Spring in the Desert Part 3: The Marathon Basin

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An hour or so north of Big Bend National Park, nestled between the Stockton Plateau and the Eastern Front Ranges of the Trans-Pecos lies a unique geoecological area with floral and faunal associations that seem out of place in the otherwise semi-arid desert scrub that surrounds it.  The Marathon Basin, at is is commonly described, is surrounded by a series northeast trending ridges known as the Marathon Uplift, which contains a unique geology important to a suite of endemic, endangered species.

The Basin’s most dramatic feature just might be a vast remnant patch of short grass prairie that appears like a vast sea of refuge from the surrounding desert scrub.   I always look forward to seeing this prairie and its residents.  This spring we were fortunate to see a group of Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) among the undulating grassy ridges.

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Pronghorn Buck

The star attraction of the Marathon Grasslands, however, is the massive prairie dog town.  Here a thriving colony of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) entertains visitors to their prairie realm with their inquisitive nature, comical antics, and high-pitched alarm calls.

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog

South of the town of Marathon exist a series of ridges with conspicuous exposed layers of multi-colored rock known as Caballos Novaculite.  Primarily composed of chert, this formation is the same as the Novaculite outcrops in the Ouachita Mountains of Oklahoma and Arkansas, located hundreds of miles to the east, and both exposures originated from a collision of the land masses Gondwana and Laurentia in the Late Paleozoic.  The quartz present in the Caballos makes the rocks extremely hard and often sharp.

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Caballos Novaculite Outcrops

The Caballos Novaculite is home to three species of endemic cacti, all of which are entirely confined to this small portion of Brewster County.  Two of these species, Nellie’s Cory Cactus (Escobaria minima) and Davis Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus davisii) are Federally Endangered.  Both species have suffered heavily from over collection and as a result are now entirely confined to private land.

We were fortunate enough to observe several Echinocereus davisii plants in bloom.  This is one of the smallest cactus species in the world, rarely reaching heights greater than an in and a half.  They are almost entirely hidden beneath grasses and other vegetation growing among the Novaculite, rendering them practically invisible.  Only when the small yellow-green flowers emerge in early Spring to they become visible.

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Davis Hedgehog Cactus

The Marathon Basin and Uplift are bordered to the northwest by the Glass Mountains.  The lower slopes of this range are dominated by typical Chihuahuan Desert Scrub, where we observed a number of interesting plants in bloom, including Woolly Locoweed (Astragalus mollissimus), Feathery Dalea (Dalea formosa), and Downy Paintbrush (Castilleja sessiliflora).

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Woolly Locoweed

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Feathery Dalea

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Downy Paintbrush

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Downy Paintbrush

In my humble opinion, no trip to the Big Bend Region is complete without a stop in the Marathon Basin.  It serves as a reminder of the staggering diversity of the Trans-Pecos, and a humbling exposure to the wide open spaces that West Texas is famous for.

One Perfect Spring Day

One perfect spring day, Carolina came to me and said that she wanted to go looking for dogwoods.  She had a spot in mind, near the western edge of the Pineywoods.  My response, unsurprisingly, was an eager “let’s go!”.  So we set out into the woods, and what we found was a beautiful spring paradise beyond anything I could have expected.  Seeing Flowering Dogwood, with its blossom laden branches painting the forest understory in white, is reward enough for a day’s wanderings.  But the dogwoods were just a precursor to the botanical, entomological, and mycological treasures to be discovered.

Deep in the forest we came across a gentle slope in the mesic floodplain of a small stream.  My attention was immediately captured by a sea of Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) leaves.  Scattered Golden Groundsel (Packera obovata) blooms rose from beneath the surface, adding a splash of yellow to the forest floor.  It was a beautiful scene for certain.

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Vernal Forest

But the true treasures of this forest were revealed on closer examination.  Carolina spotted the leaves of White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum), and Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum), scattered low to the ground.  Both species are quite rare in Texas.  Moving further upslope, I began noticing more interesting blooms, including scattered colonies of Ozark Milkvetch (Astragalus distortus), Violet Woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea), and Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis), also known as Wood Betony.

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Ozark Milkvetch

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Violet Woodsorrel

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Lousewort

On the slopes drier upper reaches I encountered a couple of species that are much more common further west, where chalky, calcium rich soils are more common.  There were several Prairie Celestials (Nemastylis geminimflora) blooming alongside Nuttall’s Death Camas, which was still in tight bud.

Though it superficially resemble a lily, and is often called the “Celestial Lily”, Nemastylis geminiflora is, in fact, a member of the Iris family.  They thrive on calcium rich soils, and as the soils of the Pineywoods are generally acidic, they are seldom encountered here.  Finding them alongside the calciphilic Toxicoscordion nuttallii, communicated to me that we were dealing with a calcareous forest, and that other interesting things were likely near.

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Prairie Celestial

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Prairie Celestial

While I was admiring some blooming thing, Caro called out that she had found what is, in my opinion, a serious contender for the most beautiful animal in the country: the Luna Moth (Actias luna).  Seeing one of these massive silkworm moths in the wild is an experience not easily forgotten, and each encounter leaves me awestruck.  This striking male had clearly just emerged from its pupa, where it overwintered hidden among the leaf litter at the base of a large shortleaf pine.

It was a male, as evidenced by its large, feathery antennae.  It was no doubt awaiting nightfall, when it would take to the air in search of a female’s pheromone trail.  The females advertise their location using these chemical cues, and males will fly all night to find them.  It seems a tragic tale, as both sexes are born without feeding mouth parts, and live only for a week or so.  Their only purpose is to find a mate so that they may parent the next generation of Luna Moths.

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Luna Moth

When I had my lens trained on a different flower, Carolina called out that she had found an interesting fungus.  And she had.  I had heard that the elusive holy grail of fungi could be found in East Texas, but in nearly two decades of wandering I had never seen one.  That all changed this day.  Caro had found a Pineywoods morel.  More specifically, a Yellow Morel (Morchella esculenta).

Morels may be THE most sought after wild edible in the country.  Though common in some areas, they seem quite scarce in East Texas.  I had long dreamed of finding and photographing one, but the possibility hadn’t crossed my mind as we set out that morning.  These mushrooms are renowned for their rich flavor, and there is no way of knowing how many thousands of pounds are harvested each year.  It is said that this harvest is not harmful to the plant, as only the above ground reproductive structure of the organism is removed.  This is true in a sense, however removing them prior to the release of spores can still impact local populations.  Due to their unique beauty and scarcity in the region, I could not bring myself to pick any, and after capturing their likeness , I left them to the forest.

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Yellow Morel

After returning from an incredible day, Caro drafted a narrative of the mushrooms’ discovery which sums up a common interaction in such situations.  I share it here, as a tribute to one perfect spring day.

Loving the idea of helping him because it means he needs me I always keep my eyes wide open to any opportunity. I have good sight, but those were hard to recognize because they look similar to the leaves on the ground. Suddenly, I could recognize them; they were those fungi that he loves. I start to talk to him, well, interrupting him from the shooting. Like any other husband in this world, he starts to sound interrupted and makes noises right before the question: what is it?! After, breaking the special connection man-plant I could explain myself, but still wife-annoyed and mumbling secret words to the universe he knelt and asked again: what is it? But this time with a resigning attitude and makes an effort to not rise the voice, so I couldn’t detect the obvious and by using husband-diplomacy; he said “what?”. It took me a moment to make him understand what I was talking about and even longer to show the respective subjects. Then, he jumped and started to claim this species was something he always wanted to see and take photos, so the mystic connection moment restarted again.
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Yellow Morels

Spring in the Desert Part 2: The Super Bloom

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

In the absence of rain, this place may seem some endless sea of stone, only occasionally broken by scattered shrubs, cacti, or other thorny things.  In the hottest and driest of times it is easy to think that life shuns this place.  But such thoughts could not be farther from the truth.  The Chihuahuan Desert in the Big Bend region is one of the most biodiverse arid places on the planet.  Perhaps there is no better time to witness this biodiversity than early spring following a wet fall and winter.  Fueled by life-bringing moisture, countless billions of seeds germinate and send up a staggering array of flowers from the parched soil.  Perennial species, including cactus, also react to the increased moisture by concentrating energy into blooming en masse, painting the desert in a rainbow of colors, and shattering its stereotype as a barren wasteland.

After an incredible day exploring Black Gap, Caro and I set out early to Big Bend National Park in order to avoid the spring break crowds.  We arrived at the Panther Junction visitor center right as it opened so that we could explore the book store and refill some of our water bottles.  Within 30 minutes, the place was overrun with a variety of characters, all from different walks of life, seeking different experiences, yet united in their admiration for this incredible place.

Wanting to avoid the bulk of the crowds, we opted to explore some remote 4X4 roads, which would offer ample opportunities to explore a variety of habitats.  It was a good choice, and aside from a few vehicles before lunch, we had countless acres of wilderness to ourselves.

As the day began, we stopped to admire an explosive bloom of Bicolored Mustered (Nerisyrenia camporum) in the dry bed of Tornillo Creek.  The blooms are strongly fragrant and filled the spring air with their sweet aroma.

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Nerisyrenia camporum Super Bloom

In areas adjacent to the creek we found the mustard blooming alongside some towering Big Bend Bluebonnets (Lupinus havardii) and a variety of other wildflowers, offering a varied sampling of the palette that the desert was soon to provide.

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Spring in the Desert

We had seen our fair share of Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap, but Big Bend provided a whole new perspective to this striking plant.  The sky was overcast all day, providing a soft light that made landscape photography a challenge, but provided excellent opportunities to capture intimate portraits of many of the incredible wildflowers that we encountered.  Some of the bluebonnets we encountered were approaching four feet in height, and sported racemes bearing dozens of flowers.

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Big Bend Bluebonnet

While passing adjacent to a series of gypsic hills, Carolina shouted for me to stop.  This is usually a good thing, and means that she has spotted something interesting.  And indeed she had.  She pointed to bright yellow spot on a hillside hundreds of meters away.  How she spots these things, I’ll never know.  Moving closer to investigate, it soon became evident that it was a healthy Texas Rainbow Cactus (Echinocereus dasyacanthus).  This is a species that I included in my list of biodiversity goals.  I have seen the plant many times, but had never experienced the splendor of its blooms.  I was concerned that we were too early, but I was very wrong.  We would find many plants in full, glorious bloom in the lower elevations of the park.

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

I had always presumed these cacti had a preference for limestone, but we saw them in a variety of substrates throughout the day.  They have some of the most striking blooms of any cactus.  They are generally lemon yellow with green throats, and may approach 4 inches across.

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

Interestingly, their common name is not derived from their stunning flowers, but rather the rusty-colored bands decorating their stems.  Seeing many old, multi-stemmed individuals in such a remote setting was certainly one of the highlights of the trip.

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

A few of the plants contained Cactus Bees (Diadasia sp.) feeding on nectar from deep within the blooms.  The bees’ hairy exoskeleton served as the perfect vessel for trapping pollen, ensuring that the insects would play their part in propagating future generations of Texas Rainbow Cactus.

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Cactus Bee

There were other species of cactus in bloom as well.  Perhaps the most conspicuous were the large colonies of Purple Prickly Pears (Opuntia azurea), which were just coming into flower.  The blooms of most cactus species open in late morning or early afternoon, and close by late afternoon.  It was a wonderful thing to see these prickly pear flowers open to reveal their bright red centers to the world.

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Purple Prickly Pear

While it was easy to get lost in the grandeur of endless expanses of blooming wildflowers, pausing to admire more subtle, intimate scenes proved just as rewarding.  I photographed the Edward’s Hole-in-the-Sand Plant (Nicolletia edwardsii) and Sand Bells (Nama hispidum) just after the latter’s flowers opened for the day.

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Edward’s Hole-in-the-Sand plant and Sand Bells

The combination of wildflowers was endless.  Below Pope’s Phacelia (Phacelia popei) can be seen blooming alongside Bicolored Mustard along an ephemeral drainage.

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Pope’s Phacelia and Bicolored Mustard bloom along an ephemeral drainage.

The kaleidoscope of colors continued in this rocky wash, where I spotted several nice clumps of Havard’s Fiddleleaf (Nama havardii), known in the United States only from the Big Bend region.

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Havard’s Fiddleleaf and Bicolored Mustard bloom in a gravelly wash.

It seemed like around every bend in the road there was some new fusion of color to be discovered.  One of my favorites was the combination of the yellows of Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata) and the purples of Nama hispidum blooming among scattered Ocotillo and Creosote Bush.

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Baileya multiradiata and Nama hispidum bloom in profusion.

Deep in the interior of the park, we explored a series of limestone ridges and shale slopes on hills rising from the Rio Grande.  Here we found many interesting, uncommon species like the Lyreleaf Jewelflower (Streptanthus carinatus).  This denizen of the desert southwest bares purplish blooms in Texas, but they are primarily white and yellow as one moves further west in their range.

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Lyreleaf Jewelflower

We found several Candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphilitica) plants growing in the same general area.  This interesting succulent has a long history of use by human cultures.  As the specific epithet suggests, it was long used to treat sexually-transmitted diseases.  It has also been extensively harvested for a wax produced from its leaves.  This wax has been used for a variety of applications, including use as a food additive for glazing agents, as an ingredient in lip balm, and perhaps most famously as a binder for chewing gum.

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Candelilla

On one of the limestone slopes Caro spotted a beautiful Texas Rainbow Cactus that sported bright orange flowers as opposed to the more typical lemon colored blooms.  We saw a few of this color, and even a few with a pinkish tinge.

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

Caro’s sharp eyes also spotted the diminutive Duncan’s Foxtail Cactus (Escobaria duncanii), a rare cactus is primarily confined to a very narrow range near the Rio Grande in Big Bend and adjacent Mexico, though there is an isolated population in New Mexico.  This cryptic cactus grows from fissures and crevices in the limestone and is one of the first cacti to bloom in spring.  By our visit in early March, many of the blooms were already spent.

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Duncan’s Foxtail Cactus

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Duncan’s Foxtail Cactus

Another cactus I had really hoped to see was Warnock’s Pineapple Cactus (Echinomastus warnockii), named for the famous botanist and pioneer of the flora of the Trans-Pecos, Barton Warnock.  We actually saw several with closed blooms in the early afternoon, however this species opens later than most and we couldn’t wait around.  Fortunately Caro spotted one growing in a clump of dried grass on one of the limestone slopes a couple hours later.  Like many cacti of the region, E. warnockii is known only from West Texas and adjacent Mexico.

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Warnock’s Pineapple Cactus

Those limestone hills were full of a diversity of cactus!  Caro spotted another rare, early-blooming species, the Silver-Lace Cob Cactus (Escobaria albicolumnaria).  Consider by some to be a variety of Escobaria sneedii.  When investigating the cacti of Texas, one notices a pattern: many species are confined only to the Big Bend region.  In fact, this (relatively) small area in West Texas has the highest diversity of Texas in the United States.  E. albicolumnaria is another early bloomer, and sports pink flowers that never open fully.

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Silver-Lace Cob Cactus

Throughout the day we had seen several clumps of Big Bend Prickly Pear (Grusonia aggeria), another species whose U.S. range is confined to far West Texas.  A type of “dog cholla”, this cactus sports very sharp, strong spines that can become the bane of any desert wanderer.  Fortunately the bright yellow blooms make up for their pricklier side.

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Big Bend Prickly Pear

As the day neared its end we found some clumps of Purple Prickly Pear loaded with blooms and developing buds.  Their beauty combined with that of a carpet of composites and Nama, and the Chisos Mountains as a backdrop created a dramatic scene that I felt privileged to witness.

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Desert Abloom

Throughout the day we saw several blister beetles (Cysteodemus wislizeni) scurrying across the desert floor.  These chunky, iridescent beetles are flightless, and their elytra (outer wings) are partially fused.  They were constantly in motion, providing a challenge to photography, but it was a challenge I welcomed as I chased after them, camera in hand, uttering colorful phrases in my frustration.

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Cysteodemus wislizeni

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Cysteodemus wislizeni

While I was busily tending to the beetles, Caro came rushing over to me with her hands cupped one over the other.  What she revealed was a large grasshopper, which I believe to be a female Toad Lubber (Phrynotettix robustus).  I placed it adjacent to a few plants of the diminutive Matted Fiddleleaf (Nama torynophyllum).

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A Glimpse of the Desert Floor

As afternoon turned to evening we once again found ourselves among the overwhelming beauty of vast expanses of Big Bend Bluebonnet.  For the briefest of moments the sun broke through the wall of clouds, and illuminated the bluebonnet laden slopes and distant Chisos Mountains.

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Land of the Blue

As the light began to fade I thought back on one of the most incredible days I had spent in the desert.  Just as I was expecting photography to wind down, I caught a flash of pink in a sandy desert wash.  It was a species that I had very much hoped to find: Havard’s Ipomopsis (Ipomopsis havardii), another generally uncommon species unique to the region.  I quickly went about photographing it, as daylight was fading fast.

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Havard’s Ipomopsis

Though they are small, the colorful blooms are among the most interesting that I have seen.

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Havard’s Ipompsis

As I finished photographing the Havard’s Ipompsis, the light faded fast.  We spent last light driving through an expanse of volcanic tough that looked like some alien landscape.  As darkness set in we still had 10 miles until we would reach pavement.  It was an eerie feeling driving through some of that terrain in total darkness.  The eeriness did not diminish after we returned to pavement.  Shortly after doing so we pulled into a parking area to stretch our legs.  Immediately after leaving the truck we heard a pair of Coyotes sounding off.  Now I have spent many evenings being serenaded by the mournful calls of “God’s Dog”, and they often deceive one into thinking they are much closer than they actually are.  But these were CLOSE.  Caro suggested that I turn on the headlights, and as I did we could see the pair just at the edge of the beam’s reach.  They trotted across the road and continued into the vast desert beyond.

The experience rounded out a most spectacular day.  I leave you with a parting shot, of a splendid Texas Rainbow Cactus in all its glory, thriving in the desert flats below the venerable Chisos Mountains.

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

Spring in the Desert Part 1: The Beauty of Black Gap

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A monolith of rock rises from the desert floor in Maravillas Canyon

My first trip to Big Bend Country was over 20 years ago, in 1997, having spent just a month as a Texan.  We went in August, and it was hot.  Hot, intimidating, and seemingly inhospitable – at least in the surface.  But despite all of this I quickly fell in love with the land.  We watched a curious Gray Fox from the balcony of our room at the Chisos Mountain Lodge.  I chased Tarantula Hawks, velvet ants, and Horse Lubbers; and I found the glittering remains of a departed Glorious Jewel Beetle.  I marveled at the significant respite from the heat that the mountains provided, and the monsoonal rains that seemed so out of place in this arid landscape.

Since that day I have returned many times, and have been rewarded with incredible discoveries and remarkable experiences.  Yet in all these years I had never visited in the spring, one of the most spectacular times to be immersed in the Chihuahuan Desert.  I have long wanted to, but have always been somewhat intimidated by the crowds.  One thing I love about Big Bend is its remoteness, and the feeling of isolation and insignificance that comes with it.  During spring break, which generally coincides with the peak wildflower bloom, the park is flooded with visitors from all around the Lonestar State and beyond.

This year, however, I could not resist.  I began seeing reports that Big Bend was experiencing one of the most spectacular Big Bend Bluebonnet (Lupinus havardii) blooms in recent memory.  After a short conversation, Carolina and I made the decision to make the trek.  I consulted my friend Michael Eason, author of Wildflowers of Texas, and resident of the region.  He recommended that we spend a day in Black Gap Wildlife Management Area.  Black Gap is just northeast of the park, and we would come to find that it sports a diversity of life and quality of scenery on par with that of the park.

Though I highly recommend exploring Black Gap, I will add a word of caution.  At just over 100,000 acres, it is huge and it is very remote.  Access to the interior is via high clearance gravel and rock roads, and there are no services and very few visitors.  Despite being at the peak time for visitation to the region, we only saw one other vehicle all day.  There is no cell phone service, and it would be easy to become stranded, so visitors should come prepared.

Fortunately our visit went smoothly.  We arrived mid afternoon to the Stillwell Store.  Stillwell’s boasts a large camping area with well-spaced sites that offer a truly isolated feel, despite the large number of spring breakers.  They say that they never fill, and will accommodate all campers by opening additional property if necessary.  While the store and showers were packed every evening, from our campsite we could barely hear another soul.  Stillwell’s is directly adjacent to Black Gap and only 8 miles from the north entrance to Big Bend National Park, and provided the perfect base for our adventures.

We quickly made camp, and ventured into Black Gap.  Bicolored Mustard lined the roads and filled the desert air with their sweet aroma.  It wasn’t long until we began seeing our first Big Bend Bluebonnets roadside.  Once in Black Gap we began exploring desert washes painted by the blooms of millions of wildflowers.  The highlights were two species endemic to the Big Bend region of Texas and adjacent Mexico: Phacelia infundibuliformis and Streptanthus cutleri.

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Phacelia infundibuliformis

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Streptanthus cutleri

There were many more blooms to be seen, but it was growing dark.  We returned to the truck and continued on to the river.  I had to drive slow, as Collared Peccaries and Mule Deer crossed the road before us, and our headlights reflected in the eyes of countless Common Poorwills sitting in the roadway.

Tired from a long day, we returned to camp where we took advantage of the Stillwell Store’s showers and I boiled hot dogs for dinner.  As I was cleaning after dinner I heard Caro call out to me.  I knew from the sense of urgency in her tone that she had found something interesting, and she had!  In the light of her flashlight I could see a kangaroo rat casually foraging on the desert floor.  It was not concerned in the least as I approached with my camera.  Unfortunately just after I captured this image it made its way beneath a massive Tasajillo, so close but out of reach of my lens.

I believe it to be a Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys merriami).  This species is very similar to the Ord’s Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys ordii), and both species occur in this region.  Morphologically they are quite similar and are most easily separated by counting toes – Merriam’s have four toes on their hind feet while Ord’s have five.  I did not have the luxury of counting its toes, unfortunately, however it is also reported that the two species have slightly different habitat preferences, with Merriam’s occuring on rocky, gravelly soils and Ord’s occurring in areas of loose sand.

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Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat

Where there are rodents, invariably there are things that eat rodents.  This large Kansas Glossy Snake (Arizona elegans elegans) had extensive scarring on its head and appeared to be blind in one eye.  In spite of all this, it seemed very healthy.  It would be the only live snake we would see this trip, though we found a freshly hit Western Diamondback Rattlesnake and Western Coachwhip nearby.

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Kansas Glossy Snake

That night a few raindrops fell – just enough to draw the smell of earth from the desert and serenade us with a gentle pattering on the rainfly.  We woke early the next morning, and made our way into Black Gap.  We opted to spend the morning exploring along the paved FM road down to La Linda.  There is an old closed bridge across the Rio Grande there, a sign of more prosperous times when it served to transport flourite into the U.S. from mines in Coahuila.  Today the bridge is in ruins and La Linda is a ghost town.

While the evening before we had seen a few Big Bend Bluebonnets lining the roadside, today we saw them sprawling across the hillsides in a carpet of blue.  It was a sight to behold, and though I knew they could never do this view justice, I couldn’t resist taking a few pictures.

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Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap

A short hike from the road provided a spectacular view of the lower canyons of the Rio Grande.  Here we found Yellow Rocknettle (Eucnide bartonioides) clinging to the cliffs above the river.  Below I watched a group of Cinnamon Teal floating lazily downstream.  Taken in by the grandeur of it all, I paused a moment to lose myself in contemplation – a pastime that I find trips to wide open places greatly enhance.

To capture the image below I had to lie precariously on my stomach on a narrow ledge and lower my camera a few feet.  I relied on the LCD screen to compose the shot.  It may not have been the golden hour for photography, but I was not willing to pass up the opportunity to capture such an incredible moment in time.

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Yellow Rocknettle blooms above the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande.

The Yellow Rocknettle was incredible!  We found several large groups blooming on sheer cliff faces.  While most were high on canyon walls, well out of reach, a few were low and safe enough to approach.  The large, showy flowers may appear virtually any time of year when there is sufficient rainfall.

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Yellow Rocknettle

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Yellow Rocknettle

As the sun rose higher in the sky, cactus blooms began to open to the world.  We would end up finding 9 species in flower over the course of the trip.  In Black Gap, however, we only observed one species blooming – the Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha).  Like the Big Bend Bluebonnet and Yellow Rocknettle, this was one of the biodiversity goals on my list when I first started this blog.  Though I was able to photograph this species sans flowers in October 2017, this was my first time seeing the spectacular, albeit miniature, blooms.

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

As late morning turned to early afternoon, a thin veil of clouds began passing in front of the sun, creating one of my favorite qualities of light.  I took the opportunity to photograph more Big Bend Bluebonnets, whose cobalt hues mirrored the sky.

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Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap

Michael had suggested that we drive into the interior of Black Gap to experience Maravillas Canyon, and I’m glad he did.  In my opinion, the scenery here was on par with that in the National Park.  We left the pavement mid afternoon and ventured down the 4X4 road that led into the canyon.  It is 18 miles one way to the river, and though we found the road to be easily passable in my truck, it was rough.  I never put it into four-wheel drive, however high clearance was a must.

The road was lined with botanical wonders that only became more interesting and more numerous as we approached the river.  Here we found more proliferations of Big Bend Bluebonnet blooming among Lechuguilla, Candelilla, and Creosote.

As the sun vanished down behind the distant canyon walls, we made the long trek back to the pavement in the dark.  It was a somewhat eerie feeling being out in the night in the middle of so much nothingness, but I welcomed it.  It may seem counter intuitive, but I never feel more alive than those times when I’m reminded just how fragile and insignificant my life is, in the grand scheme of things.

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and Lechuguilla

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and Candelilla with Maravillas Canyon in the background

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and other desert flora in Maravillas Canyon

Exploring Black Gap was an experience I will never forget, and one I hope to repeat.  It really is the perfect playground for one who loves biodiversity, dramatic landscapes and solitude.  That night we arrived to our campsite late and completely drained, but we took in the moonless night sky where the brilliance of countless stars cast shadows across the desert floor.  It was another in a long list of humbling experience that the day offered.  The next morning we would venture into the park to experience a wildflower bloom, the abundance and diversity of which hardly seemed possible in such an unforgiving landscape.

Spring in the Desert: Prologue

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Lupinus havardii blooms in profusion in the low desert of Big Bend National Park, with the Chisos Mountains looming in the background

Over the next several days I’ll be posting a series of accounts from a spur the moment trip that Carolina and I took to the Big Bend region of Texas.  This year the area is experiencing a phenomenal wildflower bloom thanks to ample rain that fell in the fall and winter.  It is a trip that I have wanted to make for a long time, and the experience was truly incredible.  During our trip I was able to locate and photograph the following biodiversity targets:

Texas Rainbow Cactus (Echinocereus dasyacanthus)

Warnock’s Fishook Cactus (Echinomastus warnockii)

Yellow Rocknettle (Eucnide bartonioides)

Big Bend Bluebonnet (Lupinus havardii)

These species and many others will be presented in three chapters:

The Beauty of Black Gap

The Super Bloom

The Marathon Basin

I look forward to sharing our finds, experiences, and of course my photographs of a very special spring in this important, biodiverse region.

An Encounter with a Vanishing Prairie Icon

Target Species: Crawfish Frog (Rana areolata)

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Crawfish Frog

When General Manuel de Mier y Teran crossed the Pineywoods, East Texas was a patchwork of habitats.  Pine-dominated forests were largely restricted to upland ridges, while gentle slopes and stream floodplains were dominated by hardwoods.  And situated within this matrix of woodlands, where soil conditions and disturbance regimes were just right, existed prairie patches that supported plants and animals typical of the great tallgrass prairies that extended from the Texas coasts into southern Canada.

Less than hundred years after Teran’s famous expedition, the Pineywoods would be forever changed – scarred by the saw, and later the steam engine and the dozer.  Virtually all of the magnificent virgin forests were cut.  Pockets of prairie were converted to pasture and agriculture, or developed for human habitation.  As their habitat disappeared, so did many of the prairie obligate species that depended on them.

The conversion of prairie habitat is not unique to East Texas.  It has occurred, and continues to occur throughout the country, and many species continue to experience precipitous declines as a result.  Some grassland dependent songbirds, for example, appear to have declined by over 90% in a matter of decades.  It has become evident that if drastic measures are not taken, some of these species may be lost forever.

There is a ray of hope in this story of doom and gloom, however.  Within the past few years, a prairie amphibian that had not been recorded from the heart of East Texas for decades was relocated by Toby Hibbitts and other herpetologists in a concentrated survey effort across its historic range in Texas.  The characteristic “snore” of the Crawfish Frog (Rana areolata) was once again heard in the Pineywoods.

Like the grassland songbirds, the Crawfish Frog has been experiencing sharp declines in the past several decades and is considered a species of conservation concern in most states where it occurs.  Its strongholds in Texas are in the western reaches of the coastal prairies and marshes and portions of the Post Oak Savannah and Blackland Prairies.  Hibbitts, et. al. discovered that they were still hanging on in isolated populations in the Pineywoods.

I never thought I would see one of these enigmatic prairie dwellers in the Pineywoods.  I imagined it had gone the way of the Jaguar and the Black Bear – something lost to my generation.  So when suitable conditions presented themselves this spring Carolina and I set out one misty evening with our good friends James and Erin to see if we might find one.

In all honesty my hopes weren’t all that high.  It has been a weird spring this year, with a lot of moisture and wildly fluctuating temperatures.  But within 30 miles of our house, we spotted a mottled form on the pavement in front of us.  I rushed from the car and found before me a mangled mix of frog skin and guts.  It was a roadkill Crawfish Frog.  It was a bittersweet feeling for sure.  I had seen a Pineywoods areolata, but it was dead.  Freshly dead at that, as its rear legs were still twitching.  I was at the same time disappointed and encouraged.

As I took the frog in my hands and soaked in the tranquility of the evening, I could feel my ears perk as they drew in a distant sound.  In that moment Erin turned off the engine and the night came to life.  The ratcheting call of Cajun Chorus Frogs reached me first, followed by the cackling song of Southern Leopard Frogs.  Then I heard it, fainter and more distant than the rest – the nasal snore of the Crawfish Frog.

We bagged the dead frog in order to send to Toby for his research.  I then wandered down the road, flashlight in hand.  After a while I noticed a turn for a side road heading in the direction of one of the frog choruses.  The night was very dark and a thin veil of mist hang suspended in the air.  With my light I could only see where the road began.  I turned down this road, and soon found myself walking a two track gravel pathway pushing out into what looked like a pasture.  I could not see any “No Tresspassing” signs or purple paint, and there were no lights anywhere on the horizon.  Convinced that it was not private property, I continued.  The chorus grew louder.  I scanned my flashlight in all directions.  There was a fence to my left, and to my right there were several granite pillars emerging from the fog.  It became clear that I was wandering through a graveyard.

Despite the eeriness of the situation, I felt comfortable, and continued on joined by the rest of the party.  We soon realized that the frogs were calling in a pasture beyond the fence, in a place we could not reach.  So we decided to continue down the road, but first made our way through the cemetery toward its exit.  I swept the beam of my flashlight across the ground, and to my surprise caught glimpse of a reticulated, spotted thing resting among emerging shoots of grass and prairie forbs.  It was a Crawfish Frog.  I couldn’t help but smile.  We found one.

It was a beautiful animal, and a female of decent size.  Immediately after seeing us she arched her back and inflated her mid section in order to appear larger, more threatening.  This defensive posture also presents potential predators with a more difficult-to-swallow prey item.

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Crawfish Frog in defensive posture

Crawfish Frogs are dependent on prairie communities, where they spend most of their lives in or around crayfish burrows.  In this part of the state they may utilize burrows of the Texas Prairie Crayfish (Fallicambarus devastator), a species endemic to a handful of counties in East Texas.  We would see many that night.  Research has shown that the frogs utilize both primary and secondary burrows.  They spend most of the year at primary burrows, while they utilize secondary burrows while migrating to and from breeding sites, and perhaps to a lesser degree while foraging during prolonged periods of rain outside the breeding season.  Crawfish Frogs breed in ephemeral wetlands formed in prairie depressions and in fishless manmade ponds located within suitable habitats.  They have a prolonged breeding period in Texas, but generally breed en masse following warm rains in early spring.

Interestingly, these frogs are able to persist in heavily grazed areas.  Presumably, it is because they are heavily dependent on the condition of the soil rather than the structure of vegetation.  It is important that the soil column and crayfish burrows remain in tact.  In areas where the soil is tilled or otherwise disturbed, the frogs quickly disappear.

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Crawfish Frog

She would be the only Crawfish Frog we would see that night, though we did hear a few more choruses.  It was an incredible experience.  While encountering a seemingly thriving population in the Pineywoods certainly gives me hope, it does not change the fact that this species is on the decline and highly susceptible to the loss of our prairies.  We need to “want” to have this species around, and make a serious effort to conserve its habitat, or the story of its status in the Pineywoods fifty years from now may be a very different one.  Fortunately there seems to be a genuine interest in research and conservation of the Crawfish Frog in the Lonestar State, and I remain hopeful that when the conditions are just right on warm, rainy spring nights, future generations of East Texans will continue to hear the peculiar snore of this special prairie denizen.

Hidden Denizens of the Columbia Bottomlands

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Copperhead

Austin’s Woods were vibrant.  On that gray spring day in late February, the forest came to life.  Recent rains had vitalized the Resurrection Ferns and mosses that coated the trunks and arching limbs of ancient oaks.  The Roughleaf Dogwood was beginning to bloom and fresh leaves were emerging from the swamp privet and Possumhaw in the understory.  In the distance a Gray Tree Frog called half-heartedly.  The day was warm enough to encourage snakes and lizards from their refugia, and cool and cloudy enough that the cardinals, chickadees, and other resident birds remained active throughout the day.  Beetles scoured the forest floors, yet a recent cold snap kept the mosquitoes at bay.

I put myself in the boots of Stephen F. Austin, and other early anglo explorers to the region.  Unlike most of the forested regions of Texas, much of the remaining Columbia Bottomlands is old growth, and still looks much as it did two-hundred years ago – despite the absence of Jaguars, Pumas, Red Wolves, Black Bears, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, Carolina Parakeets, and other species that have long-since been banished by our hand.  These forests were largely spared the saw due to the poor growth form and low timber value of trees in the region combined with the difficulty of accessing many areas with logging equipment.  That is not to say that these forests are safe, however, as huge tracts are lost every year to urban sprawl and the increasing pressure for development in the greater Houston area.  Fortunately, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, and other local conservation organizations have been successful at protecting thousands of acres of habitat in the region.

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Columbia Bottomland Forest in the Nature Conservancy’s San Bernard Woods Preserve

The Columbia Bottomlands is so named because Stephen F. Austin established his first colony here, which would become the first “capitol” of Texas.  It was known as East Columbia.  This influential figure in Texas history also lends the region another name: Austin’s Woods.  Prior to anglo settlement these woods were home to the Karankawa and Tonkawa Peoples.

These unique forests occur in the broad interconnected floodplains of the Brazos, San Bernard, and Colorado Rivers and their many tributaries in southeast Texas.  They approach within a few miles of the coast in many areas, and are one of the few forested communities within the broader Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes ecoregion.  Indeed, the region encompassing the Columbia Bottomlands was historically a patchwork of forested bottoms and prairie uplands.

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Map of the Columbia Bottomlands.  Source: Texas Parks and Wildlife

The forest here supports a diversity of oaks, which are the primary overstory species in most areas.  Perhaps the most iconic characteristic species is the Coastal Live Oak, which can reach truly massive proportions here.  They occur alongside Water Oak, Willow Oak, Shumard Oak, and Nuttall Oak.  Burr Oak occurs sporadically.  These oaks share the overstory with Cedar Elm, American Elm, Sugarberry, and Green Ash.  In some areas stands of large Eastern Redcedar can be found, growing in areas much wetter than their typical preferred habitat.  The understory is typically open, influenced by the presence of standing water and saturated soils through much of the year.  In some areas dense layers of dwarf palmetto form nearly impenetrable thickets, and there are curious trunked palms present in isolated patches.  Historic accounts indicate that vast “canebrakes” or Giant Cane thickets were once present.  These conditions combine to create a primeval forest that appears out of place among the surrounding prairies.

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Columbia Bottomland Forest in the Nature Conservancy’s San Bernard Woods Preserve

It was my good fortune to spend a wonderful spring day in those woods with my good friend John Williams.  We spent the day exploring various units of the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, and the Nature Conservancy’s San Bernard Woods Preserve, which was accessed with permission.  That day we were fortunate, and observed many of the forest’s seldom seen inhabitants, including twenty snakes.

A mere few minutes into our adventure we encountered three Southern Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix).  These would prove to be the most commonly encountered species of the trip, and we found nine before the day was over.  The animals here are variable, and seem to show some influence from the Broad-banded Copperhead (Agkistrodon controtrix laticinctus), which occurs further south and west.

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Southern Copperhead

While wandering through chest-high palmettos, John spotted a Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor) clinging to one of the fronds.  It was perhaps the prettiest individual of this species that I had ever seen.  Subtle variation in the shades of gray and lichen green combined with hints of lime green to produce a truly beautiful animal.

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Southern Copperhead

At one particularly productive spot we found a Texas Coral Snake (Micrurus tener).  Though its skin was dulled by an impending shed, I could not resist the opportunity to photograph this beautiful Elapid.  Though they are highly venemous, these snakes are inoffensive and extremely reluctant to bite, and envenomation from them is exceedingly rare.  They have an entertaining defense mechanism, where they slightly curl and raise their tail in order to confuse predators into thinking it is the snake’s head.  They sway it back and forth and then jerk their body from side to side, seemingly flopping about.

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Texas Coral Snake

In close proximity to the coral snake we found four more copperheads, four Texas Brown (Dekay’s) Snakes (Storeria dekayi texana), and four Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis proximus).  One of the ribbon snakes was so large that we momentarily mistook it for an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis), a snake that is quite uncommon in Texas and generally restricted to the forests and prairies of this region.

A bit deeper into the woods we encountered a most spectacular organism, and the highlight of the day.  I heard John say “Holy $#!+!”, and looked to see a large Timber (Canebrake) Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).  This iconic pit viper approaches the southwestern extent of their range in the Columbia Bottomlands.  The snake looked to have recently shed, and was quite literally glowing.  It was a large snake, probably around three and a half feet, and though it did rattle its displeasure at us, it was docile and non-aggressive throughout our encounter.  Spending time with these woodland snakes is truly one of the most enjoyable experience that a forest dweller like myself can experience.

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Timber Rattlesnake

Snakes were certainly the topic of the day.  We did, however, encounter some of the forest’s smaller, more easily overlooked denizens.  Coming in a close second to the Timber Rattlesnake for the day’s highlight was Dicaelus purpuratus, a ground beetle adorned with a brilliant iridescent blue and purple exoskeleton.  Though this species has a broad range across the eastern United States, it is my experience that they are generally infrequently encountered.  In the Columbia Bottomlands, however, they are quite common and we found several that day.  D. purpuratus has large, powerful mandibles that are specially adapted for crushing the shells of small snails, their primary prey.

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Dicaelus purpuratus

We ended the day in the San Bernard Woods Preserve.  This preserve protects crucial bottomland hardwood and riparian forests and serves as an important component to provide connectivity to other protected areas in the Columbia Bottomlands.  It is another of the many examples of the fine work that the Nature Conservancy in Texas does to protect our states wild places, and biodiversity.

The Columbia Bottomlands are unlike any other forested community that I’ve been to.  They provide an important link to the natural and cultural history of Texas, and will forever hold a special place in my heart.  I look forward to visiting Austin’s Woods again soon, and experience the little wonders that contained within this primeval forest.