An Evening on the Neches

IMG_7044

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

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

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

IMG_7104b

Neches River bottoms in the fog

IMG_7074

The Neches RIver

IMG_7037

Overcup Oaks dressed in their autumn foliage

IMG_7091

Overcup Oaks hang low over a flooded Neches River

IMG_7051a

Fall color on an island in the Neches

IMG_7117

The flooded Neches pours into the bottomlands

IMG_7132

The steely waters of the Neches at dusk

IMG_7126.jpg

An ethereal mist rises from the Neches

IMG_7153

The banks of the Neches River in a dense fog

IMG_7163

The fog begins to lift, revealing distant flooded oaks

 

Finding Paradise in the Bandera Canyonlands

IMG_6516

Hill Country Waterfall

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_6122

Hill Country Canyon

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

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

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

IMG_6220

Nine-banded Armadillo

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

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

IMG_6370

Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_6452.jpg

Baird’s Rat Snake

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

IMG_6508b

Bigtooth Maples at Love Creek

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

IMG_6519

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

IMG_6522ab

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

IMG_6582

Western Slimy Salamanders

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

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

IMG_6600

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

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

IMG_6666

Bandera Canyonlands

Chasing the Monsoon

IMG_0598

Davis Mountains Sunrise

It’s hard to resist the prospect of venturing west during the height of summer, when the monsoon rains drench the sky islands of the Trans Pecos, and bringing with them a lush, rich paradise in high elevation forests and canyons.  It has become a bit of an annual tradition for Carolina and I to visit the Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve during their open weekends in July or August.  This year would be all the more special, as we would be joined by our new friends Jim Fowler and Walter Ezell.  I have known Jim for years through Flickr.  Jim is an orchid expert from South Carolina who has authored two books, including Wild Orchids of South Carolina: A Popular Natural History.  Jim also maintains an excellent blog about his and Walter’s botanizing adventures (click here to check it out).  For some time Jim had been commenting to me on how he wanted to see a spectacular orchid that is known in the U.S. only from a few locations in Texas.  This orchid happened to be one of my all-time favorite species, the Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora).

So I told Jim that he should join us on one of our trips to the Davis Mountains, as they are the best place to see this strange, beautiful orchid.  He would get his chance this past July, when he and Walter flew in from South Carolina and met up with Carolina and I.  We caravaned west, passing through the southern extend of the rolling plains and into the Permian Basin, and finally into Limpia Canyon.  That afternoon we planned to meet up with our friend and retired biologist Gary Freeman, who owns several hundred acres of Davis Mountain bliss.

The rains of the monsoons had arrived late this year, and had only recently begun.  The landscape was still dry and brown, exacerbated by a series of intense wildfires that spread through much of the area.  Better late than never, though, and they had arrived a couple of weeks prior to our arrival.  I hoped this would give enough time for the coralroots to emerge.  I would hate for Jim and Walter’s cross-country trip to have been in vain.

On the way to Gary’s home we spotted a large Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) buck grazing just off the road.  It’s coat was still wet from a recent rain shower as it warily eyed us.  It never attempted to flee, however, as we approached to admire and photograph it.  My experience with Pronghorn is that they will allow for a fairly close approach, as long as they can see you.  I like to think that it is because, as the fastest land mammal in North America, they are confident in their ability to outrun me.

IMG_9683

Satisfied with our photos of this peculiar mammal, we continued on to the rugged road that led to Gary’s place.  As we drew nearer we could see that it was raining in the surrounding mountains, and hoped that we could avoid a downpour long enough to find a few orchids.  As we made our way down the wet, rough road to Gary’s, I worried that our timing was off, and the coralroots would not make an appearance.  How wrong I was.  Not long after the road climbed into a broad canyon with Ponderosa Pine, Alligator Juniper, and a variety of oak species, I heard Caro call out “STOP!!”  She had spotted a Giant Coralroot in bloom at the base of a massive boulder.

Jim and Walter excitedly gathered their photography gear and set about photographing the electric pink myco-heterotroph.  It was not in the best location for photography, and it was somewhat entertaining watching them formulate a plan on how to best approach capturing their desired images.  Carolina and I searched the area in the meantime, and found a few dried stalks and unopened buds.  We then continued on until the road became all but impassable, and turned into Gary’s dirt driveway.

Gary’s home is settled in the middle of a rich forest of Ponderosa and Pinyon Pines, Alligator Juniper, Texas Madrone, and a variety of oaks and other hardwoods.  It is transected by numerous washes and drainages that flow like mountain streams in years with ample rainfall.  We were warmly greeted by an enthusiastic Gary.  It is always a joy touring his land with him.  He is extremely knowledgeable, energetic, and full of interesting stories.  He is also always more than willing to share a glass of hard cider or two and plenty of camaraderie following a long hike through his canyons.

It wasn’t long after setting out that we spotted our first Giant Coralroot.  We would end up seeing many, but most were just emerging and in bud or barely open.  Jim was excited to see these and stopped to photograph each one.  While I was happy that we had found some, I really wanted to show them a fully opened flower, so they could come to know the true glory of this spectacular plant.  And then, finally, near a high elevation spring we found some.

IMG_9772

Giant Coralroot

Giant Coralroots are non-photosynthesizing myco-heterotrophs, meaning they do not possess chlorophyll and are uncapable of metabolizing energy from the sun.  Instead they utilize underground rhizomes and roots to obtain their energy and nutrients from the mycorhizzal fungi of tree roots.  An individual plant spends most of its life underground and may only bloom once every few years.  When they do bloom, however, it is a sight to see.  Their bright pink stalks push up through the leaf litter and may bear a dozen or more blooms that open in succession as the stalk grows.

IMG_9759

Giant Coralroot

Satisfied with our orchid hunting trip, we returned to Gary’s house and imbibed in the aforementioned hard cider.  As the sun fell low on the horizon we bid our reluctant good byes and went on our way.  Jim and Walter would stay in Fort Davis while Caro and I camped at Davis Mountain State Park.  Generally we would camp at the Davis Mountain Preserve, which has free camping during open weekends, however the preserve was closed to camping this year due to issues with the wildfires.

Fortunately the preserve would still be open during the day, and the next morning we set out to see what other interesting things we might find.  We made our way to one of my favorite places in the preserve, an area where I have seen many Giant Coralroots in the past, as well as Malaxis macrostachya and other interesting wildflowers.  We did succeed in finding several more Giant Coralroots, but other than that there was not much blooming.

IMG_9976ab

Giant Coralroot

As I was capturing the image above, the clouds opened up and let a deluge down upon the mountains.  I was reluctant to leave the scene, but finally retreated to my truck where we waited out the storm.  Eventually the rain let up and we continued to explore the area.  We were lucky to find several Desert Saviors (Echeveria strictiflora) in bloom.  This unique succulent is another species that Jim had really hoped to see.  In the U.S. it is only known from a few sites in far West Texas.

43246866584_4009e96d2e_o

Desert Savior

We then made our way into Tobe Canyon, where I hoped some other interesting plants might be blooming.  On our way up we passed many stately Ponderosa Pines.  In fact, the state champion is in this very canyon.  The textures and colors of the bark and Old Man’s Beard lichen caught my eye, and inspired me to capture the image below, which is a bit more abstract than most of my work.

IMG_0011

Patterns in Ponderosa

We continued up into the canyon, however it was getting late and the preserve would soon be closing for the day.  Many of the species I was hoping to see remained elusive, but we were rewarded with Cliff Fendlerbush blooming in the canyon, dotting the hills with their soft white blooms.

IMG_0054A

Cliff Fendlerbush

We descended Tobe Canyon and left the Preserve.  On our way back to Fort Davis we stopped to show Jim and Fowler several interesting places, including nice views of the Davis Mountains, the McDonald Observatory, and high elevation prairies.  Of particular interest to Jim were milkweeds, of which we saw many species.  One of my favorite is the Bract Milkweed (Asclepias brachystephana).

IMG_0088

Bract Milkweed

Jim and Walter would be leaving in the morning, and to thank us for showing them around they invited us to have dinner with them in Fort Davis.  We decided to head back to our campsite to clean up and rest a bit before heading into town to meet up with them again.  Back near camp Orange Fameflowers (Phemeranthus aurantiacus) were beginning to open.

IMG_0108

Orange Fameflower

IMG_0135

Orange Fameflower

We met up with Jim and Walter at the condo they were renting in Fort Davis.  There Walter prepared a delicious meal of pork chops and salad.  After we talked for some time, but eventually we had to bid our farewells and head back to camp.  We were sad that our time with our new friends was ending, but I was happy that I was able to show Jim the Giant Coralroot and a number of other interesting things along the way.

The next morning we woke early and explored the state park and adjacent Fort Davis National Historic Site, which defended the Trans Pecos in the mid to late 1800s.  By early afternoon the clouds began rolling in, and soon the monsoons drenched the earth once more.  After they passed we returned to exploring.  I chased a huge Western Coachwhip to no avail, and stalked Blue Grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) in hopes of capturing a photograph.

IMG_0267

Blue Grosbeak

I also took a moment to photograph the ubiquitous White-winged Doves (Zenaida asiatica), which really are quite striking up close.

IMG_0280a

White-winged Dove

As the rain drenched the mountains, Caro and I decided to explore the grasslands around Fort Davis and Marathon.  To me, these special communities are just as interesting and diverse as those in the high country.  We spotted a number of interesting wildflowers in bloom, including the beautiful Devil’s Bouquet (Nyctagina capitata).

IMG_0309

Devil’s Bouquet

To my surprise, we also found several Plains Penstemon (Penstemon ambiguus) in bloom.  I was under the impression that this species bloomed earlier in the year, but perhaps the delayed onset of the monsoon impacted their phenology.  As I photographed them, I noticed a Scott’s Oriole singing from a fence post and a Swainson’s Hawk surveying its domain from the dried stalk of a Spanish Dagger bloom.

IMG_0517

Plains Penstemon

As we made our way across the prairie, I was hoping that I might have the opportunity to photograph some pronghorn in the interesting post-storm light.  I had my chance when we spotted a trio – two does and a young buck – near the road.  They did not immediately flee as I crept from my truck and tried to draw a bit nearer, but all three did perk up and look upon me with vigilant eyes.

IMG_0465

Vigilant Pronghorn

Often referred to as “antelope”, pronghorn only superficially resemble these old world ungulates.  They belong to the monotypic family Antilocapridae, and are actually more closely related to giraffes and okapis than true antelope.

Pronghorn are an iconic species of the American west, and it is always a treat seeing them in these semi-arid grasslands of West Texas.  Though once abundant, their numbers declined dramatically in the Trans-Pecos over the last 30 years.  They remain common in some areas around Marfa, Fort Davis, and Alpine, and their numbers seem to be rebounding following a number of reintroduction with animals from the Texas Panhandle.

IMG_0462

Pronghorn Doe

This buck below seemed indifferent to my presence, until I crouched down to get a low angle shot.  I must have triggered some primal response to concealed predators, because he perked up very quickly and began to snort and stomp his foot in displeasure.  They may be confident in their ability to outrun a predator in the open, but it seems the prospect of one concealed in the brush is another thing altogether.

IMG_0384

Pronghorn Buck

That night Caro and I went to see the Marfa Lights, and had a long debate about their possible source.  On the drive back to our campsite it seemed like every distant light was some mystical floating orb.  We saw a few Western Diamondbacks on the road, but otherwise it was an uneventful drive back.  The next morning we rose early and drove to the Skyline Drive in Davis Mountains State Park, where I captured the first image in this blog post.  Later, as we were breaking camp I spotted a freshly dead Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii) that looked like it had flown into a tree a bit too fast.  I was really hoping to add to my collection of photographs of this species during our trip, but it was beginning to look like it wasn’t meant to be.  We had seen two others on Gary’s land while looking for orchids, but they were flying high in the canopy.

On our way out of Limpia Canyon we stopped to examine some walnut trees, the main food source for adult Wood’s Jewel Scarabs.  After some time we spotted one flying low enough to capture.  Easier said than done.  I ran about making futile grabs at the air hoping to catch one.  Caro took a different approach.  She waited until it landed in a small oak growing from a crevice in some large boulders.  Cautiously she climbed the boulders and snatched the prize.  I took a few photos of this spectacular insect and we sent it on its way.

IMG_0810

Wood’s Jewel Scarab

It was a long drive home to the Pineywoods, but we had plenty of memories to reflect on during our journey.  We thought in breathtaking landscapes, incredible creatures, fleeting wildflowers, and new friends.  Each trip to the Sky Islands of West Texas brings with it some uniquely profound experience, and leaves me feeling refreshed, inspired, and eager to continue my never ending quest for biodiversity.

Reflecting on Summer in the Pineywoods

IMG_2657

S-banded Tiger Beetle

With the arrival of our first “real” cold front of the season, and temperatures in the extended forecast barely creeping out of the 60s, I think it’s safe to say that fall has arrived.  The forests are full of fungi and fall-blooming asters.  And just the other day I found several Marbled Salamander, a true harbinger of fall.

But before I set out to bask in the beauty of Autumn, I find myself thinking back to a summer spent in the forests of my home.  This year’s was a particularly hot, dry summer.  After a few years of relatively mild summers, at least in terms of Texas, this one was intense.  Yet even in the midst of heat waves and drought there are natural treasures to be found by those willing to look.

I found one such treasure on a sweltering day in late June.  On the advice of my friend Joe Liggio, author of Wild Orchids of Texas, I went to check on a local population of Crest Coralroot Orchids (Hexalectris spicata).  This is a wide ranging species, occurring from Arizona to Florida to Virginia.  In Texas they occur in scattered populations throughout the state, with the most robust populations being in the White Rock Escarpment of north-central Texas, the Edward’s Plateau, and the mountains of the Trans Pecos.  In the Pineywoods they are only known from a few localized populations.  Here they are generally found singly, or in small, scattered clumps.  This year however, we found a huge clump of over 30 stems.

The Crested Coralroot is a non-photosynthesizing mycoheterotroph, meaning that it lacks chlorophyll and has no real leaves to speak of.  It lives out its days a little more than an underground rhizome and small roots that penetrate the mycorrhizal fungi of tree roots in order to rob them of a portion of their energy and nutrients.  All that alerts the average forest-goer to their presence is the flesh colored flowering stalk and purple-streaked flowers that emerge all to briefly in the early summer.

IMG_8719WM

Crested Coralroot

Emerging from forest floors rich in decomposing organic material in early June is the Ox Beetle (Strategus aloeus).  These massive coleopterans are among the largest insects in the United States.  The pronotums of males are decorated with three horns that are utilized in combat to win the favor of females.  These massive beetles are familiar visitors to porch and gas station lights on warm, humid, moonless summer nights.

IMG_9046

Male Ox Beetle

Another, much more occasional, visitor to night lights is the assassin bug known as Microtomus purcis.  So named for their tendency to ambush other insects and dispatch them with their long spear-like beak, assassin bugs come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.  Microtomus purcis is one of the largest, and most striking.  When not visiting man-made lights in errors, they spend much of their time hidden beneath the bark of rotting tree trunks.

IMG_8951.jpg

Microtomus purcis

We spent much of July away from the Pineywoods, visiting the sky islands of West Texas and the beaches of the Upper Texas Coast.  I could not resist, however, seeking out the brilliant orange Platanthera orchids that light up the bog like tiny torches.  There are four species in Texas, however this year I would only photograph two of them.  Interestingly, I would find them both on the same day.

In late July we traveled to the Big Thicket, where deep in a mosquito infested baygall I spotted the brilliant inflorescence of the Crested Fringed Orchid (Platanthera cristata).  This is perhaps the second rarest of our Platanthera species, only known from a few sites in the central and southern Pineywoods.  In Texas they seem to prefer the shaded, highly acidic conditions of forested seeps, occurring either on their margins or interiors.  I have also found them at acidic seeps along springfed streams.  They are generally in the company of a variety of ferns, and other forest seep specialists like Nodding Nixie (Apteria aphylla).  This seemed a good year for them.  I often wonder what triggers an orchid bloom, as some years none will bloom, other years only a handful, and that rare year where many will bloom.  Rainfall no doubt plays some important roll, but as to when the rain should fall to trigger the bloom and what other factors may contribute, I am at a loss.

IMG_0878

Crested Fringed Orchid

After leaving the baygall we traveled east to a wetland pine savannah where we found the enigmatic Chapman’s Fringed Orchid (Platanthera chapmanii).  P. chapmanii occurs in scattered populations in Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina.  It is believed by many to have arisen from an ancient hybrid of P. cristata and P. cilliaris, seeming to display characteristics of both.  It can be differentiated from the former by its long beard and reflexed lateral sepals.  It differs from the latter by its hooked columns.  In Texas P. chapmanii is known from a few remnant wetland pine savannahs in the Big Thicket.

IMG_0968

Chapman’s Fringed Orchid

IMG_0964

Chapman’s Fringed Orchid in a wetland pine savannah

Growing alongisde the Chapman’s Orchids were a variety of carnivorous plants, including the conspicuous Pale Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia alata).  The leaves of these carnivores, known as pitchers, are hollow and form long tubes with pools of digestive enzymes at their base.  Unsuspecting insects that enter the pitchers may become trapped in the enzyme soup, where they are slowly digested, nourishing the plants.

IMG_1010

Pitcher Plants in Love

In early August Caro and I found ourselves in pursuit of another orange beauty, the Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii).  Uncommon in Texas, the Carolina Lily grows in rich, mature forests, generally on hardwood slopes, though it may occur on rocky slopes dominated by Longleaf Pine.  We actually spotted our first lily of the season growing along a county road in a remnant patch of forest surrounded by pine plantations.

IMG_0899

Carolina Lily

A few days later we went to visit a population that Caro had spotted last year long after antithesis.  This year we found them in full bloom, and even spotted one plant that had three flowers, something I had never seen before.

IMG_1113

Carolina Lily

Carolina maintains our garden, which is full of a variety of native plant species.  A benefit to a diversity of native plants in our yard is that we are able to attract a variety of native pollinators.  And with the pollinators come the predators.  In essence we get to observe the food chain in action every day.  One of my favorite back yard predators is the Widow Skimmer, which stalks the garden and occasionally pauses for a brief photo shoot.

IMG_1234

Widow Skimmer

One of my favorite summer past-times is wandering along the numerous clear, cold, springfed streams that transect portions of the Pineywoods.  There is so much to see beneath the water, along the banks, and in the surrounding forests.  It was on the banks of one such stream that I spotted these striking red fungi.

IMG_1249

Fungi

Late summer brings with it a peak in tiger beetle activity.  Undisturbed beaches along streams and rivers may literally be swarming with a variety of species, voraciously chasing down any prey item unfortunate enough to get in their path.  One species, the S-banded Tiger beetle (Cicindelidia trifasciata) was historically considered a species of the coast, however in recent years it has been found along waterways hundreds of miles inland.  In the Pineywoods it is now quite common in many areas.

IMG_2613

S-banded Tiger Beetle

IMG_2585

S-banded Tiger Beetle

The Bronzed Tiger Beetle (Cicindela repanda) is a wide-ranging, somewhat variable species.  Their elytra may appear dark brown, coppery, or even golden under the right light conditions.  They are commonly encountered on sandy stream banks and sandbars of streams and rivers.

IMG_2945

Perhaps the most commonly encountered Tiger Beetle in the Pineywoods is the Ocellated Tiger Beetle (Cicindelidia ocellata).  Unlike most species of the Pineywoods, which are characteristically eastern and at the western edge of their range, the Ocellated Tiger Beetle is primarily a species of the southwest and reaches the eastern limit of its range here.

IMG_3250

Ocellated Tiger Beetle

A visit to my good friend James Childress‘s farm is always good for turning up a few invertebrates.  The plants and woodpiles along his cabin harbor rich arachnid diversity, and we are always treated to a wealth of spider sightings.  Perhaps the most entertaining of all of the farm’s eight-legged denizens is the Bold Jumping Spider (Phiddipus audax).

IMG_3198

Bold Jumping Spider

Under a chair on James’s patio we found this large female Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans).  Perhaps the most famous/infamous spider in the country, the Black Widow has a reputation of being dangerous and ruthless due to its potent venom and tendency to cannibalize males seeking mating opportunities.  In reality, they are docile, gentle creatures disinclined to bite.

IMG_3105

Black Widow

As August turned to September, my friend Scott Wahlberg spotted something truly remarkable.  Deep in a mature hardwood stream bottom he caught a glimpse of a massive Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) that we estimated to be pushing five feet in length and as thick as my upper arm.  Finding this snake was a reminder that all manner of fantastic creatures are hidden deep in the forest, many of which will never be seen by visitors to their woodland realm. We were fortunate, however, to see one of these elusive forest spirits.  In a time and place when so many seem determined to wipe these beautiful animals out based on unfounded fears and ignorance, it is nothing short of incredible that this snake would live long enough to attain such an impressive size. Spending a moment with this gentle giant truly was a gift from the forest.

IMG_3045

Canebrake Rattlesnake

Back at James’s farm the hummingbirds had arrived in force.  South-bound Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) begin arriving in the Pineywoods in late summer.  Dozens of these tiny aerial acrobats were fighting for position among James’s feeders, eager to refuel and prepare for the continued journey south.

IMG_3320

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Many shorebirds also pass through the Pineywoods in East Texas as they migrate south.  In early September while laying flat on a river sandbar photographing tiger beetles I caught a blur of motion our of the corner of my eye. Slowly I turned my head to focus on this new distraction, and saw that it was a Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularis) darting back and forth in pursuit of invertebrate prey. Though the bird was only about 25 feet away, it was still too far for my macro to reach. Slowly I crept backwards, and then made my way to my truck to seek out my telephoto lens. I could only hope that the tiny hunter would stick around. As I retreated I watched the shorebird make several mad dashes in the area I had just left, undoubtedly snatching up some of the tiger beetles I had just been observing.

I made it to the truck and equipped my bird lens. I then cautiously made my way back to the sandbar. At first I couldn’t see the sandpiper, but after some time it became visible behind a small rise in the sand, tail a-bobbing. I got into the water and laid flat, trying to conceal as much as my form as possible. I slowly moved toward my quarry, and found it to be surprisingly tolerant. Most shorebirds are in their basic, or non-breeding plumage this time of year. In the Spotted Sandpiper, I find this look to be just as striking as its breeding plumage, particularly the fine details on the wing coverts.

I watched the sandpiper through my lens as it moved up and down the edge of the sandbar, stalking and pouncing on prey, and flipping leaves and other bits of cover to see what tasty morsels might lie beneath. After it had scoured most of the sandbar’s perimeter it took off upriver, flying southward with its characteristic erratic wingbeats. I was left with a few images and a fine memory of an unexpected encounter of the best kind.

IMG_3883

Spotted Sandpiper on the prowl

IMG_3872

Spotted Sandpiper

IMG_3868

Spotted Sandpiper

I can’t say that I’ll miss the summer heat, but I will miss many of the familiar species that vanish for the year as summer turns to autumn.  I can’t be too sad, however, as each season in the Pineywoods has a unique cast of characters, and each year I look forward to seeing familiar faces and those that I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting in these wonderful, diverse forests.

Ouachita Mountain Magic

Target Species:

Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum)

Rich Mountain Salamander (Plethodon ouachitae)

IMG_4213.jpg

Rich Mountain Salamander

We could barely see.  Columns of air that cooled as they rose up the mountainside created a fog so dense that trees less than a hundred feet away were completely invisible.  Orthographic lift is a common occurrence here, as evidenced by the dense coats of lichen and moss coating nearly every tree trunk.  I was happy.  To some nature lovers happiness is a wide open mountain vista, or an endless beach breaking brilliant blue waters.  But to me, it is a forest in the fog.  We were high on Rich Mountain, a long mountain ridge in the western Ouachitas, an ancient range that runs from east to west in western Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma.

Most of my blog posts thusfar have focused on the biodiversity of my home state, Texas.  But for this one we take a journey to our neighbors to the north.  I first visited the Ouachitas over 15 years ago on a backpacking trip with a college friend.  We hiked the first leg of the Ouachita Trail, and I was instantly hooked.  I have made many trips since.  Most of these have focused on finding the Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum), an enigmatic, elusive salamander endemic to the Interior Highlands.  As Carolina and I set out from the Pineywoods of East Texas this late September day, I thought back on these trips, and how, despite my considerable efforts, I had still yet to see an adult Ringed Salamander.

We made our camp on Rich Mountain near a sign warning of bear activity in the area.  I have read that American Black Bear populations in the Ouachitas were increasing, but I wondered how often encounters occur.  Later this very trip we would come to find a large pile of scat that we both believed to be from a bear, complete with a long red cord from someone’s garbage.

The north-facing slopes of Rich Mountain harbor lush, rich forests not unlike those further east in the southern Appalachians.  Here a diverse canopy of oaks, maples, hickories, basswood and Cucumber Magnolia towers above an understory of pawpaws, redbuds, and dogwoods.  Familiar Appalachian plants like Jewelweed, False Solomon’s Seal and Rattlesnake Root line the roadsides that wind up the mountainside and a lush carpet of ferns flanks the numerous small streams and springs that run from the rocky hillsides.

 

IMG_4239

Rich Hardwood Forest

These forests are home to a diversity of salamanders, many of which are found nowhere else on earth.  One such Ouachita endemic is the Rich Mountain Salamander (Plethodon ouachitae), of which we found many.  This species has three distinct variations, one on Rich Mountain, one on Winding Stair Mountain, and one on Kiamichi Mountain.  Pictured here is the Rich Mountain variant, which I find to be the most attractive.  We would also find several Winding Stair Mountain variants before the trip was over, but I neglected to photograph them.  Recent rains and orthographic lift events created perfect damp conditions for salamanders, and nearby we also found Southern Redback Salamanders, Western Slimy Salamanders, Many-ribbed Salamanders, and Ouachita Dusky Salamanders.

IMG_4326

Rich Mountain Salamander

There are a number of salamander species endemic to only certain isolated portions of the Ouachita Mountains.  These include, along with the Rich Mountain Salamander, the Fourche Mountain Salamander and the Caddo Mountain Salamander.  I did not have the opportunity to photograph the latter two this trip, though I hope to return to do so in the near future.  This type of isolated endemism is common in older mountain ranges like the Ouachitas and southern Appalachians, where one species may occupy only a single mountaintop.  Millions of years ago, when the mountains were higher and the climate cooler, a wide expanse of habitat created which allowed salamanders to thrive over expansive ranges.  But as time wore on, these mountains weathered and the climate warmed.  Broad dry valleys formed between peaks, in essence creating islands of populations on the portions of higher peaks where suitable habitat remained.  These populations were now unable to access one another and as a result gene flow between populations was interrupted.  As a result what was once a larger population slowly began to evolve into separate, distinct species in isolation.

From the top of Rich Mountain, in the evening after the day’s fog has burned up, it’s possible to see for miles and miles in every direction.  The distant peaks and valleys looked like some turbulent undulating sea.  Caro and I spent our evenings here, basking on warm rocks as the sun dipped low in the distance.  Here we bid farewell to the day before returning to camp to prepare dinner and recover from our wanderings.

IMG_4354a

Ouachita Mountains

IMG_4380a

Ouachita Sunset

On the highest, most exposed ridges of Rich Mountain, a forest of gnarled, stunted dwarfs occurs.  Here White Oaks, Black Tupelos, and hickories which may tower 100 feet or more in the rich valleys at the base of the mountains, occur in miniature.  These old growth forests contain trees, like those pictured below, that are hundreds of years old but may only reach 10-20 feet in height.  Their growth is stunted due to a variety of factors, including the exposure to relentless winds, winter ice storms, and frequent fogs.  In some areas two-hundred year old White Oaks were only six or seven feet tall, and occurred in extremely dense thickets that seemed reminiscent of blueberry thickets in the Far North.  These peculiar miniature forests we noted by early travelers to the region, including Thomas Nuttall.

IMG_4423

Stunted White Oak Forest

Though still early in the season, fall colors were beginning to show at the higher elevations.  The classic fall-blooming goldenrods were out in force, and Black Tupelo, Sassafrass, and even some hickories had begun to display their fall foliage.

IMG_4419a

Fall Palette

The Ouachita Mountians have a lot to offer, and we enjoyed taking in all that we could.  The real reason for the trip, however, was to try and find an adult Ringed Salamander – something I had failed to do during many previous fall trips.  Unlike most members of the family Ambystomatidae, which breed during the first warm rains of late winter and early spring, the Ringed Salamander breeds in the fall, similar to the Marbled Salamander.  However where the Marbled Salamander breeds and deposits its eggs on land, Ringed Salamanders breed and lay eggs in the water – for the most part, at least.  I have observed on a few occasions, Ringed Salamander eggs laid under leaves and logs in dry pool basins.  While previous trips had turned up thousands of larvae and eggs, the adults continued to allude me.

The Ringed Salamander is one of our most enigmatic salamander species, and in my opinion one of our most beautiful. Despite being abundant in some areas within its narrow range in the Interior Highlands, which include the Ozark Plateau and Ouachita Mountains, it is extremely difficult to observe, with very brief periods of surface activity in the fall and spring.  They emerge en masse following heavy fall rains and migrate to their breeding ponds.  It seems like they leave the ponds very quickly after mating, and quickly return below ground.  In some areas there are also breeding events in the spring, though often on a much smaller scale.

When we arrived in Ringed Salamander country there were still puddles on the ground, which I took to be a good sign. We went directly to the first of the breeding ponds, nestled deep in the woods. Wandering to the pond I wondered how these large amphibians survive here. It is not a rich, moist forest like those caudate-rich slopes of the southern Appalachians and elsewhere in the Ouachitas, but rather a rocky, dry woodland of shortleaf pine and various oaks that seemed to send its rainwater to the heart of the mountain just as soon as it hit the ground.

IMG_4136

Ouachita woodland near a Ringed Salamander breeding pond

There were some interesting wildflowers blooming in the area.  Beyond the goldenrods and asters I spotted this lovely Appalachian Blazing Star (Liatris squarrulosa) and watched as dozens of pollinators visited over a few minutes.

IMG_4452.jpg

Appalachian Blazing Star

I had high hopes as we set about exploring the first pond.  There were recently laid eggs in the water – a good sign.  Carolina and I split up and scoured the area.  Under a large, flat rock that looked perfect for a salamander, I spotted a large, breathtaking Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix).  These pit vipers are common throughout much of their range, but that does nothing to diminish their beauty, which is hard to beat.  It is hard for me to imagine wanting to kill such a beautiful thing, but unfortunately it is an all too common occurrence.  This snake showed no aggression toward me, but rather spent its time trying to escape.  I placed it for a moment on top of the rock under which it was sheltering, and after a few quick photos guided it back to its entrance and it quickly disappeared once more.

IMG_4022

Copperhead

We continued searching around the pond for what must have been an hour when I heard Caro call out “I got one!!”  I was overwhelmed with excitement and sprinted toward her, nearly tripping over several boulders in the process.  When I arrived, however, she looked disappointed.  She showed me a small male that was at death’s door.  It had lost nearly all color and its eyes had clouded over.  Barely able to move, it was not long for this world.  Seeing my first adult Ringed Salamander in this condition certainly put a damper on the mood.  We left the pond, with the hope that the next might prove more fruitful.

We visited four more ponds, all with the same result.  Many with eggs but not an adult in sight.  My spirits were sinking fast, and a familiar sense of failure that I had experienced in all my previous trips to the region was starting to take hold.  I try to remain positive in these moments, and think on all of the wonderful gifts the trip had already provided.  But our day was not done. We went to one final pond. It did not look as promising as the previous sites, but I did not intend to leave any stone un-turned, so to speak. So I scoured the area to no avail. Before leaving I peered under a long log that stretched from the pond’s surface about 20 feet or so up the slope that graded into the water. I immediately saw a loose cluster of eggs beneath the log at the waters edge.  I then turned my attention up-slope to the opposite end of the log. Nothing. But just as I was preparing to set the log back I noticed a series of bands of yellow and black just beneath the murky water’s surface. It was a tail. I had finally found an adult Ringed Salamander.

IMG_4107

Ringed Salamander

It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful sight.  Though its colors are more similar to Spotted and Tiger Salamanders, the Ringed Salamander is actually more closely related to Smallmouth and Flatwoods Salamanders, as evidenced by its smaller head and mouth.  They can grow quite large, and this female was over seven inches long.  Ringed Salamanders breed in ephemeral depressions and fishless ponds.  I have even read speculation that they once bred in large “buffalo wallows”.  I can’t help but raise an eyebrow at this claim, but considering that some believe that the Ouachitas were named for a Choctaw phrase meaning “country of large buffaloes” in response to the herds of American Bison that roamed the surrounding valleys, perhaps the concept is not so far-fetched after all.

This beautiful female would be the only individual that we would see.  There were more ponds I had hoped to visit but the road soon became impassable.  It was a very special encounter for me. Finding this species takes a concentrated, planned effort, and in this region it seems to be restricted to remote, difficult to access locations. Perhaps these are the factors that contribute to the allure of the Ringed Salamander, or perhaps its the magic of the Ouachitas.  Whatever it may be, finally encountering this species, along with the many other special moments we experienced during the weekend, left me with many fond memories that I will cherish forever.

Birds and Blooms along the Upper Texas Coast

IMG_8222

Reddish Egret

Thunder rumbled in the distance as anvil-shaped storm clouds rose to the west of the Bolivar Peninsula.  I sighed in frustration; not because I disliked these May storms that form along the Gulf, but rather because the magic hour of perfect photographic light had just begun, and the clouds were soon to blot out the sun, leaving the beach cloaked in grey.  Desperately I searched for a subject to make the most of the few minutes of usable light that remained.  Soon I spotted one of my favorite birds, a Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) standing stoic in the surf.  Quickly I dropped to the sand, laying belly flat in an attempt to meet this special wading bird on its level.  Just as I set my lens on it I noticed that the world was rapidly darkening as the wispy margins of the storm clouds drifted in front of the sun.  What I found, however, was that this thin veil of clouds actually created a very special light that seemed to paint the egret.  I managed to take advantage of a window of less than a minute before the cloud’s dense heart crossed over the sun, robbing the evening of any further photographic opportunities, and captured the image above.

Before the clouds’ arrival I did manage to capture a few images of other avian beach dwellers.  American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana) were plentiful.  It was the end of May now, and many shorebirds are still making their leisurely journeys northward as their summer breeding grounds gradually thaw.  I consider avocets to be one of our most beautiful shorebirds, particularly when their heads and necks are painted burnt orange in their alternate plumage.

IMG_8026

American Avocets

A variety of “peeps” were still present, and we spotted Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, and a few Western Sandpipers.  Also present were several Wilson’s and Semipalmated Plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus).  The latter allowed for a fairly close approach as it probed the wet sand for worms and other invetebrates.

IMG_8183

Semipalmated Plover

Though they seem scarce along much of the coast, Reddish Egrets are quite common on this stretch of the Upper Texas Coast.  They are perhaps the most entertaining feathered-thing around, and I laid for several minutes watching them perform their elaborate predatory dances.  They seemed random yet choreographed in their movements, as if putting on some performance as they skipped and danced across the shallow water’s surface, stirring up tiny fish and fanning their wings above them, confusing their prey and shading them to make them more visible at the same time.

IMG_8069

Reddish Egret Hunting

img_8093

Reddish Egret Hunting

Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres) were also out in force.  Many had completed molting into their breeding plumage and were truly a sight to behold.

IMG_7814

Ruddy Turnstone

This stretch of beach is an important breeding ground for Least Terns (Sterna antillarum), a species of conservation concern.  Here they block off the main breeding area in order to protect the fragile nests, which are little more than scrapes in the sand.  The terns’ breeding efforts were kicking into high gear during our visit, and we were fortunate enough to be bombarded by several pairs that felt we were getting too close to their precious offspring, still developing within their calcium carbonate shells.

IMG_7944

Least Tern

We left the beach as dusk was closing in and the Ghost Crabs left the safety of their burrows to scavenge the shore.  Caro and I watched an impressive display of lightning ahead of us, and before long the storm overtook us.  It was impressive and violent, a striking contrast to the serenity of the bird-filled beach.  Perhaps it is these contrasts – tranquility and exhilaration – that keep drawing us back to the coast.

The next day we found ourselves in the Columbia Bottomlands of Fort Bend County.  These seemingly out of place forests of ancient oaks and elms harbor staggering biodiversity including many species that are rare to uncommon elsewhere.  One such species is the Texas Pinkroot (Spigelia texana).  These dainty forbs are endemic to moist woodlands and prairie remnants in southeast Texas, with a few specimens known from isolated locations further north and west in the state.

IMG_8312

Texas Pinkroot

IMG_8364

Texas Pinkroot

Growing nearby were several Aquatic Milkweeds (Asclepias perennis).  This species is sporadically encountered in East Texas, though it seems most common in these bottomlands near the coast.

IMG_8541

Aquatic Milkweed

The Columbia Bottomlands are also home to a diversity of birdlife.  In the shallow waters of an ancient oxbow off the Brazos River we observed Anhingas, Great and Snowy Egrets, Great, Little Blue, Tricolored, and Green Herons, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, White Ibis, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Common Gallinules, and more.  Prothonotary Warblers and Northern Parulas called from the trees lining the water’s edge and the call of a Barred Owl rang out in the distance.  Perhaps the most spectacular of all was the Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus), which dazzled us with its seemingly impossible sheen of iridescent blue and green.

IMG_8456

Purple Gallinule

In early July we found ourselves back on the coast.  This trip we spent more time on the beach and in the shops in Galveston, however we found ourselves in the saltmarsh of Galveston Island State Park during the final hour of daylight.  Here I struggled to capture images of Black-necked Stilts, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.  At the end of the day I found myself instead pursuing one of the most familiar coastal birds – the Willet (Tringa semipalmata).  Though common and by many accounts “drab”, I set out to capture an interesting image of these charismatic shorebirds.  I laid belly-flat in the mud and scanned the landscape to try and formulate a plan as hordes of mosquitoes drained my blood.  Soon, as I watched a Willet approach, I developed a concept in my head.  I framed the shot by turning my lens to an open patch of mud in front of me, and utilized the Salicornia and other halophytic vegetation in order to create a blurred foreground and background that I hoped would make the bird pop.  I lucked out as the bird moved into the frame and called out its displeasure, likely to my proximity to its nest or chicks I imagined.  And with some luck and patience, I captured the image below.

IMG_9246a

Willet

Each trip to the coast brings with it some new adventure and opportunity to witness a unique natural beauty not found elsewhere in the state.  It also offers some of our state’s best photographic opportunities, particularly for birds.  I look forward to many future trips, and hope that I may continue to document in some way the very special plants, animals, and natural communities that can be found there.

Rubber Duckies in the Longleaf

IMG_4486

A Brown-headed Nuthatch perches on the branch of a Longleaf Pine

Dawn in the longleaf is a magical thing – as the first rays of light filter through outstretched needles, casting long shadows over broad expanses of Little Bluestem and Eastern Gamagrass.  The air is clean and still as the savannah comes to life.  First with the familiar calls of the Prairie Warbler and Indigo Bunting.  Occasionally the buzzy trill of a Bachman’s Sparrow and the drumming of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers sounds in the distance.  There is one sound, however, that seems strangely out of place.  I remember the first time I heard it; I found myself looking around to see if there was some dog wrestling with a chew toy.  It was a set of high pitched squeaks, generally occurring in pairs.  The best thing I could liken it to was someone squeezing a rubber ducky.

It was, of course, the song of the Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla).  This tiny songbird is an inhabitant of pine forests of the southeastern United States.  It’s range generally follows the coastal plain from the Delmarva Peninsula to East Texas.  Though it may be found in a variety of open pine-dominated woodlands, and even parks with scattered mature pines in the vicinity, it’s preferred habitat is the longleaf pine savannah.  This becomes clear when comparing the range of the nuthatch and the iconic southern pine.

Brown-headed_Nuthatch-rangemap

Brown-headed Nuthatch Range (Image from Wikipedia)

1024px-Pinus_palustris_range_map

Longleaf Pine Range (Image from Wikipedia)

Brown-headed Nuthatches are cavity nesters and may be secondary excavators (utilizing existing cavities and modifying them to their liking) or weak primary excavators (creating their own cavities in sufficiently soft parent material).  Males select the nest site, and generally prefer large standing snags.  They will, however, compromise, and I have seen them nesting in holes at joints in wooden fences.  They then line their cavities with soft materials such as feathers, dead grass, and pine straw.

IMG_4267

A Brown-headed Nuthatch peers from its cavity

Nesting begins early in the year.  In East Texas they are often working on preparing their cavities by mid to late February.  A most interesting aspect of this nuthatch’s natural history is that it will often display cooperative breeding, a trait relatively rare among songbirds.  In a cooperative breeding system, offspring may remain in their parents’ territory for a year or more in order to help raise younger siblings.  These helpers will aid in defending territory, maintaining cavities, and gathering food for their altricial siblings.  This may be a benefit, evolutionarily speaking, as it allows these helpers to ensure that their genetic material persists by raising their siblings to maturity at a time when they themselves lack the strength and experience to pass on their genes the traditional way – by establishing their own territories, finding a mate, and successfully raising offspring.

IMG_4359a

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Small invertebrates make up the majority of the Brown-headed Nuthatch’s diet.  They bounce from tree to tree, scanning the bark for any tasty morsel unfortunate to find itself in the tiny predator’s path.  They may glean insects from branches or use their narrow, piercing beaks to seek out spiders hiding in the cracks of the bark.  However these are no ordinary hunters.  Nuthatches have been observed utilizing tools, breaking off tiny flakes of bark with their beaks and using them as leverage to pry up larger pieces of bark in search of well-hidden pray.

IMG_4379

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Though they remain common in many areas of the southeast, the Brown-headed Nuthatch has not been immune to the widespread loss of longleaf pine savannahs and other mature pine-dominated habitats over the past two centuries.  The North American Breeding Bird Survey indicates a decline in detections along its routes of almost 25% in the past 50 years.  In East Texas they remain locally common in areas where large pines and open understories persist.  This is a species that may benefit from some forestry practices, such as prescribed burning, periodic thinnings, and leaving seed and shelterwood trees during final harvest.  As long as these sustainable practices are utilized, and large protected tracts of mature longleaf pine savannahs and other open pine-dominated woodlands remain, the outlook for this quirky, fascinating species in East Texas looks promising.

IMG_4492

Brown-headed Nuthatch

I photographed these special songbirds this spring with the help of my good friend James Childress, who set out in search of these birds with me and graciously lent me his 600mm lens.  Without the zoom and image quality of that lens, these photos would have never been possible.