The Meaning of Life (For a Ringed Salamander)

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A Ringed Salamander high on a ridgetop in the Ouachita Mountains

In my day to day life, I’m not a particularly philosophical person.  There are times, however, that I can’t help but ponder those difficult existential questions.  These moments tend to occur when I’m immersed in the natural world, experiencing some aspect of extreme wildness, solitude, or some seemingly magical natural event or occurrence.  I found myself wrapped up in a number of such moments recently in the Ouachita Mountains of eastern Oklahoma.

It was hard not to start thinking about life’s unknowns, as we pushed into the Sooner State at dusk, and immense, billowing storm clouds advanced from the distant horizon.  Caro and I were once again pursuing the Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum).  I first came looking for them in November 2012, when the air was cold and the hillsides shone with the brilliance of forests cloaked in fall foliage.  That year we were too late.  We found countless larval annulatum, and a few freshly laid eggs, but the adults eluded us.  We returned again in October of 2015, but it was during a mild drought, and the region had only experienced a few small rain events preceding our visit.  That year we did not find any evidence of the salamanders.  In all fairness, it was a poorly timed visit, but it was the only chance I had.  In 2016 a couple of early season cool fronts passed over the Ouachitas.  We were able to visit a week or so after one of these fronts, and despite our best efforts were only able to turn up scores of week old eggs.

Then, in 2018, things changed, and after visiting nearly a dozen potential breeding ponds, I finally turned up a single adult.  It was an incredibly rewarding experience, but something was still lacking.  I longed to really experience the salamanders’ world, and to see them in their element.  So this year, when weather reports were calling for an early October front that promised to bring with it a deluge, I decided I would take off from work, start the weekend early and make for the mountains.  The plan was to arrive as the front hit, and hope that we might witness a Ringed Salamander migration event.

Lightning illuminated the storm clouds, turning them into a gargantuan strobe.  Never in my life have I seen a storm bare lightning with such frequency and intensity.  The night was more light than dark.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I found myself feeling nervous among it all.  The energy – the sheer power generated through that nephological friction was enough to leave anyone intimidated, and my truck seemed insufficient protection to shield me from the storm’s wrath.

This mighty tempest had me pondering my own significance.  As a blinding flash illuminated a distant weathered peak, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if this storm were to consume me.  Our survival instincts have evolutionarily programmed us humans to feel an inflated sense of self importance.  If I were gone, friends and family would mourn, work would be left unfinished, but in the grand scheme of thing, the world would keep turning, and the wildflowers, salamanders, and other natural things that I hold so dear wouldn’t notice.  Their lives would not be effected, and the natural order would continue as if I had never existed.  This may seem like a bleak thought to some, but I take comfort in it.  I never like to think of myself as having some higher connection to nature.  I don’t have a relationship with the plants or animals.  I am but an observer and occasional interferer and modifier of this world.  I have worked for many years as a researcher and conservationist, but these efforts are only acknowledged by human minds, and any benefit to the species is purely a biproduct of those efforts, and no sense of gratitude or realization of such work is realized by the organisms themselves.  It seems silly, but as a kid I had actual nightmares where I was living out some kind of Dr. Doolittle scenario, and was able to communicate with animals.  This might sound like a dream to some, but to me it ruined the sense of wonder and curiosity that I felt for the natural world.

It wasn’t until an hour after the onset of lightning that the rain fell.  But when it did, it was with such unfathomable volume that the wall of precipitation crashed over my windshield like a wave and reduced my visibility to just 10 feet in front of the truck.  I slowed to a crawl as the rain fell in droves.  It may seem strange to want weather like this while on a vacation, but this is exactly what I had hoped for.  We crept through the deluge until we reached our Airbnb.  Normally I would opt for camping on trips like this, but I knew the weather was going to be harsh, and wanted to focus on the hunt, rather than setting up and tending to camp.  Locating our temporary home was not without its own adventure, as we struggled to find the cabin among darkness, rain, and mislabeled streets.  But after a brief conversation with the very friendly and hopeful host, we found it – a quaint two bedroom log cabin in the mountains.

After a quick dinner of milanesa sandwiches, we set back out into the night.  The rain had slowed to a drizzle as we traversed windy, rocky, muddy mountain roads.  After some time we reached the first pond.  I had visited this site several times prior, and generally it is little more than knee deep and a few feet wide.  I had always found large numbers of eggs and larvae at this site, so I had high hopes as I waded through the wet brush.

I soon came to realize that what I had expected to be little more than a deep puddle had swollen to a muddy 1/4 acre pond.  I first worked the edges with my net, and began finding eggs.  After turning up empty handed along the shallow margins, I slowly made my way deeper into the pond.  Soon the water reached my waste, and then my chest.  As I approached the deepest point of the pond, the rain again began to fall.  It’s strange, but despite air temperatures in the 60s, and a cold autumn rain, I felt perfectly comfortable submerged here, in a ridgetop pond surrounded by a stunted forest high in the Ouachita Mountains.  I held my flashlight in my teeth, and probed my net among the pond’s bottom, which was a mess of mud and rocks.  I was practically floating as I pulled the net up, and among the mud, eggs, and woody debris, I saw a wriggling line of black and yellow.  I had one.

“I got one!” I called as I made my way back to the truck, where Caro was patiently waiting.  With renewed energy, I returned to the pond, swam out to the middle, and continued my search.  After a few minutes I pulled up a large, spent female which ranks as one of the most beautiful salamanders I have ever seen.

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A spent female Ringed Salamander – one of the most beautiful salamanders I have ever seen

The overwhelming urge to breed is what brought the salamanders here.  Ambystoma annulatum and most other members of its genus breed only once or twice a year, always in response to specific weather cues.  They live the vast majority of the year hidden away in subterranean burrows, generally seeking out abandoned mammal burrows, or perhaps in the case of the Ringed Salamander, complex series of crevices and passageways created by deep layers of talus.  Here they will feed opportunistically, and likely very rarely, if ever, visit the surface outside the breeding season.

But when the temperature and timing of rainfall is just right, they will emerge from these underground haunts en masse, and migrate in droves to their ancestral breeding ponds.  Most species of Ambystoma undertake this incredible, harrowing journey in the later winter or early spring, but a few, like the Ringed Salamander, do so in the fall.  The males generally arrive at the pond first, and scope out the bottom for the perfect sites to deposit small sperm laden packets called spermatophores.  Here they will await the arrival of the females.  When the females arrive, the male guides her through a series of nudges, tickles, and sexy courtship dances toward one of his spermatophores.  If she is receptive, she will pick up his deposit with her cloaca, fertilizing the large mass of eggs that has caused her to swell to several times her normal girth.  She then proceeds to deposit the eggs, sometimes singly, sometimes in loose clusters, on vegetation, debris, or the pond bottom.  In all the process typically takes only a night or two.  The adults may hang out in or around the ponds for a week or two, but as soon as more rainy or humid nights arrive, they quickly exit the pond and return to their burrows to live a life hidden from the world for another year.  Ringed Salamanders appear to stagger their breeding events, likely an evolutionary adaptation that helps maximize the chance that some eggs and larvae will survive, however the first large rain event tends to trigger the largest migrations.

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Ringed Salamanders

Pondering the life history of these amphibians piqued my curiosity to perhaps the greatest burning question and unsolved mystery in human history: the meaning of life.  Human beings seem so eager to attach a meaning or a purpose to their lives.  But do any of our planet’s other living things do the same?  Does the Ringed Salamander ponder its existence?  Does it wonder “what it all means” as it sits essentially motionless in its burrow for 360 days of the year?  I doubt it.  In fact, I have often considered the human brain to have evolved under a mechanism similar to runaway selection, a scenario in sexual selection where a particular secondary sexual trait becomes such a strong preference in mate selection that something akin to an arms race develops with the genes for developing the trait and the genes for selecting the trait.  What results is like a loop where the genetic selection for that trait reinforces its development, resulting in a relatively rapid evolution of overly gaudy physical characteristics that serve little purpose other than to attract a mate.  Think the feathers on a peacock.

Though the example of the human brain is not necessarily related to sexual selection, a similar scenario took place as our ancestor’s brains evolved, and with them so did certain behaviors like the use of tools, which likely served to further enhance and accelerate the evolutionary development of the brain itself.  One side effect of developing such a complex, problem solving cerebrum is it developed capabilities beyond what was necessary for our survival and reproduction.  Once we found ways to make our lives easier and more comfortable, and our survival more assured, large portions of that beefy brain went unused.  We soon found a way to put them to use, however, and as a result, civilizations were formed, religions were developed, and complex ideas about our existence arose.  Our brains are so advanced, that they lead us to seek out answers to vague and rhetorical questions that serve little purpose to our survival as a species.  I don’t think that Ringed Salamanders are burdened with such questions, but rather driven by a reception of environmental cues and a cocktail of hormones that leads them to undertake this perilous journey year after year.

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Ringed Salamander

But I digress.  After some time at the first pond, we continued to another.  The next breeding site was located in a shallow depression in the field of an old abandoned farmstead.  Here the water was shallow and clear, and as I made my way about the edge of the pond I could actually see a few salamanders swimming about.  I even saw one spent female leaving the pond; having deposited the next generation, she returned to her upland refugia.  Perhaps some narrow escape from a predator or other adventure awaited her on her return journey.

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A Ringed Salamander photographed shortly after she left her breeding pond.

The rain had stopped, and Caro explored the road ahead.  Here she found another individual on the crawl, moving away from the pond.  It would seem that we timed our trip just right, and that most of the animals, in these ponds at least, were in the process of a mass exodus.  In fact, we did not turn up a single male.  All of our observations were of post breeding females, and I presumed that they likely bred during a smaller rain event a week prior.

On the drive out, Caro spotted another Ringed Salamander on the road, and I saw a large Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum).  I had not expected to see the latter species on this high, rocky ridgeline, however it was most certainly a welcome observation.  The Spotted Sally is one of my all time favorite critters.  I have dozens of pictures of them, so I did not take the time to photograph this one, save for a few record shots with my cell phone.

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A Spotted Salamander found crossing the road on a rainy night in the Ouachitas.

The roads were also full of Dwarf American Toads (Bufo americanus charlesmithi).  This species is actually on my list of biodiversity goals, however I was unsuccessful in obtaining a good image of one on this trip.  But rest assured I will return!

We arrived back in our cabin sometime after 1 A.M.  I was reeling from an incredible night, and found it difficult to sleep despite a gentle rain that continued until morning.  Overnight the temperature dropped by 30 degrees, and it was below freezing as we began to stir the next morning.  We wandered around the grounds a bit, admiring a myriad of fungi and fall blooming goldenrods and asters.  Caro even spotted Spiranthes cernua in bloom.  After a breakfast of eggs, toast, and jam, we set out to explore the Ouachitas in the daylight.  We spent most of the day exploring ponds in hopes that we might turn up a few salamanders in the daylight.

The first pond we visited is one where we found ample evidence of breeding salamanders last year.  This year was no different, but most eggs contained developing embryos that were likely laid a week or so prior.  I looked around the margins of the pond, and made a few halfhearted attempts at dipnetting.  I even found a Copperhead under the same large, flat stone that I found one last year.  It was a different individual this year, but due to the cold temperatures I opted not to disturb it, and carefully replaced the rock.

Meanwhile, Caro had seen a Ringed Salamander swim to the surface for a gulp of air.  I tried dipnetting the area but was unable to capture anything.  She also pointed out the mangled tail and hind legs of an individual that had clearly fallen victim to some predator the night before.  Though they may only move a few hundred meters or less from their upland burrows to their breeding ponds, these salamanders face incredible danger.  Many fall victim to vehicles and predators along the way.

We left that pond and continued onto another.  The next pond is where I found my first live adult last year.  After some time spent exploring the area, I turned up another spent female.  From there we visited five more ponds, all devoid of evidence of salamanders.  Visiting so many potential breeding sites, a pattern emerged.  It seemed, at least in this part of their range, that the Ringed Salamander preferred smaller ponds with an abundance of herbaceous vegetation along the margins and within the basin.

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A Ringed Salamander from the pond where I found my first adult last year.

Near one of the ponds we saw a young Striped Skunk scouring a boulder field, presumably in search of prey.  As we slowed to investigate, it “bowed up” at us.  Caro, who has a strong passion for all things Carnivora, couldn’t help but get out for a closer look.  Fortunately she kept a respectful distance, and finally returned to the truck when the skunk began raising its tail, indicating it had reached the limits of its patience.

Our pursuit of salamander ponds brought us across narrow, windy, rocky roads, which I enjoyed navigating in four-wheel drive.  The more accessible ponds had clear evidence that they had been visited recently, likely by other salamander enthusiasts, yet the ponds deeper into the wilderness showed little to no evidence of human activity.  Even the roads looked seldom traversed.  I worried for some of these populations.  It is not unheard of for collectors to harvest huge numbers of salamanders for sale in the pet trade, and just last year some friends visiting the area reported evidence of this.  One of the ponds they visited had virtually every piece of natural cover turned over and not returned to its natural position.  It’s hard for me to understand how someone with a genuine interest and passion for these organisms could be so destructive.  The complex nature of our brains that allows us to develop such passions and interests also obligates us to minimize our footprint in their pursuit, and work to bettering their populations and habitats, rather than harming them.

We returned to pavement as the sun fell low on the horizon.  We returned to our cabin, where we enjoyed the warmth and other creature comforts it provided, until the effects of a long day took their toll on our bodies, and we retired to sleep.

The next morning we woke late and cooked a big breakfast at the cabin.  We then followed the winding road up to the top of Rich Mountain, where we encountered a forest of dwarf oaks, hickories, and blackgums.  I wrote about these unique communities in my post about last year’s visit to the area.  Just below the exposed ridges where these dwarves dwell, a rich forest of diverse hardwoods can be found.  These forests are home to a rich community of plant and animal species, including a number of endemic salamander species.

Here we found a number of Southern Redback Salamanders (Plethodon serratus) and Rich Mountain Salamanders (Plethodon ouachitae).  The latter is a Ouachita Mountain endemic, and comes in a variety of forms.  The form that we encountered was the “Rich Mountain Variant”, which bears a rich chestnut brown pattern on its dorsum.

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Rich Mountain Salamander

After an hour or so spent hiking around Rich Mountain, we descended into the town of Mena, Arkansas.  While in town we visited some of the local shops and stocked up on provisions.  From Mena we went on to a very different Ringed Salamander breeding site in western Arkansas.  At this particular site, an ephemeral wetland has formed in a depression at the base of a rocky slope.  Had it not been for a friend who found this spot and was kind enough to tell me about it, I would never have expected to find pond breeding salamanders there.

I was initially hopeful as I approached the depression.  The pond itself was virtually dry, save for a few puddles an inch or less deep.  There must have been water a day or two prior, however, as there were fresh spermatophores littering the floor of the pond.  These spermatophores still contain a sperm cap, and I was later informed by the friend who shared the spot with me that this indicates they were deposited within just a couple of days.  Surely then, I thought, there must still be some salamanders hanging around the pond’s margins.

Unfortunately, this particular site is virtually lacking in the type of debris conducive to locating salamanders under cover.  The rocky nature of the slope essentially formed a talus where rocks were stacked upon other rocks, creating a porous subsurface that would allow for a salamander to retreat deep into its recesses, and well out of reach.

I was happy to find a small Ouachita Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus brimleyorum) near a small ephemeral stream adjacent to the pond.  In my Ringed Salamander fervor, however, I neglected to photograph it.  Nor did I photograph the numerous Western Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon albagula) found nearby.  I was ready to call it, when I turned a rock and spotted a massive blob of black and yellow.  It was an absolutely enormous gravid Ringed Salamander.

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A massive gravid Ringed Salamander found near a dry ephemeral pond.

Despite her comical and uncomfortable appearance, she seemed to be getting on just fine (though I’m sure she would very much welcome the rains that would fill her breeding pond to a sufficient depth for her to be courted and fertilized so that she may be rid of her undoubtedly heavy load).  Ringed Salamanders may lay more than 150 eggs, which are generally deposited either singly or in small clumps scattered among debris on the pond’s bottom and attached to submerged sticks or vegetation.

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A heavily gravid Ringed Salamander

The incredible amount of effort necessary to locate the gravid female perfectly illustrates the difficult and frustration associated with searching for this species.  Even in areas where they are abundant, and evidence indicates they were very recently at the surface, they are incredibly difficult to turn up.

The sun soon found its way toward the horizon, and the forest grew dark and cold.  We took that as our cue to begin our trek back to our cabin.  On the way we were surprised to find a large, recently hit rat snake dead on the road.  It must have been seeking the sun’s rays to warm its blood on a chilly day when it met its untimely demise.  As we followed the winding roads through the hills, we saw a brilliant moon rise over the distant trees.

That night we grilled burgers, watched television, and relaxed in the warmth of the cabin.  The next morning we slept late, ate breakfast, and packed up.  I was going to miss our cozy little temporary homestead.  On our way out we stopped at one of the ponds where we found a number of salamanders on that first rainy night.  The water had receded significantly, and in doing so exposed a large flat stone under which I found the final two Ringed Salamanders of the trip.

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One of two Ringed Salamanders flipped near a breeding pond.

The ridgetop was alive that morning, as hundreds of migrating Monarch Butterflies danced about blooming goldenrods and other late season asters in pursuit of nectar to fuel their continued southward journey.  I was sad that we too, must now head south.  Though short, this trip was full of incredible experiences, and allowed me to recharge, reflect, and reconsider my thoughts on nature, happiness, and the meaning of life.  I may not have found the answers to any of life’s existential questions, but being among the salamanders and skunks in the wildness of the Ouachita Mountains made me comfortable with the inevitable realization that I never will.

A Big Bowl of Lonestar Biodiversity

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A Pine Warbler perches on the bare twigs of a winged elm in the understory of a mature pine/oak/hickory upland.

The last month or so here in East Texas has been plagued by a barrage of heat waves that have made spending time in the woods unpleasant at best, to downright miserable at worst.  Because of the oppressive heat, and a variety of events in my personal life beyond my control, I have found myself lacking in motivation to pick up the camera and get out and explore.  I think that slumps like this are only natural, and I have certainly experienced them in the past.  Fortunately, I have always overcome them, and returned to this passion that has helped to shape the purpose that I feel in this thing we call life.

Thinking that a trip down memory lane might help rekindle the flame of my passion for the natural world, I recently went back through the many images I have taken this year.  In doing so, I realized that there were a great many images that I have captured during short day and weekend trips that I had not yet posted.

So I decided to start writing, and in reliving these memories I found my spirits instantly lifted.  Instead of breaking these images out into smaller posts I decided to make one giant post covering the last several months.  So I invite my reader to settle in and enjoy this brief tour of some of the incredible biodiversity that can be found in the Lonestar State.

Though this post was meant to cover the first half of this year, my first post actually comes from December of last year, when Caro and I went out on a salamander hunting excursion with our friends Scott and Ashley Wahlberg.  We struggled most of the day, until Ashley spotted this handsome male Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) under debris at the bottom of a dry vernal pool.  I titled the shot “Ancient Ritual”, and staged it to look like the salamander was just emerging to undertake his annual migration to the breeding pool of his birth, an event that his ancestors have undertaken for millennia.

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A Spotted Salamander emerges following a warm winter rain and begins his migration to his ancestral breeding pond.

A few days into the new year, Caro and I took a trip to Galveston.  On the way back, I spotted several Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) foraging in a tidal marsh in golden evening light. I could not resist the opportunity to try to capture some images of these beautiful, bizarre birds, so I pulled off and trudged into the mud flats. A local fisherman kept warning me of where all of the hidden holes were. Carefully I cradled my camera as I struggled to keep my balance in the muck. Finally as I drew closer I dropped down to my knees, then to my belly, and began to army crawl toward my quarry. The fisherman was kind enough to check on me frequently by shouting “are you ok”?  I responded with a simple thumbs up.

I crawled forward through the mud and shallow water until I found myself in the perfect position for a low angle shot in that beautiful light. The spoonbill is such a curious subject that seems so majestic yet awkward at the same time. When I returned to my truck I was literally coated in mud from head to toe. Fortunately I had a change of clothes, and was able to clean up a bit and return home, smiling from the perfect ending to a wonderful day.

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A Roseate Spoonbill forages in shallow tidal flats adjacent to Galveston Bay.

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A Roseate Spoonbill forages in shallow tidal flats adjacent to Galveston Bay.

During the height of January, when little else was active, I turned my lens toward wintering songbirds.  I spent several days at James Childress’s farm, where his land management activities have produced excellent habitat for a variety of species, a few of which are highlighted below.

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An American Goldfinch perches on the fruit-bearing twigs of a deciduous holly.

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A Pine Warbler forages in the limbs of a mature loblolly pine.

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A Dark-eyed Junco pauses for a moment on a branch of an old post oak.

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A White-crowned Sparrow on its wintering grounds in Angelina County.

By early February in the Pineywoods, winter begins releasing its grip, and a few brave floral souls emerge to reveal their blossoms to the world.  One of the earliest, and one of my all time favorite wildflowers, the bloodroot, blooms in the deep woods.  Likely never common in the Pineywoods, it has become exceedingly scarce over the last century due to a combination of habitat loss and over-harvest for its medicinal qualities.

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Bloodroot grows from the crook of an old tree root.

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A Bloodroot flower emerges from the dense leaf litter.

James and I also spent a few days photographing birds at the Pineywoods Native Plant Center on the Stephen F. Austin State University Campus.  It includes a remnant patch of near old growth forest, and provides excellent opportunities for wildlife observation.  The following images were all made at this special place.

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A Female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) perches in a dense tangle of dried vegetation.

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A White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) blends in to the winter browns of a prairie remnant.

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A Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus) forages on a branch of a blooming Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).

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A Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) pauses among dense winter vegetation.

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A handsome White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) out and about on a chilly early spring morning.

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A Mourning Dove (Zenaida macrura) forages on the forest floor.

As February gave way to March, spring was in full swing in the Pineywoods.  Caro and I spent an afternoon hiking in the Sam Houston National Forest.  Pollinators like the Falcate Orangetip (Anthocharis midea) were out in droves, and the violets were putting on a show on the forest floor.

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A female Falcate Orangetip nectars on the blooms of springcress (Cardamine bulbosa), on of its host plants.

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An Early Blue Violet (Viola palmata) blooms on the forest floor.

I spent one March day exploring the Columbia Bottomlands, a unique forested community in southeast Texas, where I observed a number of interesting wildflowers in bloom, including the Purple Rocket (Iodanthus pinnatifidus), which has a peculiar distribution.  This member of the mustard family (Brassicacea) can be found in many central and eastern states, including much of Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, however in Texas it is only known from a few southeastern and south-central counties.

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Purple Rocket blooms in profusion in a coastal upland forest.

I also found numerous Zigzag Irises (Iris brevicaulis) and a proliferation of Butterweed (Packera glabella) in bloom among the sedges and other wetland plants in these unique hardwood bottoms.

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Zigzag Iris blooms in the understory of the Columbia Bottomlands.

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Butterweed and Raven’s-foot Sedge (Carex crus-corvi) bloom in a forested wetland in the Columbia Bottomlands.

Back in the Pineywoods, I set out to explore a high quality forested seep where I found the imperiled Texas Trillium (Trillium texanum) coming into bloom.

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The rare Texas Trillium blooms in an old growth forested seep.

In early March, I visited our good friends Susan and Viron’s property for our annual botanical bonanza looking for rare spring ephemeral wildflowers.  As usual, we were not disappointed.  The following three images are from the outing.

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The tiny Southern Twayblade (Listera australis) is one of the earliest orchids to bloom in the Pineywoods.

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The delicate blooms of a Wood Rush (Luzula sp.) are best observed up close.

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Leaves of Cutleaf Toothwort (Cardamine concactenata) and Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium rostratum) decorate the forest floor.  I find the leaves of these species just as interesting as the blooms.

Texas is known for its roadsides brimming with bluebonnets, however wild, native populations of these dainty lupines can be hard to find, particularly in the Pineywoods.  I was happy to find and photograph what I believe to be truly wild populations of the Sandyland Bluebonnet (Lupinus subcarnosus) in Houston and Rusk Counties this spring.

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A Sandylands Bluebonnet blooms in a sandhill forest in the Pineywoods.

While taking a pit stop on our way to visit my family in Houston, I spotted a brilliant creamy-looking pink and yellow Rosy Maple Moth (Dryocampa rubicunda) clinging to a building wall, having been drawn in the night before by artificial lights.  These members of the silkworm moth family (Saturniidae) are wide-ranging in the eastern U.S., however I only occasionally encounter them in Texas.  I gently moved it from the building to a nearby patch of woods in hopes to increase its chances for survival and reproduction.

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The Rosy Maple Moth is one of our most colorful moths.

Last year my friend Jared Barnes told me about a population of Prairie Celestials (Nemastylis geminiflora) that he discovered last year deep in the Pineywoods.  This spring calciphile is common throughout much of central Texas, where calcareous soils are more prevalent, however it is quite rare in East Texas and western Louisiana, so I was thrilled at the chance to see and photograph it on my home turf.  I got the chance in late March, when I visited the site that Jared told me about and found it in full bloom.

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Prairie Celestials bloom in a remnant prairie in Nacogdoches County.

On March 30, 2014, I married the love of my life.  Five years later we spent our anniversary in San Antonio, in a quaint hotel just next to the Alamo.  We enjoyed spending time in the historic city and shopping and dining on the River Walk, however I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get a few hours of nature time in.  We visited Cascade Caverns and saw the diminutive endemic Cascade Caverns Salamander (Eurycea latitans), and spent some times along the scenic cypress lined creeks and rivers of the region.

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The clear waters of Bandera Creek flow over boulders and cypress roots.

I also stopped to explore a small chalk prairie where Lindheimer’s Paintbrush (Castilleja lindheimeri) was blooming in such numbers that it appeared the prairie was aflame.

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Lindheimer’s Paintbrush blooms in a chalk prairie in the Texas Hill Country.

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The curious blooms of a Lindheimer’s Paintbrush.

The following week, back at home, Scott and I set out in hopes of finding the rare Whorled Pogonia (Isotria verticillata) in bloom, after receiving a tip that they were flowering along the margins of a baygall about 30 minutes from my home.  Not far from the site I spotted the quick movement of some manner of skink scurrying through the leaf litter.  Fortunately I was quick enough to capture the nimble reptile, and we were excited to see that it was a Southern Coal Skink (Plestiodon anthracinus), a species that is seldom encountered in the state.

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A male Southern Coal Skink, a seldom seen denizen of the Pineywoods.

After some searching, we found the pogonias as well!  These exotic looking orchids are extremely difficult to spot, but close examination reveals a beautiful, bizarre bloom.  The Whorled Pogonia is imperiled in Texas, and has seemingly disappeared from a number of historic locations.

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The exotic looking flower of the Whorled Pogonia.

The pogonias were growing near the transition from mesic pine-hardwood forest to a highly acidic forested seep.  Nearby we found a crystal clear springfed stream flowing over pure sand.

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A creek cuts through mesic pine-hardwood forest.

That same day I would discover my own population of Nemastylis geminifolia in the Pineywoods, this time occurring in a rich calcareous woodland not far from the Louisiana border.

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Prairie Celestials bloom in an open, calcareous forest in Sabine County.

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A Zebra Longhorn (Typocerus zebra) feeds on the blooms of a Prairie Celestial.

Scott and I also enjoyed observing several other wildflowers in bloom that day, including a personal favorite, Wood Betony or Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis).

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Wood Betony blooms in the forest understory.

Mid-April Caro and I took a weekend trip to the Blackland Prairies and Cross Timbers of North-Central Texas, a region that has fast become one of my favorites in the state.  On the way, we stopped at an extensive outcrop of the iron-rich Weches Formation where I had previously seen the rare Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus) in bloom.  I was at the site too late for peak bloom last year, and only observed a few individuals in flower.  This year I timed it just right, and caught thousands upon thousands in bloom in the glades and stunted woodlands growing on this unique geologic substrate.

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The rare Clasping Jewelflower blooms in a remnant Weches Woodland.

Streptanthus maculatus was one of the species on my list of biodiversity goals for which this blog was established.  Though I technically checked it off my list last year, and posted a blog about it, I’m taking this opportunity to showcase a few more images of this striking plant.

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The rare Clasping Jewelflower blooms in a remnant Weches Woodland.

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A closeup of the fascinating blooms of the Clasping Jewelflower.

There were a number of other interesting things blooming over the Weches Formation, including Heartleaf Four-O’clock (Mirabilis nyctaginea) and Louisiana Vetch (Vicia ludoviciana).

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Heartleaf Four-O’clock blooms in a forest clearing on the Weches Formation.

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The tiny blooms of Louisiana Vetch

When we arrived in the Blackland Prairies, I was able to track down a stunning plant that I had long hoped to photograph – the Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis), a species of the east that barely enters Texas in the eastern panhandle and north-central portion of the state.

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Blue Wild Indigo blooms in a Blackland Prairie remnant.

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Blue Wild Indigo blooms in a Blackland Prairie remnant.

We were fortunate to visit a site that my friend David Bezanson of the nature conservancy describes as “the finest Blackland Prairie remnant in Texas”.  I had hoped for better light, but I was in awe in the overwhelming beauty and diversity of the place.

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A Blackland Prairie remnant in Collin County.

In a rich woodland of Bois d’arc and elm near the Oklahoma border, I found a striking Texas rarity, the Violet Blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia violacea).  We were at the tail end of their blooming season, and I hope to visit again next spring.

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Violet Blue-eyed Mary blooms in a Bois d’arc/elm woodland in Grayson County.

Driving along a rural county road in Cooke County, I spotted hints of light blue and purple along the roadside.  I could tell immediately that it was a species of hyacinth (Camassia).  I initially suspected that they were the fairly common Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), however in this part of Texas there is another possibility.  These turned out to be the much less common Prairie Hyacinth (Cmassia angusta), identifiable by the large number of persistant sterile bracts.

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Prairie Camas blooms in a rich prairie remnant in Cooke County.

After exploring some area back roads, we stopped at one of my favorite prairie remnants in the state, a small (~4.5-acre) patch of Grand Prairie that harbors incredible plant species diversity.

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Prairie Paintbrush (Castilleja citrina) and Hairy Cornsalad (Valerianella amarella) bloom in the Grand Prairie.

In a good year, thousands upon thousands of Eastern Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) bloom here.  In Texas, this species is restricted to the northern Grand and Blackland Prairies, with a few remnant populations in the Edward’s Plateau.

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Eastern Shooting Star blooms in the Grand Prairie.

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The blooms of the Eastern Shooting Star are among our most photogenic native wildflowers.

The weekend after our trip to North-Central Texas, we found ourselves back on the upper coast.  Galveston Bay is lined with a number of high quality saltmarshes that provide a brief glimpse of what the Upper Texas Coast looked like before coastline development and industry took their toll.  Today, these remnant marshes are reduced in size, and generally surrounded by subdivisions or refineries.  In the image below, a luxury beach-front community can be seen in the distance.  Even if the development does not directly impact the marsh itself, it eliminates important buffer zones and reduces biodiversity in the process.  The combination of this development and accelerating rates of sea level rise make these special places one of our most imperiled communities.

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A high quality saltmarsh holds on in the face of rampant coastal development.

While on the coast we met up with my parents and James and Erin, and spent some time searching for Neotropical Migrants making their way toward northern breeding grounds.  Conditions were generally poor during that trip, but we did manage to see a few interesting things, including a male Blue Grosbeak in the process of molting into its adult plumage.

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This young male Blue Grosbeak has just begun to attain his adult plumage.

At the famous rookery at the Houston Audubon Society’s Smith Oaks Preserve we saw a number of waterbirds tending to newly hatched chicks.

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Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus) chicks beg for a meal.

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Two generations of Great Egrets (Ardea alba).

The next morning James and I rose early and made our way to the beach in hopes of capturing some images of Least Terns (Sternula antillarum) in the early morning light.  We were fortunate enough to see a number of courting pairs.

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Courting Least Terns

We watched as males would capture small fish and present them to the females while vocalizing and performing a ritualized dance.

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Courting Least Terns

Near the terns we spotted a number of Wilson’s Plovers (Charadrius wilsonii).  These boisterous shorebirds were defending their nests by feigning injury in an attempt to lure would-be predators away from the nests.

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A Wilson’s Plover hides among the dune vegetation.

A number of Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) were also seen on the dunes that morning.

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A Horned Lark among the foredunes.

As spring gradually began to give way to summer, I spent some time photographing some local residents, including a number of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) that regularly visit the feeders in James’s grandmother’s yard.

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A fluffed up Northern Cardinal on the branch of an old elm.

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A male Northern Cardinal among the leaves of a Southern Red Oak.

While wandering James’s property in search of birds, we spotted an old female Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) in a small puddle formed by recent rains.

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An old Three-toed Box Turtle takes advantage of a puddle formed by recent rains.

One of my favorite activities is driving remote, rural roads in Deep East Texas.  Such outings usually lead to interesting discoveries.  One May evening, while driving through a recent clearcut in Newton County, I heard the unmistakable buzzy trill of a Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor).  Though clearcuts are certainly unsightly and conjure up thoughts of environmental destruction, during their first few years of regeneration they provide habitat for a variety of birds including Prairie Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chats, Indigo Buntings, Northern Bobwhite and more.  When done on a proper scale and rotation, clearcuts can simulate natural disturbances and can enhance the overall health and biodiversity of a forested region.

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A Prairie Warbler sings from atop a growing pine sapling.

Mid May is my favorite time to explore the sandhills of the Post Oak Savanna.  These interesting habitats are home to a number of endemic species and in May the wildflowers are on full display.  Pictured below are Eastern Prickly Pears (Opuntia cespitosa), and the rare endemic mints Brazoria truncata var. pulcherrima and Rhododon ciliatus.

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The brilliant colors of a Post Oak Savanna sand “blowout” in spring.

One morning, while I was preparing breakfast, Caro rushed in from the backyard and told me to come quick.  There was a brightly colored Three-toed Box Turtle at the edge of our little vegetable garden.  Caro named her Frederick, and we watched as she moved about the yard, picking off slugs and other tasty morsels.  Eventually we lost sight of her in a dense tangle of vines at the back corner of the yard.

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A Three-toed Box Turtle that Caro found in our yard and lovingly named “Frederick”.

The next day, Caro ran in again, calling for me to “come and see”.  This time she had found a female stag beetle (Lucanus placidus) in her shoe!

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A female stag beetle (Lucanus placidus) that Caro found in her shoe.

As I was photographing the beetle Caro called my attention to a striking Eight-spotted Forester Moth (Alypia octomaculata) that was nectaring on the Coreopsis blooms in our garden.

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An Eight-spotted Forester Moth nectars on Coreopsis blooms.

A few days later, Caro found another interesting beetle in the yard, a colorful Line Buprestis (Buprestis lineatus).

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A Lined Buprestis Beetle

My eagle-eyed wife also spotted this little jumping spider (Colonus sylvanus) in our garden.

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A jumping spider on a Purple Coneflower bloom in our Garden.

Target Species: White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

When I added White-tailed Deer to my list of 2017 biodiversity goals, I had a very specific image in mind.  Though the image below is not exactly what I had hoped for, I was happy enough with it to cross the species off my list.  Caro and I spotted this young buck in a mature Longleaf Pine Savanna one evening, and I managed a few shots before it disappeared among the rolling terrain.

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A young White-tailed Deer Buck in a longleaf pine savanna.

Back in our yard, we came across a Fiery Searcher (Calosoma scrutator).  Also known as the Caterpillar Hunter, this large predatory beetle is, in my opinion, among the most beautiful insects in the country.

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A Fiery Searcher on the hunt in our backyard.

In early June, I found a nice male Eastern Hercules Beetle (Dynastes tityus) near our house.  One of North America’s largest and most impressive insects, these beetles inhabit mature forests with abundant hardwoods.

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A fine male Eastern Hercules Beetle

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A fine male Eastern Hercules beetle.

In late July, our old friend Frederick the Three-toed Box Turtle appeared again in our backyard.  Caro spotted her eating cantaloupe rinds from fruit that we set out to try and attract beetles and other insects to our yard.

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Frederick returns for a visit

I’ll end this post with an image from early August, the last time I set out into the woods with the intention of making images.  I spotted this Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans) feeding on predatory robber fly.  The spider had taken an ambush position among the blooms of a Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera).

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A Green Lynx Spider in ambush mode on the blooms of a Rough Blazing Star.

I am very much looking forward to fall, and hope to set out to capture new landscapes and biodiversity with a renewed passion and sense of purpose.

The Land of Enchantment Part Two: Biodiversity in the Sangre de Cristos

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From the high plains we continued west, deeper into the Land of Enchantment.  As we gradually climbed in elevation, our surroundings changed from shortgrass prairie to sagebrush flats to Rocky Mountain foothills dominated by pinyon and juniper.  It was in the latter community that I saw something slink across the road ahead of us, which I took to be a coyote.  We pulled up to where I saw the animal and got out, but after scanning the area a few minutes found nothing. We returned to the truck and moved forward no more than a hundred yards or so when Caro shouted, “There it is!”. The rest was a bit of a blur of excitement, however what I do remember is seeing that something didn’t look right for a coyote. Quickly grabbing the binoculars I focused on what turned out to be two animals about 50 yards away.  In that moment I heard Caro shout “Son Pumas!”, and it became clear, as I focused on two young pumas staring at us. Quickly I pulled off the road and fumbled for my camera gear, but they took off immediately. I had managed a few distant shots of their tails, when something burst out from the brush about 30 yards away and went after them. We assume this larger, more strikingly colored individual was their mother. Again I only managed a shot of her back as she ran off, but this encounter with a trio of Mountain Lions was more about the experience than the photos. This is a species I had always dreamed of seeing during the western explorations of my childhood, but despite being in the right habitat so many times, I never did. Instead, I would finally come face to face with them in a chance encounter when I least expected it.  That evening we continued into Taos, and looked longingly to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains towering around us, eager to immerse ourselves in their beauty.

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Young Pumas retreating.

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Adult Puma retreating

The next morning we set out into the semi-arid foothills around Taos in search of garnet and staurolite, two interesting minerals known to occur in the vicinity of the Rio Grande.  Our search took us through rugged 4×4 roads which I enjoyed navigating.  Along the way we stopped to admire a cast of unfamiliar wildflowers.  Of particular interest were several species of Penstemon.  I later learned that there are some 40+ species of Penstemon in New Mexico!  While we saw only a fraction of this diversity, we were quite taken with the species we did observe.  Growing among pinyon and ponderosa pines we found Penstemon virgatus.  This species is apparently quite variable, and its flowers may be blue, purple, pink, or white.

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Penstemon virgatus

Growing nearby we found Penstemon inflatus, a New Mexico endemic.

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Penstemon inflatus

Slightly higher in elevation we spotted the five-foot tall Penstemon palmeri.  It may have been the most impressive penstemon I’ve seen, with a spike of huge, tightly packed pink blooms.  In general, penstemons are not particularly fragrant.  This species, however, filled the air around it with a strong, sweet aroma.

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Penstemon palmeri

Higher still we found several clusters of Penstemon strictus, a unique, beautiful addition to the flora of the region.  Many species of penstemon are popular in the world of horticulture, and make excellent additions to a native garden.

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Penstemon strictus

Growing among the Penstemon virgatus and P. inflatus we found several Sego Lilies (Calochortus nuttallii).  These beautiful, dainty blooms grew in clearings in the pine-dominated foothills.

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Sego Lily

Along crystal clear streams swollen from rapidly melting snow in the high country, we found abundant thickets of Woods’s Rose (Rosa woodsii).  This native rose decorates the countryside with its pink blooms and fills the summer air with its sweet aroma.

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Woods’s Rose

After searching for the better part of a day, we finally found several pieces of schist bearing the minerals we were after.  It was these minerals that prompted Caro to suggest a trip to the area, and the excitement we shared after finding them was one of the highlights of the trip.  The discovery came after a long hot morning of searching, right as an early afternoon thunderstorm bore down on us.  Hail and lightning caused us to retreat to the truck, where we waited out the weather and resumed our search with renewed intensity.  The rocks of interest were much easier to spot as they glistened, wet with rainwater.

With our thirst for rockhounding satisfied, we opted to spend the rest of the day in the high country, and made our way into the lush montane forests of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  The Sangre de Cristos run from southern colorado into northern New Mexico.  In their northern reaches they contain a number of “fourteeners”, that is mountain peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation.  They are a bit shorter here, but Wheeler Peak (the highest point in New Mexico) still climbs to over 13,000 feet and is a short distance from Taos.

As we climbed in elevation we began to notice a wealth of mountain wildflowers.  We were still too early for the incredible display of wildflowers that bloom in the summer in subalpine meadows of the Rockies – truly one of the most spectacular wildflower shows on the planet – but there were still plenty of floral diversity to admire.

Large colonies of Rocky Mountain Iris (Iris missouriensis), for example, painted clearings above 8,000 feet.  Most of these delicate blooms were damaged by recent rain and hail, yet I managed to find a few fresh individuals to photograph.

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Rocky Mountain Iris

Along wet seepage slopes and seep-fed streams we found the lovely White Marsh Marigold (Caltha leptosepala) in bloom.

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White Marsh Marigold

The most impressive wildflower displays were to be found in the shade of forests dominated by Engelmann Spruce, Subalpine Fir, and Douglas-Fir.  Here we found several species growing in close proximity, including Rock Clematis (Clematis columbiana), Western Red Columbine (Aquilegia elegantula), and Franciscan Bluebells (Mertensia franciscana).

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Rock Columbine

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Western Red Columbine

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Franciscan Bluebells

The most exciting discoveries, however, were the orchids.  I have long been fascinated by this family of peculiar plants, and was happy to finally see a number of species I have long wanted to photograph.  In one patch of forest we found three species of the myco-heterotrophic genus Corallorhiza.  I have written about one of these species, C. wisteriana in one of my first blog posts.  Myco-heterotrophy refers to the process of obtaining nutrients and energy by parasitizing the mycorhizzal fungi of tree roots.  Orchids of this genus are completely dependent on these fungi for survival, and have even lost the ability to photosynthesize.  The lack of leaves and the green pigment chlorophyll makes spotting them a real challenge.  This difficulty made finding them all the more rewarding.

I did not photograph the C. wisteriana that we observed, but I couldn’t resist photographing the beautiful blooms of the Striped Coralroot (Corallorhiza striata).  This species has been recorded in the Guadalupe and Chinati Mountains of Texas, but is by all accounts very rare.  We found only a single plant growing on a rocky wooded slope.

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Striped Coralroot

I think I probably jumped for joy when Caro called out that she had found a Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata).  This species has also been recorded in Texas, in the Davis and Chisos Mountains, and like the Striped Coralroot is believed to be very rare.  It turned out to be the most common orchid of the trip, and we found dozens in various stages from newly emerging flowering stems to individuals in full, splendid bloom like the one pictured below.

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Spotted Coralroot

The absolute floral highlight of the trip however, and perhaps second only to the pumas in terms of overall trip highlights, was finally encountering a species that I had dreamed of seeing since I was a little kid pouring through field guides and coffee table nature books – The Fairy Slipper Orchid (Calypso bulbosa).  This orchid always seemed so exotic to me.  As a kid, I probably hiked past many not knowing where or how to look. On this trip, however, Caro and I spotted many on the mossy floor of a spruce/fir forest at 10,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristos. I photographed them as I breathed in the chilly mountain air and listened to the rushing waters of a creek swollen with snow melt.

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Fairy Slipper Orchid

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Fairy Slipper Orchid

Soon our time in the Land of Enchantment came to an end.  We were sad to say goodbye to the Sange de Cristos, but grateful for the enrichment they provided us.  The Rocky Mountains hold a very special place in my heart, as it is where I fell in love with nature as a young boy, and I was glad to introduce Caro to them, and see on her face the same sense of awe and wonder that I feel for these very special places.

The Land of Enchantment Part One: Flora and Fauna of the High Plains

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Pronghorn Buck

When westward expansion was gripping the nation during the 19th century, the American frontier was not defined by the towering mountains and rugged desert that exemplify the term today, but rather endless expanses of prairie inhabited by millions of American bison, pronghorn, elk, wolves, and grizzly bears.  As countless wagons wore ruts into the prairie’s earth, black-tailed prairie dogs kept a watchful eye for badgers and black-footed ferrets, and a chorus of thriving grassland songbird populations filled the air.

Today, the prairie is a very different place, however standing in an un-plowed stretch of prairie in Union County, New Mexico that reached from horizon to horizon, I could imagine what it may have been like.  I was overwhelmed in a land that seemed so initially sparse.  But here, the diversity is in the details.  A diversity of nondescript grasses and small wildflowers, pollinators, and cryptic prairie denizens.

It had been years since I explored the natural wonders of the aptly named Land of Enchantment.  New Mexico is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, and contains a wide array of habitat from alpine tundra to low desert.  Our ultimate destination in the state was the sagebrush laden foothills around Taos and the high peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  Our journey would first take us through some of the finest expanses of shortgrass prairie in the country.

In the prairie around the base of Capulin Volcano, we found large groups of blooming Silvery Lupine (Lupinus argenteus).  This species also occurs in Texas, but is rare and confined to a few sites in the Panhandle near the border.  These New Mexican prairies, however, were loaded with them.

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Silvery Lupine

There are apparently some 11 varieties of Lupinus argenteus in New Mexico, which can make their identification a bit tricky.  We found at least two varieties growing in close proximity.

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Silvery Lupine

We also found Nebraska Lupine (Lupinus plattensis) blooming here, but its flowers were far past prime.  This species has been recorded in the Texas Panhandle as well, but like the Silvery Lupine, is very scarce.

Growing among the lupines were several other wildflowers, including several Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrushes (Castilleja integra).  I have always been fond of this genus of hemiparasites.

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Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush

James’s Penstemon (Penstemon jamesii) was also common in this area.  This lovely plant is named for Edwin James.  James was one of the first anglo naturalists to explore the American West.  I strongly recommend reading more on this fascinating and influential figure who discovered, collected, and described many western species.

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James’s Penstemon

Near Capulin we found a single Spinystar (Escobaria vivipara) in bloom.  Further west, and at a higher elevation in Colfax County, however, we found several.  I was thrilled to find this tiny prairie cactus, which would have been essentially invisible if not for the bright pink blooms.

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Escobaria vivipara

Growing at 8,000 feet I spotted a sea of blush swaying among the greens and grays of broad meadow.  It was Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum).  This iconic prairie plant is named for its puffy achenes which resemble billowing smoke of a distant fire.  These can be seen developing in the background of the photo below.  Geum triflorum was long used by native cultures as a medicinal plant, and is purported to help a variety of ailments.

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Prairie Smoke

Years ago, during my family’s annual trek west, I always looked forward to spotting Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) in the vast plains of eastern New Mexico.  This year we saw more than I ever remember seeing back then.  It was no doubt due in part to Carolina’s eagle eyes, however I like to think that the species is continuing its nearly century long rebound from near extinction in the early 1900s.

When Europeans first visited the West, there were an estimated 35 million pronghorn roaming the plains.  By the turn of the 20th century, it is estimated there were barely 10,000 left.  That’s a population decline of over 99.999%.  Like the American Bison, the open country that the pronghorn called home made them easy targets for hunters.  Fortunately, in the 1920’s conservation efforts began to protect both the species and its habitat, and today some estimates put the population at nearly a million.

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Pronghorn Buck

The pronghorn is a species that is at the same time, beautiful, bizarre, graceful, and gangly.  They are supremely adapted for life on the prairie, and for speed and endurance.  Adaptations like enlarged lungs, windpipes, and hearts, interlocking grooves in their joints that allow for a unilateral line of travel, and an enhanced circulatory system make them the fastest sustained runners on the planet.

Despite commonly being referred to as antelope, pronghorn are note closely related to true antelope, which are restricted to the Old World.  They are the only surviving member of the family Antilocapridae, which evolved in North America during the Miocene.  They’re extreme speed and endurance is believed to have evolved as a defense against the extinct American cheetah, which would have been a major predator of their habitats.  Today there are no predators that can come close to matching an adult pronghorn’s speed or endurance in open country.  Enlarged eyes with a field of vision of nearly 320 degrees that can spot a potential threat two miles away ensure that a potential predator would rarely get the chance to test this theory.  I can’t help but think that old pronghorn bucks know this, as they rarely seem concerned with my presence, even in areas where they would seldom encounter humans.  When I drop low to the ground, however, their tone changes as can be seen in the intense stare of the huge buck pictured below.

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Pronghorn Buck

I could have easily spent a few days photographing pronghorn for as long as the light would allow.  We saw bachelor groups, solitary dominant bucks, and does with fawns.  This iconic species is as good a poster child for the prairie as any, and I can’t wait to be in the speedgoat’s presence once more.

The prairie saved one of her best surprises for last.  After spending a few days in the vicinity of Taos, we made the return trip through the high plains toward home.  While driving a remote stretch of prairie road I heard Caro call out “FOX!”  I glanced in my rear view in time to see a pair of tawny, house cat sized creatures.  Turning round, we were able to fix our gaze on a pair of Swift Foxes (Vulpes velox) lounging near their burrows.  We watched them for some time, and I captured a few documentation photos.  I had hoped to approach a bit closer for higher quality images, but they were quick to retreat to their burrows.  We waited for some time, but the wind was not with us and we soon concluded it was a futile attempt.  We left content in having captured a glimpse of this elusive prairie denizen.

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Swift Fox

My parting shot for this blog entry is an image of a double rainbow taken after we passed through a late afternoon thunderstorm.  The cool air, smell of wet grass and earth, sound of distant thunder, and broad view of the prairie perfectly sum up the magic I felt here, at the western edge of the Great Plains.

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Double Rainbow

A Bucket List Beetle

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Bumelia Borer

It seems like I’m always writing about something that “I’ve wanted to see since I was a kid”. That’s because, presumably like most of my lifelong naturalist friends, I spent much of my childhood pouring over field guides and natural history books, and dreaming of one day finding the beautiful and fascinating organisms contained within.  In that respect, my bucket list grew very, very long.

Readers of this blog have also likely noticed that I love beetles. My passion for these armored insects began in earnest in 7th grade, when my first life sciences teacher, Mrs. Powell, tasked us with putting together an insect collection. I already had a strong passion for nature and science thanks to my parents, but Mrs. Powell’s assignment opened up the exciting world of insect hunting and collecting to me. I have continued to collect on and off throughout the years, though today I very rarely take specimens, preferring to record encounters with my camera.

After 7th grade, we moved from Chicago to Texas, and it opened up a whole new world of entomological wonders to me. I bought field guides on Texas insects, and immediately started marking the species I wanted to see. With the help of my parents, I targeted some of these. I remember one trip in particular, when my mom took my brother, a friend, and I on a trip toward College Station to find my first Ironclad Beetle, which I did, along with my first Wheel Bug, IO Moth, and a Striped Bark Scorpion.

Over the years my passion for insects waxed and waned, as it competed with other budding interests like birds and plants. Yet I always kept a soft spot for beetles.

One species that I immediately noticed in my Texas Field Guides was the Bumelia Borer (Plinthocoelium suaveolens), a spectacular long-horned beetle that is, in my opinion, a serious contender for the most beautiful beetle in the country.  Though this species would likely be relatively easy to find due to its host specificity and propensity to visit bait traps, I had never made the effort. I had found bits of elytral and exoskeletal remains on a few occasions in central Texas, but had yet to see a live individual.

This all changed last weekend, when I visited the Nature Conservancy’s Nash Prairie Preserve. Here I found an absolute bounty of pollinators visiting the sea of blooming Rattlesnake Master in this exceptionally high quality coastal prairie remnant. I photographed Trigonopeltastes delta, a beautiful flower scarab, and watched Carolina Mantis nymphs as they sat in ambush on the Rattlesnake Master’s flower heads.

Then I saw a massive flying insect, which appeared iridescent bluish black with an orange abdomen, and I initially took to be some manner of spider wasp. When it landed, however, I instantly recognized it as the species I have so long wanted to see.

I followed this spectacular beetle around the prairie for over an hour. It was uninterested in my presence, and allowed for a very close approach as it moved from flower to flower feeding. This species comes in a variety of color morphs, and I was lucky to see one with elements of turquoise and cobalt blue. For me, it’s beauty ranks right up there with the spectacular jewel beetles of the genus Chrysina found in West Texas.

Observing this beetle was one of those magical experiences that happened when I least expected it, and it was made all the more special by the incredible setting of the Nash Prairie – a testament to the importance of this place and the conservation work of the Nature Conservancy and other organizations like it.

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Bumelia Borer

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Bumelia Borer

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Bumelia Borer

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Carolina Mantis Nymph

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Trigonopeltastes delta

The Land of the Endless Sky

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Rolling Prairie in Hartley County near the Canadian River Breaks.

Texas is primarily a prairie state.  From the tallgrass prairies of the Gulf Coast to the Blackland Prairies and Cross Timbers and Prairies; and from the semi-arid grasslands of the Trans-Pecos to the Llano Estacado and the shortgrass prairies of the Panhandle Plains, the Lonestar State is largely defined by these graminoid-dominated communities.  Despite all of this, our native prairies are all but gone, victims of a relentless onslaught of change.  Much of our prairie was outright destroyed, converted to agricultural crops or development.  Others suffered from the removal of important disturbance elements like fire and the most iconic prairie denizen of them all, The American Bison.  At the same time these important components of prairie maintenance vanished, new, exotic species were introduced, forever changing the composition of the land.

Fortunately, there is still some good prairie left, for those who know where to look.  I have been lucky enough to see high quality virgin coastal prairies, some of the finest Blackland Prairie in the state, and the wildflower laden meadows of the Grand Prairie in spring.  Yet despite all of this, I had not spent time in the mid and shortgrass prairies of the panhandle since 2008, when I worked on a project researching Snowy Plovers in the playas and salt lakes around Lubbock.  This year I sought to change that, and Carolina and I spent a few days here on our big summer roadtrip.

Our first stop was the far northeastern corner of the Panhandle, where we went looking for milkweeds in Hemphill and Lipscomb Counties.  After a long drive from our Pineywoods home, we finally arrived to find the Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in full bloom.  This species is common around our home, but it was a different experience altogether seeing them growing in large clumps among the prairie grasses.

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Butterfly Weed in a midgrass prairie of the eastern Panhandle.

The Butterfly Weed was certainly exciting to see, but I had my heart set on a real Panhandle specialty – the Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa).  It is a wide ranging species, occurring from the Great Plains west.  It barely enters Texas, where it can be found at a few sites in the Panhandle.  We were fortunate enough to find it growing among a variety of grasses and sedges in the narrow floodplain of a small stream feeding the Canadian River.

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Showy Milkweeds blooming along a small stream in the Canadian River drainage.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying this may be our most beautiful milkweed.  The plants may reach a meter or more in height and are adorned by huge clusters of bright pink flowers with elongated hoods.  They are very fragrant, and we observed a wide variety of pollinators seeking nourishment from their blooms.

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Asclepias speciosa flower detail

After spending time among the milkweeds, we trekked west across the Panhandle.  We chose to take the lesser-traveled county roads and were rewarded with scenes of blooming wildflowers and rugged topography.

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CoreopsisGaillardia, and Monarda bloom in a Panhandle prairie.

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Carolina Larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) against a background of dried prairie grass.

While traversing the rugged Canadian River breaks, we spotted the unmistakable form of an Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata) in the road.  It’s hard to find a reptile with more personality than a good box turtle, and Carolina affectionately named this one “Manuelita”.  In my experience, there are two types of box turtles, those that seal themselves in with their hinged plastrons, and those that make a break for it. Manuelita was definitely the second type, and as soon as we put her on the ground she took off like a bullet, or at least a turtle’s version of a bullet.  I would not have been able to capture a singe photo of her if it were not for Carolina, who was able to read her body language, and gently calm her down enough that she would sit still for a brief time.  After a brief photo session, we watched as she vanished into the prairie, moving quickly away from the road.

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Ornate Box Turtle

From there we made our way to the Rita Blanca National Grasslands near the borders with Oklahoma and New Mexico. Our first evening camping here brought with it rapidly darkening skies of a blue norther that foreshadowed the violent storm to come. The wind hit first, creating turbulent waves in the sea of prairie grass. When the rain and lightning arrived, we retreated to the tent and huddled in our sleeping bags. The temperature dropped into the lower fifties, and through the rain fly of the tent we could see champagne pink flashes illuminating the darkness, and hear, or rather feel, the bone jarring thunder that followed. The wind was so strong that the tent walls flexed and the ceiling dropped several feet. I wondered if it would hold up, but when the storm passed the old sturdy ‘gal who had seen us through many adventures remained standing.

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Blue Norther approaching the Rita Blanca Grasslands

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Blue Norther approaching the Rita Blanca Grasslands

As the rain calmed to a gentle drizzle we decided to take to the roads to see if we might turn up some amphibians en route to their breeding wetlands. It turned out to be a productive evening, and we found several Bufo cognatus, Bufo woodhousii, and Spea bombifrons. I only photographed a single B. cognatus that appeared to be heavily gravid. It is amazing that organisms that rely so heavily on water can be so abundant in a place where it seems so scarce.

It was a humbling experience to be at the mercy of such a force of nature so powerful and destructive as that blue norther, and to see the vital role it played in ensuring the survival of so many species.

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Great Plains Toad (Bufo cognatus)

The next morning I had ambitions of rising early and photographing the sun rising over the prairie. When my alarm went off at some painful hour, however, I woke to the sound of gentle raindrops bouncing off the tent’s rain fly. It was the perfect sound for sleeping, so I drifted back asleep and woke again some hours later.

We went out into the damp morning to see if the rains may have spurred some animal movement. After a few miles, Caro spotted a nice Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) buck on a yucca-laden hillside. It looked at us for a moment, and took off running to the crest of the hill. A pronghorn in motion is a beautiful thing. Their movements are so fluid-like and effortless. There is nothing on this continent’s land that can match their speed, and their aloof attitude makes one think that they know it.

We moved forward along a curve in the road to try to get a closer look at the buck where the ridge intersected our path. There he stopped for a moment to mark his territory and again took to running. It became evident that he was stopping every hundred yards or so and scent marking. Caro postulated that perhaps he was concerned that the rains had washed his scent from his territory.

We watched him cross the road and find a small gap in the fence. From there he disappeared over the distant horizon. In all we probably spent 10 minutes or more watching him, and I managed an image of him mid-gallop.

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Pronghorn Buck

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Pronghorn Buck

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Pronghorn Buck Running

The wildflowers were looking rejuvenated after the rain.  In fact, the cool, wet spring and the region had experienced resulted in a verdant paradise of grasses and forbs.  I delighted in photographing a single Prairie Snowball (Abronia fragrans) plant.  The specific epithet fragrans is appropriate, as the flowers emit a wonderful aroma into the early morning air.  Like many species of Abronia, it is often pollinated by nocturnal moths, and the flowers open in the evening and generally close by mid-morning.

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Prairie Snowball

The Plains Penstemon (Penstemon ambiguus) was at peak bloom, decorating the prairie with patches of pink and white.

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Plains Penstemon

We also found a few late flowering patches of White Penstemon (Penstemon albidus).  Some had a slight hint of purple to the blooms.

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White Penstemon

With such an abundance of wildflowers, the pollinators were out in force as well.  The most striking were the striped-sweat bees (Agapostemon sp.) that were feeding on the abundant thistles.

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Striped-Sweat Bee

The Rita Blanca National Grassland is a haven for grassland birds. Many of the species that occur here are declining at an alarming rate as the prairie habitat they depend on vanishes or changes to a degree that it can no longer support them.

We drove slowly with the windows down so that we may hear them. Western Meadowlarks, Cassin’s Sparrows, and Horned Larks sang from the fence posts. We saw Burrowing Owls taking advantage of the numerous Black-tailed Prairie Dog towns scattered throughout the plains. We watched Greater Roadrunners dart along the primitive grassland roads as we listened to the distant whistling of Northern Bobwhites.  Small, isolated woodlots provided a haven for birds like Bullock’s Orioles, Western Kingbirds, and Red-headed Woodpeckers. 

At one point we were dive-bombed by aggressive Long-billed Curlew’s, a sure sign that they had a nest nearby. In Texas, these remarkable shorebirds only nest in the extreme northwest corner of the panhandle, which is close to the southern extent of their breeding range. Their nest was on the opposite side of a fence that we didn’t cross. Though the land was still public, I didn’t want to risk damaging the superbly camouflaged eggs which are laid in little more than a depression in the dried grass.

I photographed at Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus) as it foraged in the short grass, and was fortunate enough to photograph an iconic prairie bird, the Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), as it sang its hissing song from atop the fading blooms of a yucca. The birds alone would be worth the trip, but they were only one part in an incredible community of plants and animals that captivated my every moment in this special place.

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Lark Sparrow

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Grasshopper Sparrow

Among the numerous grassland birds is an elite killer, and a “respectable prairie raptor”, as my friend and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Matt Whitbeck would say: The Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsonii).  These open country specialists undertake one of the most impressive migrations of all raptors, breeding in western North America, as far north as Alaska, and wintering in Argentina.  During migration they may form large “kettles”, delighting bird watchers as they pass overhead en masse.  They take a variety of prey on their summer hunting grounds, including prairie dogs, ground squirrels, rabbits, and even Burrowing Owls.

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Swainson’s Hawk

As the rising sun warmed the prairie, we caught sight of a special creature scampering across an open patch of prairie soil.  It was a Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum), our state reptile, and one of the most famous icons of the Texas prairies.

Texas Horned Lizards have declined or disappeared throughout most of the state, however they continue to thrive in parts of the Panhandle and Trans Pecos. We saw several scurrying about in the late afternoon. These tiny dragons feed primarily on ants, and will often sit near a harvester ant mound picking off foragers as they move to and from the colony entrance.

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Texas Horned Lizard

Viewing a Texas Horned Lizard from above reveals its incredible and intricate patterns and textures.

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Texas Horned Lizard

It was a bittersweet feeling when our time at the Rita Blanca National Grassland came to an end.  It meant saying good bye to the prairies of the Panhandle, but it also meant we would be continuing our journey westward into the Land of Enchantment.  My time in the Panhandle Plains left me enamored with the landscapes and specialized flora and fauna of the area.  It is a long drive from the Pineywoods, but one I will gladly make again.  Until then, I will dream of incoming blue northers, running pronghorn, and the dawn chorus of grassland songbirds.

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Rock Outcrop in Potter County

 

 

The Terning of the Tide

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Courting Sandwich Terns

Nature is a magical thing.  The lives of plants and animals are filled with beauty, drama, failures and triumphs, terror, violence, and tenderness.  Capturing these candid interactions on camera is a dream for any nature photographer.  But it is no easy task.  Doing so requires that the subjects accept you into their world, and most species are reluctant to do so.  There are those special times, however, when patience and persistence pays off, and the determined photographer is rewarded with a rare glimpse of the intimate beauty of nature.

I had one such opportunity recently, when a business trip to Galveston corresponded with the tail end of migration along the Texas Coast.  By late May the majority of passage migrants have left the area and continued their northward journey.  Yet this is one of my favorite times to explore the beaches of Galveston Bay, as dozens of species of plovers, sandpipers, gulls, terns, and other Charadriiform birds gather here.  It is during this time that many species are courting and pairing up for the breeding season.

The courtship displays of terns, in particular, are beautiful, elegant things.  I rose before daybreak the day after my workshop, and set out for the the Bay, where I hoped to photograph some courting terns and the array of other species sharing the beach.

Despite my best efforts to avoid condensation, my lens was still hopelessly fogged when I arrived.  I dropped to my knees and worked on resolving this issue when I heard peeping sounds coming from all around me, and caught the blurred movement of small birds scurrying about.  They were Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonia), beach specialists that breed here. Kneeling appeared to have made my silhouette less threatening, and a number of the birds approached relatively closely.  After several minutes I was able to clear the condensation and dropped to my belly.  While I was in this position, the birds approached even closer, and I was able to capture an intimate portrait of a beautiful male.

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Male Wilson’s Plover

This particular location includes a large bird sanctuary where Wilson’s Plovers and Least Terns nest.  Many of the birds here have been banded and are subjects of long-term studies.  Individual birds may have a combination of colored bands that correspond to sex, age, and other pertinent data, as well as an aluminum band that identifies the individual.

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Banded Wilson’s Plover

I was thrilled for the opportunity to photograph some American Oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus).  These striking shorebirds have specially adapted bills that help them pry open bivalve shells.  I photographed one as it scoured the Sargassum wrack in search of a meal.

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American Oystercacher

An American Oystercatcher in its prime is a beautiful thing, with clean black, white, and brown lines, bright yellow eyes encircled by orange eye rings, and a long bill that grades from orange to pink to yellow at the tip.

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American Oystercatcher

The dunes adjacent to the Bay were rich in halophytic flora including the lovely Sand Rose Gentian (Sabatia arenicola), which began to open as the morning wore on and the beach warmed.  This species is generally uncommon, and under threat from beach recreation and development.

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Sand Rose Gentian

Before moving onto the main event of courting terns, I took a moment to photograph a Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger).  These wonderfully weird birds have a highly specialized method of foraging that involves flying low and “skimming” the water with their elongated lower jaw.  Once the jaw feels a potential prey item it snaps shut, bringing a meal with it.

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Black Skimmer

Looking down the beach, I could spot a large congregation of Sandwich Terns (Thalasseus sandvicensis) and Royal Terns (Thalasseus maximus).  I knew that many of these birds would be courting, so I devised a plan to approach without spooking them.  I entered the water, which was fortunately relatively calm, and dropped to my belly.  I inched forward for 150 yards or so by slowly dragging myself with my elbows while holding my heavy camera and lens above water.  It was surprisingly physically taxing, and my muscles were screaming by the time I found myself within range.  I rolled over a few times and came to rest in a prime position for capturing the action.  The birds were wary of me at first, but came accustomed to my presence after a half our or so and resumed their normal activities.  Several other birds joined the group, with some landing closer than my minimum focusing distance.

At some point a group of Black Terns (Chlidonias niger) landed within range.  These are spectacular, Gothic looking birds that are just passing through on their journey to breeding grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada.  I was happy to photograph them, despite the difficulties in properly exposing them.

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Black Tern

The Sandwich and Royal Terns were in large groups, so isolating any individual was tricky.  I was happy to capture the Sandwich Tern Below as it stood at the edge of the group, in shallow water that seemed to blend with the distant gray skies.

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Sandwich Tern

The complex courtship displays of Sandwich Terns are fascinating.  They usually begin with aerial displays performed by the males, who will then capture a fish and descend to deliver it to a female.  After the female has accepted, both sexes enter into an elegant, dance-like “strut”.

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Strutting Sandwich Tern

The couple prances down the beach side by side with crests raised.  To initiate mating, the female will move her tail to expose her cloaca, and the male will spread his wings in preparation to mount (see the first image in this blog).  The male then leaps upon her back and after he gains his balance, copulation occurs.

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Courting Sandwich Terns.

After finishing with the Sandwich Terns, I turned my attention to the Royal Terns, which were more numerous.  I captured the image below of an individual that was seemingly left out from the courtship activities.

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Royal Tern

The courting process for Royal Terns is similar to that of the Sandwich Tern.  They begin with aerial displays, followed by the male capturing a fish.

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Royal Tern

One a potential mate has been chosen, the male and female strut in circles around one another.

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Courting Royal Terns

They step in unison…

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Courting Royal Terns

And finally the male presents the fish to the female.

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Courting Royal Terns

One she has accepted, the female moves her tail to expose her cloaca and the male mounts her and the pair copulates.

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Royal Terns preparing to copulate

Sometimes things turn into a bit of a frenzy.  The fish in the image below lost its head when a number of females that were not preferred by the male tried to pilfer the fish from him.  Fortunately he was able to keep the majority of it to present to his intended mate.

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Courting Royal Terns

I find terns to be such elegant animals, and photographing their elaborate courtship allowed me a glimpse inside their complex life history.  And the terns were just the tip of the ice berg that morning!  There are few experiences I cherish more than spending a morning with my belly in the sand, my eye on the viewfinder, and my lens pointed at some feathered thing.  That morning life was good and the beach was beautiful.  Scenes like this, however, are disappearing at an alarming rate, as beach front habitat is rapidly vanishing to commercial and residential development, and the beaches that remain become more crowded with visitors and vehicles.  Coastal habitats, like so many other natural communities, need our help if we want future generations to experience a morning like mine.  Fortunately there are conservation groups actively working to protect this fragile ecosystem.  If these areas and experiences are important to you, please consider donating or volunteering to The Galveston Bay Foundation, Baykeepers, Audubon Texas, and other organizations like them.