tidal pool

The marsh explorer will often here, but seldom see the Clapper Rail.  They are highly vocal, communicating internally within family groups, and externally to potential rivals through a series of “keks”, “grunts”, and even “hoots”.  Nicknamed the “ghost of the marsh”, these rails seem to haunt the deep grass with their eerie cacophony, and will often call in the blackness of night.  Spend enough time in the saltmarsh, however, and you will eventually catch a glimpse of one of these cryptic denizens as they dart across a tidal pool or scurry into a mudflat in hot pursuit of a fiddler crab.

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A Clapper Rail provides a rare glimpse in the open, in a small clearing in its otherwise dense saltmarsh home.

There is an interesting relationship between Clapper Rails and King Rails, a very similar closely related species.  The differences between the two are subtle, with King Rails generally having a richer chestnut color on the back and breast and more prominent barring on the flanks, and Clapper Rails having a gray wash to the cheeks.  Individuals seen in the saltmarsh tend to be pure Clapper Rails, while individuals just a few miles inland in the freshwater Marsh tend to be pure King Rails.  There is a broad contact zone, however, in areas where an influx of freshwater dilutes the highly saline sea water forming the brackish marsh.  The rails here, often referred to as “Cling Rails”, are purported to be hybrids, and tend to exhibit characteristics intermediate between the species.

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A Clapper Rail peers from the marsh

Like Seaside Sparrows, Clapper Rails build their nests just above the high tide line.  They are seasonally monogamous, and males and females work together to construct the nest, incubate the eggs, and raise the young.  The young are precocial, meaning they are capable of leaving the nest very quickly after hatching.  Family groups will stay together for some time as the chicks grow and learn to fend for themselves.  I most often see three or four chicks to a group, but in good years with abundant resources they may be capable of raising more.  In leaner years, however, the parents may kill or alienate a part of their brood in order to better provide for the remainder.  I will never forget witnessing this one year, when birding with my parents and a friend we saw a rail pair viciously pecking one of their chicks.  In spite of this, the poor chick kept trying to follow them until finally it was too injured or disheartened to do so, and it was left on its own to die.  This seems so cruel and harsh to us, but in reality it is behavioral adaptation that has evolved in order to ensure that the entire clutch doesn’t die from starvation in a scenario where the parent would be unable to care for them all.

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A Clapper Rail stalks the saltmarsh

As it was for the Seaside Sparrow, the marsh in Jefferson County was literally packed with Clapper Rails, in a density higher than I can recall encountering anywhere prior.  Many don’t realize that Clapper Rails, and other rail species, are actually game birds, and they are legal to hunt.  It was apparently once a popular pursuit in parts of the East Coast, however today interest seems to have waned.  I imagine it is an endeavor seldom pursued due to the difficulty in seeing a rail, let alone getting it to flush to a point that a shot could be made.  Their preference is to run from danger, under deep cover of grass, rather than fly.

Watching a family of Clapper Rails at close range, I came to a realization.  From a human’s vantage point, the marsh seems some exposed environment.  There is little relief from the blazing sun.  However when we see it from the point of view of the animals that live there, it is actually a mysterious world full of shadows that may as well be a forest to them.  Perhaps this is what prompted naturalist William S. Burt to title his book on rails “Shadowbirds”.

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A Clapper Rail calls from the shadows cast by cordgrass.  This haunting sound can often be heard echoing from points unseen, as if it is haunting the marsh

There is much more to the saltmarsh than our feathered friends.  I hoped to capture an image of a diamondback terrapin or saltmarsh snake, however it was not meant to be during my time around Sabine Pass.  The wildflowers, however, proved to be much more obliging subjects.  Mosquito infested saline marshes may not be the first place one would go looking for showy blooms, however there are a number of species endemic to these communities, with others showing a definite preference.

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Borrichia, Distichlis, and Carex in a coastal saltmarsh

Perhaps the most prominent is the sea oxeye daisy (Borrichia frutescens).  This member of the sunflower family (Asteracea) flowers throughout most of the spring and summer.  It ranges along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, and is capable of surviving regular inundation by saltwater.  Like many salt-adapted species it has thick, succulent like leaves.

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Sea Oxeye Daisy

Saltmarsh false foxglove (Agalinis maritima) was also in bloom.  Another salt-loving plants, their distribution is limited to coastal marshes from northeastern Canada into Mexico.  The plants seem dainty, however they are capable of withstanding the nearly constant sea breeze.  The blooms open in the morning and typically close by the early afternoon.

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

Some species, like the seaside gentian (Eustoma exaltatum) are not confined to saltmarsh habitats, but are fully capable of surviving the harsh conditions of the marsh, including highly saline soil, regular influx of tidal waters and extreme temperatures.  The taxonomy of Eustoma is confusing and controversial.  Some consider the species that occurs along the coast to be the same as those occurring further inland in blacklands and other prairie remnants.  Those prairie plants display a markedly different morphology and habitat preference.  The coastal specimens are quite similar, however, to plants in areas with similarly harsh edaphic conditions in parts of West Texas.

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Seaside Gentian

The biologist in me likes to keep up with constantly changing taxonomy of plant and animal species, in part so I can remain relevant in my field.  To the naturalist in me, however, prefers not to get bogged down in the semantics of these taxonomical revisions, and instead focus on the beauty, function, and relevance of the organism in its landscape.

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Seaside Gentian

I have a certain affinity to species endemic to a given community.  There are, however, many other species that are capable of surviving in a variety of habitats.  This highlights the concept of specialists, like the Seaside Sparrow and Clapper Rail, to generalists, like the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus fortificatus).  These handsome flycatchers inhabit a variety of open habitats including marshes, prairie remnants, savannas, fallow fields, forest edges, and areas that were recently cleared or otherwise disturbed.  Generally they choose areas that have some scattered small trees or shrubs nearby, which they select for nest placement.

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Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers leave an impression on those who are fortunate enough to observe them.  Those impressive tail feathers may serve an important function in mate acquisition.  Research on birds with similarly long tails indicates that females are attracted to the males with the longest, gaudiest tails.  As one can imagine, that lengthy caudal plumage can be an encumbrance, and can make a bird more susceptible to predation.  Therefore, males who are able to survive despite this impediment are communicating to females that they are superior quality, and they possess the best genetic material to pass on to the next generation.

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Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Different species exhibit a gradient of habitat tolerance.  Some, like the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) are specialists in a broader sense, showing a preference for wetlands with ample emergent vegetation, but generalists in the sense that they are capable of inhabiting a variety of different wetland types dominated by a variety of different plant species, and are dispersed across a wide range of landscapes.  Perhaps a good term for species that exhibit this type of habitat preference would be “specialist generalist”.

The song of the Red-winged Blackbird is perhaps one of the most familiar sounds of the marsh.  It is at the same time obnoxious and beautiful.  While singing, the males puff out their chests, bow up their wings, and flash those brilliant red and yellow epaulets.

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A male Red-winged Blackbird attempts to impress the fairer sex.

The Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis), too, is a creature of the marsh.  Though they range as far north as the Great Lakes, and are most commonly associated with fresh water marshes, along the coast they can be found in brackish marshes and even low saltmarsh.  The males are identifiable by their forest green crowns and backs.  Seen at close range, they seem so colorful, but when perched among the grasses of the marsh, they become essentially invisible.  

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Least Bittern

This narrative has barely scratched the surface of the biodiversity of the saltmarsh.  It is my hope that my words and images help the reader connect with these special places.  High quality saltmarshes are being lost at an alarming rate.  They are under serious threat from pressures like coastal development and sea level rise.  We must act soon if we are to save these special places, and the diverse plants and animals that call them home.

For my parting shot, I chose this image below of a beautiful Seaside Sparrow among the saltgrass.  Though their overall color scheme is one of browns and greys, there are subtle hints of colors, from the bright yellow of the lore and marginal coverts to the orange mustache.  These good looks combined with their fascinating life history make them one of our great state’s most unique, interesting songbirds.

To the marsh, to the rails and the sparrows, and to the fiddler crabs and the terrapins, I say “farewell, for now.”  But I know it won’t be long before the saltmarsh calls to me again, beckoning me to lose myself among the reeds, muck, and mire.

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Seaside Sparrow

 

 

What Lies Beneath

Target Species: Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

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I’m a little embarrassed that it has taken me all the way into May to check off the first species of 2020 from my list of biodiversity goals, but it was a good one – an ancient leviathan dwelling in the depths of a murky stream meandering through a mature hardwood forest – the old loggerhead – the alligator snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

This story begins in January, with a meeting at my Alma Mater – Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA) in Nacogdoches, Texas.  I met with Dr. Chris Schalk, a herpetologist and ecologist with the Arthur Temple School of Forestry, the department where I obtained my undergrad.  We discussed ways that we may collaborate on topics like road ecology and reducing impacts to wildlife from transportation projects.  I immediately liked Chris, and found him a like-minded individual in many respects.

In the following months we touched base from time to time, and in one of our conversations he mentioned the research being carried out by one of his graduate students, David Rosenbaum.  Chris recounted the start of their field season, during which they captured numerous large alligator snapping turtles.  And much to my delight, he invited me to join them on a future outing.

It may not be surprising to the followers of my blog, but this sort of thing is right up my alley.  One of my most memorable jobs was when I worked a summer as a field tech on an American alligator research project.  Capturing these ancient reptiles was equal parts thrilling, interesting, and rewarding.  The idea to relive that in some small part was an opportunity too good to pass up.

So in late May I met up with David, and field techs Laura and John Michael.  Also along for the day was my good friend and frequent adventure companion, James Childress.  After some brief (socially distant) introductions, we were on our way to the first study site, a tributary to the Angelina River deep in a remote hardwood bottom.

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A creek containing several study sites for David’s research.

Blooming American elderberry lined the banks here, and  the boughs of ancient River Birches and American elms reached out over the water.  From high in the canopy the buzzy trill of a Northern Parula rang out.  A suite of other songbirds also made their presence known, including a Prothonotary Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Summer Tanager, and Acadian Flycatcher.  In the distance we could hear the cackle of a Pileated Woodpecker and the croak of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  It was immediately clear that this site was rich in biodiversity on land and air.  We would soon realized it was equally diverse beneath the water’s surface.

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A Northern Parula sings from a branch overhanging the creek.

For the first year of their study, David and Chris are replicating a survey performed twenty years ago.  When I added the alligator snapping turtle to my list of biodiversity targets, I knew that I would have to think outside the box if I had any hope of photographing one.  This is not a species that one can expect to find by conventional means.  They spend virtually their entire lives at the bottom of streams, rivers, lakes, and deep swamps.  They can stay submerged for nearly an hour, and the only time they can be expected to seen on land are when the females leave the water to lay their eggs, and the rare occasion when an individual disperses to a new water body.  In short, I knew if I wanted to see one, it would have to be trapped.

Fortunately, that was exactly what David, Laura, and John Michael were doing.  They use special partially submerged traps that allow for the turtles to be captured alive and unharmed, and check the traps daily once they’ve been deployed.  I was joining them for the third day of trapping effort at this particular site, which had several traps spaced out along this meandering forest stream.  The first day trapping here they caught six individuals, however the previous day they had caught none, so no one really knew what to expect.

The first trap we checked was empty, save a decent diversity of riverine fishes.  The second did have a turtle.  It was an interesting species, but not the one we were looking for.  Razorback musk turtles occupy similar habitats to alligator snapping turtles, and have been the subject of previous studies by SFA.  I didn’t photograph our first turtle of the day, but was certainly happy to see it.

Soon after the three researchers sank into the chest deep water at the third site, I heard David call out, “We’ve got something big in this one!”  It was a special thing, seeing him reach into the depths and pull out this massive, prehistoric-looking beast.  In that moment I thought of the fascinating ecology of these streams.  Beneath the water exists a diverse world that is unknown and unseen by most.

They pulled the massive turtle to the shore so that they may collect a variety of data, including morphological measurements, images, and blood and tissue samples.  It was determined to be an old female weighing in at nearly forty pounds.  We knew she was old, based on her smooth carapace.  When young, they have three raised ridges with scutes that form triangular peaks.  After years and years of wandering under woody debris lodged in the stream bottom, the shell gradually wears down until, in very old individuals it becomes essentially smooth.

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We knew she was old, but we had no idea how old.  Large turtles can live a very long time.  When collecting those previously mentioned data, David and his team noted that the turtle had a distinctive notch in her shell.  It turned out that she had been captured during the original survey, 20 years ago.  We aren’t sure how large she was at that time, but that information should be available, and I’m very interested to find out!

David’s study will be looking at a variety of aspects related to the ecology of alligator snapping turtles in eastern Texas.  One aspect of his research is very similar to my own master’s thesis – using presence/absence data to determine important variables that can predict for the species’ occurrence.  I really enjoyed chatting with David about his project, and it brought me back to a time when this sort of thing played a much larger role in my life.

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The research being carried out by David and Chris is important.  Alligator snapping turtles populations have declined dramatically, and they are now uncommon or rare throughout much of their range.  Factors influencing this decline include a loss of high quality habitat and over-harvest for its meat, which has long been considered a delicacy.  As a result, they are now protected in many states where they occur, including Texas.  This protected status has not stopped illegal poaching, however, and many animals are still taken this way, or caught on trotlines set callously in their habitat.  Once hooked on these lines, the turtles suffer a slow, agonizing death.

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When initially captured or threatened, the loggerhead generally opens its mouth wide, and will snap at anything that approaches too close to its head.  Believe me when I say, this is a very effective intimidation tactic.  Those jaws slammed shut with bone-crushing force.  Those powerful jaws play a very important role in capturing prey in their murky aquatic habitats.  Alligator snapping turtles have lingual lures – specially adapted tongues shaped like worms that the turtles wriggle about while waiting motionless with their jaws wide open.  When some unsuspecting fish moves into to capture this false worm, the snapper’s mouth slams shut with blinding speed and crushing force.

As impressive as this gaping threat display was, I was really happy to capture images of the gator turtle with her mouth closed, in a more natural looking pose.  We spent a few minutes photographing and admiring this incredible animal.  We then set her near the stream’s edge, and walked as she slowly made her way back into the water and disappeared into the deep.

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Spending time with this modern-day dinosaur was an incredible experience, and I was very grateful for the opportunity to get to know David, Laura, and John Michael and learn more about the important work they’re doing.  It made me nostalgic for my days as a field biologist, but fortunately my current position does provide opportunities to be involved in research, specifically aimed at conservation of wildlife and plant communities related to transportation activities.  I hope to join David and crew again in the field at some point, and very much look forward to what they learn about the ecology and natural history of this keystone species.

Beautiful Birds in Disturbed Places

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Indigo Bunting

Generally speaking, when I set out to explore nature I’m seeking the most pristine places I can find.  These places are ancient – old growth forests with towering trees or virgin prairie on a bed of soil that has never been plowed.  I like to see things the way they may have looked prior to European settlement, and transport myself to a distant, wilder time.

But if I chose to ignore those more disturbed habitats, I would be robbing myself of a wealth of beauty and diversity.  In fact, there are many species that have evolved to take advantage of early successional communities created in the wake of some disturbance.  Historically, these habitats may have formed by a variety of means.  For example, when a massive tree falls in an old growth forest.  Imagine ten tons of timber crashing to the earth.  A tree like this could take out a swath of forest totaling a third of an acre or more, especially if it brings adjacent trees down with it.  This new gap in the canopy would undergo the process of succession, responding much the way a fallow field does when it slowly reverts back to woodland.

The patch of disturbed land could increase significantly in the face of some natural disaster.  A tornado could take out a swath of forest hundreds of feet wide and miles long.  A severe hurricane could level acres of forest near the coast, and a wildfire could remove forest cover on the scale of thousands of acres.

Events like this are particularly important in the eastern United States, where much of the landscape was historically forested.  There existed, however, a multitude of non-forested communities interspersed among the old growth timber.  These included prairie inclusions, barrens, and similar habitats that were kept open by a variety of factors including soil conditions, grazing by American bison, and regular wildfire.  If one of these communities went too long without the introduction of some natural disturbance, it would begin to revert back to forest through the process of succession.

Today, however, the U.S. is far removed from the natural eden it was just a few hundred years ago.  That is not to say, however, that suitable habitat for these disturbance dependent species no longer exists.  Take the Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor), for example.  The “Prairie” in its name is misleading, as this is not a species of prairie or grassland habitats, but rather one of those early successional habitats described above.  They breed throughout much of the eastern U.S., from Maine to east Texas.  Here I most frequently observe them in regenerating pine stands 5 to 10 years after harvest.

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A male Prairie Warbler sings in defense of his territory.

These sites undergo succession much in the way a forest would following some natural clearing event.  First a variety of grasses and forbs will invade.  Soon after the pines will sprout.  Before long, however, the trees will grow to tall, the canopy will close, and the habitat will no longer be suitable for the Prairie Warbler.

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Prairie Warbler

The ephemeral nature of these ever changing habitats means that species like the Prairie Warbler do not have a reliable territory to return to each year, and must seek out new breeding sites once their old territories are no longer suitable.  I speculate that, given a certain element of unpredictability with their preferred habitat, Prairie Warblers, and other disturbance-dependent bird species likely experience local cycles of “boom and bust”, potentially increasing in numbers following large disturbance events, and decreasing as the disturbed areas reach later successional stages.

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A Prairie Warbler forages for invertebrates on a pine sapling.

Another species found in these disturbed habitats is the Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens).  The chat was once considered our largest warbler species, but recent research indicates that is more closely related to blackbirds, and it has been placed in its own family (Icteriidae).  Chats are well known for their loud, varied songs which consist of a variety of raucous warbles, whistles, rattles, and more.  The males perform elaborate courtship displays on the wing, slowly descending in choreographed fashion.

Yellow-breasted Chats can be found throughout much of the contiguous U.S and portions of Mexico and southern Canada.  They are less specific in their habitat preference than prairie warblers, and can be found in a variety of disturbed habitats.  They are easy to hear, but difficult to see, often skulking low in dense vegetation.

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A rare glimpse of a Yellow-breasted Chat in the open.

Unlike the chat, the Painted Buntings (Passerina ciris) maintain a visible presence in their territory, frequently singing from the highest perches available.  These sparrow-sized songbirds are considered by many to be among the most beautiful birds in the country, and they certainly leave a lasting impression on those fortunate enough to encounter them.  I’ll always remember the first one I saw birding with my mom.

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Male Painted Bunting

The Painted Bunting breeds in the south-central states, along the Atlantic coast in the southeast, and portions of northern Mexico.  They can be found in a variety of disturbed habitats, as long as there is some shrub or small tree component.

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A male Painted Bunting sings in defense of its habitat.

Though it lacks the varied color scheme of its cousin the Painted Bunting, the Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) is no less striking.  With its metallic cyan plumage, this is one of my favorite birds to observe in the spring and summer here in the Pineywoods.

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Indigo Bunting Male

Indigo Buntings breed throughout much of the eastern U.S. with a few isolated populations in the southeast.  Though I most often associate this species with disturbed areas, I also frequently observe them in high quality habitats such as mature longleaf pine savannas.  This is not entirely surprising, however, as these once vast longleaf pine forests depend on regular disturbance to maintain an open understory and rich herbaceous layer.

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A male Indigo Bunting sings in the understory of a mature pine savanna.

Another disturbance loving blue beauty is the Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea).  They are quite similar to the Indigos, but can be differentiated by their heavier bill and chestnut wing bars.  To me, the blue of the grosbeak is more cobalt, and the bunting more cyan.

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Male Blue Grosbeak

One might encounter Blue Grosbeaks across the southern and central United States and northern Mexico.  They can be found in a variety of shrubby habitats.  In the eastern U.S. this usually means areas that have undergone some recent or continuing disturbance, however further west this can include mature desert scrub and woodlands.

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When hit with direct sunlight, the Blue Grosbeak’s plumage takes on a metallic sheen.

The image below is of a regenerating pine plantation where I observed Prairie Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chats, Painted Buntings, Indigo Buntings, and Blue Grosbeaks.  Also present in the area were White-eyed Vireos, Northern Cardinals, and Northern Mockingbirds.  In East Texas, Northern Bobwhites may also utilize habitats like this, though they have all but disappeared from the Pineywoods.

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Regenerating Pine Plantation

When a disturbed habitat occurs in close proximity to water, additional bird species may be encountered.  The Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus), for example, inhabits disturbed areas such as marshes, shrublands, forest edge, and riparian areas, and are generally closely associated with water.  Kingbirds are so-named for the voracity with which they defend their territories against intruders of all shapes and sizes.

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Eastern Kingbird

Perhaps our most familiar denizen of wet, disturbed habitats is the Common Yellowthroat – the little masked crusader that announces its presence to the world with its trademark wichity-wichity-wichity song.  Though they can be found away from water, yellowthroats are most commonly associated with weedy or scrubby habitats on the margins of marshes, ponds, and streams.

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A male Common Yellowthroat announcing his presence to would-be competitors. 

The Common Yellowthroat is a member of the Warbler family (Parulidae).  They are widespread in the U.S., Canada, and portions of Mexico.  We are lucky enough to have a few birds present year round in the southern half of the Pineywoods and on the Upper Texas Coast.

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Male Common Yellowthroat

In modern times, areas of significant disturbance have increased dramatically as old growth forest has been cleared to make way for pasture, agriculture, development, and managed timber.  It is clear that having some early and mid successional areas on the landscape is beneficial to biodiversity on a macro scale, however it becomes a concern when this occurs over a large scale, which is too often the case.  They key, like in so many things in life, is moderation.  Fortunately, modern forestry practices have improved dramatically, and programs like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative promote managing the landscape as a patchwork of successional stages.

Despite an increased abundance of disturbed areas across the U.S., many of these bird species remain uncommon and some are declining.  The problem is, disturbance in and of itself is not enough.  The nature, and method of the disturbance is important.  Areas that undergo intensive herbicide or pesticide use, for example, are not suitable breeding sites for birds.  Additionally, areas that are too heavily managed, where woody vegetation is not allowed to reach appropriate heights are similarly unproductive for all but the most generalist of species.

As lovers of biodiversity, it is important that we support and promote best management practices in land disturbing activities, so that we can simultaneously provide a sustainable resource and enhance local biodiversity.

 

 

The Prairies Forever Changed

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Prairie Hyacinth and Prairie Paintbrush bloom in a Fort Worth Prairie remnant 

Imagine, for a moment, that you are standing with your feet firmly planted in the dark soil atop a gentle knoll, surveying an undulating sea of grass that stretches as far as the eye can see.  You are somewhere north of Fort Worth, in a time before the land was forever scarred by asphalt, steel, and an insatiable need to bend the land to meet the will of man.  At a high point, you may be standing only a few feet higher than your surroundings, yet your view is unobstructed.  A lone, gnarled oak or mesquite may stand here or there in defiance of the forces that break any woody invader that tries to set roots in the prairie, and far in the distance a dark line of trees lines a gully that drains the plain.

The sky is darkening and rising columns of clouds in the distance give you pause.  Yet you wonder, for a moment if the faint roar that you hear is the advancing thunder, or the furious poundings of thousands of hooves as a herd of bison takes flight.  The wind hits, borne by the impending storm, and sends the countless wildflowers into motion, creating a kaleidoscopic blur of color.  If you could transport yourself to this place and time, you would be standing in the once vast tallgrass prairie of north-central Texas that served as a southern extension of the Great Plains that fueled and shaped our developing nation.

The truth is, we will never be able to know what these prairies were like prior to European settlement.  We can piece it together to some degree based on the journals of early explorers and settlers, however there were no doubt aspects of the landscape, flora, and fauna that were not captured in what they scribed.  When Anglo cultures first arrived, the landscape had been shaped by centuries of inhabitancy by Caddo, Wichita, Kichai, Osage, and other indigenous tribes.  Though their impact on the land was more harmonious than the people that succeeded them, they helped maintain the open nature of the prairie by setting fire to control vegetation and direct game movements, supplementing the naturally occurring lightning-ignited conflagrations that were common in the region.  Many of the tribes of the region also practiced small-scale agriculture, which would have no doubt altered the nature of the plains.

It has always been a fantasy of mine to experience Texas in these pre-settlement times.  If I could, I would start in Galveston, and make my way north, through the extensive coastal prairies, where the only variation in elevation were minuscule wind-sculpted mima mounds, and a matter of inches resulted in an entirely different cast of plants, and meant the difference between dry and wet feet.  Continuing north, I expect I would watch the timber hugging the larger streams become broader and broader, piercing the prairie until I was immersed in a wet savanna surrounded by towering longleaf pines.  As I hit the Kisatchie Wold, the terrain would change to become rolling, with steep ravines and exposed geologic outcrops.  Here the forests would become diverse, and stratified based on slope position.  I may still encounter a prairie here or there, particularly in the form of a sandstone barren over the Catahoula Formation, or a Blackland inclusion on the Fleming Formation.

As I reach the northeastern corner of the state, the trees would begin to thin again as I transition into the Post Oak Savanna.  In Bowie, Red River, and Lamar Counties I might be lucky enough to break into a silveus dropseed prairie.  It would be interesting to know if certain species that are now exceedingly rare in the state, like Castilleja coccinea, Parthenium integrifolium, and Platanthera lacera were more common then.  Eventually the sandy soils of the post oak would give way to the fertile black clays of the legendary Blackland Prairies.  This narrow band of tallgrass prairie is perhaps the most altered of all of Texas’s ecoregions, forever changed by development, agriculture, and the removal of bison and fire.

It wouldn’t be long before the black clays began to lighten and the influence of chalky limestone became evident.  Scattered trees would begin to return as I entered the eastern Cross Timbers.  My journey through this mingling of prairie and stunted woods would be short-lived as well, and soon I would come to my little knoll in the Fort Worth Prairie, the northern expression of the expansive Grand Prairie, which also contains the Lampasas Cut Plain to the south.

The adventure of this blog begins in the Blackland Prairie of Collin County, above virgin soil in what my friend David Bezanson of the Nature Conservancy calls “the best Blackland Prairie left in Texas.”  These blacklands once stretched 300 miles across the Lonestar State, and occupied over 10 million acres of her surface. They sustained massive herds of bison, prairie chickens, Texas Horned Lizards and numerous other species that have vanished from the region in the face of westward expansion. The black clays that lent the region its name formed as underlying cretaceous marine sediments were broken down through weathering and erosion over millions of years. This resulted in the formation of some of the most fertile lands in the state – lands that were quickly exploited for their richness and within a matter of generations, all but a fortunate handful of sites were forever changed. By most estimates, less than one percent of the historic Blackland Prairie contains soil that has never been broken by the plow. Of those precious remaining places, few are protected and even fewer receive the regular disturbance that they need to thrive.  This was one of those precious few remaining places where one can imagine the way things once were.

On a gray day in mid April, the towering blooms of Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis) reached skyward and brightened the gloom.  Native cultures utilized this striking member of the pea family for a variety of purposes.  Some portions of the plant are toxic, however the roots were used to treat a variety of ailments, including nausea, toothaches, and inflammation.  The milky sap from the roots was also used to make a bluish dye.

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Blackland Prairie with Blue Wild Indigo

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Blue Wild Indigo

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Blue Wild Indigo

The Prairie Penstemons (Penstemon cobaea) were just coming into bloom.  Their showy flowers may reach over 2 inches long and can be various shades of white, pink, and purple.

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Prairie Penstemon

Engelmann’s Daisies (Engelmannia peristenia) were also beginning to unveil this season’s flowers to the pollinating world.  This member of the sunflower family is a classic open country plant of the southern plains, and is still common in prairie remnants and areas that are not too aggressively managed with plows and herbicide.

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Engelmann’s Daisy

Each azure bloom of the Prairie Celestial (Nemastylis geminiflora) lasts only a few hours, opening in late morning and closing by late afternoon.  This member of the iris family is a true prairie gem that must have left an impression on early naturalists visiting the region.

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Prairie Celestial

Just west of the Blackland Prairies lies the Eastern Cross Timbers, where a band of sandy soils supports Eastern Redcedar and a variety of oak species.  Accounts from early settlers to the region indicate that this was not a homogeneous region of timber, but rather a varied landscape with numerous prairie inclusions, savannas, and areas of nearly impenetrable woodland.  Pre-settlement, this woody intrusion into the prairie was short-lived, and west bound travelers would soon reach the Grand Prairie.

The plant and animal species that occurred in the Grand Prairie are similar to those of the blacklands, though certain species are more common in one or the other.  The geology, however, is markedly different.  Chalky limestone substrates are more prevalent in the Grand Prairie, and deep clays are infrequently encountered.

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The Texas Yellowstar (Lindheimera texana) is a species commonly encountered in both the Blackland and Grand Prairies.

Like the Blackland Prairies, the Grand Prairie has been altered almost beyond recognition.  In many areas the prairie here would have stretched from horizon to horizon, and beyond.  Massive herds of bison occurred here, as evidenced by this excerpt from Narrative of an Expedition Across the Great Southwestern Prairies: From Texas to Santa Fé, a work by George Wilkins Kendall with many references to the prairies of north-central Texas:

“I have stood upon a high roll of the prairie, with neither tree nor bush to obstruct the vision in any direction, and seen these animals grazing upon the plain and darkening it at every point. . . . In the distance, as far as the eye could reach, they were seen quietly feeding upon the short prairie grass. .”

The Grand Prairie also marked the western extent of the Pronghorn, a prairie icon now long gone from the region.  Other species, like the Texas Horned Lizard have much more recently disappeared, and some species that are still common, like the Woodhouse’s Toad, show signs that they may be soon to disappear.

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Tharp’s Spiderwort (Tradescantia tharpii) occurs in a small area of the south-central U.S., where it can be found in calcareous prairies.

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Drummond’s Skullcap in a prairie inclusion within the Eastern Cross Timbers.

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A Clearwing Moth (Hemaris sp.) rests on a Prairie Penstemon in a Grand Prairie remnant.

Being from the Pineywoods, I’m used to photographing species that are at the western edge of their range – species typical of the vast deciduous forests of the eastern U.S. In the Grand Prairie, however, a number of species reach the southeastern extent of their range.  One such species is the Purple Locoweed (Oxytropis lambertii) which occurs in the Great Plains and portions of the Rockies.  I first photographed this species over a decade ago in a Moraine Prairie in Rocky Mountain National Park, and I must say it was even more exciting finding them in perfect bloom in the Grand Prairie just three hours from home.

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Purple Locoweed

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Purple Locoweed

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Purple Locoweed in the Grand Prairie

The northern expression of the Grand Prairie is often referred to as the “Fort Worth” prairie and occurs in a relatively narrow band between the Red River to the north and the Brazos River to the south.  These once vast expanses of grass and wildflowers were said to be virtually devoid of woody vegetation, and likely bore a striking resemblance to the stark setting of the Great Plains familiar to most of us.  The “big three” prairie grasses – Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) were prevalent here.  And occurred alongside a diverse host of forbs and other grasses.

In mid-April, vast drifts of Eastern Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia) appeared, like thousands of meteors bearing down on earth spurning pink flames as they clash with the atmosphere.  The prairie-dwelling shooting stars of Texas are bright pink, in contrast to the white they display throughout the majority of their range.  Dodecatheon meadia occurs across much of the eastern U.S., occurring in a variety of habitats over calcium-rich substrates.  They reach the western extent of their range in the prairies of central Texas.

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Eastern Shooting Stars in the Fort Worth Prairie

It is hard to imagine a more photogenic wildflower than an Eastern Shooting Star in prime condition.  But like the meteors that dissipate before they can reach the earth’s surface, their appearance each spring is far too fleeting.  Though uncountable populations have undoubtedly been lost, there are still a few places where one can glimpse the splendor of a meadow with thousands of tiny pink meteors descending into the prairie.

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Eastern Sh

Among the shooting stars were the blooms of a complicated little plant, the Prairie Paintbrush (Castilleja citrina).  This hemiparasitic plant derives some portion of its energy and nutrients from the roots of other plants.  C. citrina is part of a complex of paintbrush species that includes the closely related Purple Paintbrush (Castilleja purpurea) and Lindheimer’s Paintbrush (Castilleja lindheimeri).  In fact, C. citrina and C. lindheimeri were previously considered varieties of C. purpurea, however subtle differences in flower color, plant morphology, and habitat preference has resulted in the designation of distinct species.

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Prairie Paintbrush

There are certain areas, however, where these species occur in close proximity.  In the Fort Worth Prairie, the area separating C. citrina and C. purpurea occurs right along the Wise/Montague County line.  North of this line, nearly all individuals observed are C. citrina, and to the south C. purpurea abounds.  There is a narrow band of hybridization, as evidenced by the variety of colors and shapes in the image below.

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Hybrid Paintbrushes

Just south of this line, however, the Purple Paintbrush paints the prairie.  Seeing the beauty above, it is easy to forget the tumultuous battle occurring below the soil as the roots of the paintbrush wage war on other prairie plants.

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Another charming prairie plant is the Fringed Bluestar (Amsonia ciliata), its blue blooms echoing the sky.  The bluestars’ tubular flowers are pollinated by a variety of moths and butterflies, and migrating hummingbirds.

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Fringed Bluestar

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Fringed Bluestar

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Fringed Bluestar

Though the Fort Worth Prairie is generally flat, topographic relief does occur in the form of cuestas – small hills that rise gradually to one side, and drop off abruptly to the other.  Cuestas are formed as more erodible geologic layers have weathered away, revealing the ends of more durable adjacent layers.  The vegetation varies from the top of the cuesta, down the slope to the bottom due to a variety of factors including soil conditions, moisture levels, and natural fire patterns.

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Looking up at a cuesta in the Fort Worth Prairie.  Historically shielded from fire to a degree, the tops of cuestas were one of the few places in the prairie where woody vegetation could be found.

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It was easy to imagine a massive heard of bison sprawling over distant cuestas

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The rocky prairie at the cuesta’s edge is the perfect place for the Texas Sage (Salvia texana).

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Texas Sage

The rich prairies near the Red River once served as breeding grounds for the Upland Sandpiper.  This once abundant prairie shorebird suffered precipitous declines at the hands of market hunters in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  As their numbers dwindled, so did their habitat, and the bird faced a very bleak future.  Fortunately, conservation laws were enacted early in the twentieth century that put an end to market hunting, and their numbers appear to have been slowly rebounding since.  Despite this, they have still yet to return to much of their former breeding range.  Upland Sandpipers were known to nest in the Fort Worth Prairie in the nineteenth century.  On our visits to the region, Caro and I have seen many during migration during April and May.  I hold out hope that over time, this special prairie bird will again colonize the region.

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Upland Sandpiper in the Fort Worth Prairie during Migration

The beauty of a vast prairie abloom with wildflowers is a thing of pure beauty.  Few species are as showy as the Prairie Hyacinth (Camassia angusta) blooming en masse.  This prairie dweller is a close relative of the more familiar Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), and is best differentiated by bloom time, and the persistent sterile bracts present on C. angusta.

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Scenes like this prairie with thousands of Prairie Hyacinths in bloom provide a glimpse into what once was.

Our journey through the prairies of North-Central Texas ends much as it began, pondering their past, present and future.  Caro and I had spent a few glorious spring days in these prairies, and before we returned to the forests of East Texas, we stopped at one final meadow, adorned with blooming shooting stars.  I made an effort to immerse myself in the moment; to take in all aspects of the prairie:  Her sights – gently swaying hues of pink, green, and brown; Her smells – damp earth and chemical compounds exuding from fragrant leaves; Her sounds – the subtle tune of grass in the breeze and a distant Meadowlark’s song.  Moments like this stir something within me.  They inspire me, and they make me feel a deep connection to the natural world.

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Storm clouds build over a prairie decorated with thousands of shooting stars in bloom.

As I sat there, watching the shooting stars sway in the wind as storm clouds coalesced and darkened the distant sky, I imagined the countless dramas that unfolded over the expanse of this prairie.  I imagined that surely a tornado or two passed over this spot.  It was hard to imagine such a placid place turned deadly by such an awesome force of nature capable of ripping the very grass from the ground.  And though I preferred to dwell on dramas natural in their nature, my mind couldn’t help but wander to those dramas wrought by man.  Like the wanton, systematic elimination of the American Bison – an icon that helped shaped our nation essentially extirpated in a single generation.  And they weren’t alone.  It was hard to miss the disappearance of wolves, bears, and mountan lions.  Less obvious were the prairie chickens that slowly vanished, or the Upland Sandpipers and other migratory birds that became less numerous each summer until one year they simply failed to return.  And we will never what botanical wonders were lost before they could ever be documented.  It was easy to despair and wish for what was once and will never again be.  But it was also easy to hope.  On our prairie tour, Caro and I had seen many incredible things – inspirational results from dedicated conservation efforts; rare plant communities that were thriving; and promising signs that some species that have vanished from our Texas prairies may one day soon return.

If prairies are important to you, as they are to me, please consider donating to conservation organizations like The Native Prairies Association of Texas and The Nature Conservancy in Texas.

Escaping the Quarantine Blues in the Big Thicket

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Cypress – Tupelo Swamp

We are living in strange times.  An invisible invader has infiltrated our society and changed our way of life.  For many the results have been devastating – closed businesses, lost jobs, financial ruin, or in the most unfortunate of cases loss of life and loved ones.  So far Carolina and I have been very fortunate.  We continue to work from home and bought a large stash of toilet paper just before the pandemic hit.

I also consider myself very lucky that the things I love to do have been relatively unaffected.  Stores and bars, sports fields, and event halls have closed down, leaving many to go stir crazy confined to their homes.  Most natural places, however, have remained open in some capacity, and a visit to the more remote of these is by its very nature social distancing.

A couple of weeks ago Caro and I set out to the Big Thicket and embarked on a long day hike to see what spring scenes might await us.  Aside from a couple of fishermen sat, legs dangling off a bridge on drive to the trailhead, we saw not another soul in the woods.  The trail began in a floodplain and gradually rose to a low ridge.  From this higher position we could see where stream scarred the land as it changed its course over millennia.  In these old clay-bottomed oxbow scars, swampy forests of towering Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) and Water Tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) formed.

While discussing the formation of oxbows with Caro, she taught me something new.  I had never given much thought to how these old stream bottom remnants got their names.  Caro informed me that oxbows were named for a u-shaped collar that was placed around the necks of oxen so that they may pull a plough or other heavy load.  Oxbow lakes and sloughs often form in a similar shape as an old stream bend or meander is cut off and the main channel migrates, leaving an empty u-shaped scar to be filled with soil, organic material, water from precipitation, and in the case of these swamps, towering timber.  When dominated by Baldcypress and Water Tupelo, these interesting habitats are often referred to as cypress-tupelo swamps.

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Cypress – Tupelo Swamp

The dark, tannin-stained waters in these swamps are home to a variety of plant and animal species.  We saw a number of Broad-banded Watersnakes cutting through the water, leaving the tiniest of snake wakes.  I imagined that a big ‘ol Alligator Snapping Turtle might be in the deeper reaches of one of these swamps.  A different swamp denizen soon greeted us, however, and as their tiny probosces pierced our skin and drew our blood, we quickly retreated back to the trail on the ridge.

The trail cut through a variety of forest types, including moist, rich woods, and dry sandy uplands.  Blooms were generally scarce, but we did see a few spring wildflowers showing off in the shade.  The White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata) was just coming into bloom.  Also known as the Redring Milkweed, this is one of my favorite local species of milkweed.

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White Milkweed

A bit further down the trail I spotted an unassuming little wildflower on the forest floor.  Despite the humble nature of its blooms, I was excited to find it, for it was a species seldom seen in this part of the country: the Meadow Parsnip (Thaspium trifoliatum).  This member of the carrot family is scarce in Texas, where it can be found in scattered populations in the southeast portion of the state.

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Meadow Parsnip

Further still, and Caro spotted a red toad hopping away from the trail.  Due to its regal appearance and nature, we named this handsome amphibian Rudolfo the Red, Duke of the Big Thicket.  The identity of these East Texas toads is controversial and mysterious.  It is a variable group, and individuals seem to be in some ways intermediate between Bufo woodhousii (Woodhouse’s Toad) and Bufo fowleri (Fowler’s Toad).  They were at one time considered to be Bufo woodhousii,  but it was later postulated that they were in fact a unique species endemic to the West Gulf Coastal Plain of East Texas and western Louisiana: Bufo velatus – the East Texas Toad.  More recent works have put them with the eastern species Bufo fowleri.  It seems there is still some debate and uncertainty as to where, taxonomically speaking, they should be placed.  No matter what their name, they are beautiful, charming creatures.

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Rudolfo the Red

A few miles into our hike, we finally reached our intended destination: one of only a handful of populations of Wild Blue Lupine (Lupinus perennis) left in Texas.  Here they grow in a sandy upland, where pockets of deep sand exist in close proximity to more fertile, loamy soils.  These lovely lupines are peripheral here in Texas, and were likely never common.  Like so many other species, they suffered heavily in the face of development and land use change.

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Wild Blue Lupines

Lupinus perennis was one of my 2017 biodiversity targets, and I found, photographed, and featured it in my blog that year.  They are a beautiful, special part of our state’s natural heritage, and while I take comfort that this population is on protected land.  I can only hope that they continue to brighten the Big Thicket for many generations to come.

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Wild Blue Lupines

In all we would hike close to 7 miles that day.  In addition to the relentless swarms of mosquitoes and previously mentioned herptiles, we saw a Tan Racer, Eastern Coachwhip, and dueling Hooded Warblers.  It was a fine day spent in the woods, and a great way to brighten the generally bleak state of affairs as of late – reminding us that life continues on, and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

A Naturalist’s Journey Top 10

It’s been over three years now, since I first started this blog project.  It started with a goal in mind – to create a list of plants and animals that I wanted to see and photograph, and to document the journey to find them.  It evolved into something more, however, and has been a place to share images from my various forays into the natural world and a therapeutic outlet that gave me a purpose to write.

Along the way the actual list sort of fell to the wayside as new species and natural communities appeared on my radar and my quest for biodiversity broadened.  In these past three years, Carolina and I have been to every corner of the state and have shared more incredible experiences, and encountered more incredible wildflowers, curious creatures, and breath taking vistas than I could ever have imagined.

In honor of reaching 100 posts on “A Naturalist’s Journey”, I decided to share my personal “top 10” posts.  It was no easy task paring these down, but in the end I selected the following based on a variety of factors including diversity, uniqueness, poignancy, and response from readers.  Without further ado, I present the Naturalist’s Journey Top 10.

10. Cure-All

I think this was the first post where my blog really started coming into its own.  It reported on a day filled with rare and medicinal plants, archaeology, and prehistory.

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9. The Meaning of Life (For a Ringed Salamander)

This was perhaps my most personal, and certainly my most philosophical post.  It was well received, and tells the story of a special adventure that elicited an emotional and introspective response.

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8. Back to my Roots: Fun with Bird Photography

This post tells the story of how my good friend James Childress rekindled a passion for wildlife photography, which added another layer of depth to subsequent posts.

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7. An Encounter with a Vanishing Prairie Icon

This post tells the tale of a rare prairie denizen and the adventure we embarked on to find it.  It is a tale of a sad history, but a promising future.

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6. Are we in East Texas or Appalachia

Over four years ago now, Carolina and I were introduced to Susan and Viron.  They introduced us to land that has been in Viron’s family for generations, and contained one of the finest examples of rich calcareous slope forest left in the state.  We have returned every year since to experience spring in this special place.

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5. Spring in the Desert Part 2: The Superbloom.

Many of the scenes I have witnessed since starting this blog have left me awestruck, but none so much as the desert bloom in Big Bend in the spring of 2019.  We timed our visit just right and experienced a diversity of wildflowers beyond what I could have imagined.

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4. Autumn in the Pineywoods

Most years I post a seasonal summary of my outings in the Pineywoods.  The fall of 2018 just happened to be one of the finest in recent memory.

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3. Return to Sky Island

Carolina and I have fallen in love with the Davis Mountains.  There is no better time to visit these sky islands than during the summer monsoons.  When the desert is parched and sweltering, the mountains are cool, lush, and full of life.  In August of 2017 we visited with our friends James and Erin Childress, in what turned out to be one of our most memorable trips to the area to date.

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2. Vernal Pools: The Kingdom of the Amphibians

Amphibians, particularly salamanders, played a huge role in shaping my love for the natural world.  One of my earliest memories was looking under some discarded piles of plywood at a local park in the suburbs of Chicago to find six Eastern Tiger Salamanders.  This sparked a lifelong love for all things that many consider “creepy crawlies”, but I consider beautiful and fascinating.  This post wasn’t describing any particular adventure, but rather the culmination of countless trips searching for amphibians, and countless hours spent learning about their ecology, evolution, and life histories.

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1. An Ode to Longleaf

Like the entry above, my personal number one blog post does not describe a particular day in the field, but rather takes the viewer on a narrative and photographic journey through an imperiled ecosystem that helped to shape the nation, and in doing so all but disappeared.  It is a landscape near and dear to my heart, and through this post I hoped to share just a hint of the incredible beauty and diversity that abounds in the great longleaf pine forests of the southeastern United States.

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Late Winter and Early Spring on the Upper Texas Coast

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American Avocets

Carolina and I have made three separate trips to the Upper Texas Coast year – one each in January, February, and March.  In January we rented an AirBNB in Galveston with our good friends James and Erin Childress.  We’ve really come to like this way of finding accommodation, and have stayed in some great places for very reasonable prices.  But I digress.

The weather was generally gloomy and gray during out visit.  This doesn’t make for a fun trip to the beach, however it’s usually pretty good for photography.  So while Caro and Erin combed the beach, James and I got down on our bellies and started looking for things to point our cameras at.

One of the first subjects was a banded winter-plumaged Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus).  Initially a victim of market hunting, this Federally Threatened species continued to experience significant population declines after the practice was outlawed, as the shorelines it depends on have rapidly disappeared to development.  Thanks to legal protections and various conservation initiatives, populations appear to be slowly rebounding.

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Piping Plover

We were also lucky enough to observe several Long-billed Curlews (Numenius americanus) foraging along the surf.  The beaks on these guys are otherworldly.  They use them to probe tiny burrows in the earth in search of hidden invertebrates.  The curlews are winter residents along the coast.  They nest primarily in shortgrass prairie and meadows in the intermountain west.  Their breeding range barely enters Texas in the extreme northwest corner of the Panhandle, where Caro and I were lucky enough to see them last year.

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Long-billed Curlew

In a remote stretch of undisturbed beach I came upon an avian extravaganza that I won’t soon forget.  Thousands upon thousands of American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana) had congregated on a narrow spit of sand just offshore.  The faintly sweet smell of uric acid greeted my nostrils, and a cacophony of bird chatter filled the air.  To my surprise, they were not wary and allowed a close approach.  I enjoyed playing with various compositions.  I was happy for this rare opportunity to create images that were more artistic than diagnostic.

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American Avocets

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American Avocets

The avocets seemed indifferent to my presence, so I was surprised when through my viewfinder I saw that they all suddenly took flight with a deafening roar of alarm calls.  Surely I hadn’t spooked them.  The culprit responsible soon revealed itself, as a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) shot into the undulating sea of feathers like a bullet.  The falcon worked the avocets, pushing them farther out to see.  Eventually, the avocets returned, but the falcon soon struck again.  The scenario repeated itself several times, yet for all its speed and brawn, the Peregrine was unsuccessful in capturing one of the avocets.  Perhaps with such a huge group of birds moving as one, the confusion is too much and focusing on a single target is too difficult.  Then again, perhaps the raptor wasn’t really hungry, and just felt like messing with the poor shorebirds.

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Peregrine Falcon

The next day we spent the evening exploring the Saltmarsh.  While I was slowly creeping toward some ibises foraging in the incoming tide, I heard James call out “Nelson’s!”  He had found and successfully photographed a Nelson’s Sparrow (Ammodramus nelsoni), an elusive lurker that tends to remain hidden in the grasses.  I was admittedly jealous as I rushed to his location.  We waited for some time, but the sparrow never gave us another clean look, and the best I could manage was a shot through the tangle of saltmarsh grasses.

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Nelson’s Sparrow

I wasn’t aware, but Galveston has a crane festival, of sorts, celebrating the annual return of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) to the island.  We missed the festival, but we were lucky enough to see a number of cranes.  I generally see several large groups of Sandhill Cranes each winter, but have thus far been unsuccessful in obtaining a shot I was happy with. It has been my experience that they are either foraging in a heavily modified pasture or they are too skittish to approach. Last weekend while on a birding trip to the coast we spotted a small group in a little coastal prairie remnant. I was able to utilize dense vine cover along the fence to creep closer to the birds until i reached a gate that I could shoot through. In the end I was happy with my images of this incredibly elegant species.

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Sandhill Crane

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Sandhill Crane

Watching the cranes, I immediately drew similarities to Ornithomimidae, a family of therapod dinosours that bore a striking resemblance to a number of long-legged, long-necked birds. Perhaps the most famous of these are members the genus Gallimimus which were featured in the movie Jurassic Park. Something about the pose I captured below reminded me of those prehistoric creatures.

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Sandhill Crane

Carolina and I returned to Galveston in late February.  While driving through one of my favorite marshes, Caro spotted a little gathering of Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata).  These common yet elusive shorebirds have long been a nemesis of mine.  On their northern breeding grounds they can often be seen displaying in the open from fence posts, shrubs, and other elevated perches.  On their wintering grounds, which include Texas, however, they stay hidden in the grasses of wet prairies, marshlands, and the margins of various water bodies.  95% of my snipe encounters consist of me getting to within 15 feet of the bird and not realizing it until the snipe explodes from the grass and flies off out of reach.

The difficulty of capturing them on film (card?) has drawn me to this species.  After Caro spotted them, I was able to park, and use my truck as a bit of a blind as I got out and crept toward them on my hands and knees. Once I got within range I sat and waited.  I took the image below as one of them began moving about in search of prey. To me, this provides a sense of how I normally see the species (those rare times when they don’t fly off): superbly camouflaged and well hidden among the senescent brown leaves of Distichlis or some other grass species deep in the marsh.

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Wilson’s Snipe

Shortly after I captured the image above, the snipe actually moved out to forage in the open of the mudflat. The light was improving and things were looking good for capturing the snipe image I’ve always dreamed of. Unfortunately due to my position I was unable to get to the angle I wanted, and some vegetation along the ditch was obscuring my view, despite the fact that the bird was out in the open. I captured a few images I was relatively happy with, and then made the foolish mistake of slowly trying to move into a better position. As I did I spooked this snipe as well as several others, who all flew well out of reach behind a fenced pasture.  Satisfied with our snipe encounter, we went to eat at our favorite local restaurant and spent the afternoon at the beach.

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Foraging Wilson’s Snipe

In the evening we returned to find the snipes once more.  I was able to capture a few more images before we pushed deeper into the marsh.

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Wilson’s Snipe

In one of the numerous tidally influenced pools I spotted a pair of Mottled Ducks (Anas fulvigula).  The male was kind enough to pose in the open for a shot that showcased a bit of the surrounding habitat.

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Drake Mottled Duck

Where the marsh met the bay we found a group of White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) coming into breeding plumage.  It’s always a joy watching these goofy wading birds probe their decurved beaks into the mud.

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White Ibis

On the other edge of the marsh, where it met pasture that was once coastal prairie, we spotted a lovely male American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) perched on an old sign post.  It was a lovely way to end a great day on the coast.

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American Kestrel

The next week, Caro and I returned to Galveston.  We saw many birds, but photo opportunities were few and far between.  That is, until we returned to my favorite marsh.  Here a Solitary Sandpiper provided me with some incredible photo ops as it foraged in the shallow brackish water at the marsh edge.  Initially I spotted a Great Yellowlegs in this roadside pool.  I thought I had spooked all the birds in the area when I approached, but shortly after laying in the shallow water of the ditch, this Solitary Sandpiper crept out from behind a big clump of mud, and I watched it forage for nearly an hour.

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Solitary Sandpiper

The Upper Texas Coast is right at the extreme northern end of the wintering range for this species. I only occasionally encounter them, much less frequently than most other shorebirds in the region, so it was a real treat to get such a good photo op. Solitary Sandpipers breed in the taiga and tundra of Canada and Alaska. I read up a bit on the species after photographing it, and learned that it is one of the only shorebirds to nest in trees. Pretty interesting, if you ask me!

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Solitary Sandpiper

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Solitary Sandpiper

The next day we went with my mom to visit Anahuac.  I always enjoy birding with my mom, and the trips I took with her to the coast all those years ago helped to forge my love for birding and coastal ecosystems.  The day was cool and fairly slow, however a notable highlight was observing a pair of Northern Crested Caracaras (Caracara cheriway) near their nest.

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Northern Crested Caracara

Over the past few weeks I spent a lot of time laying in marsh muck, taking in my surroundings.  Coastal marshes, especially the saltmarsh, are magical places.  Among the muck, stabbing needlerush, and squadrons of mosquitoes, one can find a unique cast of plant and animal characters that are found nowhere else in the world.  The Mottled Ducks, Solitary Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipes, and other species pictured here share the marsh with Saltmarsh Snakes, Diamondback Terrapins, Seaside Dragonlets, Clapper Rails, Seaside Sparrows, and a whole host of other interesting species.  Northern Harriers and White-tailed Kites patrol the air and hermit and blue crabs scour the shallows. In my book, that makes for pretty good company.

Mixed Seasons, Mixed Emotions

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A Pine Warbler forages for caterpillars, grubs, and other invertebrates among the leaf litter.

This January seemed to have it all.  From lingering fall color to nights in the 20s and days pushing 80.  The diversity of climatic conditions brought with it a diversity of photographic subjects.  For my first photographic outing of the New Year I was joined by my pal and frequent photo companion James Childress.  We went to one of our favorite bird photography haunts in Nacogdoches County.  Here I turned my lens to a handsome White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) perched before a large Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) in a full display of “autumn” foliage.  Some of these sparrows spend the winter in East Texas, and as the days lengthen and the temperature warms, they will return to their breeding range in the northern U.S. and Canada.

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White-throated Sparrow

Our next subject was a resident bird, though many are unaware of its presence as a low density breeder in the Pineywoods.  The White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is a lovely bird that inhabits mature hardwood and pine-hardwood forests, and forage by scampering up and down tree trunks and large branches, often flicking off bits of bark in search of tasty insects hidden beneath.

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White-breasted Nuthatch

A week later James and I returned to this wonderful patch of woods.  We were intent on targeting a Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) that we had spotted during our previous outing.  The thrashers’ propensity to lurk in dense thickets of vegetation presents a real challenge for capturing a good image.  I hoped to capture one on the ground, as it is my experience they spend much of their time here, flipping through dense leaf litter in search of food.

James and I pursued the individual below as it made its way through a dense understory of Florida Maple and Carolina Laurelcherry saplings.  We weren’t having much luck getting a clear shot through the undergrowth and downed branches, so I opted to advance ahead in the direction that the bird was moving, and position myself low on the forest floor with a clear shot of a clearing into which I hoped it would pass through.  I waited and watched through my viewfinder as it approached.  Finally it hopped into the clearing and paused just long enough for me to capture a few frames of this furtive mimic among the fallen maple leaves and emerging wood sorrel.

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Brown Thrasher

Not far from the thrasher I spotted a young male Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus) foraging among the leaves.  It would routinely hop about, capture some juicy grub, and fly to a more protected perch to enjoy its prize.

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Pine Warbler

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Pine Warbler

Deeper into the woods I was surprised to see the bright white blooms of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).  This year there were already some in fruit on January 25.  This is notably earlier than I typically see them emerge, which used to be around the second week of February but seems to get earlier and earlier each year.  The Bloodroot is one of my all time favorite wildflowers, and I’ve featured it in many past blog posts.  It is one of those magical components to an ephemeral vernal flora that make spring such a wonderful time to be out in the woods.

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Bloodroot

The next week Carolina and I returned to meet with a professor at my alma mater (Stephen F. Austin State University) to discuss a research project.  After my meeting I met up with James again and we set out to see what we could find.  While James and I had our eyes focused on the branches, Caro stopped us dead in our tracks to point out a snaked stretched out near an old stump.  It was a nice Eastern Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum), soaking in some of the unseasonable warmth.

Snakes may be the single most hated, feared, and misunderstood group of animals on the planet. The reason may be in some small way evolutionary programmed, however the vast majority of this animosity comes from misconceptions and ideas that are not grounded in truth. It is a shame, too, because as a group snakes are beneficial to us in so many ways – from pest eradication to cancer treatment. It is important that those of us who understand the true nature of these special animals spread the word, and work toward dispelling the myths that surround them, even if it is and always will be an uphill battle.

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Eastern Coachwhip

Eventually the coachwhip retreated to the refuge of a downed tree.  It was there we spied a little Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) perched among the tangle twigs.  These are one of our most familiar area birds.  Despite this, I have very few images of them, so on this occasion I decided to snap a few.

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Carolina Wren

I say mixed emotions in the title, because though I enjoyed the diversity of subjects and conditions, I can’t help but feel concerned by what seems to me to be a trend of more erratic weather patterns.  Granted, the weather in Texas has rarely been stable, but I have noticed a trend of greater frontal temperature variations and each year Spring seems to come just a tad earlier.  Climate change is one of the most controversial, divisive issues we’re facing today.  I don’t pretend to know the intricacy of this process, nor to have the solution, but I am certain that it is important, and certainly warrants our attention.  I hate to think of some future scenario where something precious is lost, and we could have done something to prevent it but didn’t.

Chasing Scoters

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Black Scoter Drake

I’ve never been one to “chase” birds – that is, to make special trips just to see some vagrant rarity that has appeared in some place significantly outside its normal range – a common occurrence in the Lonestar State.  I don’t mean to say that I have an issue with those folks make a habit of chasing birds to add to their life, country, state, or county lists.  In fact, it seems like a fun and potentially highly rewarding activity.  It’s just not something I’ve personally felt inclined to do.  That is, until I heard that a group of Black Scoters (Melanitta americana) that had shown up at lake in a state park less than two hours from our home.

The Black Scoter is an uncommon sea duck that breeds on the arctic tundra in three disjunct populations: one in eastern Canada, one in Alaska and extreme northwestern Canada, and one in eastern Siberia.  They winter almost exclusively on the Atlantic Coast of North America and the Pacific Coasts of North America and Asia.  Here they show a preference for cold water and rocky shorelines where abundant populations of mollusks, crustaceans, and other aquatic invertebrates occur.  They only occasionally turn up in the Gulf off the Texas coast.  Observations inland anywhere are generally rare, and virtually unheard of in Texas.  That is not to say it doesn’t happen – in 2018 a few were observed in a pond in Austin, and there have been sporadic sightings prior to that – but I must stress, it is a VERY rare occurrence.

A couple weeks ago, however, I saw a post by a Facebook friend with photos of a raft of 18 Black Scoters at Fairfield Lake State Park.  What’s more, is that they seemed to be fairly approachable.  Given my affinity for waterfowl, and the joy that photographing them brings me, I could not resist the promise of photographing these rarities.

So on Superbowl Sunday I opted out of watching the Big Game, and Carolina and I left the house just before dawn to try our luck at finding the scoters.  We had never been to Fairfield Lake State Park, which is nestled in the Post Oak Savannah about an hour and a half south southeast of Dallas.

I really didn’t know what to expect when we arrived.  I knew where the scoters had been observed, and I hoped that when we arrived we would see them right away.  As is almost always the case, we did not.  It was a clear day, and I really hoped to photograph them in the early morning light, before the sun rose too high and her light grew too harsh.

When we pulled into the parking area I did see a small raft of ducks.  Hoping it was the scoters I rushed for a closer look, but it turned out to be a group of Ruddy Ducks, their tiny tails sticking straight up.  I positioned myself behind a large clump of Phragmites near the last known location of the scoters, and hoped something might turn up.  Before long a large raft of American Coots (Fulica americana) appeared.  Then a Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) drake arrived, accompanied by a trio of hens.  A drake Bufflehead, in my opinion, is one of the most beautiful birds in the country, particularly when the light catches the iridescent plumage of its head.  This species is a bit of a “nemesis” for me, at least photographically speaking, as I have yet to capture a good image of one, despite exerting considerable effort.  As I watched the drake draw closer through the viewfinder, I began to think that I would finally have my chance.  But to my dismay, in a flash, the drake and his hen escort took to the air, as did all other waterbirds in the immediate vicinity.  I soon learned the reason why, as I turned around and saw Carolina frantically waving to capture my attention.  Apparently a River Otter had just passed less than 50 feet behind me and entered the reeds that I was using to conceal my presence.  Despite not getting as close as I hoped, I ended up with my best Bufflehead image to date.  We would not see them again that day.

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Bufflehead Drake

My attention quickly shifted from waterfowl to semi-aquatic mammals, as I entered the water and scoured the reeds for the otter.  The water was frigid, and it felt like tiny ice knives were piercing the skin of my legs, but I quickly put it out of my and continued my search.  I could see the reeds moving, and hear the otter fervently sniffing the air.  I moved about, circling the entire patch of reeds.  In doing so, however, I gave the otter the chance to slip out behind me, and I caught sight of it quickly swimming away.  We watched as distant rafts of coots took to the air as the otter swam through them.  Knowing their playful nature, I couldn’t help but think that it was deriving some form of satisfaction from this.

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American Coots

With the otter gone, the coots soon began to return.  I laid on the shoreline and tried to capture a few images of the group.  My focus was disrupted when I caught sight of something bouncing in my peripheral vision.  It was an American Pipit working the shoreline in search of food.  I turned my attention briefly to the little songbird until it left the area.

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American Pipit

While I was on my belly with the birds, Carolina was at the picnic table enjoying her Yerba Mate.  As I approached, she asked if the bird I was after was black with a black and orange bill.  I said that it was, and she pointed to a lone Black Scoter drake a couple hundred yards away by the boat ramp.  Excited, I began quickly making my in its direction, until a boat launched and the scoter took off flying clear across the lake.  Disheartened, I decided to take a break from the water.  We had a snack and enjoyed a flurry of bird activity in the picnic area.  Eastern Bluebirds, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Downy Woodpeckers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Carolina Chickadees, and more bounced around.  I tried my luck at photographing an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), but found it difficult to get a clean shot.

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Eastern Phoebe

When I first heard about the Scoters I called my mom to see if she’d be interested in joining us in our pursuit.  Much to my delight, she and my dad decided to make the trip up from the Houston area to meet us.  They arrived mid-morning, just as the Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) were beginning to open.

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Spring Beauty

We visited for a moment, and then Carolina noticed that the scoters had returned.  This time there were six of them.  Again I began my approach, but again the birds were disturbed – this time by a canoe.  Fortunately this time they only flew a short distance away.  I entered the water again, this time getting as deep as my chest.  The cold took my breath away, but the day was turning out to be unseasonably warm, which helped a little.  In the water I could approach fairly closely but not close enough to get the shots I was after, so I devised a plan.  The scoters seemed to be returning to the same area to forage.  It was adjacent to a shoreline comprised entirely of softball to baseball sized rocks.  Just off shore was a dense layer of woody vegetation.  I moved over to the shore and laid down on the rocks half in the water, and hoped that the vegetation would help break up my outline.

It worked, and I watched through my viewfinder as the scoters came in at high speed.  They drew closer and closer until they were within 25 feet or so.  Then they began to forage comfortably, diving and probing the rocks for prey.  At this time it was around 11:30 and the light was quite harsh, but I wanted to make the most of the encounter so continued taking photos until another boat interrupted the scene and the scoters vanished once more.

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Black Scoter Drake

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Mature (Foreground) and Immature (Background) Black Scoter Drakes

With the birds gone again, and the light conditions worsening, I gave up on photography for a while.  We went back to the picnic area to have lunch and visit, and then set out to explore the rest of the park.  We were impressed with the facilities, which included a variety of trails and excellent campgrounds.  After a couple of hours my parents left and Caro and I visited the entrance station/gift shop.  We then went back to the boat ramp in hopes that the scoters had returned.

They were back!  By now it was 3 PM, and boat activity had dropped of significantly – presumably because people were getting ready for festivities associated with the Superbowl.  I repeated my strategy from the morning, enduring the pain of laying on a bed of uneven rocks.  It was miserable, but it paid off, and once again the scoters came in close – at times too close for my camera to focus.

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Black Scoter Drake

I found this mid-afternoon light to be the best for photographing these handsome ducks.  The bluebird skies were reflected brilliantly in the water, and the bright light bounced off the water’s surface to a degree, and helped to draw out the detail in the drakes’ deep black plumage.  They do not appear glossy or matte, but rather an almost metallic jet black, much darker than the coots foraging nearby.  The Black Scoter may lack the bright iridescent coloration of many other species of its family, but in my humble opinion the combination of its solid black plumage and bright yellow/orange bill makes it one of our most beautiful ducks.

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Black Scoter Drake

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Black Scoter Drakes

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Black Scoter Drake

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Black Scoters

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Black Scoter Drake

I spent hours that day laying on the rocky shore.  Slowly the sun crept toward the horizon.  The quality of light began to improve, at least in the traditional sense.  In most other circumstances I would favor this evening light, however in the case of the Black Scoter I found it less preferable than the light earlier in the afternoon.  I still took advantage of the last of the available light and captured a few more images before the day’s end.

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Black Scoter Drake

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Black Scoters

With the sun all but gone, I left the shoreline and went to change into clean, dry clothes.  As soon as I left the bathroom I could hear Caro calling for my attention.  She had seen the otter again.  We spent our final moments in the park following the Mustelid as it patrolled the shoreline.  The otter is part of a developing success story for Texas wildlife, as its numbers have been steadily increasing in recent years, and it is slowly repopulating areas where it had been previously extirpated.

On the drive home, at a time when most were probably enjoying the game and its associated commercials, I found myself pondering the Black Scoters.  Encountering this species inland in Texas during pre-settlement times would have been virtually impossible.  Today they turn up on man-made lakes, reservoirs, and large, deep ponds – features that were created through human alterations to the habitat.  The most likely scenario for these birds, in my opinion, is that they were blown off their normal migratory route by some inclement weather, and desperate for rest dropped down to the first large water body they spotted.  Hungry and exhausted, they tried their luck at foraging and found the area to be a productive feeding ground.  Slowly they began to regain their strength and a few at a time have been departing for familiar territory.

If any of my readers are interested in trying your luck at finding them, I read a report that there were still four remaining as of yesterday.  They have been located in the day use area, between the swim beach and the boat ramp at Fairfield Lake State Park, in Freestone County, Texas.

2019 Highlights in Biodiversity

This year I made only a few dedicated outings to chase targets on my 2017 list of biodiversity goals.  In all I was able to cross seven more species off the list, bringing my total to 52 species photographed out of 80 target species.  This year was definitely about quality over quantity, as I ended up shooting roughly half the images I did in 2018, and a third of what I shot in 2017.  I did, however, end up with some all-time favorite images, visited some truly wild places, and experienced so many wonderful, natural things.

The following are the species I was able to check off my list:

Crawfish Frog (Rana areolata)

Texas Rainbow Cactus (Echinocereus dasyacanthus)

Warnock’s Fishook Cactus (Echinomastus warnockii)

Yellow Rocknettle (Eucnide bartonioides)

Big Bend Bluebonnet (Lupinus havardii)

Creeping Bluestar (Amsonia repens)

White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

2019Goals

Beyond these species I was able to photograph 80 species I had not previously photographed, and capture better images of species I had previously captured through the lens.  What follows are just a few of the highlights.

My year in nature photograph began belly down in the sticky muck of a shallow inlet off Galveston Bay.  I was inching toward a pair of Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) foraging in the shallows.

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Roseate Spoonbill in the shallows of Galveston Bay.

In January I took a couple of trips to a series of Blackland Prairie wetlands in north-central Texas with Carolina and James.  The objective was to photograph wintering waterfowl, and I walked away with images of several species, including this American Wigeon (Anas americana).

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American Wigeon in a Blackland Prairie wetland.

In the late winter and early Spring James and I spent some time chasing songbirds.  The images below are two of my favorites from several days spent in the field with good company.

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A male Pine Warbler perches on a winged elm in a mature pine-hardwood upland forest.

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A Pine Siskin forages on the blooming branches of an Eastern redbud.

In February I visited the Columbia Bottomlands with my pal John Williams.  We ended the day with over 20 snakes including a large, handsome Canebrake Rattlesnake.  My favorite image of the day, however, was this shot of one of the most beautiful beetles in the country, Dicaelus purpuratus.

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Dicaelus purpuratus in the Columbia Bottomlands.

On a whim one rainy night in late February, Carolina and I went out with James and Erin to look for a rare prairie denizen that was recently rediscovered in the Pineywoods by renowned Texas herpetologist Toby Hibbitts and his team.  After thinking them extirpated in the area, it was a thrill to finally hear and see a Southern Crawfish Frog (Rana areolata) less than thirty minutes from my house.

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Southern Crawfish Frog from a prairie remnant in the Pineywoods.

In March, Caro and I took a trip to West Texas to see a purported superbloom in the Big Bend region.  On our way we stopped at the Marathon Grasslands, a special place worth exploring.  Here we saw Black-tailed Prairie Dogs and a small group of Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) led by a large buck in the process of re-growing the keratinous sheath around his horns.

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Pronghorn buck in the Marathon Grasslands.

Further south, in the low desert along the Rio Grande in Black Gap and Big Bend, it appeared that the rumors of a superbloom were true.  Multiple species were blooming in profusion, but the most impressive were the Big Bend Bluebonnets (Lupinus havardii) and the Texas Rainbow Cactus (Echinocereus dasyacanthus).  Below are a few of my favorites from the trip.

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Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap Wildlife Management Area

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

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Big Bend Bluebonnets along the Rio Grande with the Chisos Mountains looming in the distance.

Back in East Texas, Caro and I set out one spring day to admire the Flowering Dogwoods.  During our excursion I found a special fungus that I had long wanted to see in East Texas – the Yellow Morel (Morchella esculenta).

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Yellow Morel in the East Texas Pineywoods.

While looking for rare orchids with my friend Scott, I spotted a blur of movement in the leaf litter of a pine-hardwood upland.  It was a Southern Coal Skink (Plestiodon anthracinus), a species generally uncommon throughout its range and rare and potentially declining in Texas.

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Southern Coal Skink from a pine-hardwood upland in East Texas.

In late April, Caro and I visited some remnant prairies in North-Central Texas.  While I was able to photograph a number of new-to-me species, my favorite image from the trip was of a small prairie remnant loaded with Eastern Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) that I had visited in the past.

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Prairie with Eastern Shooting Star in the Grand Prairie region of North-Central Texas.

On a gloomy May evening Caro and I found ourselves exploring some seldom traveled back roads in Newton County.  We came upon a regenerating clearcut full of bird activity, including a number of male Prairie Warblers (Setophaga discolor) singing on territory.

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Prairie Warbler singing in a regenerating clearcut.

Late one night in May I found a beautiful Regal Moth (Citheronia regalis) hanging out at some bright lights in town.  I relocated her to a more suitable location and took a couple of images before leaving her so she may pump her pheromones into the night air in hopes of attracting a mate.

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Regal Moth

At the end of May I traveled to Galveston for a work convention.  I ended up staying an extra day and was able to photograph some courting terns and other shorebirds.

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Courting Royal Terns (Thalasseus maximus)

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American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus)

In June, Caro and I took a trip to the northern panhandle.  We spent our time exploring a few patches of the remaining native prairie in the region.  A highlight was finding the Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) in bloom in the mucky floodplain of a small stream feeding the Canadian River.

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Showy Milkweed

A diversity of birds were active at our campsite in the Rita Blanca National Grasslands including several Lark Sparrows (Chondestes grammacus).

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Lark Sparrow near our campsite in the Texas Panhandle.

While in the panhandle we also observed several Texas Horned Lizards (Phrynosoma cornutum).  I think that a top-down angle on this incredible creature best illustrates its unique texture and color pattern.

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Texas Horned Lizard from the Texas panhandle.

From the panhandle we continued west into New Mexico.  We saw many Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) in the shortgrass prairies in the eastern part of the state.

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Pronghorn buck in eastern New Mexico.

We were also lucky enough to find a diversity of wildflowers both in the prairies and in the mountains.

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Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum) in a high elevation prairie.

One of the highlights of the trip was finding several Fairy Slipper Orchids (Calypso bulbosa) in perfect bloom on the spongy floor of a spruce/fir forest at 10,000 feet.

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Fairy Slipper Orchid.

One day in late June I visited a high quality coastal prairie remnant while Caro was busy in the workshop of the Houston Gem and Mineral Society.  While scouring the rattlesnake master and other prairie plants for pollinators I saw a massive iridescent beetle go buzzing past.  It was a Bumelia Borer (Plinthocoelium suaveolens), a species I had long dreamed of finding.

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Bumelia Borer in a high quality coastal prairie remnant.

In July Caro spotted Fredericka – a Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata triunguis) that she first spotted in the yard two months prior.  Though we never saw after that, we remain hopeful that she is hanging around somewhere in the more unkempt portions of our yard.

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Three-toed Box Turtle from our back yard.

I took very few photos during the final quarter of the year.  I did, however, manage to get out a few times, most notably in October for a trip to the Ouachita Mountains of western Oklahoma and eastern Arkansas.  Here Caro and I found several beautiful Ringed Salamanders (Ambystoma annulatum) and enjoyed a few days in a secluded mountain cabin.

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Ringed Salamander from the Ouachita Mountains.

My last real photo outing of the year was in mid November when Caro and I drove around looking for fall color.  The color was disappointing this year, but I was able to turn up a large, beautiful Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum) in a small wetland depression beneath the changing leaves of stately black tupelos.

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Marbled Salamander

2020 is shaping up to be a great year, and I look forward to sharing some small part of it with you all.  I wish all of my readers the very best in this New Year.

Until next time

-Matt