Birds and Blooms along the Upper Texas Coast

IMG_8222

Reddish Egret

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

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

IMG_8026

American Avocets

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

IMG_8183

Semipalmated Plover

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

IMG_8069

Reddish Egret Hunting

img_8093

Reddish Egret Hunting

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

IMG_7814

Ruddy Turnstone

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

IMG_7944

Least Tern

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

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

IMG_8312

Texas Pinkroot

IMG_8364

Texas Pinkroot

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

IMG_8541

Aquatic Milkweed

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

IMG_8456

Purple Gallinule

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

IMG_9246a

Willet

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

Rubber Duckies in the Longleaf

IMG_4486

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

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

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

Brown-headed_Nuthatch-rangemap

Brown-headed Nuthatch Range (Image from Wikipedia)

1024px-Pinus_palustris_range_map

Longleaf Pine Range (Image from Wikipedia)

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

IMG_4267

A Brown-headed Nuthatch peers from its cavity

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

IMG_4359a

Brown-headed Nuthatch

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

IMG_4379

Brown-headed Nuthatch

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

IMG_4492

Brown-headed Nuthatch

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

Beach Tigers

Target Species: Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle (Habroscelimorpha dorsalis)

IMG_1363

A Tiger’s World – Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle

Sunday, August 5

I didn’t know what to expect, as we set out toward the coast.  We woke up late this morning, and I had no plans save to relax after a weekend of chores.  Carolina, however, had other plans, and presented me with an interesting idea.  She wanted to head down to explore the coast where Texas and Louisiana meet.  Outside a couple spring birding trips to the area over a decade ago, I had spent little time in that area, so I jumped at the idea.  By 11 am we were off.

This stretch of beach is actually the closest to our home, yet we always opt for the more obvious choice of Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.  The skies were gray as we made our way south on the Big Thicket National Preserve Parkway.  Just south of Woodville it began to rain, hard.  We wondered if this spur the moment trip would turn into a bust.  It rained almost until Beaumont, but stopped shortly after.  The storm left in its wake a thin veil of wispy clouds that dulled the sun’s rays.

We first made our way into southwestern Louisiana, and as we crossed Sabine Lake, a vast swath of coastal marsh came into view.  It was a beautiful thing to see, as Tricolored Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, Black-necked Stilts, and a wary Clapper Rail patrolled the roadside ditches.  We passed an American Alligator resting haphazardly a few feet from the shoulder of the roadway.  Before long we found a secluded stretch of beach and decided to sink our toes into the sand.

The coarse chatter of Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls filled the air as we scoured the beach.  I had no expectations for the day’s adventure, but that soon changed, when I saw a series of tiny blurs scatter before me.  There, where the gentle surf lapped at the sandy shore, I spied the Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle (Habroscelimorpha dorsalis).  This was a species on my list of biodiversity goals, and I came across it by the pure luck and happenstance of a spontaneous trip to the beach.

The first thing that struck me was the sheer number of them.  There were hundreds, the beach was literally crawling with them.  This is significant, I should note, as this species is rare and declining throughout its range.  They are dependent on pristine beaches and do not fare well in the face of human disturbance.  The northeastern subspecies (H. dorsalis dorsalis) has become so rare that it has been listed as a Federally Threatened species.

The reason it was so abundant here, I presumed, was that this particular stretch of beach was inaccessible to vehicles, and despite being undisturbed it was not particularly scenic, and therefore likely sees little human traffic.  In fact, we saw no evidence that anyone had been here for some time.

So I set out to photograph these little beach jewels.  Easier said than done.  The beetles were incredibly wary, and I couldn’t get close.  I did get one shot from above (the first image in this blog), which I think really communicates the natural history of this species.  It shows the beetle very small in the frame within a tiny patch of sand, likely no more than a few square feet.  Though seemingly minuscule to us, it is a vast landscape to the tiger.  They live out their entire lives on these tiny beaches, following the water’s edge with the ebb and flow of the tide, voraciously hunting down anything they can get their jaws around.  Even their larvae make their burrows in the sand just beyond the high tide line.

After several frustrating minutes I developed a strategy.  Ideally one would be armed with a 180 or 200mm macro lens and extension tubes to photograph such a tiny, elusive quarry.  Unfortunately I was only armed with a 100mm macro.  This meant I had to get close.  Very close – within a foot to capture the kind of image I was after. At first I tried belly crawling toward them, a strategy I have successfully used with other tigers.  They weren’t having it.  Any movement whatsoever sent them scattering.

They were so abundant here, that I thought to myself, what if I just lie in wait.  So I did.  Eventually they became somewhat accustomed to my presence.  If I could find a distant beetle moving in my direction and set it in my viewfinder, I could slowly change my focus as it moved closer and closer.  And so I had solved the problem of how to get close.  But before I could celebrate my victory, another problem presented itself.  On their endless pursuit of prey, they are constantly scurrying.  Tiger Beetles are, in fact, among the fastest organisms on the planet with respect to their body size.  I have read that they have to stop every second or so in order to reassess their surroundings, as they move so fast that they have trouble seeing the world around them when in motion.

But when they do stop, it is only for the briefest of milliseconds.  Not much time for me to adjust my focus.  And when shooting macro at this scale, focus is everything.  The beetles’ eyes and jaws need to be in focus to draw the viewer in.  So I ended up with dozens of shots that were just slightly blurred or had the focus just behind the eyes.  I was frustrated.  Then I saw a beetle that was moving much more slowly, stopping more frequently, and for longer.  And as luck would have it, it was coming my way.  Ecstatic, I fired away and captured a few shots in good focus.  It was only after I processed the image that I noticed it was missing the tarsus on one leg and had a large grain of sand on its mandibles.

IMG_1477

Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle

Though this hardened veteran of the Louisiana shore was interesting, it was not the image I was hoping for.  It’s hard to complain, however, when spending a day surrounded by such rare natural wonders.  I was getting nowhere fast with my efforts to photograph these beetles, so we spent some time combing the beach and swimming in the Gulf (despite the numerous warnings about bacteria levels).

That evening we crossed back into Texas and made our way to Sea Rim State Park.  Before heading back to the beach, we explored some of the surrounding marshlands.  Here we found a few Carolina Wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum) plants in bloom.  This halophytic (salt-loving) species occurs primarily along the coast of the southeastern U.S., with some inland populations in parts of Texas and Mexico.

IMG_1613

Carolina Wolfberry

The scattered pools in the saltmarsh were flush with bird activity.  I set my sights on a group of Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) and laid on my side at the marsh’s edge.  The light was fading and the mosquitoes were relentless (seriously).  But I endured this discomfort to try to capture some images of these bizarre shorebirds.

IMG_1706a

Black-necked Stilts

As I was photographing a distant group, a very vocal stilt flew in and landed close, apparently oblivious to my presence.  I was able to capture a few images before it wandered off to join the others.

IMG_1750ab

Black-necked Stilt

IMG_1766a

Black-necked Stilt

After photographing the stilts we went back to the beach, and I reveled in my own insignificance as I looked out onto the swaying waters of the Gulf.  We took to the water and enjoyed the day’s transition into dusk.  We then drove home, guided by the yellow lights of oil refineries that dotted the horizon like distant cities.  A sign of the times, I thought.

Friday, August 10

I still had tiger beetles on the brain as we made our way to Houston on this morning.  We had a meeting in the city, and had decided that afterward we would spend the remainder of the weekend on the coast.  After the meeting we drove to Port Arthur, checked into our hotel, and made our way back into Louisiana.  It was late afternoon when we arrived, and I was excited to once again try my luck photographing the beach tigers.

I laid down to try my proven technique once more, and soon encountered another problem.  While it was cloudy on my first attempt, today was sunny, and my head cast a broad shadow directly in front of me.  So now I had a narrow band of light on either side of the shadow that wouldn’t be too harsh or directional for photography.  I could have alternately tried to set up a flash system, but I decided instead to see if I could capture some images in natural light.

I had read that mating in the Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle typically occurred in the late afternoon and early evening.  It has been my experience that copulating beetles are much easier to approach, so I hoped I may be able to come across a mating pair.  After many failed attempts at single beetles I did find a coupled pair.  I managed to get a bit closer before the female finally shook the male off and they both scattered.

We spent the rest of the evening exploring the beach, the marsh, and a handful of scattered woodlots that no doubt hosted thousands of Neotropical migrant songbirds in the Spring.  On our drive back to the hotel the night sky was again interrupted with the distant lights of refineries, lighting up the night sky like dull orange stars.

IMG_2063

Copulating Eastern Beach Tiger Beetles

Saturday, August 11

Today we slept in a bit.  We spent the morning exploring the area around Port Arthur, and taking in the devastating toll that Harvey had on the residents of the region.  Such hurricanes, while undeniably tragic, are a normal occurrence which helped shape the natural communities of the coast. These systems evolved under the periodic disturbance of these strong storms.  This was evident as we drove through McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, where the marsh looked as vibrant and healthy as ever.  I wondered how the tiger beetles weathered the storm, for their population certainly seemed as robust as ever.  Perhaps they too benefit from the storm’s aftermath in some way.

After exploring McFaddin and catching up with a friend from College who works the Chenier Plain Wildlife Refuge Complex, Caro and I made our way to Sea Rim.  Here driving is permitted on the beach, and I struggled to find beetles.  In fact, the only place where I found them abundant was in a small football field sized area closed off to vehicular traffic.  Here I found a few Habroscelamorpha dorsalis and several Coastal Tiger Beetles (Ellipsoptera hamata).  E. hamata is much larger and more approachable than H. dorsalis.  I found that my belly crawl technique worked well with them, and I managed to capture a few images.

IMG_2142a

Coastal Tiger Beetle

E. hamata occupies a broader range of habitats than H. dorsalis, occuring further into the dune and swale complex and salt flats adjacent to the beach.  The pattern of the maculations on their elytra are intricate and breath-taking when viewed close.  I watched them through my viewfinder, and smiled as the relentless Gulf breeze blew their antennae like errant strands of hair.

IMG_2149

Coastal Tiger Beetle

As the sun drew nearer to the horizon we set out to try our luck once more with the comically proportioned Black-necked Stilts.  Stilts have the longest legs relative to body size of any bird native to North America.  They can be found year-round on the Texas Coast.

IMG_2180a

Black-necked Stilt

IMG_2197

Black-necked Stilt

We returned to the beach when the sun was all but gone and the mosquitoes of the marsh had drank their fill.  We laid in the shallow water and watch as dusk painted the world.  The sand, the sky, the water, it all appeared the same hue of dull pink for a brief moment in time.  It was a fine end to a fine day.

Sunday, August 12

My original plan was to wake very early this morning and head out to the Marsh to capture some images as day broke.  The pillow had other plans for me, however, and we slept in until around 8:00.  I felt better as I looked out the window to gray skies.  The plan was to head back to southwest Louisiana for one last effort to photograph the Beach Tiger Beetle.  I still hadn’t captured “the one” – the image I was after.

It was still overcast when we arrived at the beach.  The Beach Morning Glory (Ipomoea imperati) was open.  These large, showy blooms open early and wither by mid day.   It is a plant adapted to the harsh conditions of the beach, and is primarily restricted to the sandy complex of dunes and swales adjacent to the shore.

IMG_2319

Beach Morning Glory

As I was made my way down the beach I caught site of the slightest hint of movement.  It was a juvenile Atlantic Ghost Crab (Ocypode quadrata)!  It scurried across the sand like a wispy cloud moving against a background of gray.  I had long wanted to photograph this ethereal beach dweller, but despite having seen many large adults, I could never quite get close enough for a good shot.  This juvenile, however, allowed me to approach close enough to capture it with my macro lens.

IMG_2342

Atlantic Ghost Crab

IMG_2360

Atlantic Ghost Crab

Satisfied with my Decapodean encounter, I moved to the water’s edge, where the Eastern Beach Tiger Beetles were hard at work, hunting and scavenging along the miniature wrack of shells and debris.  The light was good, and I settled in with my camera in hand.  Watching these remarkable insects through the viewfinder offered me a rare chance to capture a glimpse into their miniature world.  The subspecies in Louisiana and Texas is H. dorsalis venusta.  It is the smallest, and most boldly patterned of the H. dorsalis subspecies.

IMG_2391

Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle

It wasn’t long before they came scurrying in.  However, once again I found my 100mm macro to be a bit too short.  Capturing that perfect image was further complicated as I noticed that most beetles were thermoregulating in the relatively cool morning, keeping their bodies close to the ground wherever they stopped.  Not one to be dissuaded, I set out to make my best of the situation.  Unfortunately my camera had other things in mind, and as I was reviewing images I began to receive error messages from my card and camera.  Something was wrong, and several of the images had not recorded.

IMG_2416b

Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle

By this point my frustration had got the better of me, and I wondered if I just simply was not meant to photograph this beetle!  I went right away to download the images, and fortunately I was able to recover some of them.  In the end, the images I have included in this blog were the best I was able to get.  And while they may not be exactly what I had hoped for, I was happy with them.  I have since changed the card in my camera and it seems to be working fine.

With that, we left the beach and made our way north through western Louisiana.  The marsh in this part of the country is spectacular, and in some areas we could see a seemingly endless expanse of wetland grasses, sedges, and rushes.  I admired the subtle change in color and texture as broad stretches of Spartina grass were broken by pockets of Black Needlerush.  Eventually the marsh changed from saltmarsh to brackish to freshwater.  Before long we glimpsed our first oak trees, followed shortly by stunted pines.  And just like that, we were back in the Pineywoods, albeit the Louisiana side of things.

Tiger beetles are fascinating creatures, and photographing them can easily become an obsession.  Being so focused on getting the shot can sometime cause me to lose sight of the experience of being present in a place and moment of time.  Interestingly enough, however, by setting my lens on these bejeweled predators I was able to catch a unique glimpse into their captivating lives.  I watched as they stalked down and pounced on tiny flies, excavated burrows in search of some invertebrate prey, and tracked down mates.  Indeed, I can see myself returning at some point in the not too distant future to visit these voracious miniature tigers again.

Wandering through the Cross Timbers and Prairies: Part II

IMG_7409

Narrow-leaved Purple Coneflower

What a difference two weeks can make.  It was just over two weeks after our first visit in late April when we again made our way to the Cross Timbers and Prairies.  What we found was an almost entirely different cast of floral characters.  Little more than basal rosettes and fruit-bearing stems remained of the shooting stars.  The cactus blooms were all faded, the buds we had seen during the previous trip had already opened and withered.  It must have been the week between our visits.

Before I continue, per request, I’m providing a map of the Ecoregions of Texas.  I’m sharing the EPA ecoregion map, as it is slightly more nuanced and shows more of the areas I discuss in this two part series about the Cross Timbers and Prairies.  The map is too detailed to post here, so click the link below to see just where in the Lonestar State this region can be found.

EPA Ecoregions

Coneflowers (genus Echinacea) are some of those iconic plants whose name conjures images of the prairie.  They certainly stole the show in the Grand Prairie in mid may.  Here the dominant species was the Narrow-leaved Purple Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia).  This characteristic species of the Great Plains reaches the southern extent of its range in central Texas.

IMG_7322

Narrow-leaved Purple Coneflower

Perhaps the most abundant wildflower of this trip was the Green Antelopehorn (Asclepias asperula).  This unique milkweed was blooming throughout the prairie, within the maintained right-of-ways of roadways and utilities, and even in many yards in the area.  Despite its ubiquity, it is undeniably beautiful and unique, and was a welcomed sight throughout the trip.

IMG_7224

Green Antelopehorns

A. asperula is primarily western in its distribution, occurring in more arid regions of the Great Plains, Southwest, and Intermountain West.  It approaches the eastern extent of its range in central Texas.  Here it overlaps with the more characteristically central and eastern Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridis) in many areas.  The antelopehorns are easily distinguished by their narrow leaves and tight flower clusters.

IMG_7423

Green Antelopehorns

While driving through the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands I noticed a blooming rosebush.  It took some time to key it out, but I was able to identify it as the Climbing Prairie Rose (Rosa setigera) by the glandular pubescence on the flower buds.  This is one of a few species of rose that area native to Texas, and it was a treat finding it in a county where it had not been previously vouchered.

IMG_7463

Climbing Prairie Rose

IMG_7458

Climbing Prairie Rose

Growing low to the ground was the Snake Herb (Dyschoriste linearis).  This pretty little forb was everywhere, often tucked away and obscured by some more prominent plant.

IMG_7467

Snake Herb

Also growing close to the ground was the Trailing Krameria (Krameria lanceolata).  I always enjoy seeing this species, with its orchid-like blooms and spiny fruit which has caused me to utter an expletive or two while sitting, kneeling, or resting my hand on it.

IMG_7489

Trailing Krameria

Another species I was excited to see was the Star Milkvine (Matelea biflora), a member of the milkweed family whose distribution is limited to Texas, Oklahoma, and possibly northern Mexico.

IMG_7504

Star Milkvine

Satisfied with our finds in the Grand Prairie, we opted to head into the Eastern Cross Timbers and Prairies, where we found a more typical mosaic of oak woodlands and prairie openings.  Here I found a plant that is not often observed in Texas: the Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida).  Though elsewhere in its range the may show tinges of purple, the ray florets of Texas individuals are typically pure white.  Other species of Echinacea in the state, most notably Echinacea sanguinea in East Texas are often misidentified as E. pallida, but true E. pallida is quite rare in Texas.  It can be differentiated from other species of its genus in the area by its white pollen.

IMG_7577

Pale Purple Coneflower

The idyllic meadow where Pale Purple Coneflower bloomed was the perfect way to end the second leg of our Cross Timbers adventure.  Though I’m not a native Texan, the more I get to know the Lonestar State, the more captivated I become with its biodiversity and staggering array of landscapes.  I have spent most of my adult life exploring it, and I have still barely scratched the surface.  I don’t pretend to know the meaning of life, but perhaps we all make our own meaning.  And as I drove left the Cross Timbers behind, traversed the Blackland Prairie and Post Oak Savannah, and returned home to the Pineywoods, I was never more confident that the meaning of my time here is to document the beauty and diversity of Texas, and beyond, so that just maybe I might spark in another some semblance of the passion, love, and awe I feel for the natural world.

IMG_7596

Coneflower Meadow

Wandering through the Cross Timbers and Prairies: Part I

IMG_5938

Remnant Chalk Prairie

I must admit, the Pineywoods have always felt like a priority.  Beneath the towering trees is where I feel most at home.  It makes sense, of course, as it is my backyard.  It is where I spent my youth exploring, learning, developing as a naturalist.  But as more time passed, and I gained the means to do so, I came to realize that I didn’t have to limit myself so close to home.  In other words, what if my backyard were to get a lot bigger?

So I started branching out.  Carolina and I made occasional forays to the Edwards Plateau, to South Texas, to West Texas.  There remained one ecosystem, however, that I had left woefully unexplored – the vast prairies that dominated the northern part of the state.  I don’t mean the fingers of Blackland that reach into the Pineywoods, or the vanishing coastal prairies that I fought hard to protect years ago.  I longed to see seemingly endless expanses of prairie, with grasses and wildflowers stretching as far as the eye could see.  Places with names like “Grand Prairie”, that conjured up images of a land spectacular for its desolation, where trees would not hide the sun on its daily journey from horizon to horizon.  As is the story with so much of the state, such places have become rare.  Rare – but not lost.

So in late April Carolina and I decided to set out to explore this foreign land.  Being obsessed with our states natural history, many of the plants and communities we would encounter were already familiar to me.  We made our acquaintance over countless hours spent pouring over field guides, natural history books, inventories, and scientific papers.  But this would be my first time encountering so many of them in the flesh, so to speak.

We began our journey near the southern reaches of the Cross Timbers and Prairies, near where the Lampasas Cut Plains reach their northern extent.  Here we found remnant chalk prairies, some extensive with bare limestone outcrops and a bizarre flora that I was not accustomed to.  Perhaps the most prominent resident this time of year was the Purple Paintbrush (Castilleja purpurea).

IMG_5903

Purple Paintbrush

The dazzling array of color and diversity of plants on the chalk prairies was awe-inspiring.  Below the stately Prairie Penstemon (Penstemon cobaea) can be seen towering above Purple Paintbrush and Engelmann’s Sage (Salvia engelmannii).  The latter is a Texas endemic.

IMG_5913

Prairie View

We stayed in this special place as dusk took hold over the land and the moon shone in the skies above.

IMG_5954

Moon over the Prairie

We left as darkness enveloped the land and drove north into the heart of the Grand Prairie.  I had hoped that we might catch a glimpse of some crawling or slithering thing in the road in front of us, but the hour-long drive was uneventful.  We found a base of operations in a hotel in Decatur.  The next morning I rose an hour before dawn and as Caro caught some extra sleep I set out to try to capture some images in the early morning light.  Before the sun crested the horizon I captured the image below of Purple Paintbrush and Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia caespitosa) in bud.

IMG_5982

Purple Paintbrush

I had no pre-conceived image that I was out to capture that morning; instead I planned to let my eyes wander, and hoped that the scene might present itself.  I enjoy this sort of photography, and it takes me back to part of what hooked me on photography in the first place.  These days I seem to always have a shot in mind, or some target that I’m seeking.  Sometimes it’s enjoyable to let the image find me for a change.  And so this large group of Missouri Evening Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) called to me, and I photographed them as the sun crested the horizon.  This classic prairie wildflower has huge flowers, and equally impressive fruits, which I unfortunately did not photograph.

IMG_5990

Missouri Evening Primrose – Chasing the Sun

As the sun rose higher into the morning sky I returned to the hotel.  After breakfast, Caro and I set out to explore the Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) National Grassland.  Akin to the National Forests of East Texas, LBJ Grassland set aside parcels for multiple uses by the public.  Much of the area is suffering from the typical array of factors that result in the ecological degradation of prairies – encroachment by woody species due to a lack of cyclical disturbance such as grazing and fire – but we did find some areas where the prairie was still thriving.  It was in one such recently burned area that I caught a flash of pink.  It was a species I was very much hoping to see – the Eastern Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia).

IMG_6092

Eastern Shooting Star

As we explored the LBJ, we noticed several exposed limestone ridges.  It was here, I hoped, that I might find the Grooved Nipple Cactus (Coryphantha sulcata) and Beehive Cactus (Escobaria vivipara) in bloom.  While we were successful in finding both species, their fleeting flowers eluded us.  We were, however, rewarded with a fine consolation prize: several Missouri Foxtail Cacti (Escobaria missouriensis) in bloom.

IMG_6310

Missouri Foxtail Cactus

IMG_6326

Missouri Foxtail Cactus

As the sun sank once more toward the horizon, we found ourselves on a high grassy ridge that overlooked a series of eroded canyons.  Here we found a large population of Nuttall’s Death Camas (Toxicoscordion nuttallii).  This species was on my 2017 list, and while I did find and photograph one individual the previous year, I found this prairie to yield a far more satisfying photographic experience.

IMG_6420

Nuttall’s Death Camas

IMG_6383

Nuttall’s Death Camas

Descending from the high ridge, we entered the fertile valley below.  Here we found interesting prairie plants like Buffalo Pea (Pediomelum cuspidatum) and Wright’s Skull Cap (Scutellaria wrightii).

IMG_6468

Buffalo Pea

IMG_6512

Buffalo Pea

As the sun retreated for the day, I returned to the ridge to capture some landscape images of the Nuttall’s Death Camas in the pink light of dusk.  It was a beautiful scene, which we breathed in under the darkening sky.

IMG_6553a

Death Comes to the Prairie

The next morning we rose early and pushed north toward the Red River, and deeper into the Grand Prairie.  As we were admiring the gently rolling terrain andorned with a mingling of prairie and woodland, a flash of pink once again caught my eye.  It was another group of Eastern Shooting Stars!  The Eastern Shooting Star is a species of open woodlands, glades, and prairie remnants in the eastern and central U.S. It reaches the southwestern extent of its range in the prairies and woodland openings of central Texas. Elsewhere in its range the blooms may be white, but in the Cross Timbers and Prairies they are deep pink.  In the Lonestar State, the Eastern Shooting Star occurs in remnant prairies and open woodlands in a few counties in the north-central and northeastern portions of the state, with a few isolated populations in similar habitats in the Edward’s Plateau.  It is among the most photogenic flowers I have ever put my lens on.

IMG_6578

Eastern Shooting Star

IMG_6586

Eastern Shooting Star

IMG_6608

Eastern Shooting Star

IMG_6649

Eastern Shooting Star

IMG_6715

Eastern Shooting Star

Growing near the shoting stars were several groups of Prairie Paintbrush (Castilleja citrina).

IMG_6680

Prairie Paintbrush

It wasn’t long before the sun rose high once again, and we had to be setting out on our return journey to the Pineywoods.  We opted to take a series of remote county roads to get back to the main highway.  All around the birds were active.  Lark Sparrows lined the fence rows while several Upland Sandpipers worked the fields on their northward journey to their breeding grounds.  Windows down, I could hear the incessant buzzy call of the Dickcissel.  I have never seen such a dense population of these grassland songbirds spread out over such a large area.  It seemed like every 100 feet or so a male Dickcissel had staked out his territory and was singing from some shrub or dried remnant of the previous year’s vegetation.  Despite the fairly harsh light, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to capture an image of one of these prairie treasures in full song.

IMG_6917

Dickcissel

Standing in some of these remnant prairies, it wasn’t hard to transport myself back in time.  To a time when the Tawakani and Wichita still made their home here, and vast herds of bison and pronghorn dotted the expansive plain.  In these moments it is easy to become frustrated and depressed at what was lost.  As I looked out at the swaying grass and palette of prairie wildflowers, I chose instead to focus on what we still have and ensure that it, too, does not become a story of what once was.  To learn what you can do to help protect native prairies visit texasprairie.org.

Spring in the Pineywoods

IMG_3303a

Kentucky Lady’s Slippers – A Gift of Spring

As I sit here typing, we are in the height of August, which has the misfortune of traditionally being our most miserable month – at least climatically speaking.  So as the dried grass crunches beneath my feet and my skin bakes under triple digit temperatures, it’s easy to escape back to a day over four months ago.

It was the last day of March.  There was a definite chill in the air as I set out into the forest.  The gray of dawn was made darker by the the canopy of beech and oak towering one hundred feet above my head.  I worried for a moment that I may not see them – my elusive botanical quarry.  But despite the dim light of the understory, the yellow egg-sized blooms of the Kentucky Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium kentuckiense) caught my eye like a beacon sent out to some wayfaring sailor, and drew me to them with a siren’s song of its enigmatic beauty.

A few days prior my friend Peter Loos had called and told me that the slippers were out early this year, a full two weeks early.  He also told me that one population, which typically has only a plant or two in flower, was displaying six perfect blooms this year.  If it weren’t for his call, I would have likely missed out on a very special experience.

The soil was cold and damp as I sat, saturated from a previous day’s rain.  It was still to early for photography, the forest too dark to properly render the color of the scene.  So I sat and waited in the company of the forest.  I admired the slippers and the ferns that grew around them.  I listen to the familiar songs of Red-eyed Vireos, Summer Tanagers and Hooded Warblers, and the distant trill of a Northern Parula.  After some time I could see hints of dappled sun in the highest leaves in the canopy.  The forest grew brighter, its colors warmed.  In this new light I could see distant azalea blooms lining the creek downslope.

I had to pay close attention to the light.  There would only be a brief moment for me to capture the image I was after.  That time when the ambient light early morning sun illuminated the forest, but before its rays penetrated the canopy, casting sun spots and uneven light on the forest floor.  Finally the moment was right, and I captured the image above.

Though the end of March may have been the height of the season, spring itself had begun nearly two months prior, when the first of the spring ephemerals pushed their way through the leaf litter.  Perhaps my favorite of these is the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), so named for the red sap of its roots that has long been used for a wide range of medicinal purposes.  Bloodroot is now rare in Texas, where it hold on in a few remnant patches of mature hardwood forest.

IMG_5185

Bloodroot – An Ode to Spring

Like the Bloodroot, the White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum) is one of our first harbingers of spring.  White Trout Lily can be found throughout the Pineywoods.  Though it is common nowhere, it is more frequently encountered in the northern and western portions of this forested ecoregion.  Elsewhere in the state it can be found in some Post Oak Savannah and Cross Timber woodlands.

IMG_5425

Trout Lily

It is not just the rich woods that experience a flush in early spring activity.  In mid February the wetland pine savannahs of East Texas appear bleak, their grasses turned brown by the short days and biting cold of winter.  But it is in that time that the Woolly Sunbonnet (Chaptalia tomentosa) emerges, opening its blooms in the midday sun.

IMG_4921

Woolly Sunbonnet

Though the forest floor may be coming to life, early spring still finds the trees leafless and dreary.  I captured the haunting scene below as a fog rolled in over the Angelina River on a cold day in mid February.

IMG_4637

The Angelina River looks to be a dismal place in early spring.

Even in early March the forest still seems gripped in winter.  At least from a distance…

IMG_6327

A rare waterfall in one of the last patches of old growth forest in East Texas.

IMG_6344

A small stream flows, fueled by spring rains

But closer examination shows that by early March the forest has come alive.  The scene below was captured at our friends Susan and Viron’s land.  Under their stewardship, a spectacular patch of rich mesic forest has persisted.  Here nearly all of the plants that have become exceedingly rare elsewhere in the states, still thrive.  Their forest contains colonies of Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium rostratum) that cover acres!

IMG_6294

Yellow Trout Lilies – Ephemeral

IMG_6161

Yellow Trout Lilies

Their land is also home to one of only two known populations of False Rue Anemone (Enemion biternatum) in the state.

IMG_6229

False Rue Anemone

Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) flourish here as well.  They are one of our most common spring ephemeral, but that in no way diminishes their beauty.

IMG_6248

Spring Beauty

One of the more unexpected denizens of early spring is the Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris rugata).  Unlike most tiger beetles, which are most active during the summer, the Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle is active in the early spring, and by late May are almost impossible to find.

IMG_6089

Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle

This jewel-like beetle is restricted to eastern Texas, western Louisiana, and extreme southwestern Arkansas and southeastern Louisiana. Here it occurs in areas with vast expanses of bare sand such as xeric sandhills and sand “blowouts” in the Pineywoods and Post Oak Savannah.

IMG_6099

Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle

By mid-March most of the woodlands in the southern Pineywoods had begun to leaf-out.  The scene below was captured in a vast floodplain adjacent Big Sandy Creek in the Big Thicket.

IMG_6062

Vernal

As the freshly emerging leaves hardwoods begin to turn the slopes and floodplains green, a different explosion of color is occurring in a precious few longleaf pine savannahs in the Big Thicket.  At the few sites where it still occurs, the Federally Endangered Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis) reaches peak bloom in mid-March.

IMG_2597

Texas Trailing Phlox

Around the same time, a very different phlox species blooms in the shade American Beech and other hardwoods of rich forested slopes.  Though common throughout much of its range in eastern North America, Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) is rare in Texas.  The combination of pale blue blooms, feathery fern fronds and a gnarly old hornbeam created a scene that seemed like something more suited for a Tolkien novel than the Pineywoods.

IMG_2690

Mirkwood

While we’re on the topic of phlox, one can’t drive the backroads of the Big Thicket without admiring the recently described Texas endemic Big Thicket Phlox (Phlox pulcherrima), a member of the Phlox pilosa complex.

IMG_2734

Big Thicket Phlox

With March in full swing, color was coming to all of the vegetative communities of the Pineywoods.  Wright’s Lily (Schoenolirion wrightii), a rare species of glades and barrens came into bloom over deposits of Catahoula Sandstone.

IMG_2666

Wright’s Lily

And expansive drifts of Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) turned the forest floor blue in this woodland in the northern Pineywoods.

IMG_2625

Rebirth

One afternoon, as we were exploring the longleaf pine savannahs of the Angelina National Forest, Carolina spotted a splash of yellow in the distance.  It turned out to be a small flatwoods pond decorated with the blooms of thousands of Floating Bladderworts (Utricularia radiata).  These plants are carnivorous, and I couldn’t help but think that below the surface was something akin to a minefield for the unfortunate aquatic invertebrates that dwell within.

IMG_2744

Floating Bladderworts – Minefield

Not all of spring’s palate is painted on the forest floor however, and a multitude of trees and shrubs put on an impressive display as they come into flower.  In the picture below White Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) flowers in the foreground while Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) blooms in the distance.

IMG_2764

White Fringetree – Old Man of the Woods

By late March the Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) have taken over the forest floor.  One of my favorite spring ephemerals, Mayapple is still quite easy to find in certain parts of East Texas, unlike so many other species of rich woods that have become increasingly rare.

IMG_2801

Mayapple – Sea of Green

The large umbrella-shaped leaves of Mayapple are actually toxic.  Only the ripe fruit is edible.  The downy white blooms hang beneath the leaves.  Non-blooming plants always sport a single leaf, while those that bloom have two.

IMG_2817

Mayapples

Along the bluffs lining the Angelina River, Carolina and I found a large colony of Wild Comfrey (Cynoglossum virginianum).  These wildflowers, with their downy basal leaves and tiny sky-blue blooms have become quite uncommon in Texas.  They often occur in the company of the Kentucky Lady’s Slipper, and I couldn’t help but wonder of the enigmatic orchid once called these hills home.

IMG_2872

Wild Comfrey Hills

IMG_2925

Wild Comfrey Blooms

Another uncommon species often found in the presence of the lady’s slipper is the Bigleaf Snowbell (Styrax grandifolia).  It’s easy to see how this species gets its common name, as thousands of small white blooms may dangle from its branches in early April.

IMG_3006

Bigleaf Snowbell

In the vast floodplain of the Neches River I spotted a large colony of Eastern Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana), and I stood in the flood waters to photograph its delicate blooms in the evening light.

IMG_3166

Eastern Bluestar

Every spring I look forward to the emergence of the trilliums.  This year I found this large colony of Sabine River Wakerobin (Trillium gracile) in a rich hardwood forest in Sabine County.

IMG_3598

Sabine River Wakerobin

By mid-April many of the spring ephemerals have already faded, and a new cast of floral characters appears on the scene.  Clasping Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) emerges from deep sands and displays its bizarre blooms for all the pollinating world to see.

IMG_5627

Clasping Milkweed

Deep in the forest a very different milkweed was blooming.  By mid April the White (A.K.A Redring) Milkweed was beginning to come into flower.

IMG_5374

White Milkweed

The Zigzag Iris (Iris brevicaulis) can be found on the margins of wetlands in the Pineywoods.

IMG_5309

Zigzag Iris

Flowering Dogwood is one of the most familiar small trees of East Texas.  Lesser known are the other species of dogwood that occur here.  This spring we found several Roughleaf Dogwoods (Cornus drummondii) in bloom along a small stream in Houston County.

IMG_5233

Roughleaf Dogwood

The Rose Pogonia (A.K.A. Snakemouth Orchid) (Pogonia ophioglossoides) is always a crowd-pleaser.  I found several blooming in late April with my friend James Childress in a remote seep on private land.

IMG_4995

Rose Pogonia

One evening in April I received a call from my friend, and author of The Wild Orchids of Texas, Joe Liggio.  He told me that while returning home from a long day of botanizing, he spotted an uncommon wildflower along a remote road in Liberty County.  It was the Foxglove Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis).  Shortly after photographing the plants at Joe’s site, I found it growing in similar remoteness in Sabine County.  This penstemon has a fairly broad distribution in the eastern third of the state, occurring in scattered populations in rich, open woodlands and their margins. There is some debate as to whether it is native outside northeast Texas, while others question whether or not its native to the state at all.  The plants that Joe and I discovered were, in my opinion, unlikely candidates for escapees from cultivation.  This leads me to believe that is in fact native to East Texas.

IMG_4905

Foxglove Penstemon

IMG_4833

Foxglove Penstemon

Also in April, my friend Scott Wahlberg and I visited a site in the Big Thicket where last year I was able to track down Wild Blue Lupine (Lupinus perennis).  I went into some detail on this species in a blog post last year, so I won’t say much here, save to mention it’s striking beauty.

IMG_4621

Wild Blue Lupine

IMG_4758

Wild Blue Lupine

Another species that I pursued last year was the Green Adder’s Mouth (Malaxis unifolia).  Carolina and I found them again this year, and I photographed them to the sound of the thunder of a rapidly approaching storm.

IMG_4331

En-route to photograph the adder’s mouth, we spotted a striking little purple legume flowering alongside the road.  It was a patch of Sampson’s Snakeroot (Orbexilum pedunculatum), a plant I only occasionally encounter in the Pineywoods.

IMG_4307

Sampson’s Snankeroot

Though it’s pushing the limits of late spring and flirting with early summer, late May still has a lot to offer, botanically speaking.  One warm evening in late May, Caro and I drove out to Walker County to photograph the Bush’s Purple Coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa var. neglecta).  This puzzling population was found growing in a calcareous prairie remnant by my friend Eric Keith.  Echinacea paradoxa is a species of coneflower found in the Ozark Plateau and isolated populations in southern Oklahoma and southeast Texas. While typically yellow, E. paradoxa var. neglecta range from pale purple to deep pink.  The population here in southeast Texas is disjunct from other known populations by hundreds of miles.

IMG_7617

So it was that the Spring of 2018 came to a close and gave way to summer.  It was hard to say goodbye to the cool, gray days of Spring, but as a naturalist I find some joy in each of our seasons.  Soon the sun would be blaring, the cicadas would be trilling, and a whole new cast of plants and animals would make themselves known.

The Jewel of the Weches Formation

Target Species: Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus)

IMG_7078

The bad news is that I’ve fallen way behind in my blogging.  The good news, however is that the last few months have been full of incredible experiences in the natural world that I look forward to sharing.  So as we are sweltering under near record heat waves, I will share a few posts from this spring, and reminisce about cooler times.

This first post addresses the third, and unfortunately last species from my list of biodiversity goals that I have checked off this year.  In early May I photographed the spectacular Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus) in East Texas.  This member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) is very rare in Texas, known from only a few sites over the Weches formation in the eastern part of the state.  Here it occurs in a few scattered populations where the iron-rich formation has been exposed.  I learned of this particular population near the Anderson/Henderson County line from my friend Trey Anderson who had found them a few years ago while performing some work in the area.  They occur on a steep exposed hill with a mix of artificial clearings and stunted forest over gravelly Weches substrate.  This soil is extremely rich in iron and it shows in the color of the hillside.

The Weches Formation is part of a broader collection of geologic formations known as the Claiborne Group.  This group also includes the Yegua, Cook Mountain, Sparta, Queen City, and Reklaw Formations.  These occur along with the Weches Formation as a matrix in a broad area that encompasses a narrow band that stretches from Cass, Marion, Harrison, Rusk, Nacogdoches, San Augustine and Sabine Counties in the east along a curve down to Webb and Zapata Counties in South Texas.  (See a map here).

I have previously written a blog post about Weches Glades, a unique vegetative community that occur at a few sites in Nacogdoches, San Augustine, and Sabine Counties.  Streptanthus maculatus once occurred here as well, and can probably still be found at a few existing sites.  Many populations have been lost, however, to land use conversion and extensive glauconite mining.  Elsewhere in its range S. maculatus occurs over similarly iron-rich deposits in eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas.

I was a bit late in seeking these jewels out this year, as most were already spent or in fruit.  The individual pictured was the only one I found in decent shape.  I’m not complaining though, for it gives me something to look forward to next year, and will afford me another visit to the unique, disappearing communities of the Weches Formation.