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

4N1A8674

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.

4N1A7813.jpg

Young Pumas retreating.

4N1A7830

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.

4N1A7993

Penstemon virgatus

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

4N1A8062.jpg

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.

4N1A8344

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.

4N1A8437.jpg

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.

4N1A8096

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.

4N1A8174

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.

4N1A8696.jpg

Rocky Mountain Iris

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

4N1A8710.jpg

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).

4N1A8901

Rock Columbine

4N1A8914.jpg

Western Red Columbine

4N1A8939.jpg

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.

4N1A8872

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.

4N1A9039

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.

4N1A8643.jpg

Fairy Slipper Orchid

4N1A8648

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

4N1A7662

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.

4N1A7241.jpg

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.

4N1A7316.jpg

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.

4N1A7339

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.

4N1A7383.jpg

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.

4N1A9123.jpg

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.

4N1A9241

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.

4N1A7486a.jpg

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.

4N1A7634.jpg

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.

4N1A9364

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.

4N1A7734.jpg

Double Rainbow

A Bucket List Beetle

4N1A0273

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.

4N1A0040.jpg

Bumelia Borer

4N1A0067

Bumelia Borer

4N1A9884.jpg

Bumelia Borer

4N1A9587

Carolina Mantis Nymph

4N1A9546

Trigonopeltastes delta

The Land of the Endless Sky

4N1A9422.jpg

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.

4N1A4618.jpg

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.

4N1A4704

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.

4N1A4646.jpg

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.

4N1A5007.jpg

CoreopsisGaillardia, and Monarda bloom in a Panhandle prairie.

4N1A4974.jpg

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.

4N1A5179

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.

4N1A5858

Blue Norther approaching the Rita Blanca Grasslands

4N1A5865

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.

4N1A6575

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.

4N1A6696

Pronghorn Buck

4N1A6782

Pronghorn Buck

4N1A6816a

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.

4N1A6844

Prairie Snowball

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

4N1A6921.jpg

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.

4N1A7012.jpg

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.

4N1A7126

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.

4N1A5821

Lark Sparrow

4N1A5637

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.

4N1A6970

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.

4N1A5787.jpg

Texas Horned Lizard

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

4N1A5765.jpg

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.

4N1A9469

Rock Outcrop in Potter County

 

 

The Terning of the Tide

4N1A3513

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.

4N1A2972.jpg

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.

4N1A3021

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.

4N1A3103.jpg

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.

4N1A3751

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.

4N1A3826.jpg

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.

4N1A3663.jpg

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.

4N1A3680

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.

4N1A3532

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”.

4N1A2933

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.

4N1A3593a

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.

4N1A3596

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.

4N1A3476

Royal Tern

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

4N1A3438.jpg

Courting Royal Terns

They step in unison…

4N1A3472

Courting Royal Terns

And finally the male presents the fish to the female.

4N1A3602

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.

4N1A3722

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.

4N1A3617

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.

Queen of the Summer Night

It’s hard to imagine a more wonder-inspiring  group of animals than the giant silkworm moths of the family Saturniidae.  Anyone lucky enough to encounter one is left awestruck with a memory of the natural world that will last a lifetime.  They are among the largest insects in the U.S., some with wingspans topping six inches, and are decorated with brightly colored, velvety scales of a myriad of colors, from lime green to bright pink.

Among the most impressive of these iconic denizens of the night is Citheronia regalis, known variably as the Regal Moth or Royal Walnut Moth.  This species is, by mass, the largest moth north of Mexico.  They can be found throughout much of the eastern U.S., where they occur in mature forests with a large hardwood component.  They are generally uncommon throughout there range, and appear to be declining in many areas, likely due to a number of factors including habitat loss, pesticide use, and increased urbanization which creates “light traps”, where moths are attracted to artificial lights and perish prior to laying eggs.

I was lucky enough to find the relatively fresh individual pictured below resting below the lights in town.  I brought her to a more remote area where I hoped she might mate, or if she had already mated, find a suitable location to lay her eggs.

4N1A2282

Regal Moth

The life of an adult silkworm moth is both romantic and tragic.  After emerging from their pupae, the clock is ticking to find a mate.  Most species only have vestigial mouth parts, and are unable to feed.  Others do have weakly functioning mouth parts, but still generally do not take food.  Shortly after emerging, females begin filling the air with pheromones, which spread out like chemical tendrils in the night air.  Males may pick up these cues from great distances, and will follow them to the females so that they may mate.  The females then find a suitable host, and lay their eggs.  Within a week of emerging, they are dead.

Regal Moths will utilize a variety of hardwoods, but display a real affinity for hickories (Carya spp.).  The larvae are among the fastest growing organisms on the planet, and will increase in mass by thousands of times from hatching to the point they are ready to pupate.  As they grow, the caterpillars spring barbed spines and take on an appearance so formidable that it has earned them the name “hickory horned devils”.  These spines are purely for show, and they do not sting and contain no toxins.  When threatened, however, the caterpillar may rapidly swing its head from side to side in an attempt to strike a would-be predators.

The caterpillars start off brown and gradually turn green with each molt.  Finally, when they are ready to pupate they take on a bright turquoise hue.  At this point they may be as much as six inches long!  Unfortunately I have never encountered one of this size and color with camera in hand, but I do have an image of one in the brown stage from a few years ago.

14311514316_1f245bb1e0_o

Hickory Horned Devil

Encountering any silkworm moth is a special experience, but spending time with the beautiful Regal Moth is one I will forever cherish.  Like all other organisms great and small, our lives are richer because they exist.

Unraveling the Mystery of the Creeping Bluestar

Target Species: Creeping Bluestar (Amsonia repens)

46623075255_8681821ac0_o

Amsonia repens in a remnant coastal prairie

Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Amsonia repens when I put it on my 2017 list of biodiversity goals.  I knew that it was an showy wildflower that was endemic to the West Gulf Coastal Plain.  This alone piqued my interest and prompted me to make it a target species.

What I found, however, was a general lack of information on the species.  I struggled to find a good reference with information on how to differentiate it from the very similar A. tabernaemontana.  I was able to track down some historic locations, however not feeling comfortable in my ability to identify it, I failed to pursue it with much enthusiasm.  I stopped at a couple of sites in 2017 where a friend had reported some a few years prior but found nothing.  After that, the species went on the back burner while I pursued other more easily researched species on the list.

What drew me to the Creeping Bluestar was its range, which is almost entirely confined to the eastern third of Texas.  I have always had a strong interest in species endemic to the West Gulf Coastal Plain, which includes East Texas, western Louisiana, and extreme southeastern Oklahoma and southwestern Arkansas.  There are a number of species that are restricted in range to this area, and this distributional pattern has long fascinated me.

County level distribution for Amsonia repens

My interest in pursuing Amsonia repens was renewed after I photographed some Amsonia plants in bloom in remnant prairie and marsh patches in Fort Bend and Brazos County this spring.  I tried once again to do some research and came across a paper that was published in March of 2019: Taxonomy of the Amsonia tabernaemontana complex (Apocynaceae:Rauvolfioidae) by J K Williams from Sam Houston State.  Though this paper proposes that A. repens be considered a variety of A. tabernaemontana, it provides the best treatment I have seen on differentiating A. repens from other similarly structured congeners.

In a nutshell, A. repens (or A. tabernaemontana var. repens) is best differentiated from A. tabenaemontana by having tomentose (hairy) calyces, a feature which can be seen in the image below.

33762837278_a5c55ec57f_o

Amsonia repens

Interestingly, after reading this paper and reviewing other taxonomic keys, I went back to examine some photos of Amsonia that I took in Montgomery County a few years ago and found that they too were A. repens.  It had been hiding under my nose this whole time!