Winter in the Wichitas

A plains bison welcomes a December snow storm.

It’s no secret that the natural landscape of North America has changed since European colonization began in earnest. By the signing of the declaration of independence, elk, wild turkey, and other game were already gone or disappearing fast from the eastern U.S. At that time there was still an incredible abundance of wildlife west of the Mississippi, as evidenced by the journals of Lewis and Clark and other early explorers and settlers that ventured forth in the early 1800s. It didn’t take long, however, for these once seemingly limitless populations to begin to vanish, and in less than a lifetime tens of millions of plains bison, pronghorn, elk, and deer were killed until populations teetered on the brink of extinction. It was a time of unregulated hunting, and most anything that walked, flew, or swam was fair game. Bird populations were decimated for meat and plumes; predators were eliminated for the threat they posed to the livestock brought in to tame the land; and entire sections of river were voided of fish.

Unregulated market hunting was the primary driver for these population declines, at least initially. Shortly after arriving, these colonizers began to break the land and bend it to their will. Native vegetation was cleared, removing a diversity of native forage and nuanced structure that served as important structure for a myriad of species. Fire was suppressed, and keystone species like the plains bison, which impacted their environment on so many levels, were removed, initiating a domino effect that caused many natural communities to fall apart.

Take the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus). Once perhaps the most abundant mammal on the continent, it is believed that some very large colonies may have numbered one hundred million animals or more. Despised as pests that destroyed cropland and competed with cattle for forage, these social rodents were systematically exterminated, and the plow broke the soil to the point that it could no longer be utilized for their subterranean civilizations. In less than 100 years, their population was reduced by more than 95%.

Like the bison, the prairie dog is a keystone of the plains. The black-footed ferret, for example, feeds almost exclusively on prairie dogs and seeks refuge in their burrows. Prairie dogs are also an important food source for American badgers and a variety of raptors. Where their ranges overlap, Burrowing Owls will frequently utilized prairie dog colonies for shelter, as will a variety of snakes, amphibians, and invertebrates. The loss of the bison and the prairie dog threw the great plains deeper into a downward spiral of ecological disaster.

A black-tailed prairie dog surveys the world around its burrow, waiting to give the signal to the others that all is clear.

By the early 1900s it seemed like the prairie dog might go the route of the passenger pigeon, a similarly abundant species that we wiped from existence. But the gregarious ground squirrels found refuge from a boon in protected lands, and eventual reintroduction efforts throughout their historic range. One such introduction effort took place in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, where they have since established several large towns to the benefit of the refuge’s other prairie denizens. Today their range-wide population numbers in the tens of millions, and their future seems secure.

A black-tailed prairie dog leaves its burrow to explore on a cold winter day int he Wichita Mountains.

The Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge was first set aside in 1901 by President McKinley as the “Wichita Mountains Forest Preserve”. A few years later, renowned conservationist President Teddy Roosevelt re-classified the area as the “Wichita Forest and Game Preserve”, and designated its purpose to preserving the wildlife that had become so scarce in his lifetime. It was protected before the land could be scarred by the plow, and today contains excellent example of mixed grass and oak savanna communities.

Many species find refuge in the Wichitas. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are common here, and fueled by good forage and genetics, bucks can reach impressive sizes. It is hard to imagine that a species as familiar and ubiquitous as the whitetail was once scarce, but like most other game species, they too were pushed to the brink of extinction by the late 1800s. Unregulated hunting for burgeoning wild game markets in big cities reduced their numbers to the point that they had disappeared completely from many portions of their range.

Like many other species, the whitetails benefited tremendously from the passage of wildlife regulations like the Lacey Act, which prohibited interstate trade of game, essentially putting an end to the era of market hunting. The establishment of science-based hunting regulations and conservations efforts helped deer populations bounce back, and today they are likely near historic numbers.

A large white-tailed deer buck in the Wichita Mountains. It was nearly night when I photographed this unique buck, which had a double beam in its right antler and several interesting points on its brow tines.
A white-tailed deer doe forages on coralberries in a post oak woodland in Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge.

Even the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallipavo), the bird that Benjamin Franklin thought should replace the Bald Eagle as a national symbol, was once at risk of disappearing from the wilds of North America. Save for a few strongholds, they were heavily hunted for both their meat and their feathers. Like the majestic whitetails, the famous gobblers benefitted from those hunters and conservationists of the early 1900s that laid the groundwork for sound management and gradual recovery. There have been extensive turkey reintroduction efforts around the country, and while they still struggle to get a foothold in some parts of their former range, in other areas, like the Wichita Mountains they have rebounded nicely.

In 1904, U.S. Biological Survey biologist James H. Gaut noted that few turkeys were left in the Wichitas, noting that “Before the country surrounding the mountains was opened to the whites, wild turkeys were extremely abundant but have since been thinned out.” Reintroduction efforts on the refuge began in 1913 and continued into the 1940s when a number of turkeys from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge were brought in. The population in the Wichitas quickly flourished, and from the 1920s to the 50s, turkeys from the refuge were trapped and used to repopulate other portions of their former range, including the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, formerly the Niobrara Game Preserve, in Nebraska and the Rio Grande National Forest in Colorado.

A tom turkey of the Rio Grande subspecies strutting in the understory of a post oak woodland in Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge.

Perhaps no species better exemplifies the plight of North America’s wildlife than the American bison. It’s hard to imagine a time when one could travel across the prairie for days and never have a view devoid of bison. Tens of million bison once roamed the continent, and traveled in such numbers that they left literal scars in the earth. The bison once roamed the vast majority of North America, with occurrences from Alaska to Mexico to the Piedmont of the eastern U.S. By the time Lewis and Clark set out on their fateful journey west, bison were already mostly gone east of the Mississippi. The west, however, still held a bounty of wildlife including vast herds of plains bison that reportedly stretched from horizon to horizon.

Once the riches of the west were reported to a burgeoning new nation, it was not long before the wilderness was conquered, and within a single generation the bison population went from 30 million or more to as low as 500. There were many driving factors fueling this massacre, including markets for meat and hides, efforts to subdue Native cultures, and in some cases, simply for the fun of it. The legendary Tatanka, the largest land mammal of North America, was almost lost forever.

A plains bison bull on the open prairie of Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge.

By the late 1800’s, realizing that if things continued as they were that this important part of our heritage would be lost forever, lawmakers began pushing for protections for the bison. They were initially met with resistance, but eventually many states outlawed the killing of bison. For most this was too little too late, as the shaggy prairie dwellers had already been gone for years. Funds were appropriated to protect the few bison remaining in Yellowstone National Park, and individuals including the famed Texas rancher Charles Goodnight brought animals into captivity.

A bull plains bison against the backdrop of huge granite boulders in Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge

In 1907, six years after a large portion of the Wichita Mountains was set as, fifteen bison were reintroduced. With the protection afforded by the refuge, the bison flourished, and today number between 600 and 700 individuals. Bison in Yellowstone and other protected areas began to recover, and in total today it is estimated there are approximately half a million scattered in private and public herds across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Most of these herds are bound by fences, and even the most wild of these herds are still managed, however to ensure that their populations do not grow too large or spread beyond the boundaries of their intended management units. I doubt that we will ever see the day when bison are allowed to truly roam wild and free, but am happy that places still exist where we can catch even a glimpse into what once was.

I was excited to capture this image, which shows a plains bison in a mixed grass prairie setting with little bluestem and other familiar prairie grasses. Most bison images I see come from shorgrass prairies or sagebrush plains. They were certainly present, however, of the mixed grass and tallgrass prairies further east. I always thought it must have been something to see just that massive hump moving among the tallest of grasses.

The last wapiti in the Wichita Mountains was likely killed sometime in the 1870s or 80s. Like the bison, the wapiti (or American elk) once ranged across much of the North American continent, until their numbers were reduced to dangerously low levels. Shortly after bison were reintroduced to the Wichitas, a handful of elk were brought in. Their numbers quickly grew, and today a healthy herd can be found on the refuge. Conservation efforts to protect habitat and reintroduce elk into their former range have helped the species bounce back from the brink, and today large populations exist in many states and provinces.

A bull elk pauses to eye its photographers. This bull bears several wounds from the rut, which are clearly visible against its long winter coat. I enjoyed seeing elk in the Wichitas. It placed them in a historical context very different from the mountain forests and meadows of the west where they are most often photographed.

Considering that it lies only six and a half short hours from home, it’s a wonder that Caro and I hadn’t yet visited Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. Having read about the place and its reintroduced inhabitants for years, I finally suggested we visit, and we soon found ourselves heading northwest with our good friends James and Erin Childress. We ended up camping at the nearby Great Plains State Park, as tent camping was temporarily unavailable at the refuge campground.

We spent the our first two days exploring the refuge. We visited a large prairie dog town that was easily accessible from the main road. We watched tom turkeys strutting their stuff, white-tailed deer moving warily through the post oaks, and several small groups of bison and elk. On the evening of our second day at the refuge, we drove up to the top of Mount Scott. It was a surprisingly steep, winding ascent and at the top we were rewarded with one of the most spectacular sunsets I can recall, as the clouds that hung heavy throughout the afternoon gave way to a sun that painted them pink.

The view from the top of Mount Scott.

We spent our evenings around the campfire, enjoying good camp food and hot chocolate spiked with whiskey and baileys. We made jokes, told scary stories, and reminisced on the special things we had thusfar encountered on this trip and trips past. Sometime during the night on our second evening in the tent it began to rain. By dawn it had turned to sleet. And by the time we had reached the refuge we were greeted with full fledged snow flurries.

Both James and I were excited about the photo ops that these unique conditions might present. At first we thought that the wildlife must have found sheltered areas to hunker down and weather the storm. But then, just in front of our little caravan a massive bison bull bounded across the road. He was literally frolicking. He ran to join another group of bachelor bulls, and soon began to leap up and down, roll in the snow, and challenge them to play fights. It made me think back to all that time rough-housing in the snow as a kid growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. The snow must have felt downright wonderful to this massive animal with its big shaggy coat. These relics of the ice age are built to withstand the cold and snow, and the freezing precipitation must have been a welcome relief from the heat of the southern plains.

Conditions like this can produce some truly special images, however photographing in them is quite difficult and often unpleasant. Autofocus is all but useless as it tries to lock on to every glob of snowflakes falling through the sky. Relegated to manual focus, my hands, which i kept ungloved to allow better dexterity while operating my camera rig, began to freeze. It was all worth it, however. I was very happy with the few images I was able to capture – not necessarily for their aesthetic qualities, but for the special memory of witnessing these gleeful bovines loving life in the snow.

A plains bison bull feeling spry in the snow.

The Wichita Mountains are world famous for its large mammals, but it is also a bird watchers paradise. Later that snowy day I had one of my most memorable experiences to date watching and photographing birds. We had stopped near a small canyon, and here Caro and I split off from James and Erin for a while. I setup to photograph landscapes, hoping to captures the interesting color and arrangement of the boulders scattered throughout the hills. Caro quickly called me over to show me an interesting bird. A Spotted Towhee!! And I had left my big lens in the truck. I quickly ran back to the truck, grabbed the lens, and returned to the spot. And the towhee was still there! Unfortunately he was gone before I had a chance to capture his likeness. I was, however, able to photograph a handsome Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) on a snowwy oak branch.

A striking Slate-Colored Junco in a snow-covered oak.

Just ahead Caro and I could see a flurry of bird activity. Moving forward we spotted huge groups of Field Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Chipping Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows and more foraging on the ground and low shrubs. As we approached, a male Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) hopped up on an oak twig directly in front of me! And much to my surprise and delight he sad long enough for me to capture a few frames. I had long wanted to photograph this stunning species, and the experience had left me shaking, both from excitement and the considerable chill in the air. But this was just the beginning.

A male Spotted Towhee that was kind enough to pose for me for several seconds.

I was having trouble deciding which sparrow to focus on when a group of chunky songbirds flew into a leafless shrub not twenty feet from me. Harris’s Sparrows (Zonotrichia querula)! It was a species that both James and I were really hoping to have the opportunity to photograph this trip, and they were giving me some incredible photo ops. As my shutter clicked, I found myself wanting to reach out and high five James. But he wasn’t with me, and my heart sank a little knowing how badly he wanted this type of opportunity.

A Harris’s Sparrow in its winter plumage.

I had to keep an alert eye out as more and more birds came filtering through the snowfall. I saw an unusual silhouette atop an interesting perch against the white sky. I trained my camera on the bird and fired a few images without having the chance to identify it. Looking at my images later I realized it was a Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus)! This uncommon species is suffering dramatic population declines. The cause of this precipitous loss in numbers is still somewhat of a mystery, but likely linked to a variety of factors including habitat loss and contamination from pollutants. The Rusty Blackbird is on several conservation watch lists, and has an international team of scientists known as the Rusty Blackbird Working Group trying to identify and resolve reasons for these declines.

A Rusty Blackbird against the white winter sky.

I found myself spending a lot of time following the Harris’s Sparrows around in hopes of trying different compositions and backgrounds. At one point I had found one nicely perched in a small opening of stunted oak. Just as I was ready to take the shot, a Dark-eyed Junco leapt up directly in front of it, catching my autofocus and foiling my attempt. It’s hard to be disappointed, however, when the photobomber is as cute as this.

A Dark-eyed Junco photobombing a Harris’s Sparrow.

I could have stayed with the sparrows all day, but it there were still some other parts of the refuge we were hoping to explore, so I made my way back to the truck. En route, a Bewick’s Wren (Thryomanes bewickii) hopped up in front of me, and sat for a few seconds surrounded by falling snow.

A Bewick’s Wren in a light snow.

When I returned to the parking lot, I could see James and Erin sitting in their car. I walked up, and before I could tell James about my incredible encounter, he turned the back of his camera toward me. There on his LCD screen was an incredible image of a Harris’s Sparrow. It turned out that he had an experience very similar to mine! It made the entire experience all the more special.

The snow fell throughout the day as we continued to explore the refuge. We stopped at the “Holy City” located on the refuge where there was a church and a large marble statue titled Christ of the Wichitas. The road up Mount Scott which we had driven the previous evening was closed due to the unsafe conditions. As we made our way to the refuge exist I wanted to stop and capture a few images of the snowy landscape.

Snow laden oaks in the Wichitas. The south wind plaster snow against the north side of the trees.
The south facing side of the trees stayed relatively dry and free of snow.

Shortly after leaving the refuge the clouds began to break and the sun made its first and only appearance of the day. Just outside the refuge we stopped to admire a pair of horses on a hill against the dramatic light, when I looked to the opposite side of the road to see a large flock of Mountain Bluebirds. James had seen them too, and we both set about photographing them. Unfortunately I was unable to capture anything I was happy with, but James walked away with some lovely images.

That night the mercury dropped quickly. We ate quickly ate our supper lest it freeze and retired to the tent by 7 PM. That night it dipped into the teens, but fortunately we stayed warm wrapped up in our mummy bags. I often struggle to sleep well in a tent, but Caro made our beds so comfortable this trip that I slept like a baby. The plan for the next morning was to wake early and explore the campground a bit, before heading back home by late morning.

Immediately upon stepping from the tent into the brisk morning air I could see and hear dozens of birds. Small flocks moved through the brush and boulders. Most abundant were Field Sparrows (Spizella pusilla). Though I saw many of these in the snow the day prior, I was never presented with a good photo opportunity, so I was happy to get the chance to capture a few frames on our last morning in the area.

A Field Sparrow in the early morning light.
Field Sparrow
Field Sparrow

Then came a noisy group of White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys). They bounced about the boulders and low shrubs, chattering and singing all the while.

A White-crowned Sparrow on an ancient boulder.
A White-crowned Sparrow among the prairie grass.

Then came the grand finale. A group of Harris’s Sparrows came in very close to where I had sat and concealed myself in the grass. In this group were a few particularly strikingly patterned and obliging individuals. It was a good note to end on.

A beautiful Harris’s Sparrow on a lichen-covered boulder.

Unfortunately, shortly after I made these images, I dropped my cell phone somewhere in the prairie. Luckily, with the help of Caro, James, and Erin, we located it after about an hour of searching. Belongings all accounted for, we reluctantly bid farewell to the Wichitas.

Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge provides a rare glimpse into what the prairie once was, with some notable exceptions. The buffalo wolf no longer roams here, nor does the American black bear that once sheltered in the oak woodlands dotting the prairie. Mountain lions are still occasionally found here. Attempts to reintroduce pronghorn to the refuge failed, as did attempts to introduce bighorn sheep, which were not native to the area, at least in recent times. There is also a large free roaming heard of “genetically pure” Texas longhorn on the refuge, which I suppose is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on one’s point of view.

The Wichitas certainly left their mark on me. I look forward to returning one day in the spring to see the lace cactus in bloom and the bright breeding coloration of the Eastern collared lizard. Numerous Neotropical migrant songbirds breed here, including the Black-capped Vireo in one of the few locations outside of Texas it is known to summer. Long live these ancient granite hills, and long may the elk bugle and the buffalo roam.

Brush Country Bucks in Rut

Target Species: White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

A huge white-tailed deer buck with chocolate-colored antlers curls his lip to test the air for pheromones left by a passing doe.

Shortening days and cooling temperatures trigger a change in North America’s most familiar native mammal, the white-tailed deer. Bucks that are normally mild-mannered and tolerant of one another turn violent and aggressive. They stalk the brush fueled by lust and rage, their antlers hardened and sharp, and rising from their skull like a crown of blades. Battle ready, they have come to compete in an ancient breeding ritual – the culmination of a year spent eating, growing, and preparing – the rut. And they will fight, sometimes to the death, to carry on their bloodline.

A handsome buck approaches a doe he hopes to breed.

Shedding of velvet is the first indication that the rut is approaching. The fuzzy tissue that has nourished the growing antlers for the previous 6 to 7 months begins to dry and the underlying bone hardens. The process must cause the bucks to itch something fierce, as they furiously thrash their antlers against any available vegetation to speed up the process. As the velvet is stripped from bone, it hangs from the antlers in a bloody mess until it is completely removed. Adorned in their impressive new armaments, the bucks spar. The matches are friendly, for the moment, and no real effort is made to harm one another. The camaraderie is soon to come to an end, however.

A wary buck looks back to ascertain a potential threat.

In the weeks after their velvet has been shed, bucks who spent the spring and summer lounging and feeding together begin to grow intolerant of one another’s presence, and isolate themselves in the brush. Around the same time, the does are becoming reproductively receptive, and communicate their impending estrus through pheromones in their urine. They advertise their fertility by moving through the brush and leaving their chemical signature on the landscape.

A dominant brush country buck

The white-tailed deer is the widest ranging ungulate in the western hemisphere. They can be found from central Canada to Peru. As one might imagine, having such an expansive range means that there is considerable variation in the species throughout its distribution. Those at the northern extent of their range are the largest bodied. Following Bergmann’s rule, they become gradually smaller moving south. Antler size, however, is highly variable and more closely linked to local genetics and available nutrition than driven by thermoregulatory requirements.

A buck stands tall in a South Texas mesquite savanna.

The deer of the South Texas brush country are world famous for their impressive headgear. The larger than average antlers of a mature buck have been attributed to a number of factors, including the protein rich bounty of prickly pear, mesquite beans, and other foods found here. South Texas is also known for its heavily managed deer ranches, where selective harvest enhances genetics and supplemental feed bolsters nutrition.

A buck looks back toward a nearby group of does.

During our Thanksgiving break this year, Carolina and I opted to visit south Texas in lieu of risking exposing ourselves and my parents to COVID by spending the holiday with family. We were able to enjoy a socially distant vacation on the beach and in the thornscrub. In the heart of the brush country we found an area with wild, free-ranging deer that found refuge in a large nature preserve where there was no hunting pressure and the animals were accustomed to human presence. This allowed us to observe the rut up close, and witness and photograph behaviors that would be nearly impossible to experience otherwise. I spent one evening and one glorious morning here, and walked away with images and memories of a lifetime.

A buck moves silently through the tall grass.

As the rut nears, the necks of mature bucks begin to swell. Fueled by testosterone, they pack on muscle in preparation of the combat soon to come. The bucks also become bolder. As they move about their territories in search of receptive does, they become more active during the day, and are thus easier to observe and less prone to flight. They truly have one thing on their mind.

An alert buck in pursuit of a group of does.

As the bucks move through their home range, they leave an abundance of sign. They will frequently visit antler height branches and take small twigs in their mouth. It may appear as if they’re feeding, but they’re not actually eating the twigs. Instead they lick them, and rub them against special glands on their face known as pre-orbitals that leave pheromones for other deer to detect.

A buck leaves his scent on a licking branch.

Commonly known as “licking branches”, it is believed that they are used to communicate important information in the white-tailed deer community, including the status of a buck among the herd. Bucks visiting the licking branch can quickly ascertain what other bucks are in the area, and therefore evaluate threats to their ability to defend and breed a doe. Does too will use the licking branch, likely to determine which bucks may be nearby, and advertise when they are approaching estrus, that brief window when they are fertile.

A buck sniffs a licking branch to gather information on the deer that have recently passed through.

As the testosterone fuels bucks with lust and rage, they seek outlets for their increasingly violent tendencies, and begin to thrash about vegetation including low hanging branches and tree trunks. Beyond serving as an outlet for their anger, these rubs, like the licking branches, serve an important purpose during the rut. The height of a rub and the destruction it caused can communicate the size and strength of a buck to would be competitors. It is also believed that bucks secrete additional pheromones as they rub, and that the act of seeing a mature buck thrash the hell out of a tree or small shrub serves as an intimidating warning to younger bucks that might witness it. After depositing his scent on a licking tree or creating a rub, a buck will typically dig a “scrape” by hoofing at the dirt and urinating over the metatarsal gland on his hindleg, further leaving his mark across the landscape.

A large buck rubs on a mesquite tree.

As the does near estrus, the bucks really begin to take notice. Chemicals in a doe’s urine contain information as to her current stage in the reproductive cycle. It is the goal of every buck to breed as many does as he can during the rut, so this information becomes important when determining which lovely lady he should pursue. An experienced buck will focus on those does that are very near estrus so that he can minimize the time needed to guard and breed her before he seeks out another partner.

A buck tests the air for female pheromones.

Bucks determine which does are approaching estrus through a process known as lip curling, or flehming. The strange crinkly-nosed face that they make during this process is known as the flehmen response. When a buck detects the scent of a doe’s urine, he will curl his upper lip back and pass the pheromone laden aroma through the vomeronasal organ in the roof of his mouth.

A buck performing the flehmen response.

It is typical for a flehming buck to cock his head back forty-five degrees or so. Perhaps this maximized the efficiency of the organ’s ability to analyze the pheromones. It’s not uncommon to see a buck move his head up and down and from side to side at this time, as if trying to find the sweet spot for extracting doe pheromones from the air above her spoor. The response may last several seconds.

A flehming buck tilts his head to better evaluate the pheromones left by a passing doe.

If all goes well with the Flehmen response, a buck will be able to determine which does are nearly ready to breed. If he detects the pheromones of “the one”, he will seek her out. The plan is to find her and tend her until she comes into estrus, during which time he intends to copulate with her as many times as possible to ensure conception.

A large lip curling buck

A particularly receptive doe may entice a buck by initiating a game of cat and mouse, where she runs seductively to and fro in an attempt to illicit a chase response. More often than not, however, it is the buck that will pursue the doe, advancing toward her with his head lowered communicating his clear intention to mate. Does that are not yet receptive or unimpressed with their suitor will spurn his advances. A buck guarding a doe will make several of these “buck runs” until he receives indication from the doe that she is ready to breed.

An old, one-eyed buck makes a run at a doe.

In a perfect world, there would be plenty of does for all, and every buck would have equal opportunities to pass on their genes. That’s not the way things work, however, and competition for breeding rights is fierce. It is in a doe’s best interest to be choosy when it comes to a suitor so that she may ensure that her offspring have the best genetic blueprint for survival and success in life. It is also in the buck’s nature to try and breed as many does as he can, maximizing the continuation of his bloodline. When the stakes are this high, conflict is bound to arise.

I was incredibly fortunate to witness this firsthand in the South Texas brush. I spotted two bucks squaring off at the edge of a mesquite thicket. A young buck with an impressive set of antlers and an older buck with a smaller rack but noticeably larger body size were standing face to face. Both were posturing with their ears pinned back, communicating that neither intended to back down. I could feel the tension in the air and I readied my camera in preparation for what might ensue. Then, all of a sudden, the young buck rose onto his hind legs, dropped his head forward baring his antlers, and lunged forward at his opponent.

CRACK!! The bucks locked antlers with a clash that echoed through the brush. In an instant, both bucks disappeared into the thicket. I feared that this battle would occur in the dense vegetation, and dismayed that I would not bear witness to it. But then, in an instant, I saw the back of the young buck come flying through a brush pile, sending sticks splintering and flying in every direction, his antlers entwined with the old buck.

The old buck than wrenched his swollen neck muscles earthward, and slammed the young buck to the ground, pinning him there. In that moment I was convinced I was watching the young buck’s life come to an untimely end. The old buck was quite literally trying to gore him to death, thrusting repeatedly at his neck and withers. These contests may be intended to settle disputes of dominance and the right to breed, but for the bucks involved it is a matter of life and death.

But the young buck still had some fight left in him. With an incredible display of strength, he righted himself, sending dust and bits of grass flying through the air as he dug in his hooves and lunged forward once more in hopes of turning the tide of the battle. For a moment the two warriors jockeyed for position.

Strength and experience were on the old buck’s side, and he used his bulk and considerable power to push the young buck back. Eyes wide with fury, the young buck refused to quit and continued to push back against his opponent. It was incredible to witness the toughness and determination of these incredible animals. These were not the docile, familiar creatures that so many see when they look at the whitetail. These were warriors in the truest sense of the word.

Again the old buck wrenched his neck downward, this time bringing the young buck to submission. Knowing his defeat was imminent, the young buck now had to find a way to escape the fray with his life. Carefully and deliberately, the young buck broke free and beat a hasty retreat through the brush. The old buck momentarily gave chase, but satisfied with his victory he soon broke off his pursuit.

The young buck learned a valuable lesson that day, one that he will carry with him through future ruts. He clearly had all the makings for a future champion. One day he will be a true king of the brush country, and his days of losing fights will be behind him. I hope I have the opportunity to see and photograph him again.

The loser of an intense battle in the brush.

It’s not just the big bucks that are driven to breed during the rut. The drive to procreate is strong, and younger and smaller bucks are not spared the lust. Their path to procreation may be more difficult, but the dominant bucks can’t be everywhere at once, and when they are busy guarding a doe or fending off incoming suitors, these “satellite” bucks are often able to sneak in and mate with some of the does in their territory.

A small buck stomps at a potential threat.

Of course, what was presented here is just a small snippet of all that occurs during the rut. It is an event that lasts for a month or more, with a peak activity period of around 10 days, usually in November to the north and December further south. On average, a female is only in estrus for 24 hours or so, providing a limited window where fertilization can occur. Those does that are not bred during the first cycle will come into estrus a few weeks later. This, combined with a few does that come into heat early, prolongs the rut, but anyway you slice it, it is but a small, albeit supremely important portion of a deer’s annual cycle.

A brush country prince

I still have a hard time believing my luck those days among the whitetails of the brush country. To witness a wealth of fascinating behaviors in such a short window of time was truly one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The white-tailed deer is perhaps the most famous, revered, and sought after animal in North America. It is so popular, common, and widespread that it oftentimes fades into the background for naturalists and wildlife photographers. But I can attest that those who put in the time and effort to try and learn their ways and experience their world will be greatly rewarded. From the hardwood forests of the east to the riparian woodlands of the west and the thornscrub of South Texas, may the white-tail deer continue to dig scrapes, lock antlers, continue their bloodlines, and capture the hearts of millions for many years to come.

A dominant brush country buck at sunset

Life Under the Longleaf

Target Species: Texas Red-headed Centipede (Scolopendra heros)

Liatris pycnostachya blooms beneath towering longleaf pines.

Summer is my favorite season to visit the longleaf pine savannahs of East Texas. In years with decent rainfall the open understories explode with an abundance of wildflowers. Bachman’s Sparrows, Indigo Buntings, and other pineland birds fill the air with their songs, and a variety of butterflies and other insects flush from the grass with nearly every step. This year I was fortunate to make several trips to this special ecosystem with Carolina and my good friend James Childress, who has spent the last several years surveying our longleaf pine forests for the critically endangered Louisiana pine snake.

Diversity and abundance of blooming wildflowers typically peaks from May to June, but may be either prolonged or accelerated by prescribed fire. The longleaf pine savannah is a fire-dependent community, and evolved with frequent low intensity fires that inhibit woody vegetation from encroaching in the understory and promote the growth of herbaceous species. Today, lightning ignited fires are less common due to changes in forest cover types and fire suppression activities. Because of this, resource agencies like the U.S. Forest Service perform routine burns to maintain these systems for species diversity and the benefit of protected species like the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

I’ve always enjoyed observing the wildflower bloom here. From year to year the species composition varies slightly. Certain species may flower prolifically some years, but can be very sparse in others. This year was a poor year for Carolina larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum). Fortunately there were still a few prime specimens to be found, however.

Carolina Larkspur

This year was better for woodland poppymallows (Callirhoe papaver). Under the longleaf they vary from light pink to deep purple.

Woodland Poppymallow

There are a number of yellow composites that can be found among the longleaf. One of the most spectacular is the the rough coneflower (Rudbeckia grandiflora) which can reach heights of four feet or more. This was a great year for them and I was presented with many wonderful photo oppportunities.

Rough Coneflower
Rough Coneflower

There are a number of species of sunflower that can be found in the longleaf pine savannah. This summer we were fortunate to find a good showing of both hairy sunflower (Helianthus hirsutus) and the uncommon ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis). H. hirsutus tends to prefer deeper sands while H. mollis occurs in shallower sands and other coarse substrates of a loamy or clayey layer. H. mollis is generally found in high quality habitat and seems particularly susceptible to ground disturbance.

Hairy Sunflower
Hairy Sunflower
Ashy Sunflower

Though superficially similar to sunflowers, yellow crownbeard (Verbesina helianthoides) is a member of a different genus. The specific epithet, helianthoides hints to its resemblance to the sunflower genus Helianthus. V. helianthoides is another uncommon composite in East Texas, and I’ve only found it at a few locations.

Yellow Crownbeard

I was able to tag along with James a few times over the summer as he surveyed a private tract of longleaf that ranks as one of the finest remaining examples of longleaf pine forest in the West Gulf Coastal Plain. The landowner is conservation minded and manages with regular prescribed fire and burns well into the growing season, which closely mimics the summer fires that occurred prior to European settlement. Here we were awestruck by exceptional wildflower displays including a seep loaded with grass pink orchids (Calopogon tuberosus) and entire hillsides blanketed with prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya). Fortunately this special place is protected through a conservation agreement with the Nature Conservancy in Texas.

Grass pink orchids bloom in a hillside seep in a high quality longleaf pine savannah on private conservation land.
Prairie blazing star blooms in profusion in an East Texas longleafe pine savanna.

Several species of Liatris can be found in the longleaf pine savannas of East Texas. One of the more common is the scaly blazing star (Liatris squarrosa). These and other species of Liatris bloom at the height of summer and are relished by a variety of pollinators.

Scaly Blazing Star

Of all the aster species found in the Pineywoods, I find the barrens silky aster (Symphyotrichum pratense) to be the most striking. It can be found growing on the margins of seeps where there is a steady supply of moisture even during the hottest part of the year.

Barrens Silky Aster

One of my favorite of nature’s gifts is a hard summer rain in the Pineywoods. Torrential downpours are often preceded by sweltering temperatures, and the precipitation provides a welcome relief from the blazing sun. The animals, too, welcome the relief and following the rains the savanna comes to life.

Longleaf pine savanna in the rain.

Several species of reptiles and amphibians make the longleaf pine savanna home. The tan racer (Coluber constrictor etheridgei) is endemic to longleaf pine forests of extreme eastern Texas and western Louisiana. Here an old battle scarred racer slithers across the trunk of a fallen longleaf.

Tan Racer

The diversity of flowering plants in a high quality longleaf pine savanna harbor an equally stunning variety of invertebrate life. Some, like the dung beetle Dichotomius carolinus) are seldom seen but play an important roll as a means of waste disposal as they gather, bury, and consume the feces of a variety of animals.

Dichotomius carolinus

I have long endeavored to capture an image of the impressive American bird grasshopper (Schistocerca americana). Though they can be quite common, they are prone to flight long before they’re initially spotted. Once disturbed, they fly high, fast, and far. After this initial flight they are nearly impossible to approach. For whatever reason, this individual was relatively indifferent to my presence, and allowed me to photograph it for several minutes.

American Bird Grasshopper

The most impressive invertebrate of the longleaf pine savanna, however, is the Texas red-headed centipede (Scolopendra heros). These giants seem like the things of nightmares. They are lightning fast, incredibly agile, they have front legs that are modified to act like massive fangs that are capable of inflicting extremely painful bites, and they are huge (occasionally 8 inches or longer). In reality they are non-aggressive, inoffensive, secretive, and seldom seen. They are prone to flight and only attempt to bite when physically restrained. Scolopendra heros is primarily a species of deserts and semi-arid grasslands, however they range as far east as western Louisiana and Arkansas. In East Texas they are relatively common in longleaf pine savannas and other woodlands over deep sandy soils. James and I found a few out and about one cloudy day in May.

Texas Red-headed Centipede

The species presented here are but a small fraction of the incredible biodiversity of longleaf pine savannas. These are among the most diverse communities in the country. Unfortunately, in the past 150 years, these savannas have been reduced to a fraction of their former range. Fortunately management restoration of longleaf pine has become a priority of resource agencies and nonprofit conservation organizations, and the iconic longleaf pine savanna is slowly reclaiming parts of the southeast.