Wintering Waterfowl in North-Central Texas

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A Hooded Merganser swims through water reflecting remnant fall color in Post Oaks lining a wetland in North-Central Texas.

“Why am I doing this?” I couldn’t help but ask myself as I lay flat on my side in the muck, piles of duck feces inches from my face.  I was cold and wet, and tired – so very tired.  We woke up at 3:30 that morning and were on the road by 4, just so that we could arrive at our destination at first light.  I had come all this way and endured all this suffering for the chance to take pictures of ducks.  To many, ducks are those familiar, pesky waterbirds that harass them during a day at the park or a picnic near a pond.  To me, however, they are a diverse, fascinating group of some of the most beautiful birds on the planet with incredible life histories full of harrowing journeys, dramatic performances and tales of incredible hardship.  Yes, the world of ducks extends beyond the familiar Mallard and its domesticated descendants.  In this blog I will explore a slice of the diversity of ducks that spend the winter in North-Central Texas.

In Texas, the northern portion of the Blackland Prairies and Cross Timbers serves as an important wintering ground for a variety of waterfowl.  Wetland complexes adjacent to the Red and Trinity Rivers provide excellent habitat within a matrix of woodlands and prairies.  It is also located near the boundary of the Central and Mississippi flyways.  These factors help make the region a haven to ducks and geese that have traveled from as far as the Arctic Circle.

So this winter, I took three trips to the region in hopes of observing and photographing some of these beautiful birds.  I researched the region extensively, looking for promising locations.  We took our first trip on a grey, bitterly cold day in late December.  We would end up seeing many ducks at a few different locations, but the light was not with us.

Disappointing light aside, I did leave with a few image of one of my favorite ducks, and a species I had long wanted to photograph – the Canvasback (Aythya valiseneria).  With it’s long, broad black bill, characteristically sloping forehead, rusty head and bright white wings and flanks, the drake Canvasback is one of our most elegant ducks.  A black bib and tail help complete its dapper plumage.

There are four basic tribes of ducks: dabbling (Anatini), diving (Aythyini), sea (Mergini), and stiff-tailed (Oxyurini) ducks.  Canvasbacks are diving ducks.  Members of this tribe have legs set farther back on their bodies to aid in diving.  They feed by diving and foraging from the bottom of waterbodies.  Canvasbacks feed heavily on underwater tubers as well as snails, mollusks, and other aquatic invertebrates.  Most Canvasbacks winter in and around the Chesapeake Bay, and are generally uncommon elsewhere along the coast and inland.

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Drake Canvasback

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Drake Canvasback

On our next trip in early January, Caro and I were up and out hours before the sun came up.  My main target for this trip was the Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), my favorite duck and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful birds in the country.  We arrived at our first location, a forested pond in the Cross Timbers, for the day just as the sun was cresting the horizon.  Sure enough, there we spotted a pair of mergansers along the distant shoreline.

I made my way to the water’s edge and lied in wait.  Unfortunately, the drake never warmed up to my presence, and stayed well away.  The image below is the only time he ever raised his crest, and after just a few minutes he took off and never returned.

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Drake Hooded Merganser

The hen remained, however, and eventually she and the other ducks in the pond became accustomed to my presence.  She swam in close and provided several nice looks at her understated plumage.

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Hen Hooded Merganser

As I was admiring the merganser, a group of American Wigeon (Anas americana) flew in.  I had recently photographed these stunning ducks near Austin on Christmas Day.  Not one to pass up a good photo op, I captured the drake below mid-preen, as he showed off his wing coverts, scapulars, tertials, and just a hint of that iridescent speculum.

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Drake American Wigeon

The sky was cloudless that day, and soon the sun was too high and the light too harsh for photography.  So we grabbed lunch and traveled east, to a series of prairie ponds.  Here we found a variety of ducks, including both of our Scaup species.

Scaups can be tricky to differentiate, but there are a few good characteristics to look for.  Despite bearing the descriptors “Lesser” and “Greater”, size is generally not a reliable method to differentiate species, unless they are seen together.

In general, the Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) is smaller, however it is more readily identified by head shape and plumage detail.  Lessers generally have a more raised forehead, often having a crest-like appearance with the point near the back of the head.  The barring on Lesser Scaup’s feathers also extend all the way down its flanks.  Other, less reliable characteristics for identification include the iridescent sheen on the head, which is generally purple in Lesser Scaups, and the black at the tip of the bill, which is generally less extensive in Lessers.

Lesser Scaups are a common winter resident on waterbodies throughout the Lonestar State.  I photographed the drake below as it swam through waters reflecting the brilliant blue skies, with the muted browns of prairie grass in the background.

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Lesser Scaup

Much less common a winter visitor is the Greater Scaup (Aythya marila).  In Texas, they can be found sporadically along the coast in winter.  Inland, they are only observed with any regularity in a small area in north-central and northeast Texas.  They have journeyed here from the far north, where they breed in small ponds on the tundra and in the boreal forest.

True to their name, they are larger than Lesser Scaup, though this is only a useful diagnostic when both species are observed together.  They are more reliably differentiated by their more rounded heads, pure white flanks, broader bill with more prominent black marking at the tip, and greenish sheen to the feathers on their heads.

After spending some time among the scaups, and fruitlessly stalking a Bufflehead pair, we returned home, tired but satisfied from a long day in the field.

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Greater Scaup

An alternate name for this blog post could have been “My Quest for a Hooded Merganser”.  Since I was a child I have been enamored with this peculiar yet spectacular sea duck.  They lack the brilliant colors and iridescence of other species, but their bold black, white, and chestnut patterns along with that remarkable crest that is raised during courtship rituals sets them ahead of the pack.  It also doesn’t hurt that they are one of just a few duck species to breed in forested wetlands and nest in tree cavities.

I don’t see Hooded Mergansers very often, and most sightings consist of them rapidly disappearing on the wing after having spotted me at a great distance.  Though I had captured a few images on my previous visit, I wasn’t successful in getting the image I wanted – a drake with his crest raise, displaying the full glory of his breeding plumage.  So despite already having made the 6-hour round trip just twice in as many weeks, I rose again before 4 AM, and hit the road to the Cross Timbers.  This time I was joined by my good friend and photo buddy James Childress.

We arrived before first light, to a shallow pond nestled within a Post Oak – Cedar Elm woodland.  We donned our camo and settled in, laying flat in the mud at the water’s edge.  It wasn’t long before the ducks started coming in.  And sure enough, we spotted a lone drake Hooded Merganser.  Unfortunately he was sitting at rest, eyes barely open and crest laid flat.  Much to our disappointment, he would spent most of the morning in this state.

But he was not alone.  And there were plenty of other gorgeous ducks to occupy our time.  One of the most striking was the Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata).  A few drakes passed by fairly closely in waters reflecting the browns of dried leaves and greens of evergreen vines lining the shore.

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Northern Shoveler

I also took this opportunity to photograph a species I had long avoided, the ever present Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos).  It’s not a lack of beauty that kept me from photographing them, as they are undeniably striking birds.  Instead, it was the prevalence of domestic ducks, descendants of Mallards bred in captivity that have since escaped, or been released, and are now naturalized throughout much of the country.  I simply have no interest in photographing feral domestic descendants, and many are virtually indistinguishable from the wild type.  There are still plenty of wild Mallards in the country, however, though there are concerns that the gene pool is being diluted by these free ranging domestics.  The birds we saw that day seemed to fit into the wild phenotype, and I was fairly confident and hopeful that the animals I photographed were from wild, naturally migrating populations, but there is really no way to be sure.

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Mallards

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Mallards

The real star of the morning however, was the American Wigeon.  Some of the beautiful drakes passed close providing us with a variety of settings in which to photograph them, each better than the last.  Wigeons are known for their bully-like behavior, and despite being much smaller than the Mallards, they chased them out of the best feeding grounds.  In some cases they act like pirates, stealing hard-earned meals from diving ducks who, unlike the wigeons, are equipped to swim to the bottom of the pond to choose the most succulent, nutrient rich aquatic plants like Wild Celery (Vallisineria americana) We enjoyed their antics and the constantly whistle like call of the drakes.

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American Wigeon

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American Wigeon

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American Wigeon

The sun was getting high, pushing the envelope of what I consider good light and I was beginning to worry that I would again be heading home without a decent Hooded Merganser shot.  But just as we were starting to give up hope a second drake flew in.  This caught the attention of our first male, and both became active, diving in search of prey, and actively preening.  In the same moment a wispy veil of clouds crossed the sun, creating one of my favorite qualities of light.  I captured them in some truly bizarre, yet interesting poses.

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Hooded Merganser

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Hooded Merganser

I captured one of the drakes as he yawned, showing of the narrow, serrated bill specially adapted for capturing fish, crustaceans, and small aquatic animals.  I was certainly capturing some memorable images, but I still had failed to capture a pose with the crest raised.  I missed out on two opportunities as my camera’s auto-focus failed to lock onto the subject.

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Hooded Merganser

And then it happened.  After a short preening session, one of the drakes raised its crest and began to really show of its spectacular plumage.  It continued to preen and raise up to flap its wings and dry off its feathers.  I was thrilled to check off a subject that has been on my photographic bucket list for years.

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Hooded Merganser

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Hooded Merganser

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Hooded Merganser

While one drake was putting on a show in the distance, the other passed by close, and I was able to capture the image below in still, flat water – perhaps my favorite of the trip.

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Hooded Merganser

“That’s why I’m doing this!” I thought to myself with a smile.  It’s easy to lose sight of the prize while suffering in the cold and wet, and while every muscle in your body is screaming from the awkward contorted position you’ve taken up to get the perfect angle on one of the ducks.  But all of the misery seems to fade away while these beautiful animals appear within range of the lens, and the suffering seems a small price to play for these images that we may enjoy and reflect on for a lifetime.  I dare say, that these moments of unpleasantness only serve to enhance the experience, and I don’t think I would be rid of them, even if I could.

Looking Back: 2018 Highlights in Biodiversity

This year I did not focus on my biodiversity list with the same gusto that I did in 2017.  That is not to say, however that I gave up on my quest for biodiversity!  Lists aside, 2018 was one of my best years yet as a biologist, naturalist, and photographer.

I did, however manage to check a few species off my list including:

Tapertip Trillium (Trillium viridescens)

Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens)

Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus)

Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle (Habroscelimorpha dorsalis)

Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum)

Rich Mountain Salamander (Plethodon ouachitae)

These addition of these species puts me at over half of my list complete (45 of 80 species).

2018Goals

Beyond the list, this year I was able to photograph nearly 100 species that I had not previously photographed before, at least not to my current photographic standards.  In doing so I made many incredible observations, had good times in the field with family and friends, and found innovative new ways to photograph many familiar species.  It was hard to whittle down such a productive year, but I did my best to select a few highlights:

Perhaps the most exciting venture of 2018 was getting back into bird photography, thanks in part to my friend James Childress.  In January, James, his wife Erin and I found ourselves pursuing birds along the Upper Texas Coast.

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Blue-winged Teal

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American Bittern

We also spent some time chasing after local birds.

In early February, as winter began to slowly turn to spring, my friend Scott and I found this beautiful Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum).

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Spotted Salamander

Many of my favorite spring ephemeral wildflowers begin to appear by mid February.  Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) may be my favorite of these fleeting beauties, and each year I try to find different ways to photograph them.

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Bloodroot

In March, Caro and I traveled to the Lower Rio Grande Valley with James and Erin.  During our trip James and I were able to photograph many South Texas specialties, as well as other more widespread species.

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Altramira Oriole

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Cactus Wren

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Reddish Egret

During this trip I was also able to finally see the Federally Endangered Star Cactus (Astrophytum asterias) in bloom.

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Star Cactus

We also had the opportunity to photograph a beautiful old Texas Tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri).

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Texas Tortoise

Back in East Texas, Carolina and I spent many a spring day exploring the Pineywoods.

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Mirkwood

We were rewarded for our efforts on many occasions, such as this group of Kentucky Lady Slippers (Cypripedium kentuckiense).

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Kentucky Lady Slippers

In 2018 I made a concentrated effort to visit several of our great state’s ecoregions.  For the first time we explored the Cross Timbers and Prairies.  We found many beautiful landscapes in the Grand Prairie and Lampasas Cut Plain.

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Light Paints the Prairie

This region is home to some of the most spectacular displays of wildflowers in the country.  A highlight was finding several populations of Eastern Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia).

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We also found several large colonies of Nuttall’s Death Camas (Toxicoscordion nuttallii) on limestone ridges.

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Death Comes to the Prairie

And on a later visit we found fields of Narrow-leaved Purple Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), a species characteristic of the Great Plains.

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Narrow-leaved Purple Coneflower

As the weather warmed, we found ourselves taking several trips to the Upper Texas Coast, where I spent time on my belly photographing the local bird life.

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American Avocets

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Purple Gallinule

I have been fascinated with beetles since childhood, and few are more impressive than the Ox Beetle.  The animal below is Strategus aloeus, one of two local species of Ox Beetle.

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Ox Beetle

In July we met long time Flickr friends Jim Fowler and Walter to help them check a couple orchid species of their bucket list.  The species were the Texas Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris warnockii), also known as the Texas Purple Spike…

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Texas Crested Coralroot

…and the Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora), which we found deep in the Davis Mountains of West Texas.

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Giant Coralroot

In the semiarid grasslands at the base of the Davis Mountains I was able to photograph several Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana).

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Vigilant

Back in East Texas we sought out orchids, like the Crested Fringed Orchid (Platanthera cristata) pictured below.

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Crested Fringed Orchid

In early September I had a chance encounter on a river sandbar with a Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) in basic plumage.

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At the end of September, after many failed attempts over several years, I was finally able to find and photograph an adult Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum).

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Ringed Salamander

When I forgot my camera on a visit to James and Erin’s farm, James was kind enough to lend me his when we found this Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) hunting Common Eastern Bumblebees (Bombus impatiens)

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Seconds from Disaster

In December I was lucky enough to photograph a Northern Raccoon (Procyon lotor) on a trip to the Upper Texas Coast with Caro, James, and Erin.

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During that trip we also encountered several cooperative Seaside Sparrows (Ammodramus maritimus).

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My year reached its pinnacle on Christmas Day, when I shared a pond with some American Wigeons (Anas americana).

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American Wigeon

2018 will be a hard year to top, but I intend to give it my all in 2019.  I wish all of you the best in this new year.

Autumn in the Pineywoods

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East Texas Waterfall

As I write this, on a cold and rainy day at the end of December, all but a handful of brave trees have cast their leaves in preparation for the darkness and cold that winter brings.  Days like this it’s easy to long for the milder days and brilliant colors of fall.  This year was a particularly beautiful autumn in the Pineywoods, with many species putting on displays of color that I had not seen for some time.  To fight off the gloom of this winter’s day, I decided to live vicariously through my memories as I chronicle my autumn explorations here.

We’ll start on my birthday.  At the start of October, the days have become shorter and the temperatures begin to cool.  October has always been one of my favorite months here in Texas.  The colors begin to turn, and the climate is mild.  Cool enough that it is pleasant to be outside, yet warm enough that many winter-adverse species such as reptiles and insects are still active.  A number of interesting fall-blooming plants are also on display in this month of the Hunter’s Moon.

On my birthday we set out to find a few such plants.  The first that we came across was the Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), also known as the Ghost or Corpse Plant.  This interesting fungus-eating plant is a member of the blueberry family, of all things.  It does not produce chlorophyll like most traditional plants, but rather obtains its energy and nutrients from the mycorhizzal fungi of tree roots.  In Texas they may begin to bloom in late August or early September, and I have seen them as late at January (late in the sense that it is at the end of the blooming season for this species).  The flowers’ superficial resemblance to a pipe as inspired stories in Native American folklore, including the idea that these plants mark the graves of old chiefs, and provide them a vessel with which to smoke from the afterlife.

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Indian Pipes

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Indian Pipes

Growing near the Indian Pipes, in the shade of American Beech was a rare treat, Tall Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes altissima).  Though it may line the roadsides further east, it is known from only a few isolated locations in extreme eastern Texas.  Here it grows on steep hillside springheads and the banks of springfed streams in mature hardwood forests.

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Tall Rattlesnake Root

Ample rains in September fueled a profusion of fungi, whose fibrous filaments draw moisture from the earth and feed on the ample detritus beneath the leaf litter.  Fungi are fascinating, beautiful organisms.  They lead most of their lives hidden below ground, but grace us with a spectacular display when their fruiting bodies form.  Perhaps my favorites are the many varieties of coral fungus.  Each is unique, and contain an intricate maze of protrusions that seem crafted by some avant-garde architect.

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Coral Fungus

Many species of fungus are quite toxic to humans, but there are some that are said to be delicious.  I personally have never been brave enough to try wild mushrooms.  It seems like for every edible species there is a lethal, or at least debilitating look-alike.  One species that is favored by foragers is the Indigo Milk Cap (Lactarius indigo) which an be found in hardwood bottoms in late summer and early fall.

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Indigo Milk Cap

Fungi come in a staggering array of shapes and colors.  They are also fun to photograph, and lead the mind to find interesting angles and compositions with which to present them.

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Fungi (I believe these are chanterelles)

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Fungi

Autumn also signals the beginning of the salamander breeding season in East Texas.  In mid-October conditions were right for Marbled Salamanders (Ambystoma opacum) to make their annual breeding migrations.  Unlike most members of the family Ambystomatidae, which breed in the water during late winter and early spring, the Marbled Salamander breeds on dry land, and the females lay their eggs under woody debris within dry vernal pool basins.  They will then guard the eggs as they wait for winter rains to fill the pools and disperse and hatch their offspring.  By doing this they get a leg up on the competition, so to speak, which comes in the form of other amphibian larvae that won’t begin to develop for another couple of months.

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Marbled Salamander Male

Marbled Salamanders are one of relatively few amphibian species that are sexually dimorphic.  The males (pictured above) have bright silvery white dorsal patterns while the females (pictured below) have duller silver to coppery markings.  The males also display a swollen cloaca at the base of their tail during the breeding season.

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Marbled Salamander

In late October Caro and I spent a damp autumn day in the woods with our friends James and Erin.  It provided a chance to capture more images of interesting fungi, like these Earthstars, which look like little puff balls wearing tutus.

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Earthstars

We also observed a number of insects like these seemingly affectionate Six-spotted Flower Longhorn Beetles (Strangalia sexnotata).

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Six-spotted Flower Longhorn Beetles

We also found a few Rainbow Scarabs (Phanaeus vindex), a spectacular beetle that I highlighted in a previous blog post.

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Rainbow Scarab

And then there were the Indian Pipes.  We found hundreds in a remnant Longleaf Pine savannah, pushing up through the dense carpet of needles and cones.  It became somewhat of a game seeing who could spot the most.  Per usual, Caro won by a landslide.

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Indian Pipes

One October day I received a call from my wife that she had found a recently hit Gray Fox next to the road. Being eccentric biologist types, we decided that we wanted to try to get its skeleton for study and admiration. So we called James and Erin, who own a large tract of land, and asked if we could set it out there to decompose. Being a couple of biologists themselves, they gladly agreed and we loaded the fox carcass in the bed of my truck and set out on the half-hour or so journey to their farm.

Just after we arrived, I heard my wife call out, “Look at this!” No surprise really, as she has an uncanny talent for spotting creatures, plants, and any other thing that remains invisible to most. She had found a large adult female Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina), hiding among the goldenrod blooms near the Childress cabin.

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Carolina Mantis

Of course, in our haste to make our morbid delivery I had forgotten my camera.  Fortunately James was kind enough to lend me his. We approached the scene and I tried to formulate a plan on how to best photograph this spectacular insect. As we drew near we noticed the carcasses of Common Eastern Bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) scattered about the ground, dismembered and drained of their juices. Oblivious to the danger, there were several more bees nectaring on the goldenrod just inches from the mantis. So I found a good angle and waited to see if I might capture some action. I set the lens on a bee that was slowly creeping closer and closer to this devourer of pollinators. The bee brushed against the mantis’s leg, yet still the predator remained still. Its head slowly cocked and it’s antennae twitched ever so slightly. Deliberately and methodically it crept toward the ravenous bumble bee. Its movements were almost imperceptible. I captured the image below as it zeroed in on the bee and prepared its strike.

Seconds after I captured this image the mantis did strike, though I only managed to record a blur of green. It missed, and the bee flew to a distant part of the same plant to continue feeding. Later we would see the mantis in the middle of devouring another unfortunate Bombus impatiens, though we missed the strike. In all it would seem that this ruthless hunter his doing quite well on the goldenrod she has staked claim to.  She remained on that withering goldenrod well into December.

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Seconds from Disaster

A few days before Halloween, Caro and I set out to look for signs of fall along backroads and deep in the forest. Colors were beginning to change, with vines like Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy putting on a brilliant display. Elms, hickories, and even some red maples were beginning to lose their chlorophyll while baldcypress was nearing peak color.  Monarchs are passing through en masse, and were joined at fall blooming plants by Gulf Fritillaries, Buckeyes, and American Ladies.

In the late afternoon we came across a stunning Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) taking in the Sun’s fading warmth. It was one of the lightest snakes I’ve seen, with narrow bands of almost pure white along its chevrons. I would put it at a bit under three feet in length, a decent size. And like most of its kind that I’ve encountered it rattled only briefly, and was incredible docile and non-aggressive throughout our interaction.

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Canebrake Rattlesnake

After spending some time with this spectacular denizen of the deep woods, we were able to turn up a couple of Marbled Salamanders and Southern Leopard Frogs adjacent to a series of ephemeral wetlands. I then noticed a large fallen tree, its branches arching above the forest floor. While admiring the verdance of the mosses and Resurrection Fern coating the bark, I glimpsed an unusual creature swaying back and forth. It was a huge Megarhyssa atrata (a type of giant ichneumon) busy probing the chambers of horntail wasp larvae with her ovipositor. She lays her eggs in the soft flesh of these larvae, where they will hatch and consume their host as they develop. This downed tree was literally swarming with Megarhyssa atrata and M. macrurus. Though they may be “creepy” looking, these large insects are harmless and fascinating.

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Megarhyssa atrata

In early November we set out to look for Long-lipped Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes longilabris) a rare orchid of fire-maintained Longleaf Pine Savannahs.  A species of the coastal plain, they reach the western extent of their range in East Texas.  Uncommon to rare throughout their range, in Texas they are known from only a handful of sites in the Big Thicket.

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Long-lipped Ladies’ Tresses

Another East Texas rarity is the Kidney-leaved Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia asarifolia).  To my knowledge, they only persist along a single drainage in the Pineywoods.

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Kidney-leaved Grass-of-Parnassus

A favorite past time of Carolina and me is wandering around Ellen Trout Park here in Lufkin.  There are usually a variety of interesting things to be seen, including several resident Great Egrets (Ardea alba).

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Great Egret

The star attraction of the park, however, is a pair of Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) that nest there each year.  It wasn’t so long ago that Bald Eagles were nearing extinction, but a variety of factors including the banning of DDT and Federal regulations like the Endangered Species Act and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act brought them back from the brink.

While most of East Texas’s species suffered greatly from the construction of large reservoirs, this is one of a few species that has actually benefited. The damming of the major rivers of the region created tens of thousands of acres of suitable habitat for the large raptors.  In East Texas, Bald Eagles prefer to nest near the top of large pine trees adjacent to large water bodies. I composed the image below to capture the essence of this habitat.

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Bald Eagle

By late November, fall color had begun arriving in earnest.  One one of our frequent evening drives, I spotted the stereotypical Pineywoods scene below along the backroads.

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Florida Maple (Acer floridanum) generally displays a brilliant golden yellow during autumn.  This year they put on quite a show on slopes and along riverbanks.

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Florida Maples

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Florida Maples

In some areas Florida Maples can be found growing alongside Red Maples (Acer rubrum).  In the fall, Red Maple comes in a variety of colors, including yellow, orange, and red.  In the image below it held up to its namesake, and provided an excellent contrast to the bright yellows of the Florida Maple next door.

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A Meeting of Maples

The Pineywoods of East Texas are known for their towering forests. While breathtaking in their own right, the abundance of trees blocks the horizon, and there are not many places in East Texas that offer broad views of the landscape. There are a few exceptions on high ridges, however, like this spot east of Nacogdoches. Here the crowns of pines and a diversity of hardwoods creates a beautiful fall palette of greens, oranges, and yellows.

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Bird’s Eye View

Many species of butterfly remain active well into the fall.  One of the most common is the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae).  We often see them nectaring alongside other species on fall blooming wildflowers like these asters.

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Gulf Fritillary

In late November, Carolina and I made our way north to explore the forests of Cherokee and Smith Counties.  Here we found countless beautiful scenes, of which I attempted to capture just a small fraction of their brilliance with the images below.

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Dressed in Gold

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Autumn Exposure

During this day trip, we visited Tyler State Park for the first time.  The State Park system of Texas protects a multitude of important and interesting natural and cultural features.  The park was beautiful, with ample fall color among mature mixed pine-hardwood forests and infrastructure created by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

I generally avoid including man-made elements in my images, however the road through the state park seemed to be asking to be photographed.  I captured the image to remind me of one of my favorite past times – driving quiet back roads in fall…

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The Road to Autumn

…and hiking in the autumnal forest.  If you look closely in the image below you can see a hiker’s footbridge beneath Flowering Dogwoods with foliage aflame.

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Tyler State Park Trail

The color of the day was definitely orange, a deviation from the standard yellows and occasional reds typical further south.  The Red Maples in particular were glowing.  We enjoyed our time in the park, and will likely be making a repeat visit soon!

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Autumn’s Orange

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Maples in the Midstory

Some autumn scenes display a more subtle beauty.  I captured the scene below in the floodplain of the Neches River.  The Inland Sea Oats blanketing the ground had turned brown.  The bark of Sugarberries added contrast while the fall foliage of distant elms added a splash of color.

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All that Remains

Perhaps the most spectacular fall scene would not reveal itself until December, when I went to visit a waterfall recently discovered by my friend Scott.  This waterfall is hidden deep forest in an area where steep ravines funnel water, whose power carves shallow canyons into the erodible mudstone of the Wilcox Formation. The slopes that grade down to this stream are decorated with the golden autumn foliage of American Beech and likely harbor a vernal flora rich in peripheral species of the great Eastern deciduous forests.

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There are few things that bring me more joy than a walk in the autumn woods, and though the season has turned, it’s hard to fret too much.  Winter resident birds have arrived and salamanders have begun to breed.  Though winter may seem the bleakest of seasons, there is lots of life for those willing to look.  So for now, I will look forward to the winter and spring, and say, “until next time, autumn!”

Christmas with the Quacks

Sometimes the best Christmas gifts are not items, but rather experiences.  And sometimes they come from no giver in particular, but happenstance.  This year I received some of these intangible gifts, on a level I had not experienced before.  That’s not to say that I didn’t also receive many wonderful gifts from my family.  This year I was lucky enough to get a fantastic new camera backpack and some other accessories, a few excellent books, a blow gun, and another year’s supply of socks.  But the unique nature of some photo opportunities this Christmas, and their relevance to the nature of my blog has prompted this special holiday post.

For Christmas Eve, Carolina and I stayed in Lufkin.  We made a hearty breakfast, took a pleasant walk in the morning, and enjoyed each other’s company throughout the day.  In the late afternoon, Caro suggested that we visit some local ponds to look for ducks.  This in and of itself was a Christmas in my eyes!  So we went to a local pond where a large group of Gadwall (Anas strepera) has been spending the winter.  The birds were skittish at first, taking flight at our initial response.  But they regrouped at the opposite end of the pond, and I was able to take advantage of some old willows lining the pond’s edge to creep closer.  I found a break in the trees where I could lay flat and capture a few images of a spectacular drake.  The Gadwall is perhaps our most underrated species of duck.  It lacks the bold colors of many species, but the subtle intricacies of its plumage and varying tones of brown and gray make it a beautiful thing to behold.  That evening Caro prepared a delicious meal, and we toasted the season and built a fire in the yard.

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Gadwall

The next morning we woke early and set out for Austin, where we would be celebrating Christmas Day at my brother Seth’s girlfriend’s house.  After arriving, visiting, and enjoying some snacks that she had prepared, his girlfriend, Jen, informed us that there was a detention pond in the back of her neighborhood that often had ducks on it.  Naturally, I couldn’t resist the opportunity, so we took a family walk to see what was there. Sure enough, upon arriving I spied a large group of American Wigeon (Anas americana), a few Gadwall, and a lone Ringneck Duck. I tried to circle wide and creep up on some of the wigeon.  I have long wished for an opportunity to capture good images of this spectacular duck, but they had thus far eluded my lens.  Unfortunately the birds proved initially skittish, and due to the steep banks grading into the pond I was unable to get a shot from a suitable angle. I tried a few different methods of approaching until they finally flew off for good. Or so we thought… After a few minutes of wandering around we decided it was time to head back.  It was in that precise moment that the wigeons returned to the opposite end of the pond. So my brother and I opted to remain.  We formulated a plan of attack.  I skirted wide, using the pond’s berm to hide my approach, while my brother approached from the opposite side, obscured by dense vegetation.  I then belly-crawled to the edge of the detention pond where I was at least partially hidden by cattails and dried stalks of Powdery Alligator Flag. I was at a good angle, but unfortunately I was unable to get a clear shot through wetland vegetation.  So I decided to start crab-walking into the pond itself, as one does, until i was submerged to my waist. To my surprise, I found the ducks to be much more tolerant of my presence when I was actually in the water. Instead of flushing, they only swam to the other side of the pond, just out of photo’s reach.

Enter Seth. He crept up behind the vegetation on that side and started shaking some of the plants and making some bizarre noises that I could only describe as a mix of a wounded duck and disturbed house cat. It did the trick, however, and the wigeons came toward me, at times approaching too close for me to focus, and I was finally able to capture some fine images of this beautiful species.  I couldn’t believe it.  There are those times as a photographer where everything just seems to fall into place.  It is a rare thing, made all the more special for me that I was able to share the experience with my brother on Christmas Day.

I don’t think my family was surprised when I returned soaking wet and covered from head to toe in mud and bits of wetland vegetation, as they have become desensitized to my antics over the years.  I cleaned up and we enjoyed a delicious Christmas dinner.  It was certainly not your most traditional Christmas experience, but a fitting one, and one that I will never forget.

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American Wigeon

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American Wigeon

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American Wigeons

A Productive Visit to the Upper Texas Coast

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Seaside Sparrow

When James and I first discussed taking a short trip to the Upper Texas Coast, we had two species on our mind: Black Scoters that had been seen in Galveston, and a Short-eared Owl that had been regularly observed at Anahuac.  I’ll save the suspense, and tell you know that we did not find either target.  Despite this, our short outing to the coast would end up being an especially memorable, productive trip.

Carolina and I left Saturday afternoon to stay with my parents in The Woodlands.  After 150,000 shutter actuations, my trusty Canon 7D is beginning to show its age.  It still takes excellent photos, however it is beginning to have some mechanical issues including occasional trouble powering on.  I had mentioned to my mom that I was considering purchasing a new camera, and she completely surprised me by offering to buy it for me using some money left to her by her late Aunt Jan.  I remember Aunt Jan from all of our family outings growing up in Chicago.  After we moved to Texas she would faithfully send me a birthday card every year up until just a few years ago.  My mom wanted to use some of the money left to her to do something nice for my brother and I, and this was as nice as it gets.  When I arrived at my parent’s house I became the proud new owner of a Canon 7D Mark II.  That evening we visited with my folks, ate my Dad’s famous New York strip and baked potato, and I readied my gear for the next day.

The next morning we woke at an inhumane hour.  I wanted to arrive on the coast before sunrise in order to try out my new gear and try to capture some images in that golden morning light that photographers are always raving about.  We would be meeting James and Erin on the beach.  They had left a day earlier and were camped at High Island.

We arrived just as the sun was cresting the undulating Gulf, casting its warmth upon the beach.  It wasn’t long before the first photo op presented itself.  I spotted a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) in a clump of dried camphor daisy.  The bird was surprisingly trusting and allowed for a close approach as it flit from bush to bush.  The trip was off to a good start.

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Loggerhead Shrike

James and Erin arrived just as I was finishing up with the shrike, and much to James’s disappointment, it vanished into the distant dunes.  We would end up seeing many shrikes over the course of the trip, but none provided such excellent photographic opportunities as the first.  Shrikes are fascinating, morbid birds.  These vicious hunters will pounce on anything smaller than themselves and quickly eviscerate them with their hooked beaks.  When I worked at Anahuac as a research biologist over a decade ago, we trapped Loggerhead Shrikes for research purposes.  The trapping method included placing a white mouse in a circular trap with a partition in the middle.  In the chamber opposite the mouse there was a small door that provided the only opportunity for the shrike to access the mouse.  As the bird entered it would trip a trigger and the door would close.  The partition protected the mouse from harm and we were able to safely extract the shrike.  Their bites drew blood, and we had to use special steel bands, as their powerful beaks would make short work of the standard aluminum versions.  If all of this wasn’t enough evidence as to their voracity, they decorate their territory with the carcasses of their victims, impaling them on thorns and barbed wire.  This gruesome behavior has earned them the nickname “Butcher Birds”

After chatting for a few minutes, James and I set out in pursuit of shorebirds while Erin combed the beach and Caro took in the warmth of the winter sun.  The shorebirds were out in force, and within a few minutes we had seen Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, Snowy Plovers, Piping Plovers, Wilson’s Plovers, and more.  My eye was drawn to a Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) standing in a shallow pool created by the advancing tide.  It was yawning(?) repeatedly, which provided for an interesting photo.  I created the image below to highlight the layers of color and light on the beach that morning, and like how bands of color exist throughout the image, from the foreground through the background.  Black-bellied Plover seems an unfitting name when seen in their winter plumage, but in the breeding season the males will don a dramatic pattern of black and white.

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Black-bellied Plover

I had really hoped to photograph a Long-billed Curlew that morning, and we did see one.  Unfortunately it proved too skittish and vanished before we would get our chance.  We also missed an opportunity to photograph a group of Horned Larks which flew into the wrack and blended almost perfectly into their surroundings.  It’s hard to be disappointed on such a beautiful morning, however.  And as the sun rose higher and the light became too harsh, we enjoyed watching the Brown and American White Pelicans fishing just offshore.

Satisfied with our morning at the beach, we all took the Ferry to Galveston Island.  Here we drove up and down the beach diligently seeking the group of Black Scoters that had been seen in the area.  Unfortunately this day it was not to be.

After lunch and a visit to La King’s Confectionery, we set out to explore Galveston Island State Park.  James and I trudged through the mucky saltmarsh while Caro and Erin sat at the Marsh’s edge.  We encountered a handful of Swamp and Savannah Sparrows, and a pair of Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) tucked away in the grass.

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Roseate Spoonbills

After the park we took one more pass down the sea wall to look for the scoters, again we found none.  Then it was back to the Ferry where we watched dolphins from the upper deck.  Once on Bolivar we returned to the beach.  There was a special light that evening, as the setting sun pushed through wispy clouds on the horizon.  This light, and distant skies painted by interesting clouds convinced me to take a break from birds and turn my camera to the subtle yet beautiful landscapes of the area.

The first scene to catch my eye was the sky’s reflection in a Black Needlerush marsh.  I waded into the marsh to capture this image, and endured the bites of what must have been thousands of mosquitoes.  The tiny bloodsuckers hadn’t even crossed my mind as we left east Texas, but I suppose the season had thus far been mild on the coast and recent rains provided the breeding ground.  Despite being probed by hundreds of needle-like probosces, I could not pull myself away from the tranquil scene.

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Black Needlerush Marsh

It was uncharacteristically still that day.  Only the faintest breeze swept across the beach from time to time.  Some of the clumps of Camphor Daisy still had blooms on them, and when I spotted one particular clump, half in fruit, half in bloom, just above tiny windswept ridges and a myriad of mammal tracks in the sand, my mind immediately began framing a scene.  Another distant group of Camphor Daisies and ethereal clouds in the distance added to the mood.  I composed the scene and captured the image below, which ended up being one of my favorite landscape images from 2018.

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Stories in the Sand

On the water a massive raft of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) was forming.  There was little light left, but dusk had dyed the water with hues of pink and blue.  The image below was taken at ISO 2500 and a very low shutter speed, but the unique light was just too good an opportunity to squander.

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American White Pelicans

As the day’s light vanished we went to set up camp at High Island.  Caro made a very impressive fire while I prepared one of my camp specialties, macaroni and tuna.  The mosquitoes were relentless despite temperatures dipping to the upper 40s.

Dawn broke to cloudy skies.  We took down camp and set out to explore Anahuac.  It would prove to be a most productive visit to a refuge where I have spent countless hours.  The roadsides were lined with American Bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus).  The trick was spotting these incredibly cryptic birds among the grasses, sedges, and rushes of the marsh.

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American Bittern

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American Bittern

As we were photographing a bittern, a pair of male Boat-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus major).  Both birds began to display in unison, though it seemed more like a joint effort than a ritualized competitive display.  I remain curious as to the nature of their interaction.  Boat-tailed Grackles are endemic to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the U.S., occurring in coastal marshes from southeast Texas to Long Island, New York.

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Boat-tailed Grackles

We spent most of the day driving the various roads in the refuge in search of things to photograph.  As we neared one of the refuge’s boat ramps, we caught site of a ball of fluff waddling toward the marsh.  It was a Northern Raccoon (Procyon lotor) and her progeny.  She stopped for a moment at the edge of the grass and allowed time for me to fire off a handful of shots before vanishing from sight.

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Northern Raccoon

It was an amazing opportunity.  Despite being ubiquitous, ranging across most of North America, and living in close proximity to human habitations, they are seldom observed, particularly in the daylight.  Their nocturnal habits and generally secretive nature makes capturing good images a real challenge.  I got a few shots that I was happy with, but really hoped for more time with these little carnivores.

We waited a moment but they didn’t show themselves.  After some time we decided to walk the edge of the saltmarsh for a while in search of sparrows.  The mosquitoes once again proved to be relentless, so Caro and I returned to the truck so I could change my shorts for pants.  As we neared we saw that the raccoons had emerged once again from the marsh, and I was able to capture a few more images, including the photo below.  It wasn’t long before they disappeared again.  I returned to look for sparrows while Caro hung around in the area to see if they might return.  Sure enough, when we came back from the saltmarsh she showed us a video of them foraging in the marsh, not far from where she sat, obstructed by my truck.

Seeing raccoons always reminds me of my mom’s sister, my Aunt Jer.  They were her favorite animal, and I still remember portraits of them in her home in Chicago.  It has been over 20 years since she passed, and while we all still miss her to this day, it brings me some joy and comfort knowing that, for me, her memory lives on in these masked bandits of the mammal world.

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Northern Raccoon

As we set out on our quest for sparrows we immediately began observing Marsh and Sedge Wrens skulking in the dense vegetation.  These tiny songbirds are generally very secretive, so it was a surprise when one of the Marsh Wrens (Cistothorus palustris) popped up for long enough for me to capture a few images.  In the spring, their distinctive chattery songs will bring joy to these coastal wetlands.

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Marsh Wren

The stars of the entire trip, however, were the Seaside Sparrows (Ammodramus maritimus).  These saltmarsh specialists occur in an extremely narrow band along the coast from south Texas to extreme southern Maine.  They spend most of their lives hidden among the Spartina and Distichlis of the saltmarsh, but occassionally will make themselves visible for the briefest of moments.

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Seaside Sparrow

I have learned that bird photography is often just as much about luck as it is skill and equipment.  I had visited this particular part of the refuge dozens of times in search of Seaside and Nelson’s Sparrows.  I typically see a few, but they generally remain elusive, and provide only fleeting glimpses.  This day, for whatever reason, they were out in force, and provided several good, relatively open looks.  I suspect that if I returned tomorrow, they would return to their secretive ways.

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Seaside Sparrow

Though they remain common in some areas of Texas, Seaside Sparrow populations are decreasing throughout their range.  They are under assault from a variety of factors including climate change, sea level rise, and rapid human development of coastal areas.  One race, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, went extinct just over 30 years ago, while another, the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow, is Federally Endangered.  Though I have decent images of this species from my time in Maryland, I have long wanted better images, specifically from Texas, and it was a dream come true to have the opportunity to capture some.

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Seaside Sparrow

Sadly our trip had to come to an end, as they always do.  But as we returned to the Pineywoods, in my mind I kept hearing the waves breaking on the shore, smelling the salt of the sea, feeling the mud sink beneath my feet, and seeing those coastal birds in their element.  And thanks to the images I captured on the trip, I can revisit those moments at any time, until I find myself trudging through the saltmarsh once more.

An Evening on the Neches

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Looking out into the vast Neches River bottoms, I couldn’t help but wonder what secrets they might hold.  Stories of feuding families, perhaps.  Maybe some untold conflict between early settlers and the Caddo Nation occurred beneath the cathedral like crowns of Willow and Overcup Oak.  Perhaps a Jaguar once called this place home, stalking White-tailed Deer that came in the autumn to gorge themselves on the bounty of acorns that rained from the oaktops.

A dense fog only added to the mystique of this place.  It rose from the bottoms flooded by the overflowing Neches.  This day there would be no story to tell, as I stood quietly in awe, watching distant tree trunks gradually vanish into the mist.  There was a quality of light that evening that I had never encountered before, and doubt that I will again.  The cool, humid air pulled steam from the swollen river that seemed to glow as if bathed in the evening light.  The sun battled a thin veil of clouds, remnants of an autumn storm, and occasionally gained the upper hand, piercing the gray.

Autumn has treated the Pineywoods well this year, and I have a wealth of images and stories to share.  And I will, in a future post.  This evening, however, deserved its own treatment.  From here I will let the photos speak for themselves, and hope that their viewers may feel some semblance of the magic that I felt that evening.

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Neches River bottoms in the fog

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The Neches RIver

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Overcup Oaks dressed in their autumn foliage

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Overcup Oaks hang low over a flooded Neches River

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Fall color on an island in the Neches

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The flooded Neches pours into the bottomlands

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The steely waters of the Neches at dusk

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An ethereal mist rises from the Neches

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The banks of the Neches River in a dense fog

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The fog begins to lift, revealing distant flooded oaks

 

Finding Paradise in the Bandera Canyonlands

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Hill Country Waterfall

It’s a pilgrimage that many Texans undertake at some point – to see the fall colors of Lost Maples.  Despite living in Texas for over 20 years and extensively exploring all corners of the state, it was a trip I had yet to take.  This year we finally decided to see what the fuss was about.  It would turn out to be an adventure, filled with frustrations and rewards.

Carolina and I left early and made our way to the Bandera Canyonlands, a term used by the nature conservancy to describe the region in the western Hill Country that contains a labyrinth of canyons carved through the limestone over millennia by springfed streams.

We arrived at the Love Creek Preserve in the early afternoon.  We were granted special permission to visit this preserve which has limited public access.  The Love Creek Preserve is another example of the substantial conservation efforts of The Nature Conservancy in Texas.  Here they succeeded in protecting over 2,500 acres of excellent Hill Country habitat, home to rare plants and animals and numerous Texas endemics.  The preserve also protects several spring-heads which feed tributaries to the Medina River, which ultimately feeds the Edward’s Aquifer.  The Nature Conservancy truly has protected some of the most spectacular places in the Lonestar State.

It was a sunny day, and being early in the afternoon, the conditions were not ideal for photography.  I took my gear along anyway, as one never knows what they might encounter in a place such as this.  I carried my camera atop my tripod as I descended the precarious canyon walls with little difficulty.  I then rock-hopped my way across a wide stream without incident.  Then, after casually stepping on an innocuous boulder I somehow lost my footing and went down hard.  I was extremely unhappy, as Carolina can attest, but not hurt.  Then I looked at my camera, laying lens first in the cobble adjacent to the stream.  I feared the worst.  Miraculously my camera and lens survived unscathed, but my neutral density filter and circular polarizing filter had both been cracked.  I could live without the latter, but the polarizer is a crucial bit of gear for photographing fall color.  I was disheartened, to say the least.

I tried not to let this bad news dampen my enjoyment of the small canyon that we had set out to explore.  Just being in such a place – taking in it’s sights, smells, and sounds, is a joy and a privilege that I feel fortunate to have experienced.  And as the sun drew closer to the top of the canyon walls I was able to capture a sunburst through the leaves of a Bigtooth Maple that quivered in a gentle Autumn breeze.

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Hill Country Canyon

As the daylight faded, we bid farewell to Love Creek, for the time being at least.  Our base camp, so to speak, for the trip was the Cool River Cabin, located on the Native American Seed farm near Junction.  Native American Seed is a fantastic company that grows a huge assortment of native plants and offers seeds and root stock for sale.  They rent out the cabin, which is actually a three bedroom house with two porches and a full kitchen!  It is a short walk from the Llano River, and contains scenic views and abundant wildlife.  I highly recommend staying here!

The next morning we set out to the Caverns of Sonora.  It was one of the more extensive cave tours I’ve taken in Texas cave country, and we marveled at the subterranean formations.  After exploring the caves we spent some time at the Eaton Hill Nature Center in Sonora.  We discovered this little gem by chance, and thoroughly enjoyed the exhibits which include several live rattlesnakes.

As the shadows grew longer we found ourselves at South Llano River State Park.  A good portion of the park remained closed due to the unprecedented flooding experienced by the region just a month before our visit.  There was still plenty to see, however.  Not long after entering the park we were greeted by a large Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) foraging in a mowed area adjacent to some dense brush.  It was quite focused on its pursuit of dinner, and barely took a second to lift his head long enough for me to fire off a shot.  Armadillos are one of our more entertaining mammals, often allowing for a close approach due to their generally poor senses.  When they do finally realize that there is a perceived threat too close for comfort they will suddenly stop their activity, and bolt off, bounding erratically toward the safety of denser brush.

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Nine-banded Armadillo

We came upon a group of Woodhouse’s Scrub Jays (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) scouring a juniper thicket as the sun vanished behind the distant hills.  These intelligent, expressive birds are a joy to watch as they examine their surroundings.  They seem to display genuine curiosity and approach problem solving with some semblance of enjoyment.  Until recently these were considered Western Scrub Jays, but were split due to genetic evidence that suggest they, as well as the California Scrub Jay, Island Scrub Jay, and Florida Scrub Jay are distinct species.

There was very little light to work with, and I took the image below at 1600 ISO and 1/200 second.  The resulting image was grainy and softer than I would have liked.  I debated trashing the image, but decided that I liked the texture and colors on the bird, so I tried to clean it up through post processing.  I ended up with an image that i was happy with.  As digital photo processing technology continues to advance, I find myself saving more and more images that I would have otherwise thrown away.

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Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay

That night, I posed the idea of traveling the three hour round trip from our cabin to a Best Buy in San Antonio to buy a new polarizing filter, and Caro agreed.  I am very fortunate to have a wife that encourages my passions so.  We returned “home” that evening around at around 11 o’clock, with a new polarizing filter that I hoped would help my lens bring out the colors of the canyons.

The next day broke to gray skies.  We were up and out early, packing our things and bidding farewell to the Native American Seed Farm.  Our first destination would be Lost Maples State Natural Area.  This iconic park is extremely popular from mid October through November, particularly on the weekends, which just happens to be when we arrived.  We learned, as we watched vehicle after vehicle pour in, that it had been a less than stellar year for the maples in the park, apparently affected by the heavy rains a month prior.  Many of the leaves had simply turned brown and fallen from the trees.  The park was certainly beautiful, as we hiked along droves of other leaf peepers, but it did not provide that spectacular autumn color that I had hoped for.

Lost Maples gets its name for the relictual populations of Bigtooth Maple (Acer grandidentatum) that persist in the area.  Once more widespread throughout the region, as the glaciars retreated and the climate in the region warmed and dried, the maples were pushed to moist canyons along sprinfed streams and rivers.

The State Natural Area is not the only place to protect remnant groves of Bigtooth Maples however.  After spending a couple of hours hiking popular trails, we decided to return to Love Creek.  On the way we explored a few county roads to see what we might see.  The morning was cold, with temperatures never leaving the 40s.  The last thing I expected to find was a snake, however that’s exactly what I expected when we saw a group of Black-crested Titmice going crazy just a few feet off the ground.  They were chattering incessantly, crests raised, hopping from branch to branch staring directly at the ground.  Shaking off the cold I approached, and saw a gray and yellow striped serpent stretched out across the ground.

It was a young Baird’s Rat Snake (Pantherophis bairdi), not something I had expected to find here at the eastern edge of their range on such a cold November day.  They are restricted in range to the Trans-Pecos and western Edward’s Plateau of Texas, and adjacent northeastern Mexico.  They are one of our state’s most beautiful snakes, in my opinion, displaying shades of steely gray, yellow, and orange.  Despite the cold, this individual was feisty, and once disturbed never backed down from his coiled defensive posture.

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Baird’s Rat Snake

After spending some time in the company of the splendid reptile, we continued onto Love Creek  the sheltered canyons here were displaying spectacular color not seen at Lost Maples.  We marveled at the shades of orange and yellow that glowed like flames brightening the otherwise dreary day.

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Bigtooth Maples at Love Creek

My friend David Bezanson of the Nature Conservancy told us where we could find a waterfall that drained the crystal clear springfed water of one of the many canyons that cut into the preserve’s limestone bluffs.  It was like an oasis in otherwise semi-arid country.  Mosses and Maiden-hair Fern clung to the rock, kept perpetually moist by spray from the falling waters.  I could imagine the water at the base of the falls stayed cool, clear, and deep even during the height of summer.

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Each angle of the falls provided some unique perspective.  The contrast of the aquamarine waters, the bright green ferns, and the yellows of overhanging witch hazel and orange of distant maples painted a scene that seemed almost impossibly beautiful.

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Venturing into the narrow canyon that fed the falls, we found a lush forest that seemed out of place in this region that is knocking on the desert’s door.  Towering trees shaded a thick layer of leaf litter that blanketed scattered boulders and smaller rocks.  Beneath this leaf litter we found several Western Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon albagula).  Another relict of cooler time, the central Texas populations of P. albagula are isolated from the the main portion of the species’s range by hundreds of miles, with the nearest known populations occurring in southwest Oklahoma.  Genetic analyses may reveal that this disjunct population is in fact a species unto itself.

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Western Slimy Salamanders

The trees here are remarkable as well, and include several other disjunct, relictual species like American Basswood, Chinkapin Oak, and Witch Hazel.  They join the Bigtooth Maples, Lacey Oak, Texas Red Oak, Texas Mountain Laurel, Texas Redbud, and more to create a diverse, layered, closed-canopy forest.

As we ventured deeper into the canyon we found the stream’s source.  Water was literally pouring out from the base of a massive limestone cliff, nourishing verdant Maiden-hair Fern, and what I imagined to be a profusion of spring wildflowers.  The water here is home to an endemic species of neotonic Eurycea.  It was humbling to see the literal source of so much life.

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Water pours from the base of a limestone cliff, fueling a lush, diverse canyon

Deeper into the preserve we found a wider, drier canyon fed by a different spring.  Here the maples were absent, but Texas Red Oak (Quercus buckleyi) provided a splash of color to the scene.  I was truly blown away by the beauty of this place, an area unlike any other in the world.  I don’t proclaim to know if Heaven exists, but in my book, the Bandera Canyonlands are about as close to Heaven on Earth as one can get.

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Bandera Canyonlands