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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Phacelia infundibuliformis

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Streptanthus cutleri

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

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

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

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Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat

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

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Kansas Glossy Snake

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

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

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Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap

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

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

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

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

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Yellow Rocknettle

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Yellow Rocknettle

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

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

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

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Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap

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

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

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

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and Lechuguilla

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and Candelilla with Maravillas Canyon in the background

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and other desert flora in Maravillas Canyon

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

Spring in the Desert: Prologue

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

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

Texas Rainbow Cactus (Echinocereus dasyacanthus)

Warnock’s Fishook Cactus (Echinomastus warnockii)

Yellow Rocknettle (Eucnide bartonioides)

Big Bend Bluebonnet (Lupinus havardii)

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

The Beauty of Black Gap

The Super Bloom

The Marathon Basin

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

An Encounter with a Vanishing Prairie Icon

Target Species: Crawfish Frog (Rana areolata)

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Crawfish Frog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Crawfish Frog in defensive posture

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

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

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Crawfish Frog

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