Trial by Fire: Testing a new Camera at the Beach

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 4000, 1/160 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

In September we set out to experience autumn in the Rockies, and spent a week exploring Colorado and New Mexico. Before we left, I decided to rent a 5D Mark IV, one of Canon’s top-end full frame cameras. For years I have been using the Canon 7D and later the 7D Mark II, which utilize crop-frame sensors that magnifies the scene 1.6 times that of a full frame. This means that to I would need to use an 800mm lens to get the same magnification on the 5D Mark IV that my 7D Mark II gets with a 500mm lens.

This was certainly a concern of mine, as approaching wildlife is always a challenge, and more magnification is almost always a plus, particularly with smaller, less approachable animals like birds. I rented the 5D for our trip as I was planning to photograph large mammals like elk in a national park where getting close was not likely to be a limiting factor. I also hoped to take advantage of the broader field of view to capture more sweeping landscapes and hoped that the 5D’s purported superior low light performance would allow me to shoot later into the evening as wildlife became more active.

I anticipated that I would alternate shooting between the 5D and my 7D, however what I found is that shot almost exclusively with the rented 5D. I was blown away by the image quality, dynamic range, and low light capabilities. It was certainly hard sending the camera back after we returned home.

Not long after our trip I was discussing the 5D Mark IV with my photographer and Canon shooter friend Skip Pudney, who informed me that he had been considering a 5D Mark IV for some time, and that he had noticed that Best Buy was running promotional financing that made pulling the trigger on a new camera very tempting. After some (brief) contemplation and discussion with Caro, I decided to place my order, and before I knew it, a brand new Canon 5D Mark IV was on its way.

I love opening the box and pulling out a brand new camera, wrapped in protective cloth. Looking at it, sparkling clean and blemish free, I knew that it wouldn’t stay that way for long – not with the way I shoot. Shortly after receiving it I took a few photos here and there, but I really needed a good outing to put it to the test. So Caro and I decided to take the opportunity to travel to the upper Texas coast last weekend. Photographing shorebirds from the beach would certainly prove a suitable test to the camera’s capabilities and durability.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 4000, 1/320 sec, f/5.6 @ 700 mm

We arrived late Thursday evening and settled in. The next morning we were up at 5 AM, and set out to the beach before the sun rose. I wanted to try out the camera at this pre-dawn hour to put its high ISO abilities to the test. And I was more than pleased with the result. At ISO 2000, noise was barely perceptible to me on well-exposed images. At ISO 4000, noise was certainly present, but not overly distracting and I later found it easy to manage in post processing. Though this is a completely anecdotal observation, I would compare noise levels from ISO 4000 on the 5D Mark IV to 1600 on the 7D Mark II. It was very impressive.

On the 7D, I rarely push the ISO past 2000, and at that level it had to be very nearly perfectly exposed to avoid introducing extra noise in post processing. Based on my experiences with the 5D Mark IV so far, I am comfortable pushing the ISO to 4000, and find that up to ISO 6400, well exposed images are usable for most purposes. That’s gives me an extra 5 stops of light to work with beyond the 7D Mark II!

My first photographic subject of the trip was a white-phase Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) that was foraging in the shallow surf. The deep blue waters reflecting the pre-dawn sky nicely complimented the bird’s striking white plumage. At one point I captured the light of a distant barge in the background. It appeared as a white orb that to me, gave the impression that the bird was glowing in the light of a full moon.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 3200, 1/250 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

As I was focused on the egret, a Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) cruised by over the water. I lowered my shutter speed to capture some motion in the wings.

Brown Pelican. ISO 2000, 1/250 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

After the pelican had passed, I turned my attention back to the Reddish Egret. The sky and, in turn, the water were lightening from deep midnight blue to a lighter pastel blue tinged with pink. Reddish Egrets are famous for their incredible fishing displays, where they seemingly dance across the surface of the water, running leaping erratically and spreading their wings in a wide array of positions in an attempt to frighten, corral, and capture ichthy prey.

Photographing these displays is a real challenge, especially when they’re close. Their movements are unpredictable, which makes tracking them exceedingly difficult. Sometimes, however, one gets lucky and manages to freeze a moment in time of a Reddish Egret on the hunt. Out of hundreds of frames created in an attempt to capture this, I had only a couple that I ended up liking enough to keep.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 2000, 1/250 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

As the sun drew nearer to the horizon, the reflection of the sky did wonderful things to the shallow water and wet sand. A tiny Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri) passed directly in front of me as I was sprawled out on my belly in the sand. I was able to capture an image of it as it foraged for worms and other invertebrates in a shallow sheet of water sitting on top of the saturated beach sand.

Western Sandpiper. ISO 1600, 1/500 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

By the time the Western Sandpiper had moved on, the sun had crested the horizon. It bathed the white Reddish Egret in a most wonderful light, and the egret stretched out as if welcoming the warmth of a new day.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 400, 1/800 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

By now I had been lying, more or less in the same spot and position for 30 minutes or so. I was quite uncomfortable, as I often am while lying prone in the sand, however it was hard to move when there was so much diversity all around me. Soon a group of Semipalmated Plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus) crossed in front of me. Even in their non-breeding plumage, they are striking little shorebirds, and the sun was illuminating them perfectly as I watch them through my viewfinder.

Semimalmated Plover. ISO 400, 1/500 sec, f/5.6 @700mm

Finally I decided it was time to move down the beach. Among the droves of gulls and terns lining the shore, I spotted a Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus) working the shallows where the tide was lapping at the sand. I knew what my next target was, and I dropped to my knees and elbows and began to belly crawl across the beach.

The beach may be flat, but crawling across it in this manner is neither easy nor pleasant. Occasionally I would roll while elevating my camera from the ground. This was generally easier and faster, but also more likely to startle my quarry, and it left me coated in wet sand from head to toe. And though I struggled valiantly to keep my hands clean, they inevitably became coated in grains of sand, which were in turn transferred to my new, not inexpensive camera.

Though I wouldn’t have to get as close with my 7D, I felt it was worth the extra effort to practice my shorebird stalking skills to get that much closer with the 5D. I also thought that forcing me to keep the bird smaller in the frame would push me to create interesting compositions and provide more context on my subjects’ habitat.

Long-billed Curlew. ISO 250, 1/800 sec, f/6.3 @700mm

After spending some time with the curlew, I continued down the beach until I spotted an American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) working the shallows. The sun was rising ever higher into the sky, and little by little that glorious early morning light was growing harsher. Fortunately I’ve found that when shooting over shallow water, I can extend the morning’s session a bit as shallow water and wet sand reflects sunlight back onto the subject, acting like a reflector and softening harsh shadows.

Later in the morning, the water also turns a brilliant deep blue which makes for a beautiful setting for any bird or creature that might be standing in it. I hoped to capture these colors as I again started the agonizing and slow approach, army-crawling through the sticky sand toward the oystercatcher. Soon after I got into position, I watched as it stretched its wings and leapt into the air momentarily.

American Oystercatcher. ISO 200, 1/1000 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

The oystercatcher was wary of me at first, but eventually came to accept me as part of the landscape. It is always exciting watching your subject approach through the viewfinder, knowing that it’s getting closer and closer to providing that frame-filling shot that needs no cropping whatsoever. This is just what the oystercatcher did, snatching up the occasional tasty morsel on its way. This is one of those rare instances in wildlife photography where having less focal distance is better, as the bird would have been too tight in the frame if I was using the same lens configuration on my 7D.

American Oystercatcher. ISO 160, 1/1600 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm
American Oystercatcher. ISO 160, 1/1600 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

Near the oystercatcher I spotted a Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa). This species has long been a nemesis of mine. They’re fairly easy to find along the Texas coast, yet I have always had trouble capturing a godwit image that I was happy with. Fortunately this morning I had a cooperative bird that obliged for a few images.

Marbled Godwit. ISO 200, 1/1000, f/6.3 @ 700mm

By the time I was finished with the oystercatcher and the godwit, my camera was thoroughly coated with sand, and I could see a multitude of tiny grains wedged in the spaced between the body and its various buttons. So much sand had accumulated around the shutter button that it got stuck in the depressed position. I had the same thing happen with my old 7D when shooting on the beach in South Padre a couple of years ago. In that case the shutter got stuck all the way down, and every time I turned on the camera it began firing away. Fortunately, this time it was only stuck halfway down – in focus mode. This allowed me to continue shooting, though I was admittedly growing concerned about having this happen with a brand new camera.

I decided to continue shooting with what little bit of usable morning light remained. I moved away from the beach to an extensive mudflat that was quickly becoming inundated with the incoming tide. Numerous shorebirds were taking advantage of these prime foraging conditions, including another Marbled Godwit.

Shooting in this mudflat presented itself with a whole new set of challenges. Wet sand gave way to deep mud. To approach the birds, I would have to crawl through this mud that sat beneath a foot or two of water. This required very careful balancing of my heavy camera and lens as I remained low enough to approach without spooking my subjects. Fortunately it is a scenario that I have been in before, and I was able to get into position without causing further harm to my camera or myself. The water even helped to watch away the layer of sand that was coating every inch of my clothing and exposed skin.

Marbled Godwit. ISO 160, 1/1250 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

Near the godwit a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) were resting. I quickly turned my attention to the closest individual, and captured an image I quite liked with blue water at its feet and exposed sand, marsh vegetation, and sky in the background. I typically see these birds foraging in shallow water, where it’s hard to get a feel for how long their legs really are. Here it was standing on top of an exposed mudflat, and the entire length of the colorful legs that lend the bird its name were in view.

Greater Yellowlegs. ISO 160, 1/1600 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

Soon the other yellowlegs joined its cohort. They say that in humans, yawning sets off a chain reaction where viewing another yawn will trigger the same reaction in oneself. Apparently the same is true for Greater Yellowlegs when it comes to scratching an itch.

Greater Yellowlegs. ISO 160, 1/1250 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

After a half hour or so of lying in the mud, I decided to finish shooting in the morning, due in part to the deteriorating lighting conditions and the level of discomfort and fatigue I had experienced from a morning of crawling through the sand and mud and balancing my heavy camera and lens over the shallow water.

By the time I got back to my truck the excitement of the morning’s photo shoot was beginning to subside, and concern for a very expensive camera coated in grit began to grow. With Caro’s help, I began to clean off the camera, blowing off grains of sand and using a close-pin from my first aid kit and a coffee straw that Caro cut into a thin strip to extract sand from the space between the camera body and various buttons. Slowly but surely we were able to remove all of the sand, and I was able to coax the shutter button back to its normal position, where it remained for the rest of the trip.

After cleaning the camera and changing clothes, we went to grab a bite to eat and spent most of the afternoon enjoying the beach. Though it was early November, the air and water were warm enough that wading out into the surf was quite pleasant.

As the sun dipped lower on the horizon I set out again in pursuit of birds. No photo session for the remainder of the trip would compare with that first morning, however that is the nature of the beast. Some sessions are highly productive, others are painfully slow and fruitless. Most, however, fall somewhere in the middle.

That is not to say that the evening was without its photo ops. I enjoyed watching a Sanderling (Calidris alba) comb the beach. At one point it turned to give me a profile view as beautiful soft evening light washed over it. It lit up against the dreary gray sand.

Sanderling. ISO 1250. 1/500 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

Brown Pelicans were cruising up and down the beach. This species of pelican fishes via incredible, seemingly death-defying dives. From dizzying heights they scan the water below until they spot their prey, and then they turn on a dime and descend like a bullet toward the water’s surface. It’s long been a goal of mine to document these dives, but capturing a photo of these dives made at break-neck speed is easier said than done. That evening, however, I did get an image I liked of a pelican just after it turned into a dive set against the pastel sky of dusk.

Brown Pelican preparing to dive. ISO 1000, 1/800 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

I continued photographing for a while after the sun set but was not satisfied with any of the images captured. Caro and I sat a few minutes on the beach to watch the birds as they prepared to settle in for the evening. We then went back and had dinner in our hotel and relax after a very long, but rewarding day.

The next morning brought another 5 AM wake-up, and we were soon at the same beach where we had seen so many birds the previous day. But the natural world often proves to be unpredictable, and unreliable, and the beach was almost devoid of avian life. The tide was higher and as a result, less of the beach was exposed, reducing the foraging habitat for many species. A few pelicans passed by, and a handful of gulls bathed in the surf, but I didn’t put much effort into photographing them, and instead decided to enjoy a quiet stroll on the beach before the crowds arrived.

As I was returning to the shore I saw another white-phase Reddish Egret foraging in the mudflat, which was now inundated by high tide. The sun was getting a bit harsh for the bird’s white plumage, but I positioned myself so that the bird was in front of a dark background, and tried for some creative shots of the egret as it danced in its trademark hunting fashion.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 200, 1/2500 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

After finishing with the egret and leaving the water I spotted a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) in the dune vegetation. As I mentioned at the onset of this narrative, the main concern I had with using a full frame was the need to get closer to smaller subjects. I soon came to think of this as a benefit rather than a hindrance. It forced me to use all my cunning to creep up on this little shrike, and I found that with patience and stealth I was able to get plenty close. I hoped I would be able to replicate this with breeding forest songbirds in the coming spring.

Loggerhead Shrike. ISO 250, 1/1250 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

With several images of the shrike on my card, I called the morning’s photo session, and we went on to enjoy another day relaxing on the beach. In the evening we were back again, and the birds were once more few and far between. After the sun vanished behind the horizon, another white-phase Reddish Egret (likely the same bird I had been photographing) arrived and began to hunt in the shallow surf. I photographed it against the soft pink dusk sky. One of the “rules” of wildlife photography is that the subject should be facing the camera and the eye should be clearly visible. However I find that the old cliche, “rules are meant to be broken” often applies with art, and to me, photography is art. So I thought this image of an egret, wings spread as it looks to the distance, is a fine parting shot for our journey, and I hope it will be as thought provoking for its viewers as it has been for me.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 2000, 1/640 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

The next morning the alarm range at 5 AM, but exhausted from two long days of shooting and exploring, and satisfied with a very productive trip, I turned it off and we slept in our last morning on the coast. I had put the 5D Mark IV to the test, and I was beyond pleased with the results. Though I suspect it will become my main camera, the 7D Mark II won’t be going anywhere. It will still serve as a fine backup camera and There may be some situations, such as photographing small and skittish species when available light is not a limiting factor. It has served me very well, and I continue to sing its praises as a highly versatile camera that produces excellent images.

If you stumbled across this blog looking for a practical comparison between the two cameras mentioned, I hope you found it useful. If not, I hope you enjoyed the images and the stories of how they were made, and wish everyone a prosperous holiday season, with family, photos, and natural places.

Tales of the Elk Rut

Two mature bull elk battle for control of a harem of cows. In the distance another bull, antler tines broken from his own battles tries to sneak in with hopes of breeding a female when the larger bulls are preoccupied.

When the air grows cold and the aspens turn from green to gold, a haunting call echoes through the valley and heralds an ancient ritual of violence and affection that is essential to the continued existence of one of our planet’s most majestic creatures: The North American elk, the Wapiti.

I owe a lot to the wapiti, as I see it. The elk played an important role in shaping my passion for wildlife and the natural world. I first visited elk country before I could walk. My family and I embarked on annual camping trips to the great national parks of the American West, visiting places like Yellowstone and the Tetons, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain National Park. These trips were the highlight of my year as a kid, easily eclipsing birthdays and Christmas. It was there, among the towering peaks, varied life zones, and charismatic megafauna that I felt most at home. During these formative years, the natural wonders of the Rocky Mountains were perhaps the biggest factor contributing to this deep, life long passion.

I had a particular affinity for the wapiti (Cervus canadensis). My parents will attest that I was obsessed with them. It was always the animal I most looked forward to seeing. When I wasn’t out west, I pestered them to visit the small captive herd in Elk Grove, Illinois, not far from where I grew up. I spent all year reading about elk, writing and drawing about elk, and longing to see them again. I proudly stated many times that they were my favorite animal.

Perhaps a part of me envies the elk. I will never know how it feels to possess that degree of pure, natural strength. A dominant bull in rut is the embodiment of power, pride, lust and rage, qualities often experienced, revered, and reviled by man. Yet despite his pomposity, he is also tender, protective, and patient.

A bull elk bugles as he moves to corral a cow back to his harem, which can be seen grazing behind him.

And it’s hard to imagine another animal with an appearance as majestic as an antlered wapiti in his prime. They are stately creatures whose black, ivory-tipped blades of bone curve above their head like a crown. Few realize just how massive they are before seeing one. An exceptional specimen can reach ten feet in length, five and a half feet at the shoulders, and have antlers that tower to nearly nine feet above the ground.

But it is the bugle, at least in my experience, that I most closely associate with the wapiti. This sound that, for me at least, is inextricably linked to wildness of spirit and wilderness of nature. It is a melody, that alongside the howl of the wolf, the call of the loon, the rustling of leaves in the wind, and the roar of a torrent over rocks, creates the symphony of the natural world.

Though Carolina and I saw a small bachelor group in New Mexico last year, it had been over a decade since I really had the opportunity to observe free ranging wapiti. This autumn I was able to be among them once more, and it was extra special. It was the first time that I really experienced the rut. It was a magical thing, watching the spectacle of competition between bull elk in their prime, and observing the subtle nuances of the hierarchy and bull selection within the cows. I felt as if I was truly among the elk, as bulls herded their harems through our campsite at all hours of the frigid night, bugling within a few meters of our tent. The nights were so cold that one evening it rained, and in the morning the tent was fly was frozen solid. Yet these extremes were not enough to deter the elk from their ancient ritual that would ensure a place for the next generation. All the more reason, I thought, to marvel at the incredible toughness and tenacity of these Rocky Mountain monarchs.

Below are the stories of several of the elk that we observed on our trip. There are tales of heartbreak and triumph. We will never know the minds of animals, and the sensations they experience is largely a mystery. It is clear to me, however, that they do experience some form of many of the emotions familiar to us, including those that we admire and abhor. I prefer not to anthropomorphize them, however at their core, it has become clear to me through observation and consideration that many species are not so different from us after all.

Kawuneeche Valley

The Kawuneeche, Arapaho for “coyote valley/creek”, is a narrow valley that skirts the Colorado River near its head source in the adjacent mountains. It is one of the main features on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. As I type this, the East Troublesome Fire is burning through a large portion of the valley and surrounding forests. Fueled by an abundance of beetle-killed lodgepole pine, the blaze grew from a modest fire of 20,000 acres to the second largest fire in Colorado’s history at over 170,000 acres in the span of a single day. The conflagration forced the residents of Grand Lake and surrounding areas to evacuate with only moments’ notice. Though it is an undeniable tragedy in terms of human impacts, I remain hopeful and confident that the natural communities of the areas will be better for it. The quaking aspen, Engelmann spruce, and lodgepole pine will return. Fuel loads will be reduced and the soils will be enriched with a flush of nutrients. The regenerating habitat will provide excellent habitat for elk and mule deer.

Elk are more spread out on the west side of the Park than in the moraines and parks in the Park’s eastern portion. They are still relatively easy to observe, however, and we saw many throughout our stay. The five bulls below were observed here, where one can catch a glimpse of the rut as it has occurred for thousands of generations of wapiti.

Broken Dagger

Broken Dagger after a brief mud bath.

Broken Dagger was the first bull I photographed.  We saw his harem first, wandering through a picnic area of all places.  We counted 8 cows, a spike bull, and a few calves.  “Where is the bull?” I thought.  Then I caught a glimpse of his muddy hindquarters through the spruce and aspen.  It was evident that he had been wallowing in some dark and undoubtedly foul-smelling mud.  Wallowing is a common practice among mature bulls during the rut.  They will seek out an area full of it, and before they roll about and coat themselves in mucky soup, they urinate profusely in the area they intend to “bathe”.  This concoction of mud and spoor is meant to make him more intimidating to his rivals.

A broken tine on his right antler earned him his name.  Broken Dagger was missing his “royal” or “dagger” tine.  This is typically the longest, most prominent tine on a wapiti’s antler.  It is not uncommon for bulls to lose tines during the rut.  Most are likely lost during battles with other bulls, however they can also be lost when bulls thrash the ground, shrubs, and saplings with a testosterone fueled rage.  I wish I knew the story of how Broken Dagger lost his.

I noticed that Broken Dagger was rather quiet, bugling only rarely.  This was in stark contrast with most of the mature bulls we observed during the trip.  I later speculated that he made an effort to avoid drawing attention to himself and his harem for fear of losing it to another bull.  Considering that the next time I saw him, two days later he was In the company of only a single cow that was soon usurped by a large bull named Flattop, it seems this was not a far-fetched conclusion.

Raghorn

Raghorn in the dim light of dusk.

The term “raghorn” refers to a bull elk with a set of antlers that is smaller than would be expected for the number of points they contain.  Mature bulls typically carry six tines on each side, and this particular antler configuration typically set in at 4 to 5 years of age.  There are a number of factors that could contribute to smaller antlers on a bull, however assuming that he is already mature, this bull that I named Raghorn likely simply drew the short end of the genetic stick. 

Antler size is important in elk, however it’s not everything.  I have heard plenty of stories of bulls with smaller antlers overpowering those with massive racks.  These bony armaments certainly play a role, however fights are won with strength, confidence, and tenacity. 

It seemed Raghorn was having some luck with the ladies.  He had a harem of four cows that he snuck past Flattop as he was occupied with fending off Romeo.  Like most people, I enjoy a good underdog story.  Raghorn would have a hard time holding onto a harem, let alone convincing one of those cows to accept him as a mate, but I’d be rooting for him.

Flattop

The dominant bull of the Kawuneeche Valley, Flattop bugles in an effort to attract cows and intimidate potential rival bulls.

Among the bulls of the upper Kawuneeche Valley, there was a clear “herd bull”. I first met this dominant bull on our third day in the park. Early that morning I had spotted Broken Dagger in a distant field courting a solitary cow. As I watched him, I could hear a powerful bugle in the timber behind me, on the opposite side of the road. There seems to be some debate as to whether or not the size of a bull correlates with the volume or deepness of his bugle. This has long been the opinion of elk hunters and outdoorsman, however it seems that empirical evidence to this point is lacking.

It must have been an hour or more that I was watching Broken Dagger and listening to the rival bull bugling. At times he was so close, but I could not see him through the dense spruce and beetle killed lodgepole pine trunks standing like specters in the forest. Every so often I would catch a fleeting glimpse of the bull and his harem, but he would vanish just as soon as I saw him, like a phantom haunting my dreams.

Eventually his harem began to emerge from behind the curtain of conifers. A calf with the group began chirping, a call used to communicate within the herd. In that moment, the cow that had been in Broken Dagger’s company suddenly perked up and very quickly made her way across the meadow to the tree line. She crossed the road within ten yards of me, and moved directly to the calf, which had advanced to within 20 yards or so. When she arrived, the calf immediately began to nurse, and the cow began licking its withers and flanks as mother elk are wont to do.

In that moment, the hidden bull appeared from behind a big spruce. He stepped out into the open, turned, and let out a magnificent bugle. The harem, including the new cow, quickly returned to the forest. And the bull bugled once more, before disappearing from sight behind them. In all he was in the open for around thirty seconds, just enough time to capture a few images.

Flattop shortly after he emerged from the timber.

I named him Flattop for his brow tines, which typically curve upwards. In Flattop, however, they were perfectly straight, with the tips taking an abrupt 90 degree turn. His antlers were heavier than most of the bulls we saw, especially further up the beam. This gave him a unique, intimidating look that seemed to serve him well as none of the other area bulls dared engage him in combat.

Flattop bugles to rally his cows to him and communicate in no uncertain terms to Broken Dagger and the other bulls of the area that he reigns supreme.

There is a softer side to the rut, which we observed on multiple occasions. Flattop had his hands full running off satellite bulls and keeping his harem close. But between his charging and bugling, he took time to tend his cows. A bull will often lick a cow as a means of announcing his intention to mount her, however we watched as Flattop would slowly approach bedded cows and lick and even nudge his face against them. Most of the cows seemed receptive of this, and many responded in like kind. I believe this served as a kind of bond reinforcement within the harem. Perhaps Flattop knew, in some way, that showing his gentler side could lead to more loyalty among the cows, and in turn they would be less likely to risk leaving him to join another harem of a bull that may not be so kind.

Flattop shares a tender moment with one of the cows in his harem.

I was grateful with the time I was able to spend with Flattop. He showed us what it takes to be a successful herd bull, and each time we saw him he had a harem of at least a dozen cows. I am confident that he will be successful this rut, and hopefully for many ruts to come.

Romeo

Romeo looking proud and confident

Judging the age of a bull in the field can be tricky. If I had to guess, however, I would say that Romeo was a young bull. He was long, lean, and lithe – not stocky like Flattop. He also seemed to have an endless supply of energy, and constantly tested Flattop, attempting to overthrow the king and gain control of his harem. Though he was brave, for all his bravado, he never locked horns with the other bull, and Flattop succeeded at driving him away after each attempt.

Among the satellite bulls, however, Romeo was clearly top dog. He ran several other lesser competitors off, and then proudly bugled to celebrate his victory. In my eyes, he had all the makings of a future champion.

Romeo squares off with another Kawuneeche Valley bull. The opposing bull quickly backed down without engaging in combat.

At one point it appeared that Romeo had gained the favor of one of the area cows. We watched one evening as the two enjoyed one another’s company for almost an hour. Perhaps the cow was nearing estrus, and Romeo could sense it. They even seemed affectionate.

But things all changed in an instant, as Flattop suddenly raced across the valley. Frightened by his approach, the cow moved away, and Flattop quickly cut between her and Romeo. He then dropped his antlers toward Romeo as a threat and a warning. Romeo replied in like kind, but quickly admitted defeat. Flattop then ran the cow back to his harem, leaving Romeo alone in the cold rain. Bested and shamed, but not broken, Romeo then let out a mournful bugle as if assuring Flattop that things were far from over.

I hope I will meet Romeo again some day. I look forwarding to seeing the bull he will become, and like to imagine that one day he will give Flattop a run for his money for the ruler of the upper Kawuneeche Valley.

Romeo bugles in the rain

Obsidian

Obsidian advancing through the timber

A wapiti bull in rut is a dangerous thing. It is always intimidating being close to such a powerful, majestic creature. When they begin to go crazy with a testosterone fueled rage it becomes downright scary. None of the elk we encounter made me as uneasy as a beautiful bull that I named Obsidian.

Obsidian looked every part the stereotypical regal stag – the kind that one sees in movies and paintings meant to illustrate their majesty and elegance. Though we saw other bulls that were larger and sported more impressive racks, Obsidian stood out as the most visually striking. He was named for his black mane, with fur longer and more defined than most bulls. This contrasted starkly with the rest of his pelage, which was much lighter. His antlers were dark, high, and tipped with ivory.

Though his good looks were certainly memorable, it was the intimidating air about him that left a lasting impression. We were alone when Caro spotted Obsidian, which is unusual for this time of year. When we got out, I could hear coyotes yipping nearby. Though even a pack of coyotes would stand no chance against a bull in his prime like Obsidian, their presence made the black-necked bull uneasy. As I focused on him, he looked to me and communicated with his gaze and body posture in no uncertain terms that he wanted me gone. I thought better than to challenge him and quickly made my way to the relative safety of my truck, and Obsidian took off running across the valley, frightening off a cow moose and her calf in the process.

We moved across the valley in the general direction that Obsidian was moving, and found a good place to pull in and wait. After a while he arrived with half a dozen cows. He moved into a stand of beetle-killed timber, where he spent the next half hour or so foraging. Bulls in the rut devote little time to feeding, however for the moment there were no other bulls in the area, and his infrequent bugles went unanswered. Eventually he moved close enough for me to capture some images. Though I never got a clean shot of him in the open, I liked the chaos created by the tangle of limbs from downed trees. To me, it reflected his seemingly unpredictable nature.

The intimidating gaze of Obsidian

Elk of the Moraines and Sun Forest

After camping three nights at 9,000 feet at the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, we crossed over Trail Ridge Road and descended to the east side of the park. Here at around 7,500 feet the days and nights were much warmer. It rains less here, and dense forests of Engelmann Spruce, subalpine fir and lodgepole pine are replaced by open savannas dominated by ponderosa pine and massive scars formed by glacial deposition known as moraines.

The dynamics of the elk rut is different here too. Hundreds of wapiti gather in these moraines, and an abundance of large, mature bulls results in a constant cycle of harem upheaval and reclamation. Instead of one bull holding the harem, it seemed that here several bulls, each controlling their own harem, converge. The result of this was spectacular, with frequent conflicts, and a cast of characters, each with a fascinating story to tell.

Scrapper

Scrapper keeps a watchful eye out for threats to his harem

We saw many elk with missing antler tines. Scrapper had lost some portion of four, a testament to his proclivity for battle. It was still relatively early in the rut, but this warrior had already seen many battles, and it was apparent that he knew how to fight. We saw him near the Beaver Meadows entrance station, and was moving his harem through widely spaced ponderosa pines.

Scrapper had the largest harem of any of the bulls that we encountered. We saw at least 18 cows with him, and he ensured that they stayed together. He wasn’t huge, but clearly he knew how to fight. I hoped that his winning streak would continue, but during the rut, things can change in the blink of an eye.

The King

The King bugles to reaffirm his place as ruler of his territory

The undisputed ruler of his domain, the King had the largest antlers of any bull we saw, by far. I didn’t see him until the very end of our last day of the park, when the light was fading and the night soon to come. After I spotted him he became the focus of my lens for the remainder of the evening.

The King bugles as he passes between two dead shrubs as if exiting his castle’s gate to do battle.

When I saw the King, he was away from most of the action, in a small thicket with a cow and a calf. At first I was surprised that he was not out pushing all the other bulls around and gathering a massive harem. But perhaps there was a strategy behind this. As a bull who has clearly survived and dominated many ruts in years’ past, he likely knew that it was still a bit early for most cows to be in estrus. He would also be intimately familiar with just how taxing the rut could be on a bull.

I also suspected that the cow he was tending was coming into estrus. He routinely tested the air with his tongue and approached her, as if sensing she may be ready. For the time being, however, she spurned his advances. Still, he was patient.

The posture displayed here, with his head upright and tongue slightly protruding, indicates the King’s intention to test a cow to determine her readiness to mate.

I didn’t realize just how popular a bull the King was, though I’m not surprised. I later found his image posted all over the internet. Some images were from 2016, and he looked much the same as he does now. He was an old bull that has likely dominated the rut for the better part of a decade. It was hard to imagine another bull that could match him, however sometimes an unlikely contender emerges that threatens to change everything.

The King in profile

Siete

Siete where we first saw him near the top of a hill next to a huge moraine.

Siete, named for the seven tines on his right antler, was my favorite of the bulls we encountered. He did not have the largest antlers on the field, nor was he the most aggressive. It was, however, evident that he was a very confident bull and commanded respect from the other bulls that he encountered.

If I had to guess, I would say that Siete was the largest bull that we saw, in terms of body mass. His neck and shoulders were particularly massive, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to think that would translate to incredible strength. While it has been demonstrated that larger antlers are more intimidating to other bulls and more attractive to cows, it is brute strength that wins actual battles. For this reason, if there was another bull in the Moraine could challenge the King, I believe it would be Siete.

Siete showing off his massive frame.

There are two reasons why Siete stands out as my favorite bull of the park. The first has to do with a special encounter we had one morning. Carolina and I arrived early to look for elk activity. We first saw Siete bugling high on a ridge with a single cow in his presence. There were other bulls nearby, but he paid them little mind, and was instead focused on his cow. I later theorize that she was just coming into estrus, but was not yet ready to mate. Siete bugled several times, and later both he and the cow vanished out of view. Caro and I moved further into the valley and found it empty of elk. On our return, Siete and the cow suddenly emerged from behind the crest of a small knoll, heading directly toward us. Suddenly we found ourselves away from the crowds, alone, with a massive bull elk barreling down. We took refuge behind rocks and I knelt down. In that moment the dense cloud cover that had persisted through the morning began to break up every so slightly, and filter sunlight bathed Siete as he let out a tremendous bugle that nearly forced me to bring my hands to my ears.

Siete bugling on the heels of a cow

Then we witnessed something truly amazing. A bull elk in rut seems a bully. A creature bent on violence and dominance, looking to conquer rival bulls and cows alike. And while it is true that he may be harsh when chasing and corralling his harem, when it comes to mating, a mature, experienced bull is gentle and patient. In fact, it is often said that the mating system of the wapiti revolves around female choice. When a bull thinks of mounting one of the cows of his harem, he announces his intention by changing his posture. He approaches her a certain way and tests the air for her pheromones’. He then begins to copiously lick her, communicating that he intents to mount. If the cow is not ready, she will react by moving away and lowering her head while opening her mouth. An inexperienced, impatient bull may attempt to mount anyway, causing a great deal of stress to the cow who will continue trying to escape him. An experienced bull, however, will break off his pursuit immediately, and quickly let out a bugle. It is believed that the bugle in this scenario is meant as a signal to the cow that he has received her message and understands. The cow, in turn, will associate this sound with a patient bull that will not harass her. I believe that is what I captured here, as we watched this cow give that signal and Siete quickly halted his pursuit and let out a short bugle. The pair then disappeared deeper into the valley and the timber beyond.

Siete communicates to a cow that he received her message and respects her wishes, so to speak.

The second reason that Siete was my favorite bull has to do with information gleaned after our trip. I have been periodically looking through images on social media to see if I could find some of these bulls, and to learn more of their stories. A couple of weeks after we returned I noticed an image of a bull that had lost approximately 90% of his left antler, leaving only a single brow tine and a few inches of cracked beam. His right antler was at least half gone. I noticed a small projection at the base of the brow tine and realized that I was looking at Siete. The shapes of the other remaining tines matched up. At first I was sad that this happened to the bull that I shared a special encounter with, but then I started reading through the commentary, and finding more images and reading more into the story. The accounts indicated that in spite of this wound, Siete had not given up in the rut, and had in fact managed to acquire and retain a large harem. One post even stated that he successfully fought off three large bulls that tried to move in and steal his cows. Siete was a warrior. And a good one at that. I did catch a glimpse of this on our last night in the park, when I saw Siete square off with Hothead. The battle lasted all of 10 seconds before Hothead beat a very hasty retreat, Siete hot on his heels.

Though I’ll never know for certain what happened to Siete, I don’t think I’m taking too many liberties in piecing his story together. I imagine that Siete found himself in close proximity to another large bull, likely the King. Whether Siete wandered too close to the King’s ladies or the other way around is impossible to know and largely irrelevant. Whatever happened, the situation was elevated to combat, and the sound that their antlers made as they crashed together must have echoed across the valley. The combatants then would have pushed against one another with all they had, trying to cause the other to lose balance and penetrate their opponents defenses with one of their sharpened tines. Their weapons would have been entwined, and with his immense strength, Siete may have been gaining the upper hand when he wrenched his massive neck with all his might in an attempt to bring the King down. The King’s antlers, however, were much larger and stronger, and in the fray they held strong while Siete’s snapped all the way through. The fight was lost, and Siete would have had to beat a hasty retreat or risk incurring a fatal injury.

Antlers are made of bone, and a break that close to the base of the antlers must have been painful. There is no time to recover during the rut, however. Everything is on the line, and if Siete hoped to pass on his genes to the next generation, he couldn’t give up. So he would have set about reforming his harem, bugling into the cold, wild air. Over time he had drawn enough cows to him to catch the attention of other bulls. Without his headgear, he would not appear intimidating to rival bulls and was likely challenged often. But those bulls who approached him expecting an easy fight were soon to realize they had made a grave mistake, when this incredibly powerful pull managed to catch their attack with what remained of his antlers and with determination, will, and immense strength banished them from his domain. I wish I could have seen this in person, but was really glad I was able to piece together his story through the accounts of others. I hope that I will see Siete again one day, and that his progeny spread throughout the park and beyond, carrying with them the genes of this wapiti warrior.

Stubhorn

Stubhorn frightens a calf with his intimidating bugle.

An old bull missing part of his left dagger, Stubhorn had succeeded in holding a small harem. We watched as he tested his cows and ran off a number of satellite bulls that had pushed their luck a bit too far. For most of the evening he stayed close to his harem, bugling to reaffirm his position.

Stubhorn tests the cows in his harem to see if they are ready to mate.

At some point in the evening, however, his bugle must have invited an unwelcomed challenger who had apparently claimed Stubhorn’s harem as his own. Later we saw the veteran bull alone, wandering a ridge in the direction of the King. The King would not have this, and quickly broke away from his cow and her calf, and made his way toward Stubhorn, screaming a bugle with bloodlust in his eyes. Stubhorn thought better of escalating the situation, and quickly retreated. The rut was far from over, however, and I imagine that the old bull was plotting his revenge. Harems would change loyalties many times throughout the autumn, and both losses and victories are often short lived.

Stubhorn crosses a ridge, heading into the King’s domain.

Hothead

Hothead holds his head high as he bugles, displaying his prowess to intimidate wood be combatants.

When a wapiti bull reaches a certain age, he will likely begin to “regress”. A regressed bull will display antlers that are smaller than they were in their prime. This is not to say that a regressed bull is weak however. He is still a very dangerous, formidable opponent to younger bulls and carries the benefit of experience.

I believed that Hothead may have been an example of a bull that has regressed. He looked a battle-hardened veteran of the rut, and was essentially fearless. He was the most aggressive of the bulls we saw, and was very quick to scold a wandering cow or challenge a rival bull that came too close.

Hothead showing off his impressive headgear.

Hothead was also prone to fight. I watched him lock horns, albeit briefly, with both Siete and Scarface. Though he lost both battles, it did little to lower his spirits, and he went right back to pursuing cows and preparing to take on any newfound threat.

Like many of the bulls we encountered, Hothead was missing one of his tines. His left brow tine, to be specific, had been broken off. The configuration of his antlers was of particular interest. He bore five tines on his right antler and seven on his left. Perhaps this asymmetry was another sign of his regression. Hopefully Hothead has a few more ruts in him, where he may continue to keep the younger bulls on their toes.

Hothead chases after a cow that has wandered too far from the rest of the harem.

Scarface

Scarface sends a warning to other bulls and photographers alike.

Observing and photographing the elk rut gifted me with a wealth of exciting experiences. The most exhilirating, however, came courtesy of a bull that I named Scarface for a small cut over his left eye. I met Scarface during our final evening in the Park. I found a nice slope at the edge of a broad morainal valley. The Big Thompson River, little more than a trickle here just downstream of its headwaters, separated me from most of the action. I’ve read that dominant bull elk like to use streams like this as natural boundaries to help herd their harems. To my left was an old ponderosa pine with a dense gooseberry bush at its base. These obstructions essentially blocked much of my view to the left.

As I was focusing on Hothead and his harem across the river, I heard a sudden commotion to my left. Suddenly, a group of wapiti cows emerged about ten yards in front of me, their approach blocked by ponderosa, gooseberry, and my position on the slope. Hot on their heels was Scarface. After bursting into view, he quickly turned around, looked to me, and bugled at point blank range – a sound so forceful that it was almost bone jarring.

A bugle at close range is enough to jar one’s bones, literally and figuratively

In all fairness, it was unclear if he was communicating his displeasure with having me at such close range, or if he was simply changing his position project his voice in different directions, ensuring that more potential competitors and mates would hear him. If he was telling me to back-off, the message was received. There was no confusing who was in charge of the situation. I quickly scrambled to get up from the gravelly slope, scraping my knee in the process, and retreated to a safe distance.

Scarface surveys the valley

After bugling again, Scarface returned to herding his harem, and dropped into the stream for a drink and a soak. At some point, Hothead approached from the bank, which was several feet higher than the channel bottom where Scarface stood. The challenging bull lowered his head as if to threaten, and Scarface answered his challenge by surging forward and slamming his antlers against Hothead’s, sending a literal echo rippling across the valley. It can be hard to understand the force that these warriors exert, but the sound that clash of antlers made left no doubt as to the sheer power of a wapiti bull.

Sometimes it’s best to find something to hid behind when a wapiti bull approaches

It was evident that Scarface’s show of force convinced Hothead that this opponent was not to be trifled with, and he beat a hasty retreat. Scarface continued his soak before returning to his harem and ushering them along. I watched them as long as I could, until they vanished behind one of the many rocky ridges of the moraine.

Scarface raises his head, proudly displaying his prowess

There were plenty of other wapiti seen during our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park. The park remains one of the very best places to observe free-ranging elk today, however this was not always the case. By the turn of the twentieth century, elk had been extirpated from the region. When the park was established in 1915, the iconic elk was essentially absent. Only a few individuals likely inhabited the park, resulting from a reintroduction effort a year prior. Following their reintroduction, elk numbers grew quickly, and today they are abundant throughout much of Colorado – a true conservation success story. Today they are so abundant, in fact, that they are having detrimental effects on some of the park’s plant communities.

Still, Rocky Mountain and other National Parks are some of our planet’s best places to observe wildlife. Absence of hunting pressure, and habituation to human presence allows us to observe them and their behaviors much in the same way that early explorers did. They are a tiny piece of a natural splendor that was forever lost with westward expansion. It is of great comfort to me knowing that in the autumn, when the leaves begin to change, and the air grows cold, the wapiti’s bugle will continue to sound throughout these timbers and valleys long after I’m gone.

Rare Plants of Silveus’ Dropseed Prairies

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Castilleja coccinea, Packera tomentosa, and the leaves of Rudbeckia maxima near the top of a mima mound in a Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie.

In the far northeastern corner of the Lonestar State, near where the Post Oak Savannah, Pineywoods, and Blackland Prairie converge, a special type of prairie can be found.  These tallgrass prairie remnants are found nowhere else in the world, and are home to a unique cast of prairie plants.  Many of their plants are at the periphery of their range here, and are found nowhere else in Texas.  Others are globally imperiled.

Silveus’ Dropseed Prairies, as they’re known, are named for a dominant grass species – Sporobolus silveanus, which occurs sporadically in the West Gulf Coastal Plain, where it is endemic.  However, it is more than the presence of this special grass that make these prairies unique.  The defining characteristic of the Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie is the presence of a wide range of microhabitats formed by tiny variations in topography.  Tiny “mima” mounds rise just a few feet above the surrounding landscape and may 5-50 feet in diameter.

Mima mounds contain vegetation that is stratified in unique zones.  The tops generally contain a thin layer of coarse soils and are domed in shape.  This results in high rates of percolation and runoff, and the mima mound peaks are therefore slightly drier than their surroundings.  Water quickly slows down as it moves overland and through the soil column as it meets finer soil particles, creating moist conditions along mima mound slopes.  In winter and spring, when rainfall is plentiful and many plants are dormant, water often seeps from the base of the mounds during the winter and spring.  Between the mounds shallow seasonally wet or saturated depressions occur, and may contain a variety of sedges, rushes, and carnivorous plants like bladderworts and sundews.  Below are a few images of high quality “virgin” Silveus Dropseed Prairies from Bowie County that have never been plowed.

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Coreopsis and Mimosa bloom in Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie in early May.  A mima mound can be seen rising slightly in the background.

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Delphinium carolinianum and Rhus copallinum from the top of a mima mound.  Woody species such as R. copallinum quickly become established at the peaks of mima mounds, and in the absence of regular disturbance can rapidly encroach into the surrounding prairie.

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Marshallia caespitosa blooms alongside developing Liatris pycnostachya plants.

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Distribution of Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie in northeast Texas.  This map is from Jason Singhurst and Matt White’s chapter in Southeastern Grasslands: Biodiversity, Ecology, and Management.

In late March and early April the prairie starts showing signs of life, following months of vegetative dormancy.  A few species may begin to bloom among the brown remain of last season’s grasses as early as late January or early February, however the real show doesn’t begin until after the vernal equinox.  It is in this time that one of the rarest wildflowers in Texas reveals itself, unfurling scarlet red bracts and yellow flowers among the rapidly greening prairie grasses.  Though fairly widespread in the eastern United States, in Texas the scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea) is only known from a handful of Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie remnants in Bowie County, and its presence here was only recently formally documented.

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Scarlet paintbrush in a Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie in Bowie County.

At first glance, it would be easy to mistake scarlet paintbrush for the Texas paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa), which is widespread and common in the state.  The lobed bracts and deeply lobed leaves of C. coccinea most readily differentiate it from C. indivisa.  C. coccinea also possesses basal leaves that persist through anthesis (flowering), while the basal leaves of C. indivisa either absent, or whither prior to anthesis.

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Scarlet paintbrush showing its distinctly lobed bracts.

Castilleja coccinea is the only paintbrush species present in the vast majority of the eastern U.S.  It occurs primarily in prairies, barrens, glades, and open woods.  It is hemiparasitic, meaning that it obtains some portion of its energy and nutrients from the roots of other plants.

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Scarlet paintbrush with the basal leaves of Rudbeckia maxima in the background.

The pale coneflower (Echinacea pallida) is another example of a species that is relatively widespread but rare in Texas.  Here it occurs in a few Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie remnants and meadows in the eastern Cross Timbers north of Dallas.  There are several species of Echinacea in Texas, and identification can be difficult.  E. pallida stands out, however, as it’s pollen is white.  The white pollen can be seen below on the anthers of the disk flowers.

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Echinacea pallida

The range of the Topeka purple coneflower (Echinacea atrorubens) is much more restricted than that of E. pallida.  E. atrorubens is primarily restricted to a narrow band of tallgrass prairie from eastern Kansas south to eastern and central Texas, where it occurs in scattered populations.  E. atrorubens can be identified by its short, bright pink ray flowers.

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Echinacea atrorubens

Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) is a species of the eastern United States that also reaches the southwest extent of its range in extreme northeastern Texas, where it’s rare, confined primarily to Silveus’ Dropseed Prairies and a few other prairie remnants of similar composition.  Wild quinine  has a long history of use as a medicinal plant by native cultures and early settlers to eastern North America. It was used to treat a wide variety of ailments, from burns and sore muscles to dysentery. More recently, it was used during World War I as a substitute for cinchona bark in the anti-malarial drug quinine.

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Parthenium integrifolium in a high quality Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie remnant in Bowie County.

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Parthenium integrifolium has interesting flowers.  From a distance they don’t look like much, but viewed close they are really quite unique and showy in their own right.

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Parthenium integrifolium in a high quality Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie remnant in Bowie County, Texas.

I saved the “best” for last.  Not best in terms of the quality or importance of the plant, but because it is the species that I was most excited to find and photograph this spring during a few sojourns to northeast Texas. The ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera) is an orchid of the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada. It inhabits a variety of habitats across its range, including open woodlands, moist prairies, fens, and herbaceous seeps. In the extensive research that they conducted for “Wild Orchids of Texas”, Joe and Ann Orto Liggio located a single record of P. lacera for Texas, made by Donovan and Helen Correll in an “open woodland” in Bowie County. At the time their book was published, there were no other documented occurrences in the state. It has since been discovered in a high quality Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie remnant in northeast Texas. After hours of searching, I practically jumped for joy when I finally located one in a microtopographical swale within the prairie, growing alongside the basal flowers of Rudbeckia maxima, spent blooms of Calopogon oklahomensis, Sporobolus silveanus, and a variety of sedges.

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Platanthera lacera in a high quality Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie remnant in Lamar County, Texas.

I spent a very long time photographing this orchid, as to my knowledge there are only a handful of individuals that have seen it blooming in Texas.  I tried to capture it from every angle, and in a variety of lighting situations.  Of course, after I had spent two hours one evening and another two hours the next morning before finally locating one, when I returned with Caro to show her, she spotted another in a completely different area on the prairie within minutes of arriving.

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Backlit Platanthera lacera. The prairie can be seen reflected upside down in the largest water droplet.

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Platanthera lacera laden with early morning dew.

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Platanthera lacera with slight side-lighting from a sun softened by a thin veil of clouds.

Silveus’ Dropseed Prairies harbor many other rare plants not mentioned here, including the only record of Penstemon oklahomensis for Texas, swales full of the globally imperiled Schoenolirion wrightii, and the most robust Calopogon oklahomensis populations in the state.  The presence of such rare, diverse plant communities and the rapid destruction and degradation of prairie remnants throughout Texas and the rest of the country highlight the need to protect what little remains of this vulnerable community.  Fortunately, dedicated conservation professionals have been hard at work, and The Native Prairies Association of Texas and The Nature Conservancy in Texas have succeeded in protecting several important remnants of these special prairies.  Please click on the names of these organizations above to find out how you can help protect the prairie that is so important for biodiversity, environmental services, and the natural heritage of Texas.

Among the Reeds, Muck, and Mire

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Ghost of the Saltmarsh – the Clapper Rail

It stank – the mud into which I sank to my knees emitted a lovely odor akin to a fridge full of rotten eggs.  The sun had barely risen early that June morning, and the heat and humidity in that marsh near Sabine Pass in Jefferson County, Texas were already oppressive.  The deerflies too, were wide awake and busily seeking out any patch of skin left exposed to the elements.  Sure, it sounds miserable, but these irritants and inconveniences are just one small part of the story.

I stopped moving a moment to catch my breath.  The marsh is as flat as a pancake, but traversing it is grueling work.  Stepping up and over mud and densely tangled grasses and sedges takes its toll.  The break afforded me the opportunity to really take in my surroundings.  Seaside dragonlets, no longer startled by my movements, landed all around me, coming to rest atop swaying blades of grass swaying in the breeze.  My ears honed in to the distance buzzy songs of Seaside Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Boat-tailed Grackles.  And then I was haunted by the ghost of the marsh.  The loud, unsettling cacophony of “keks” and “grunts” from a pair of Clapper Rails rang out within just a few feet of me.  But try as I might, I was unable to catch even a fleeting glimpse of these highly secretive marsh dwellers.


 

I understand that the saltmarsh isn’t for everyone.  It is a harsh, unforgiving, seemingly inhospitable landscape.  But for those who brave her less appealing attributes will find a wonderful world filled with beauty, biodiversity, and a host of plant and animal species that are found nowhere else on earth.  In Texas, these special places are restricted to a narrow band of tidally influenced wetlands along the coast.  They are declining and under threat from sea level rise, coastal development, and a suite of other pressures.  This is their story.

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Low Marsh along the Upper Texas Coast at Sunset

I have long had an affinity for the saltmarsh.  It is a love affair that began some 15 years ago, when my mom developed a passion for birdwatching and we began visiting sites like Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the upper Texas coast.  After finishing my undergrad I was lucky enough to land a seasonal job conducting bird surveys at Anahuac.  My transects included several areas of expansive saltmarsh deep in the heart of the refuge, in an area rarely accessed by visitors.  One particularly fond memory that sticks out from my time on the refuge is a long trek deep into a Spartina patens high marsh one evening just before dusk.  The refuge biologist invited me along on the annual Whimbrel count, when we tallied thousands of the curve-billed shorebirds as they flew over the marsh from foraging sites in tidal pools and mudflats to some unknown roosting site.  Trudging through the marsh we accidentally flushed a Mottled Duck from her nest, and discussed saltmarsh snakes, diamondback terrapins, and other species that find refuge here among the fetid mud and salty air.

After I finished my Master’s, I had another opportunity to spend a few months in the marsh.  This time in the diverse marshes that filtered the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia.  While there I helped conduct extensive surveys for secretive marsh birds like Seaside Sparrows, Saltmarsh Sparrows, Clapper Rails, and the mythical Black Rail.  The work involved setting out before 4 A.M. and trudging miles through marsh that was like Swiss cheese, with hidden holes that swallow one whole.  It was absolutely miserable, and I look back on my time there with great fondness.

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A Seaside Sparrow in an exposed flat that will flood with the incoming tide.

The coastal marshes of the Texas and the Chesapeake Bay are at the same time similar and different.  They share many of the characteristic plant species like Spartina alterniflora, Spartina patens, Distichlis spicata, Juncus roemerianus, and Iva frutescens.  Even many of the bird species were the same.  Seaside Sparrows (Ammospiza maritima) and Clapper Rails (Rallus crepitans) are present in both, though the subspecies (if such a thing exists) are different.  Other species like the Saltmarsh Sparrow are absent in Texas, and the Diamondback Terrapin, while present in both areas, is much more numerous and readily observed along the Chesapeake Bay on the Delmarva Peninsula.  There were days when I would see hundreds basking and swimming through various bays an inlets, their heads barely peaking above the water’s surface.  In Texas, terrapins remain generally uncommon and highly localized.


 

Back in the marsh in Jefferson County, I heard a Seaside Sparrow singing close.  These remarkable birds are found only in these tidally influenced marshes directly adjacent to the coast.  They range from the southern tip of Texas to Cape Cod and southern New England.  Some eight subspecies are recognized, with one, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow (Ammospiza maritima nigrescens) having become extinct and a number of others that are of conservation concern.  The birds of the upper Texas coast belong to the subspecies (A. m. fisheri), which differs from other subspecies by possessing a combination of buffy coloration on the breast and dark streaking on the back.

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A Seaside Sparrow among the saltgrass on a flat exposed at low tide.

Seaside Sparrows are year round residents in this marsh.  They’re easiest to see in the spring and early summer, when they occasionally poke their heads above the grass in to sing a song of mate acquisition and territory defense.  Mated pairs build their nest in tidal marsh with dense grasses just a few inches above the high tide line, a strategy that helps protect them from predators.  The parents feed the developing chicks a variety of insects and other inveterate prey.

I watched one morning as a pair foraged in a barren sand flat exposed during low tide.  They gleaned flies, grasshoppers, and caterpillars from halophytic (salt-loving) saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) and saltwort (Salicornia bigelovii).  I soon realized that this was a bird as comfortable on the ground as in the air, as I watched them mouse about the sand in a manner more mammalian than avian.  Once they had collected a mouthful of juicy insects, they would fly back into the marsh to feed their growing progeny.  I contemplated trying to find the nest, but feared that by plodding through the dense grass I might destroy it.  I returned to the same spot the following morning, hoping I might spot my friends again, but found the area completely flooded by the incoming tide.

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A Seaside Sparrow peers through the tangle of reeds and rushes that it calls home.

When the June sun gets high in the sky, the Seaside Sparrows and other marsh denizens tend to lay low.  I could hardly blame them, and Caro and I took a page from their book and went to lounge on the beach in Sea Rim State Park.  We had both been feeling the need to get away, and planned a way to do so while remaining socially distant and minimizing our risk of exposure to the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic of 2019-2020.  At Sea Rim we had an entire stretch of beach entirely to ourselves.  As we relaxed in the rolling surf we watched as Least Terns, Royal Terns, and Brown Pelicans fished just offshore.

As the sun drops lower to the horizon, the marsh begins to come to life again.  We returned to the grass jungle, and I found a stretch of marsh that seemed to have a different Seaside Sparrow singing every 100 feet or so.  It was the densest population I had ever observed.  It made me smile, knowing that this fascinating songbird has found a refuge here

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A Seaside Sparrow clings to sedge leaves deep in the marsh

The sparrows literally emerged from the grass as I sat still, watching seaside dragonlets come in to rest at the apices of the marsh grasses.  Seaside dragonlets are tiny dragonflies that are endemic to the saltmarshes of the eastern U.S.  They are one of only a handful of dragonfly species whose aquatic nymphs can survive in saltwater.  I wondered of a sparrow may be quick enough to capture one of these dragonlets, but they seemed preoccupied with much easier prey, like the tiny snails hunkered low in the grass.

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A Seaside Sparrow in a classic pose among the marsh vegetation

As most marsh vegetation is herbaceous and not particularly sturdy, the Seaside Sparrow needs to be creative in how they move about.  I witnessed incredible acrobatic feats as the sparrows hopped among the grass, from blade to blade, and performed the splits numerous times as they sought to stabilize themselves in the breeze.  To me, it seemed such a hard place to live.  But to the Seaside Sparrow it was home, and life was good.

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A Seaside Sparrow demonstrates the acrobat skills necessary to live among the dense and varied vegetation of the marsh

The saltmarsh is generally divided into two sections – low marsh and high marsh.  The low marsh is that area that is flooded daily by the tides.  It is generally only completely exposed during the lowest of tides, and occurs directly adjacent to bays, inlets, and the saline and brackish creeks feed them.  Low marsh is dominated by taller halophytic vegetation, most notably smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora).  As the elevation gradually rises moving inland, the community transitions to high marsh.  High marsh is dominated by species like seameadow cordgrass (Spartina patens) and is inundated infrequently, usually only by the highest of tides.

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The tide rolls in, flooding distant cordgrass low marsh

Some species show a marked preference for one type of marsh over the other.  Clapper Rails (Rallus crepitans), however, may be encountered in both communities, retreating from the incoming tide, and chasing the receding tide in search of crabs and other prey items.  People are often surprised when I tell them that the Clapper Rail is one of my all time favorite birds.  To most they seem drab, awkward, and uninteresting.  Admittedly, part of my fascination for this species is nostalgic, having spent time studying them in the marsh.  But they are also fascinating, enigmatic creatures.  They are at the same time secretive, but not shy, often willing to approach very closely under the cover of marsh grass.  I have also watched them hunt for crabs within mere feet of where I stood watching.

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A Clapper Rail forages in a shallow tidal pool

The marsh explorer will often here, but seldom see the Clapper Rail.  They are highly vocal, communicating internally within family groups, and externally to potential rivals through a series of “keks”, “grunts”, and even “hoots”.  Nicknamed the “ghost of the marsh”, these rails seem to haunt the deep grass with their eerie cacophony, and will often call in the blackness of night.  Spend enough time in the saltmarsh, however, and you will eventually catch a glimpse of one of these cryptic denizens as they dart across a tidal pool or scurry into a mudflat in hot pursuit of a fiddler crab.

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A Clapper Rail provides a rare glimpse in the open, in a small clearing in its otherwise dense saltmarsh home.

There is an interesting relationship between Clapper Rails and King Rails, a very similar closely related species.  The differences between the two are subtle, with King Rails generally having a richer chestnut color on the back and breast and more prominent barring on the flanks, and Clapper Rails having a gray wash to the cheeks.  Individuals seen in the saltmarsh tend to be pure Clapper Rails, while individuals just a few miles inland in the freshwater Marsh tend to be pure King Rails.  There is a broad contact zone, however, in areas where an influx of freshwater dilutes the highly saline sea water forming the brackish marsh.  The rails here, often referred to as “Cling Rails”, are purported to be hybrids, and tend to exhibit characteristics intermediate between the species.

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A Clapper Rail peers from the marsh

Like Seaside Sparrows, Clapper Rails build their nests just above the high tide line.  They are seasonally monogamous, and males and females work together to construct the nest, incubate the eggs, and raise the young.  The young are precocial, meaning they are capable of leaving the nest very quickly after hatching.  Family groups will stay together for some time as the chicks grow and learn to fend for themselves.  I most often see three or four chicks to a group, but in good years with abundant resources they may be capable of raising more.  In leaner years, however, the parents may kill or alienate a part of their brood in order to better provide for the remainder.  I will never forget witnessing this one year, when birding with my parents and a friend we saw a rail pair viciously pecking one of their chicks.  In spite of this, the poor chick kept trying to follow them until finally it was too injured or disheartened to do so, and it was left on its own to die.  This seems so cruel and harsh to us, but in reality it is behavioral adaptation that has evolved in order to ensure that the entire clutch doesn’t die from starvation in a scenario where the parent would be unable to care for them all.

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A Clapper Rail stalks the saltmarsh

As it was for the Seaside Sparrow, the marsh in Jefferson County was literally packed with Clapper Rails, in a density higher than I can recall encountering anywhere prior.  Many don’t realize that Clapper Rails, and other rail species, are actually game birds, and they are legal to hunt.  It was apparently once a popular pursuit in parts of the East Coast, however today interest seems to have waned.  I imagine it is an endeavor seldom pursued due to the difficulty in seeing a rail, let alone getting it to flush to a point that a shot could be made.  Their preference is to run from danger, under deep cover of grass, rather than fly.

Watching a family of Clapper Rails at close range, I came to a realization.  From a human’s vantage point, the marsh seems some exposed environment.  There is little relief from the blazing sun.  However when we see it from the point of view of the animals that live there, it is actually a mysterious world full of shadows that may as well be a forest to them.  Perhaps this is what prompted naturalist William S. Burt to title his book on rails “Shadowbirds”.

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A Clapper Rail calls from the shadows cast by cordgrass.  This haunting sound can often be heard echoing from points unseen, as if it is haunting the marsh

There is much more to the saltmarsh than our feathered friends.  I hoped to capture an image of a diamondback terrapin or saltmarsh snake, however it was not meant to be during my time around Sabine Pass.  The wildflowers, however, proved to be much more obliging subjects.  Mosquito infested saline marshes may not be the first place one would go looking for showy blooms, however there are a number of species endemic to these communities, with others showing a definite preference.

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Borrichia, Distichlis, and Carex in a coastal saltmarsh

Perhaps the most prominent is the sea oxeye daisy (Borrichia frutescens).  This member of the sunflower family (Asteracea) flowers throughout most of the spring and summer.  It ranges along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, and is capable of surviving regular inundation by saltwater.  Like many salt-adapted species it has thick, succulent like leaves.

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Sea Oxeye Daisy

Saltmarsh false foxglove (Agalinis maritima) was also in bloom.  Another salt-loving plants, their distribution is limited to coastal marshes from northeastern Canada into Mexico.  The plants seem dainty, however they are capable of withstanding the nearly constant sea breeze.  The blooms open in the morning and typically close by the early afternoon.

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

Some species, like the seaside gentian (Eustoma exaltatum) are not confined to saltmarsh habitats, but are fully capable of surviving the harsh conditions of the marsh, including highly saline soil, regular influx of tidal waters and extreme temperatures.  The taxonomy of Eustoma is confusing and controversial.  Some consider the species that occurs along the coast to be the same as those occurring further inland in blacklands and other prairie remnants.  Those prairie plants display a markedly different morphology and habitat preference.  The coastal specimens are quite similar, however, to plants in areas with similarly harsh edaphic conditions in parts of West Texas.

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Seaside Gentian

The biologist in me likes to keep up with constantly changing taxonomy of plant and animal species, in part so I can remain relevant in my field.  To the naturalist in me, however, prefers not to get bogged down in the semantics of these taxonomical revisions, and instead focus on the beauty, function, and relevance of the organism in its landscape.

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Seaside Gentian

I have a certain affinity to species endemic to a given community.  There are, however, many other species that are capable of surviving in a variety of habitats.  This highlights the concept of specialists, like the Seaside Sparrow and Clapper Rail, to generalists, like the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus fortificatus).  These handsome flycatchers inhabit a variety of open habitats including marshes, prairie remnants, savannas, fallow fields, forest edges, and areas that were recently cleared or otherwise disturbed.  Generally they choose areas that have some scattered small trees or shrubs nearby, which they select for nest placement.

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Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers leave an impression on those who are fortunate enough to observe them.  Those impressive tail feathers may serve an important function in mate acquisition.  Research on birds with similarly long tails indicates that females are attracted to the males with the longest, gaudiest tails.  As one can imagine, that lengthy caudal plumage can be an encumbrance, and can make a bird more susceptible to predation.  Therefore, males who are able to survive despite this impediment are communicating to females that they are superior quality, and they possess the best genetic material to pass on to the next generation.

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Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Different species exhibit a gradient of habitat tolerance.  Some, like the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) are specialists in a broader sense, showing a preference for wetlands with ample emergent vegetation, but generalists in the sense that they are capable of inhabiting a variety of different wetland types dominated by a variety of different plant species, and are dispersed across a wide range of landscapes.  Perhaps a good term for species that exhibit this type of habitat preference would be “specialist generalist”.

The song of the Red-winged Blackbird is perhaps one of the most familiar sounds of the marsh.  It is at the same time obnoxious and beautiful.  While singing, the males puff out their chests, bow up their wings, and flash those brilliant red and yellow epaulets.

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A male Red-winged Blackbird attempts to impress the fairer sex.

The Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis), too, is a creature of the marsh.  Though they range as far north as the Great Lakes, and are most commonly associated with fresh water marshes, along the coast they can be found in brackish marshes and even low saltmarsh.  The males are identifiable by their forest green crowns and backs.  Seen at close range, they seem so colorful, but when perched among the grasses of the marsh, they become essentially invisible.  

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Least Bittern

This narrative has barely scratched the surface of the biodiversity of the saltmarsh.  It is my hope that my words and images help the reader connect with these special places.  High quality saltmarshes are being lost at an alarming rate.  They are under serious threat from pressures like coastal development and sea level rise.  We must act soon if we are to save these special places, and the diverse plants and animals that call them home.

For my parting shot, I chose this image below of a beautiful Seaside Sparrow among the saltgrass.  Though their overall color scheme is one of browns and greys, there are subtle hints of colors, from the bright yellow of the lore and marginal coverts to the orange mustache.  These good looks combined with their fascinating life history make them one of our great state’s most unique, interesting songbirds.

To the marsh, to the rails and the sparrows, and to the fiddler crabs and the terrapins, I say “farewell, for now.”  But I know it won’t be long before the saltmarsh calls to me again, beckoning me to lose myself among the reeds, muck, and mire.

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Seaside Sparrow

 

 

What Lies Beneath

Target Species: Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

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I’m a little embarrassed that it has taken me all the way into May to check off the first species of 2020 from my list of biodiversity goals, but it was a good one – an ancient leviathan dwelling in the depths of a murky stream meandering through a mature hardwood forest – the old loggerhead – the alligator snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

This story begins in January, with a meeting at my Alma Mater – Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA) in Nacogdoches, Texas.  I met with Dr. Chris Schalk, a herpetologist and ecologist with the Arthur Temple School of Forestry, the department where I obtained my undergrad.  We discussed ways that we may collaborate on topics like road ecology and reducing impacts to wildlife from transportation projects.  I immediately liked Chris, and found him a like-minded individual in many respects.

In the following months we touched base from time to time, and in one of our conversations he mentioned the research being carried out by one of his graduate students, David Rosenbaum.  Chris recounted the start of their field season, during which they captured numerous large alligator snapping turtles.  And much to my delight, he invited me to join them on a future outing.

It may not be surprising to the followers of my blog, but this sort of thing is right up my alley.  One of my most memorable jobs was when I worked a summer as a field tech on an American alligator research project.  Capturing these ancient reptiles was equal parts thrilling, interesting, and rewarding.  The idea to relive that in some small part was an opportunity too good to pass up.

So in late May I met up with David, and field techs Laura and John Michael.  Also along for the day was my good friend and frequent adventure companion, James Childress.  After some brief (socially distant) introductions, we were on our way to the first study site, a tributary to the Angelina River deep in a remote hardwood bottom.

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A creek containing several study sites for David’s research.

Blooming American elderberry lined the banks here, and  the boughs of ancient River Birches and American elms reached out over the water.  From high in the canopy the buzzy trill of a Northern Parula rang out.  A suite of other songbirds also made their presence known, including a Prothonotary Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Summer Tanager, and Acadian Flycatcher.  In the distance we could hear the cackle of a Pileated Woodpecker and the croak of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  It was immediately clear that this site was rich in biodiversity on land and air.  We would soon realized it was equally diverse beneath the water’s surface.

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A Northern Parula sings from a branch overhanging the creek.

For the first year of their study, David and Chris are replicating a survey performed twenty years ago.  When I added the alligator snapping turtle to my list of biodiversity targets, I knew that I would have to think outside the box if I had any hope of photographing one.  This is not a species that one can expect to find by conventional means.  They spend virtually their entire lives at the bottom of streams, rivers, lakes, and deep swamps.  They can stay submerged for nearly an hour, and the only time they can be expected to seen on land are when the females leave the water to lay their eggs, and the rare occasion when an individual disperses to a new water body.  In short, I knew if I wanted to see one, it would have to be trapped.

Fortunately, that was exactly what David, Laura, and John Michael were doing.  They use special partially submerged traps that allow for the turtles to be captured alive and unharmed, and check the traps daily once they’ve been deployed.  I was joining them for the third day of trapping effort at this particular site, which had several traps spaced out along this meandering forest stream.  The first day trapping here they caught six individuals, however the previous day they had caught none, so no one really knew what to expect.

The first trap we checked was empty, save a decent diversity of riverine fishes.  The second did have a turtle.  It was an interesting species, but not the one we were looking for.  Razorback musk turtles occupy similar habitats to alligator snapping turtles, and have been the subject of previous studies by SFA.  I didn’t photograph our first turtle of the day, but was certainly happy to see it.

Soon after the three researchers sank into the chest deep water at the third site, I heard David call out, “We’ve got something big in this one!”  It was a special thing, seeing him reach into the depths and pull out this massive, prehistoric-looking beast.  In that moment I thought of the fascinating ecology of these streams.  Beneath the water exists a diverse world that is unknown and unseen by most.

They pulled the massive turtle to the shore so that they may collect a variety of data, including morphological measurements, images, and blood and tissue samples.  It was determined to be an old female weighing in at nearly forty pounds.  We knew she was old, based on her smooth carapace.  When young, they have three raised ridges with scutes that form triangular peaks.  After years and years of wandering under woody debris lodged in the stream bottom, the shell gradually wears down until, in very old individuals it becomes essentially smooth.

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We knew she was old, but we had no idea how old.  Large turtles can live a very long time.  When collecting those previously mentioned data, David and his team noted that the turtle had a distinctive notch in her shell.  It turned out that she had been captured during the original survey, 20 years ago.  We aren’t sure how large she was at that time, but that information should be available, and I’m very interested to find out!

David’s study will be looking at a variety of aspects related to the ecology of alligator snapping turtles in eastern Texas.  One aspect of his research is very similar to my own master’s thesis – using presence/absence data to determine important variables that can predict for the species’ occurrence.  I really enjoyed chatting with David about his project, and it brought me back to a time when this sort of thing played a much larger role in my life.

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The research being carried out by David and Chris is important.  Alligator snapping turtles populations have declined dramatically, and they are now uncommon or rare throughout much of their range.  Factors influencing this decline include a loss of high quality habitat and over-harvest for its meat, which has long been considered a delicacy.  As a result, they are now protected in many states where they occur, including Texas.  This protected status has not stopped illegal poaching, however, and many animals are still taken this way, or caught on trotlines set callously in their habitat.  Once hooked on these lines, the turtles suffer a slow, agonizing death.

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When initially captured or threatened, the loggerhead generally opens its mouth wide, and will snap at anything that approaches too close to its head.  Believe me when I say, this is a very effective intimidation tactic.  Those jaws slammed shut with bone-crushing force.  Those powerful jaws play a very important role in capturing prey in their murky aquatic habitats.  Alligator snapping turtles have lingual lures – specially adapted tongues shaped like worms that the turtles wriggle about while waiting motionless with their jaws wide open.  When some unsuspecting fish moves into to capture this false worm, the snapper’s mouth slams shut with blinding speed and crushing force.

As impressive as this gaping threat display was, I was really happy to capture images of the gator turtle with her mouth closed, in a more natural looking pose.  We spent a few minutes photographing and admiring this incredible animal.  We then set her near the stream’s edge, and walked as she slowly made her way back into the water and disappeared into the deep.

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Spending time with this modern-day dinosaur was an incredible experience, and I was very grateful for the opportunity to get to know David, Laura, and John Michael and learn more about the important work they’re doing.  It made me nostalgic for my days as a field biologist, but fortunately my current position does provide opportunities to be involved in research, specifically aimed at conservation of wildlife and plant communities related to transportation activities.  I hope to join David and crew again in the field at some point, and very much look forward to what they learn about the ecology and natural history of this keystone species.

Beautiful Birds in Disturbed Places

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Indigo Bunting

Generally speaking, when I set out to explore nature I’m seeking the most pristine places I can find.  These places are ancient – old growth forests with towering trees or virgin prairie on a bed of soil that has never been plowed.  I like to see things the way they may have looked prior to European settlement, and transport myself to a distant, wilder time.

But if I chose to ignore those more disturbed habitats, I would be robbing myself of a wealth of beauty and diversity.  In fact, there are many species that have evolved to take advantage of early successional communities created in the wake of some disturbance.  Historically, these habitats may have formed by a variety of means.  For example, when a massive tree falls in an old growth forest.  Imagine ten tons of timber crashing to the earth.  A tree like this could take out a swath of forest totaling a third of an acre or more, especially if it brings adjacent trees down with it.  This new gap in the canopy would undergo the process of succession, responding much the way a fallow field does when it slowly reverts back to woodland.

The patch of disturbed land could increase significantly in the face of some natural disaster.  A tornado could take out a swath of forest hundreds of feet wide and miles long.  A severe hurricane could level acres of forest near the coast, and a wildfire could remove forest cover on the scale of thousands of acres.

Events like this are particularly important in the eastern United States, where much of the landscape was historically forested.  There existed, however, a multitude of non-forested communities interspersed among the old growth timber.  These included prairie inclusions, barrens, and similar habitats that were kept open by a variety of factors including soil conditions, grazing by American bison, and regular wildfire.  If one of these communities went too long without the introduction of some natural disturbance, it would begin to revert back to forest through the process of succession.

Today, however, the U.S. is far removed from the natural eden it was just a few hundred years ago.  That is not to say, however, that suitable habitat for these disturbance dependent species no longer exists.  Take the Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor), for example.  The “Prairie” in its name is misleading, as this is not a species of prairie or grassland habitats, but rather one of those early successional habitats described above.  They breed throughout much of the eastern U.S., from Maine to east Texas.  Here I most frequently observe them in regenerating pine stands 5 to 10 years after harvest.

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A male Prairie Warbler sings in defense of his territory.

These sites undergo succession much in the way a forest would following some natural clearing event.  First a variety of grasses and forbs will invade.  Soon after the pines will sprout.  Before long, however, the trees will grow to tall, the canopy will close, and the habitat will no longer be suitable for the Prairie Warbler.

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Prairie Warbler

The ephemeral nature of these ever changing habitats means that species like the Prairie Warbler do not have a reliable territory to return to each year, and must seek out new breeding sites once their old territories are no longer suitable.  I speculate that, given a certain element of unpredictability with their preferred habitat, Prairie Warblers, and other disturbance-dependent bird species likely experience local cycles of “boom and bust”, potentially increasing in numbers following large disturbance events, and decreasing as the disturbed areas reach later successional stages.

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A Prairie Warbler forages for invertebrates on a pine sapling.

Another species found in these disturbed habitats is the Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens).  The chat was once considered our largest warbler species, but recent research indicates that is more closely related to blackbirds, and it has been placed in its own family (Icteriidae).  Chats are well known for their loud, varied songs which consist of a variety of raucous warbles, whistles, rattles, and more.  The males perform elaborate courtship displays on the wing, slowly descending in choreographed fashion.

Yellow-breasted Chats can be found throughout much of the contiguous U.S and portions of Mexico and southern Canada.  They are less specific in their habitat preference than prairie warblers, and can be found in a variety of disturbed habitats.  They are easy to hear, but difficult to see, often skulking low in dense vegetation.

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A rare glimpse of a Yellow-breasted Chat in the open.

Unlike the chat, the Painted Buntings (Passerina ciris) maintain a visible presence in their territory, frequently singing from the highest perches available.  These sparrow-sized songbirds are considered by many to be among the most beautiful birds in the country, and they certainly leave a lasting impression on those fortunate enough to encounter them.  I’ll always remember the first one I saw birding with my mom.

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Male Painted Bunting

The Painted Bunting breeds in the south-central states, along the Atlantic coast in the southeast, and portions of northern Mexico.  They can be found in a variety of disturbed habitats, as long as there is some shrub or small tree component.

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A male Painted Bunting sings in defense of its habitat.

Though it lacks the varied color scheme of its cousin the Painted Bunting, the Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) is no less striking.  With its metallic cyan plumage, this is one of my favorite birds to observe in the spring and summer here in the Pineywoods.

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Indigo Bunting Male

Indigo Buntings breed throughout much of the eastern U.S. with a few isolated populations in the southeast.  Though I most often associate this species with disturbed areas, I also frequently observe them in high quality habitats such as mature longleaf pine savannas.  This is not entirely surprising, however, as these once vast longleaf pine forests depend on regular disturbance to maintain an open understory and rich herbaceous layer.

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A male Indigo Bunting sings in the understory of a mature pine savanna.

Another disturbance loving blue beauty is the Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea).  They are quite similar to the Indigos, but can be differentiated by their heavier bill and chestnut wing bars.  To me, the blue of the grosbeak is more cobalt, and the bunting more cyan.

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Male Blue Grosbeak

One might encounter Blue Grosbeaks across the southern and central United States and northern Mexico.  They can be found in a variety of shrubby habitats.  In the eastern U.S. this usually means areas that have undergone some recent or continuing disturbance, however further west this can include mature desert scrub and woodlands.

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When hit with direct sunlight, the Blue Grosbeak’s plumage takes on a metallic sheen.

The image below is of a regenerating pine plantation where I observed Prairie Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chats, Painted Buntings, Indigo Buntings, and Blue Grosbeaks.  Also present in the area were White-eyed Vireos, Northern Cardinals, and Northern Mockingbirds.  In East Texas, Northern Bobwhites may also utilize habitats like this, though they have all but disappeared from the Pineywoods.

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Regenerating Pine Plantation

When a disturbed habitat occurs in close proximity to water, additional bird species may be encountered.  The Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus), for example, inhabits disturbed areas such as marshes, shrublands, forest edge, and riparian areas, and are generally closely associated with water.  Kingbirds are so-named for the voracity with which they defend their territories against intruders of all shapes and sizes.

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Eastern Kingbird

Perhaps our most familiar denizen of wet, disturbed habitats is the Common Yellowthroat – the little masked crusader that announces its presence to the world with its trademark wichity-wichity-wichity song.  Though they can be found away from water, yellowthroats are most commonly associated with weedy or scrubby habitats on the margins of marshes, ponds, and streams.

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A male Common Yellowthroat announcing his presence to would-be competitors. 

The Common Yellowthroat is a member of the Warbler family (Parulidae).  They are widespread in the U.S., Canada, and portions of Mexico.  We are lucky enough to have a few birds present year round in the southern half of the Pineywoods and on the Upper Texas Coast.

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Male Common Yellowthroat

In modern times, areas of significant disturbance have increased dramatically as old growth forest has been cleared to make way for pasture, agriculture, development, and managed timber.  It is clear that having some early and mid successional areas on the landscape is beneficial to biodiversity on a macro scale, however it becomes a concern when this occurs over a large scale, which is too often the case.  They key, like in so many things in life, is moderation.  Fortunately, modern forestry practices have improved dramatically, and programs like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative promote managing the landscape as a patchwork of successional stages.

Despite an increased abundance of disturbed areas across the U.S., many of these bird species remain uncommon and some are declining.  The problem is, disturbance in and of itself is not enough.  The nature, and method of the disturbance is important.  Areas that undergo intensive herbicide or pesticide use, for example, are not suitable breeding sites for birds.  Additionally, areas that are too heavily managed, where woody vegetation is not allowed to reach appropriate heights are similarly unproductive for all but the most generalist of species.

As lovers of biodiversity, it is important that we support and promote best management practices in land disturbing activities, so that we can simultaneously provide a sustainable resource and enhance local biodiversity.

 

 

The Prairies Forever Changed

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Prairie Hyacinth and Prairie Paintbrush bloom in a Fort Worth Prairie remnant 

Imagine, for a moment, that you are standing with your feet firmly planted in the dark soil atop a gentle knoll, surveying an undulating sea of grass that stretches as far as the eye can see.  You are somewhere north of Fort Worth, in a time before the land was forever scarred by asphalt, steel, and an insatiable need to bend the land to meet the will of man.  At a high point, you may be standing only a few feet higher than your surroundings, yet your view is unobstructed.  A lone, gnarled oak or mesquite may stand here or there in defiance of the forces that break any woody invader that tries to set roots in the prairie, and far in the distance a dark line of trees lines a gully that drains the plain.

The sky is darkening and rising columns of clouds in the distance give you pause.  Yet you wonder, for a moment if the faint roar that you hear is the advancing thunder, or the furious poundings of thousands of hooves as a herd of bison takes flight.  The wind hits, borne by the impending storm, and sends the countless wildflowers into motion, creating a kaleidoscopic blur of color.  If you could transport yourself to this place and time, you would be standing in the once vast tallgrass prairie of north-central Texas that served as a southern extension of the Great Plains that fueled and shaped our developing nation.

The truth is, we will never be able to know what these prairies were like prior to European settlement.  We can piece it together to some degree based on the journals of early explorers and settlers, however there were no doubt aspects of the landscape, flora, and fauna that were not captured in what they scribed.  When Anglo cultures first arrived, the landscape had been shaped by centuries of inhabitancy by Caddo, Wichita, Kichai, Osage, and other indigenous tribes.  Though their impact on the land was more harmonious than the people that succeeded them, they helped maintain the open nature of the prairie by setting fire to control vegetation and direct game movements, supplementing the naturally occurring lightning-ignited conflagrations that were common in the region.  Many of the tribes of the region also practiced small-scale agriculture, which would have no doubt altered the nature of the plains.

It has always been a fantasy of mine to experience Texas in these pre-settlement times.  If I could, I would start in Galveston, and make my way north, through the extensive coastal prairies, where the only variation in elevation were minuscule wind-sculpted mima mounds, and a matter of inches resulted in an entirely different cast of plants, and meant the difference between dry and wet feet.  Continuing north, I expect I would watch the timber hugging the larger streams become broader and broader, piercing the prairie until I was immersed in a wet savanna surrounded by towering longleaf pines.  As I hit the Kisatchie Wold, the terrain would change to become rolling, with steep ravines and exposed geologic outcrops.  Here the forests would become diverse, and stratified based on slope position.  I may still encounter a prairie here or there, particularly in the form of a sandstone barren over the Catahoula Formation, or a Blackland inclusion on the Fleming Formation.

As I reach the northeastern corner of the state, the trees would begin to thin again as I transition into the Post Oak Savanna.  In Bowie, Red River, and Lamar Counties I might be lucky enough to break into a silveus dropseed prairie.  It would be interesting to know if certain species that are now exceedingly rare in the state, like Castilleja coccinea, Parthenium integrifolium, and Platanthera lacera were more common then.  Eventually the sandy soils of the post oak would give way to the fertile black clays of the legendary Blackland Prairies.  This narrow band of tallgrass prairie is perhaps the most altered of all of Texas’s ecoregions, forever changed by development, agriculture, and the removal of bison and fire.

It wouldn’t be long before the black clays began to lighten and the influence of chalky limestone became evident.  Scattered trees would begin to return as I entered the eastern Cross Timbers.  My journey through this mingling of prairie and stunted woods would be short-lived as well, and soon I would come to my little knoll in the Fort Worth Prairie, the northern expression of the expansive Grand Prairie, which also contains the Lampasas Cut Plain to the south.

The adventure of this blog begins in the Blackland Prairie of Collin County, above virgin soil in what my friend David Bezanson of the Nature Conservancy calls “the best Blackland Prairie left in Texas.”  These blacklands once stretched 300 miles across the Lonestar State, and occupied over 10 million acres of her surface. They sustained massive herds of bison, prairie chickens, Texas Horned Lizards and numerous other species that have vanished from the region in the face of westward expansion. The black clays that lent the region its name formed as underlying cretaceous marine sediments were broken down through weathering and erosion over millions of years. This resulted in the formation of some of the most fertile lands in the state – lands that were quickly exploited for their richness and within a matter of generations, all but a fortunate handful of sites were forever changed. By most estimates, less than one percent of the historic Blackland Prairie contains soil that has never been broken by the plow. Of those precious remaining places, few are protected and even fewer receive the regular disturbance that they need to thrive.  This was one of those precious few remaining places where one can imagine the way things once were.

On a gray day in mid April, the towering blooms of Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis) reached skyward and brightened the gloom.  Native cultures utilized this striking member of the pea family for a variety of purposes.  Some portions of the plant are toxic, however the roots were used to treat a variety of ailments, including nausea, toothaches, and inflammation.  The milky sap from the roots was also used to make a bluish dye.

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Blackland Prairie with Blue Wild Indigo

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Blue Wild Indigo

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Blue Wild Indigo

The Prairie Penstemons (Penstemon cobaea) were just coming into bloom.  Their showy flowers may reach over 2 inches long and can be various shades of white, pink, and purple.

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Prairie Penstemon

Engelmann’s Daisies (Engelmannia peristenia) were also beginning to unveil this season’s flowers to the pollinating world.  This member of the sunflower family is a classic open country plant of the southern plains, and is still common in prairie remnants and areas that are not too aggressively managed with plows and herbicide.

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Engelmann’s Daisy

Each azure bloom of the Prairie Celestial (Nemastylis geminiflora) lasts only a few hours, opening in late morning and closing by late afternoon.  This member of the iris family is a true prairie gem that must have left an impression on early naturalists visiting the region.

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Prairie Celestial

Just west of the Blackland Prairies lies the Eastern Cross Timbers, where a band of sandy soils supports Eastern Redcedar and a variety of oak species.  Accounts from early settlers to the region indicate that this was not a homogeneous region of timber, but rather a varied landscape with numerous prairie inclusions, savannas, and areas of nearly impenetrable woodland.  Pre-settlement, this woody intrusion into the prairie was short-lived, and west bound travelers would soon reach the Grand Prairie.

The plant and animal species that occurred in the Grand Prairie are similar to those of the blacklands, though certain species are more common in one or the other.  The geology, however, is markedly different.  Chalky limestone substrates are more prevalent in the Grand Prairie, and deep clays are infrequently encountered.

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The Texas Yellowstar (Lindheimera texana) is a species commonly encountered in both the Blackland and Grand Prairies.

Like the Blackland Prairies, the Grand Prairie has been altered almost beyond recognition.  In many areas the prairie here would have stretched from horizon to horizon, and beyond.  Massive herds of bison occurred here, as evidenced by this excerpt from Narrative of an Expedition Across the Great Southwestern Prairies: From Texas to Santa Fé, a work by George Wilkins Kendall with many references to the prairies of north-central Texas:

“I have stood upon a high roll of the prairie, with neither tree nor bush to obstruct the vision in any direction, and seen these animals grazing upon the plain and darkening it at every point. . . . In the distance, as far as the eye could reach, they were seen quietly feeding upon the short prairie grass. .”

The Grand Prairie also marked the western extent of the Pronghorn, a prairie icon now long gone from the region.  Other species, like the Texas Horned Lizard have much more recently disappeared, and some species that are still common, like the Woodhouse’s Toad, show signs that they may be soon to disappear.

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Tharp’s Spiderwort (Tradescantia tharpii) occurs in a small area of the south-central U.S., where it can be found in calcareous prairies.

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Drummond’s Skullcap in a prairie inclusion within the Eastern Cross Timbers.

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A Clearwing Moth (Hemaris sp.) rests on a Prairie Penstemon in a Grand Prairie remnant.

Being from the Pineywoods, I’m used to photographing species that are at the western edge of their range – species typical of the vast deciduous forests of the eastern U.S. In the Grand Prairie, however, a number of species reach the southeastern extent of their range.  One such species is the Purple Locoweed (Oxytropis lambertii) which occurs in the Great Plains and portions of the Rockies.  I first photographed this species over a decade ago in a Moraine Prairie in Rocky Mountain National Park, and I must say it was even more exciting finding them in perfect bloom in the Grand Prairie just three hours from home.

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Purple Locoweed

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Purple Locoweed

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Purple Locoweed in the Grand Prairie

The northern expression of the Grand Prairie is often referred to as the “Fort Worth” prairie and occurs in a relatively narrow band between the Red River to the north and the Brazos River to the south.  These once vast expanses of grass and wildflowers were said to be virtually devoid of woody vegetation, and likely bore a striking resemblance to the stark setting of the Great Plains familiar to most of us.  The “big three” prairie grasses – Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) were prevalent here.  And occurred alongside a diverse host of forbs and other grasses.

In mid-April, vast drifts of Eastern Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia) appeared, like thousands of meteors bearing down on earth spurning pink flames as they clash with the atmosphere.  The prairie-dwelling shooting stars of Texas are bright pink, in contrast to the white they display throughout the majority of their range.  Dodecatheon meadia occurs across much of the eastern U.S., occurring in a variety of habitats over calcium-rich substrates.  They reach the western extent of their range in the prairies of central Texas.

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Eastern Shooting Stars in the Fort Worth Prairie

It is hard to imagine a more photogenic wildflower than an Eastern Shooting Star in prime condition.  But like the meteors that dissipate before they can reach the earth’s surface, their appearance each spring is far too fleeting.  Though uncountable populations have undoubtedly been lost, there are still a few places where one can glimpse the splendor of a meadow with thousands of tiny pink meteors descending into the prairie.

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Eastern Sh

Among the shooting stars were the blooms of a complicated little plant, the Prairie Paintbrush (Castilleja citrina).  This hemiparasitic plant derives some portion of its energy and nutrients from the roots of other plants.  C. citrina is part of a complex of paintbrush species that includes the closely related Purple Paintbrush (Castilleja purpurea) and Lindheimer’s Paintbrush (Castilleja lindheimeri).  In fact, C. citrina and C. lindheimeri were previously considered varieties of C. purpurea, however subtle differences in flower color, plant morphology, and habitat preference has resulted in the designation of distinct species.

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Prairie Paintbrush

There are certain areas, however, where these species occur in close proximity.  In the Fort Worth Prairie, the area separating C. citrina and C. purpurea occurs right along the Wise/Montague County line.  North of this line, nearly all individuals observed are C. citrina, and to the south C. purpurea abounds.  There is a narrow band of hybridization, as evidenced by the variety of colors and shapes in the image below.

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Hybrid Paintbrushes

Just south of this line, however, the Purple Paintbrush paints the prairie.  Seeing the beauty above, it is easy to forget the tumultuous battle occurring below the soil as the roots of the paintbrush wage war on other prairie plants.

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Another charming prairie plant is the Fringed Bluestar (Amsonia ciliata), its blue blooms echoing the sky.  The bluestars’ tubular flowers are pollinated by a variety of moths and butterflies, and migrating hummingbirds.

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Fringed Bluestar

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Fringed Bluestar

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Fringed Bluestar

Though the Fort Worth Prairie is generally flat, topographic relief does occur in the form of cuestas – small hills that rise gradually to one side, and drop off abruptly to the other.  Cuestas are formed as more erodible geologic layers have weathered away, revealing the ends of more durable adjacent layers.  The vegetation varies from the top of the cuesta, down the slope to the bottom due to a variety of factors including soil conditions, moisture levels, and natural fire patterns.

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Looking up at a cuesta in the Fort Worth Prairie.  Historically shielded from fire to a degree, the tops of cuestas were one of the few places in the prairie where woody vegetation could be found.

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It was easy to imagine a massive heard of bison sprawling over distant cuestas

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The rocky prairie at the cuesta’s edge is the perfect place for the Texas Sage (Salvia texana).

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Texas Sage

The rich prairies near the Red River once served as breeding grounds for the Upland Sandpiper.  This once abundant prairie shorebird suffered precipitous declines at the hands of market hunters in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  As their numbers dwindled, so did their habitat, and the bird faced a very bleak future.  Fortunately, conservation laws were enacted early in the twentieth century that put an end to market hunting, and their numbers appear to have been slowly rebounding since.  Despite this, they have still yet to return to much of their former breeding range.  Upland Sandpipers were known to nest in the Fort Worth Prairie in the nineteenth century.  On our visits to the region, Caro and I have seen many during migration during April and May.  I hold out hope that over time, this special prairie bird will again colonize the region.

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Upland Sandpiper in the Fort Worth Prairie during Migration

The beauty of a vast prairie abloom with wildflowers is a thing of pure beauty.  Few species are as showy as the Prairie Hyacinth (Camassia angusta) blooming en masse.  This prairie dweller is a close relative of the more familiar Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), and is best differentiated by bloom time, and the persistent sterile bracts present on C. angusta.

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Scenes like this prairie with thousands of Prairie Hyacinths in bloom provide a glimpse into what once was.

Our journey through the prairies of North-Central Texas ends much as it began, pondering their past, present and future.  Caro and I had spent a few glorious spring days in these prairies, and before we returned to the forests of East Texas, we stopped at one final meadow, adorned with blooming shooting stars.  I made an effort to immerse myself in the moment; to take in all aspects of the prairie:  Her sights – gently swaying hues of pink, green, and brown; Her smells – damp earth and chemical compounds exuding from fragrant leaves; Her sounds – the subtle tune of grass in the breeze and a distant Meadowlark’s song.  Moments like this stir something within me.  They inspire me, and they make me feel a deep connection to the natural world.

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Storm clouds build over a prairie decorated with thousands of shooting stars in bloom.

As I sat there, watching the shooting stars sway in the wind as storm clouds coalesced and darkened the distant sky, I imagined the countless dramas that unfolded over the expanse of this prairie.  I imagined that surely a tornado or two passed over this spot.  It was hard to imagine such a placid place turned deadly by such an awesome force of nature capable of ripping the very grass from the ground.  And though I preferred to dwell on dramas natural in their nature, my mind couldn’t help but wander to those dramas wrought by man.  Like the wanton, systematic elimination of the American Bison – an icon that helped shaped our nation essentially extirpated in a single generation.  And they weren’t alone.  It was hard to miss the disappearance of wolves, bears, and mountan lions.  Less obvious were the prairie chickens that slowly vanished, or the Upland Sandpipers and other migratory birds that became less numerous each summer until one year they simply failed to return.  And we will never what botanical wonders were lost before they could ever be documented.  It was easy to despair and wish for what was once and will never again be.  But it was also easy to hope.  On our prairie tour, Caro and I had seen many incredible things – inspirational results from dedicated conservation efforts; rare plant communities that were thriving; and promising signs that some species that have vanished from our Texas prairies may one day soon return.

If prairies are important to you, as they are to me, please consider donating to conservation organizations like The Native Prairies Association of Texas and The Nature Conservancy in Texas.

Escaping the Quarantine Blues in the Big Thicket

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Cypress – Tupelo Swamp

We are living in strange times.  An invisible invader has infiltrated our society and changed our way of life.  For many the results have been devastating – closed businesses, lost jobs, financial ruin, or in the most unfortunate of cases loss of life and loved ones.  So far Carolina and I have been very fortunate.  We continue to work from home and bought a large stash of toilet paper just before the pandemic hit.

I also consider myself very lucky that the things I love to do have been relatively unaffected.  Stores and bars, sports fields, and event halls have closed down, leaving many to go stir crazy confined to their homes.  Most natural places, however, have remained open in some capacity, and a visit to the more remote of these is by its very nature social distancing.

A couple of weeks ago Caro and I set out to the Big Thicket and embarked on a long day hike to see what spring scenes might await us.  Aside from a couple of fishermen sat, legs dangling off a bridge on drive to the trailhead, we saw not another soul in the woods.  The trail began in a floodplain and gradually rose to a low ridge.  From this higher position we could see where stream scarred the land as it changed its course over millennia.  In these old clay-bottomed oxbow scars, swampy forests of towering Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) and Water Tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) formed.

While discussing the formation of oxbows with Caro, she taught me something new.  I had never given much thought to how these old stream bottom remnants got their names.  Caro informed me that oxbows were named for a u-shaped collar that was placed around the necks of oxen so that they may pull a plough or other heavy load.  Oxbow lakes and sloughs often form in a similar shape as an old stream bend or meander is cut off and the main channel migrates, leaving an empty u-shaped scar to be filled with soil, organic material, water from precipitation, and in the case of these swamps, towering timber.  When dominated by Baldcypress and Water Tupelo, these interesting habitats are often referred to as cypress-tupelo swamps.

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Cypress – Tupelo Swamp

The dark, tannin-stained waters in these swamps are home to a variety of plant and animal species.  We saw a number of Broad-banded Watersnakes cutting through the water, leaving the tiniest of snake wakes.  I imagined that a big ‘ol Alligator Snapping Turtle might be in the deeper reaches of one of these swamps.  A different swamp denizen soon greeted us, however, and as their tiny probosces pierced our skin and drew our blood, we quickly retreated back to the trail on the ridge.

The trail cut through a variety of forest types, including moist, rich woods, and dry sandy uplands.  Blooms were generally scarce, but we did see a few spring wildflowers showing off in the shade.  The White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata) was just coming into bloom.  Also known as the Redring Milkweed, this is one of my favorite local species of milkweed.

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White Milkweed

A bit further down the trail I spotted an unassuming little wildflower on the forest floor.  Despite the humble nature of its blooms, I was excited to find it, for it was a species seldom seen in this part of the country: the Meadow Parsnip (Thaspium trifoliatum).  This member of the carrot family is scarce in Texas, where it can be found in scattered populations in the southeast portion of the state.

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Meadow Parsnip

Further still, and Caro spotted a red toad hopping away from the trail.  Due to its regal appearance and nature, we named this handsome amphibian Rudolfo the Red, Duke of the Big Thicket.  The identity of these East Texas toads is controversial and mysterious.  It is a variable group, and individuals seem to be in some ways intermediate between Bufo woodhousii (Woodhouse’s Toad) and Bufo fowleri (Fowler’s Toad).  They were at one time considered to be Bufo woodhousii,  but it was later postulated that they were in fact a unique species endemic to the West Gulf Coastal Plain of East Texas and western Louisiana: Bufo velatus – the East Texas Toad.  More recent works have put them with the eastern species Bufo fowleri.  It seems there is still some debate and uncertainty as to where, taxonomically speaking, they should be placed.  No matter what their name, they are beautiful, charming creatures.

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Rudolfo the Red

A few miles into our hike, we finally reached our intended destination: one of only a handful of populations of Wild Blue Lupine (Lupinus perennis) left in Texas.  Here they grow in a sandy upland, where pockets of deep sand exist in close proximity to more fertile, loamy soils.  These lovely lupines are peripheral here in Texas, and were likely never common.  Like so many other species, they suffered heavily in the face of development and land use change.

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Wild Blue Lupines

Lupinus perennis was one of my 2017 biodiversity targets, and I found, photographed, and featured it in my blog that year.  They are a beautiful, special part of our state’s natural heritage, and while I take comfort that this population is on protected land.  I can only hope that they continue to brighten the Big Thicket for many generations to come.

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Wild Blue Lupines

In all we would hike close to 7 miles that day.  In addition to the relentless swarms of mosquitoes and previously mentioned herptiles, we saw a Tan Racer, Eastern Coachwhip, and dueling Hooded Warblers.  It was a fine day spent in the woods, and a great way to brighten the generally bleak state of affairs as of late – reminding us that life continues on, and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

A Naturalist’s Journey Top 10

It’s been over three years now, since I first started this blog project.  It started with a goal in mind – to create a list of plants and animals that I wanted to see and photograph, and to document the journey to find them.  It evolved into something more, however, and has been a place to share images from my various forays into the natural world and a therapeutic outlet that gave me a purpose to write.

Along the way the actual list sort of fell to the wayside as new species and natural communities appeared on my radar and my quest for biodiversity broadened.  In these past three years, Carolina and I have been to every corner of the state and have shared more incredible experiences, and encountered more incredible wildflowers, curious creatures, and breath taking vistas than I could ever have imagined.

In honor of reaching 100 posts on “A Naturalist’s Journey”, I decided to share my personal “top 10” posts.  It was no easy task paring these down, but in the end I selected the following based on a variety of factors including diversity, uniqueness, poignancy, and response from readers.  Without further ado, I present the Naturalist’s Journey Top 10.

10. Cure-All

I think this was the first post where my blog really started coming into its own.  It reported on a day filled with rare and medicinal plants, archaeology, and prehistory.

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9. The Meaning of Life (For a Ringed Salamander)

This was perhaps my most personal, and certainly my most philosophical post.  It was well received, and tells the story of a special adventure that elicited an emotional and introspective response.

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8. Back to my Roots: Fun with Bird Photography

This post tells the story of how my good friend James Childress rekindled a passion for wildlife photography, which added another layer of depth to subsequent posts.

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7. An Encounter with a Vanishing Prairie Icon

This post tells the tale of a rare prairie denizen and the adventure we embarked on to find it.  It is a tale of a sad history, but a promising future.

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6. Are we in East Texas or Appalachia

Over four years ago now, Carolina and I were introduced to Susan and Viron.  They introduced us to land that has been in Viron’s family for generations, and contained one of the finest examples of rich calcareous slope forest left in the state.  We have returned every year since to experience spring in this special place.

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5. Spring in the Desert Part 2: The Superbloom.

Many of the scenes I have witnessed since starting this blog have left me awestruck, but none so much as the desert bloom in Big Bend in the spring of 2019.  We timed our visit just right and experienced a diversity of wildflowers beyond what I could have imagined.

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4. Autumn in the Pineywoods

Most years I post a seasonal summary of my outings in the Pineywoods.  The fall of 2018 just happened to be one of the finest in recent memory.

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3. Return to Sky Island

Carolina and I have fallen in love with the Davis Mountains.  There is no better time to visit these sky islands than during the summer monsoons.  When the desert is parched and sweltering, the mountains are cool, lush, and full of life.  In August of 2017 we visited with our friends James and Erin Childress, in what turned out to be one of our most memorable trips to the area to date.

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2. Vernal Pools: The Kingdom of the Amphibians

Amphibians, particularly salamanders, played a huge role in shaping my love for the natural world.  One of my earliest memories was looking under some discarded piles of plywood at a local park in the suburbs of Chicago to find six Eastern Tiger Salamanders.  This sparked a lifelong love for all things that many consider “creepy crawlies”, but I consider beautiful and fascinating.  This post wasn’t describing any particular adventure, but rather the culmination of countless trips searching for amphibians, and countless hours spent learning about their ecology, evolution, and life histories.

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1. An Ode to Longleaf

Like the entry above, my personal number one blog post does not describe a particular day in the field, but rather takes the viewer on a narrative and photographic journey through an imperiled ecosystem that helped to shape the nation, and in doing so all but disappeared.  It is a landscape near and dear to my heart, and through this post I hoped to share just a hint of the incredible beauty and diversity that abounds in the great longleaf pine forests of the southeastern United States.

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Late Winter and Early Spring on the Upper Texas Coast

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American Avocets

Carolina and I have made three separate trips to the Upper Texas Coast year – one each in January, February, and March.  In January we rented an AirBNB in Galveston with our good friends James and Erin Childress.  We’ve really come to like this way of finding accommodation, and have stayed in some great places for very reasonable prices.  But I digress.

The weather was generally gloomy and gray during out visit.  This doesn’t make for a fun trip to the beach, however it’s usually pretty good for photography.  So while Caro and Erin combed the beach, James and I got down on our bellies and started looking for things to point our cameras at.

One of the first subjects was a banded winter-plumaged Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus).  Initially a victim of market hunting, this Federally Threatened species continued to experience significant population declines after the practice was outlawed, as the shorelines it depends on have rapidly disappeared to development.  Thanks to legal protections and various conservation initiatives, populations appear to be slowly rebounding.

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Piping Plover

We were also lucky enough to observe several Long-billed Curlews (Numenius americanus) foraging along the surf.  The beaks on these guys are otherworldly.  They use them to probe tiny burrows in the earth in search of hidden invertebrates.  The curlews are winter residents along the coast.  They nest primarily in shortgrass prairie and meadows in the intermountain west.  Their breeding range barely enters Texas in the extreme northwest corner of the Panhandle, where Caro and I were lucky enough to see them last year.

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Long-billed Curlew

In a remote stretch of undisturbed beach I came upon an avian extravaganza that I won’t soon forget.  Thousands upon thousands of American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana) had congregated on a narrow spit of sand just offshore.  The faintly sweet smell of uric acid greeted my nostrils, and a cacophony of bird chatter filled the air.  To my surprise, they were not wary and allowed a close approach.  I enjoyed playing with various compositions.  I was happy for this rare opportunity to create images that were more artistic than diagnostic.

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American Avocets

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American Avocets

The avocets seemed indifferent to my presence, so I was surprised when through my viewfinder I saw that they all suddenly took flight with a deafening roar of alarm calls.  Surely I hadn’t spooked them.  The culprit responsible soon revealed itself, as a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) shot into the undulating sea of feathers like a bullet.  The falcon worked the avocets, pushing them farther out to see.  Eventually, the avocets returned, but the falcon soon struck again.  The scenario repeated itself several times, yet for all its speed and brawn, the Peregrine was unsuccessful in capturing one of the avocets.  Perhaps with such a huge group of birds moving as one, the confusion is too much and focusing on a single target is too difficult.  Then again, perhaps the raptor wasn’t really hungry, and just felt like messing with the poor shorebirds.

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Peregrine Falcon

The next day we spent the evening exploring the Saltmarsh.  While I was slowly creeping toward some ibises foraging in the incoming tide, I heard James call out “Nelson’s!”  He had found and successfully photographed a Nelson’s Sparrow (Ammodramus nelsoni), an elusive lurker that tends to remain hidden in the grasses.  I was admittedly jealous as I rushed to his location.  We waited for some time, but the sparrow never gave us another clean look, and the best I could manage was a shot through the tangle of saltmarsh grasses.

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Nelson’s Sparrow

I wasn’t aware, but Galveston has a crane festival, of sorts, celebrating the annual return of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) to the island.  We missed the festival, but we were lucky enough to see a number of cranes.  I generally see several large groups of Sandhill Cranes each winter, but have thus far been unsuccessful in obtaining a shot I was happy with. It has been my experience that they are either foraging in a heavily modified pasture or they are too skittish to approach. Last weekend while on a birding trip to the coast we spotted a small group in a little coastal prairie remnant. I was able to utilize dense vine cover along the fence to creep closer to the birds until i reached a gate that I could shoot through. In the end I was happy with my images of this incredibly elegant species.

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Sandhill Crane

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Sandhill Crane

Watching the cranes, I immediately drew similarities to Ornithomimidae, a family of therapod dinosours that bore a striking resemblance to a number of long-legged, long-necked birds. Perhaps the most famous of these are members the genus Gallimimus which were featured in the movie Jurassic Park. Something about the pose I captured below reminded me of those prehistoric creatures.

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Sandhill Crane

Carolina and I returned to Galveston in late February.  While driving through one of my favorite marshes, Caro spotted a little gathering of Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata).  These common yet elusive shorebirds have long been a nemesis of mine.  On their northern breeding grounds they can often be seen displaying in the open from fence posts, shrubs, and other elevated perches.  On their wintering grounds, which include Texas, however, they stay hidden in the grasses of wet prairies, marshlands, and the margins of various water bodies.  95% of my snipe encounters consist of me getting to within 15 feet of the bird and not realizing it until the snipe explodes from the grass and flies off out of reach.

The difficulty of capturing them on film (card?) has drawn me to this species.  After Caro spotted them, I was able to park, and use my truck as a bit of a blind as I got out and crept toward them on my hands and knees. Once I got within range I sat and waited.  I took the image below as one of them began moving about in search of prey. To me, this provides a sense of how I normally see the species (those rare times when they don’t fly off): superbly camouflaged and well hidden among the senescent brown leaves of Distichlis or some other grass species deep in the marsh.

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Wilson’s Snipe

Shortly after I captured the image above, the snipe actually moved out to forage in the open of the mudflat. The light was improving and things were looking good for capturing the snipe image I’ve always dreamed of. Unfortunately due to my position I was unable to get to the angle I wanted, and some vegetation along the ditch was obscuring my view, despite the fact that the bird was out in the open. I captured a few images I was relatively happy with, and then made the foolish mistake of slowly trying to move into a better position. As I did I spooked this snipe as well as several others, who all flew well out of reach behind a fenced pasture.  Satisfied with our snipe encounter, we went to eat at our favorite local restaurant and spent the afternoon at the beach.

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Foraging Wilson’s Snipe

In the evening we returned to find the snipes once more.  I was able to capture a few more images before we pushed deeper into the marsh.

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Wilson’s Snipe

In one of the numerous tidally influenced pools I spotted a pair of Mottled Ducks (Anas fulvigula).  The male was kind enough to pose in the open for a shot that showcased a bit of the surrounding habitat.

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Drake Mottled Duck

Where the marsh met the bay we found a group of White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) coming into breeding plumage.  It’s always a joy watching these goofy wading birds probe their decurved beaks into the mud.

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White Ibis

On the other edge of the marsh, where it met pasture that was once coastal prairie, we spotted a lovely male American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) perched on an old sign post.  It was a lovely way to end a great day on the coast.

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American Kestrel

The next week, Caro and I returned to Galveston.  We saw many birds, but photo opportunities were few and far between.  That is, until we returned to my favorite marsh.  Here a Solitary Sandpiper provided me with some incredible photo ops as it foraged in the shallow brackish water at the marsh edge.  Initially I spotted a Great Yellowlegs in this roadside pool.  I thought I had spooked all the birds in the area when I approached, but shortly after laying in the shallow water of the ditch, this Solitary Sandpiper crept out from behind a big clump of mud, and I watched it forage for nearly an hour.

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Solitary Sandpiper

The Upper Texas Coast is right at the extreme northern end of the wintering range for this species. I only occasionally encounter them, much less frequently than most other shorebirds in the region, so it was a real treat to get such a good photo op. Solitary Sandpipers breed in the taiga and tundra of Canada and Alaska. I read up a bit on the species after photographing it, and learned that it is one of the only shorebirds to nest in trees. Pretty interesting, if you ask me!

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Solitary Sandpiper

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Solitary Sandpiper

The next day we went with my mom to visit Anahuac.  I always enjoy birding with my mom, and the trips I took with her to the coast all those years ago helped to forge my love for birding and coastal ecosystems.  The day was cool and fairly slow, however a notable highlight was observing a pair of Northern Crested Caracaras (Caracara cheriway) near their nest.

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Northern Crested Caracara

Over the past few weeks I spent a lot of time laying in marsh muck, taking in my surroundings.  Coastal marshes, especially the saltmarsh, are magical places.  Among the muck, stabbing needlerush, and squadrons of mosquitoes, one can find a unique cast of plant and animal characters that are found nowhere else in the world.  The Mottled Ducks, Solitary Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipes, and other species pictured here share the marsh with Saltmarsh Snakes, Diamondback Terrapins, Seaside Dragonlets, Clapper Rails, Seaside Sparrows, and a whole host of other interesting species.  Northern Harriers and White-tailed Kites patrol the air and hermit and blue crabs scour the shallows. In my book, that makes for pretty good company.