2019 Highlights in Biodiversity

This year I made only a few dedicated outings to chase targets on my 2017 list of biodiversity goals.  In all I was able to cross seven more species off the list, bringing my total to 52 species photographed out of 80 target species.  This year was definitely about quality over quantity, as I ended up shooting roughly half the images I did in 2018, and a third of what I shot in 2017.  I did, however, end up with some all-time favorite images, visited some truly wild places, and experienced so many wonderful, natural things.

The following are the species I was able to check off my list:

Crawfish Frog (Rana areolata)

Texas Rainbow Cactus (Echinocereus dasyacanthus)

Warnock’s Fishook Cactus (Echinomastus warnockii)

Yellow Rocknettle (Eucnide bartonioides)

Big Bend Bluebonnet (Lupinus havardii)

Creeping Bluestar (Amsonia repens)

White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

2019Goals

Beyond these species I was able to photograph 80 species I had not previously photographed, and capture better images of species I had previously captured through the lens.  What follows are just a few of the highlights.

My year in nature photograph began belly down in the sticky muck of a shallow inlet off Galveston Bay.  I was inching toward a pair of Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) foraging in the shallows.

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Roseate Spoonbill in the shallows of Galveston Bay.

In January I took a couple of trips to a series of Blackland Prairie wetlands in north-central Texas with Carolina and James.  The objective was to photograph wintering waterfowl, and I walked away with images of several species, including this American Wigeon (Anas americana).

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American Wigeon in a Blackland Prairie wetland.

In the late winter and early Spring James and I spent some time chasing songbirds.  The images below are two of my favorites from several days spent in the field with good company.

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A male Pine Warbler perches on a winged elm in a mature pine-hardwood upland forest.

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A Pine Siskin forages on the blooming branches of an Eastern redbud.

In February I visited the Columbia Bottomlands with my pal John Williams.  We ended the day with over 20 snakes including a large, handsome Canebrake Rattlesnake.  My favorite image of the day, however, was this shot of one of the most beautiful beetles in the country, Dicaelus purpuratus.

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Dicaelus purpuratus in the Columbia Bottomlands.

On a whim one rainy night in late February, Carolina and I went out with James and Erin to look for a rare prairie denizen that was recently rediscovered in the Pineywoods by renowned Texas herpetologist Toby Hibbitts and his team.  After thinking them extirpated in the area, it was a thrill to finally hear and see a Southern Crawfish Frog (Rana areolata) less than thirty minutes from my house.

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Southern Crawfish Frog from a prairie remnant in the Pineywoods.

In March, Caro and I took a trip to West Texas to see a purported superbloom in the Big Bend region.  On our way we stopped at the Marathon Grasslands, a special place worth exploring.  Here we saw Black-tailed Prairie Dogs and a small group of Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) led by a large buck in the process of re-growing the keratinous sheath around his horns.

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Pronghorn buck in the Marathon Grasslands.

Further south, in the low desert along the Rio Grande in Black Gap and Big Bend, it appeared that the rumors of a superbloom were true.  Multiple species were blooming in profusion, but the most impressive were the Big Bend Bluebonnets (Lupinus havardii) and the Texas Rainbow Cactus (Echinocereus dasyacanthus).  Below are a few of my favorites from the trip.

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Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap Wildlife Management Area

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

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Big Bend Bluebonnets along the Rio Grande with the Chisos Mountains looming in the distance.

Back in East Texas, Caro and I set out one spring day to admire the Flowering Dogwoods.  During our excursion I found a special fungus that I had long wanted to see in East Texas – the Yellow Morel (Morchella esculenta).

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Yellow Morel in the East Texas Pineywoods.

While looking for rare orchids with my friend Scott, I spotted a blur of movement in the leaf litter of a pine-hardwood upland.  It was a Southern Coal Skink (Plestiodon anthracinus), a species generally uncommon throughout its range and rare and potentially declining in Texas.

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Southern Coal Skink from a pine-hardwood upland in East Texas.

In late April, Caro and I visited some remnant prairies in North-Central Texas.  While I was able to photograph a number of new-to-me species, my favorite image from the trip was of a small prairie remnant loaded with Eastern Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) that I had visited in the past.

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Prairie with Eastern Shooting Star in the Grand Prairie region of North-Central Texas.

On a gloomy May evening Caro and I found ourselves exploring some seldom traveled back roads in Newton County.  We came upon a regenerating clearcut full of bird activity, including a number of male Prairie Warblers (Setophaga discolor) singing on territory.

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Prairie Warbler singing in a regenerating clearcut.

Late one night in May I found a beautiful Regal Moth (Citheronia regalis) hanging out at some bright lights in town.  I relocated her to a more suitable location and took a couple of images before leaving her so she may pump her pheromones into the night air in hopes of attracting a mate.

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Regal Moth

At the end of May I traveled to Galveston for a work convention.  I ended up staying an extra day and was able to photograph some courting terns and other shorebirds.

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Courting Royal Terns (Thalasseus maximus)

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American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus)

In June, Caro and I took a trip to the northern panhandle.  We spent our time exploring a few patches of the remaining native prairie in the region.  A highlight was finding the Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) in bloom in the mucky floodplain of a small stream feeding the Canadian River.

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Showy Milkweed

A diversity of birds were active at our campsite in the Rita Blanca National Grasslands including several Lark Sparrows (Chondestes grammacus).

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Lark Sparrow near our campsite in the Texas Panhandle.

While in the panhandle we also observed several Texas Horned Lizards (Phrynosoma cornutum).  I think that a top-down angle on this incredible creature best illustrates its unique texture and color pattern.

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Texas Horned Lizard from the Texas panhandle.

From the panhandle we continued west into New Mexico.  We saw many Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) in the shortgrass prairies in the eastern part of the state.

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Pronghorn buck in eastern New Mexico.

We were also lucky enough to find a diversity of wildflowers both in the prairies and in the mountains.

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Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum) in a high elevation prairie.

One of the highlights of the trip was finding several Fairy Slipper Orchids (Calypso bulbosa) in perfect bloom on the spongy floor of a spruce/fir forest at 10,000 feet.

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Fairy Slipper Orchid.

One day in late June I visited a high quality coastal prairie remnant while Caro was busy in the workshop of the Houston Gem and Mineral Society.  While scouring the rattlesnake master and other prairie plants for pollinators I saw a massive iridescent beetle go buzzing past.  It was a Bumelia Borer (Plinthocoelium suaveolens), a species I had long dreamed of finding.

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Bumelia Borer in a high quality coastal prairie remnant.

In July Caro spotted Fredericka – a Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata triunguis) that she first spotted in the yard two months prior.  Though we never saw after that, we remain hopeful that she is hanging around somewhere in the more unkempt portions of our yard.

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Three-toed Box Turtle from our back yard.

I took very few photos during the final quarter of the year.  I did, however, manage to get out a few times, most notably in October for a trip to the Ouachita Mountains of western Oklahoma and eastern Arkansas.  Here Caro and I found several beautiful Ringed Salamanders (Ambystoma annulatum) and enjoyed a few days in a secluded mountain cabin.

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Ringed Salamander from the Ouachita Mountains.

My last real photo outing of the year was in mid November when Caro and I drove around looking for fall color.  The color was disappointing this year, but I was able to turn up a large, beautiful Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum) in a small wetland depression beneath the changing leaves of stately black tupelos.

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Marbled Salamander

2020 is shaping up to be a great year, and I look forward to sharing some small part of it with you all.  I wish all of my readers the very best in this New Year.

Until next time

-Matt

 

Top 10 of the Past Decade

Before I post my 2019 highlights in biodiversity, I thought it would be fun to look back on some of my favorite photos and moments of the last decade.  It was hard to narrow thousands of photos down to just ten, but I enjoyed the process of reliving so many special experiences.  So without further ado, here are my top 10 photos of the past 10 years:

2010

2010 was a big year for me.  I left for Argentina in early January, and spent the better part of the year living in a research station in Iguazú National Park working on my Master’s research.  It was here that I met my future wife, Carolina.  When I wasn’t too drained from long days in the field, I spent much of my free time wandering around the breathtaking park, taking in the scenery or admiring the diverse bird communities of the Atlantic Forest.  My camera at the time was a simple Canon T1i.  It was basic, but took high quality images and withstood the humid subtropical rainforest.

The image below was one of my favorites from the park.  I used my zoom lens (Canon 100-400mm) to create a tight crop around one small section of Iguazú Falls, one of the largest waterfalls on the planet.  I hoped the image might convey the awe-inspiring power of this magical place.

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Iguazú Falls, Argentina.

2011

At the start of 2011 I spent six weeks in Argentina with Caro’s family in Entre Ríos.  Caro and I also visited Patagonia where we saw the largest Magellanic Penguin colony in the world and camped at the base of the Andes.  In April I made my way east to work on a project monitoring populations of obligate salmarsh birds in the Chesepeake Bay and Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia.  My favorite part of living on the Delmarva Peninsula was the proximity to interesting places to explore.  Within just a couple hours I could be in 8 different states.  I explored the Adirondacks and went looking for moose in New Hampshire.  I went birding in the Outer Banks, and searching for Red Wolves at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.  It was there that I captured the image of the male Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) below.  I watched as he and his mate took turns foraging and bringing back caterpillars and other invertebrates to feed the developing offspring hidden in their nest cavity.

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Male Prothonotary Warbler at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

2012

In February 2012 I started as a Conservation Lands Biologist with Bayou Land Conservancy.  It was a rewarding job, and it introduced me to many interesting, influential people.  One such person was Bruce Bodson, who taught me a lot about environmental issues and policies and concepts of land conservation.  Bruce has a passion for paddling, and I joined him on a number of treks.  The most memorable was a three-day paddle down the middle Neches.  Our first night, while camped on one of the many sandbars hugging the sinuous waterway, we noticed a tiny sand-colored beetle visiting the lantern at 1 in the morning.  It turned out to be a Ghost Tiger Beetle (Ellipsoptera lepida), a seldom encountered predator that, to the best of my knowledge, had not previously been encountered in the Pineywoods.  2012 is also the year I began using my trusty Canon 7D, which would accumulate over 200,000 shutter actuations before I would eventually upgrade to the 7D Mark II.

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Ghost Tiger Beetle on a Sandbar in the Neches River.

2013

I spent much of 2013 exploring the Pineywoods of East Texas.  I went looking for rare plants, salamanders, and whatever else I could find.  In June I went camping with my good friend James Childress.  We swam in secret ice cold swimming holes and trekked through remote wilderness areas.  While wandering the rich forested slopes above one of the numerous streams dissecting the East Texas forests, I heard James call out “CANEBRAKE!”  He had indeed found one of these enigmatic rattlesnakes coiled in ambush among the leaf litter.  How he spotted it, I’ll never know.  It was virtually invisible, and if I took my eyes off it for even a moment it took me some time to relocate it, despite knowing exactly where it was.  It never moved during our encounter, proving just how docile and mild-tempered this species is.  They are far more likely to rely on their remarkable camouflage than act aggressively toward intruders.  This was just one of many special encounters of a year spent exploring the woods.

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Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) in a rich forest in the Pineywoods.

2014

2014 was another big year for me.  Finally, after years of working on the painstaking Visa process, Caro was able to come to the states, and we married shortly after.  After years of seeing each other only a couple of times a year and communicating primarily via Skype, we were finally able to start our life together.  In 2014 I also accepted a job with the Texas Department of transportation and moved to Lufkin.  I would miss working with Bayou Land Conservancy, but was excited about living in the heart of the Pineywoods.  Many of my favorite places were now at my fingertips.  I was excited to introduce Carolina to these places that meant so much to me.  One such place is a mature longleaf pine savanna in the Angelina National Forest.  It was one eerie October evening when we spotted an ancient gnarled post oak among the longleafs.

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A long Post Oak among the Longleaf Pines.

2015

In 2015 we continued our explorations of the Pineywoods.  One perfect spring day we found ourselves in a rich woodland in the floodplain of a small stream.  This particular site is home to one of the few remaining populations of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) in the state.  This beautiful little spring ephemeral is one of my favorite of all wildflowers.  They are finicky by nature, and will only open fully on days where the temperature, humidity, and brightness are just right.  That day I ended up with dozens of images I was happy with, but the photo below stood out from the rest.  Perhaps it is the arrangement of this natural bouquet, or the bokeh of dried maple leaves.  Maybe it’s the memory of being in that place at that time.  Whatever the case, this image remains to this day one of my favorite wildflower shots.

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Bloodroot blooms in a rich East Texas forest.

2016

In 2016 I introduced Carolina to Big Bend and the awe-inspiring landscapes and biodiversity of the Trans-Pecos.  There are many images from those trips that could have made this list, however I chose a photo made closer to home.  Several years ago my good friend Scott Wahlberg found a colony of Rafinesque’s Big-eared Bats (Corynorhinus rafinesquii) in a handful of abandoned buildings in an East Texas ghost town.  In October of 2016, Caro and I visited these dilapidated structures, and found several very active bats preparing for their nightly emergence.  Photographing the very active Chriopterans was a real challenge, but I walked away with an image that I felt captured the unique nature of these declining winged mammals. The Rafinesque’s Big-eared Bat has suffered decades of steady declines due to habitat loss, and today are a species of significant conservation concern in the Lonestar State and many other portions of their range.  I hoped that this image may serve to educate, and help others to understand that bats are not creepy, disgusting creatures to be feared, but rather endearing, interesting, and important members of a healthy functioning ecosystem.

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A Rafinesque’s Big-eared Bat in an old abandoned homestead in an East Texas botomland.

2017

I started this blog in 2017.  With a renewed purpose and passion for my photography, I probably took more photos that year than any other in the past decade.  This made choosing a single photo from 2017 exceedingly difficult.  There were probably more “obvious” contenders for the best image of the year, but I settled on the photo below, which is fairly simple in its composition and colors.  One late April day while my buddy James Childress and I were exploring the Sabine National Forest, we came across a particularly handsome female Texas Brown Tarantula (Aphonopelma hentzi) in a longleaf pine savanna.  It’s surprising to some that these massive arachnids, which are typically considered denizens of the desert southwest, can be found as far east as Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana.  In East Texas, tarantulas are generally uncommon, and associated with friable loamy pockets in a broader matrix of loose sands.  I posed this individual on the charred bark of an old longleaf pine to create a story about the species and the unique habitat where we found it.

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Texas Brown Tarantula on the trunk of an old longleaf pine.

2018

2018 was another great year for photography.  James and I acquired super telephoto lenses, which helped rekindle my passion for bird photography.  I captured many bird images across the state, however the photo I chose for 2018 is not avian in nature, but rather an image of one of my all time favorite animals: the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum).  I have taken dozens, if not hundreds of photos of this species, but the image below stands out as my favorite of all time.  Everything came together – a beautiful individual, an excellent pose, lovely substrate, and perfect light.  Those who know me well shouldn’t be surprised to find a salamander on this list, and I had to pay tribute to a species that holds such a special place in my heart.

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A Spotted Salamander from Deep East Texas.

2019

This past year was trying in many ways, and I spent less time behind the lens than usual.  Fortunately we were still able to get in some nature therapy, including a trip to experience the West Texas superbloom in spring, and an early summer trip to the Texas Panhandle and northern New Mexico.  It was during the latter trip that my chosen photo was taken.  I was finally able to capture an image that I had long visualized.  This year we saw more Pronghorn (Antilocpara americana) than I had ever seen on numerous trips through the region.  Perhaps it was a wet spring that allowed them to disperse to take advantage of ample water and lush vegetation.  I was able to capture a low angle portrait of the majestic, approachable buck below as it watched me with what I would describe as cautious curiosity.  I love the image for its simplicity, with a foreground and background that seem to blend save for barely discernible blurred blades of grass.  It allows the shapes, textures, and colors of the Pronghorn to be suitably admired.  That trip would go down as one of the most memorable in recent memory, with incredible wildlife sightings including pumas and swift foxes.

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A Pronghorn buck in a shortleaf grassland in eastern New Mexico.

In all, the past 10 years were very good to me.  I look forward to what the next decade has in store, and hope that it will be full of friendship, discovery, nature, and plenty of good photo opportunities!

The Meaning of Life (For a Ringed Salamander)

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A Ringed Salamander high on a ridgetop in the Ouachita Mountains

In my day to day life, I’m not a particularly philosophical person.  There are times, however, that I can’t help but ponder those difficult existential questions.  These moments tend to occur when I’m immersed in the natural world, experiencing some aspect of extreme wildness, solitude, or some seemingly magical natural event or occurrence.  I found myself wrapped up in a number of such moments recently in the Ouachita Mountains of eastern Oklahoma.

It was hard not to start thinking about life’s unknowns, as we pushed into the Sooner State at dusk, and immense, billowing storm clouds advanced from the distant horizon.  Caro and I were once again pursuing the Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum).  I first came looking for them in November 2012, when the air was cold and the hillsides shone with the brilliance of forests cloaked in fall foliage.  That year we were too late.  We found countless larval annulatum, and a few freshly laid eggs, but the adults eluded us.  We returned again in October of 2015, but it was during a mild drought, and the region had only experienced a few small rain events preceding our visit.  That year we did not find any evidence of the salamanders.  In all fairness, it was a poorly timed visit, but it was the only chance I had.  In 2016 a couple of early season cool fronts passed over the Ouachitas.  We were able to visit a week or so after one of these fronts, and despite our best efforts were only able to turn up scores of week old eggs.

Then, in 2018, things changed, and after visiting nearly a dozen potential breeding ponds, I finally turned up a single adult.  It was an incredibly rewarding experience, but something was still lacking.  I longed to really experience the salamanders’ world, and to see them in their element.  So this year, when weather reports were calling for an early October front that promised to bring with it a deluge, I decided I would take off from work, start the weekend early and make for the mountains.  The plan was to arrive as the front hit, and hope that we might witness a Ringed Salamander migration event.

Lightning illuminated the storm clouds, turning them into a gargantuan strobe.  Never in my life have I seen a storm bare lightning with such frequency and intensity.  The night was more light than dark.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I found myself feeling nervous among it all.  The energy – the sheer power generated through that nephological friction was enough to leave anyone intimidated, and my truck seemed insufficient protection to shield me from the storm’s wrath.

This mighty tempest had me pondering my own significance.  As a blinding flash illuminated a distant weathered peak, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if this storm were to consume me.  Our survival instincts have evolutionarily programmed us humans to feel an inflated sense of self importance.  If I were gone, friends and family would mourn, work would be left unfinished, but in the grand scheme of thing, the world would keep turning, and the wildflowers, salamanders, and other natural things that I hold so dear wouldn’t notice.  Their lives would not be effected, and the natural order would continue as if I had never existed.  This may seem like a bleak thought to some, but I take comfort in it.  I never like to think of myself as having some higher connection to nature.  I don’t have a relationship with the plants or animals.  I am but an observer and occasional interferer and modifier of this world.  I have worked for many years as a researcher and conservationist, but these efforts are only acknowledged by human minds, and any benefit to the species is purely a biproduct of those efforts, and no sense of gratitude or realization of such work is realized by the organisms themselves.  It seems silly, but as a kid I had actual nightmares where I was living out some kind of Dr. Doolittle scenario, and was able to communicate with animals.  This might sound like a dream to some, but to me it ruined the sense of wonder and curiosity that I felt for the natural world.

It wasn’t until an hour after the onset of lightning that the rain fell.  But when it did, it was with such unfathomable volume that the wall of precipitation crashed over my windshield like a wave and reduced my visibility to just 10 feet in front of the truck.  I slowed to a crawl as the rain fell in droves.  It may seem strange to want weather like this while on a vacation, but this is exactly what I had hoped for.  We crept through the deluge until we reached our Airbnb.  Normally I would opt for camping on trips like this, but I knew the weather was going to be harsh, and wanted to focus on the hunt, rather than setting up and tending to camp.  Locating our temporary home was not without its own adventure, as we struggled to find the cabin among darkness, rain, and mislabeled streets.  But after a brief conversation with the very friendly and hopeful host, we found it – a quaint two bedroom log cabin in the mountains.

After a quick dinner of milanesa sandwiches, we set back out into the night.  The rain had slowed to a drizzle as we traversed windy, rocky, muddy mountain roads.  After some time we reached the first pond.  I had visited this site several times prior, and generally it is little more than knee deep and a few feet wide.  I had always found large numbers of eggs and larvae at this site, so I had high hopes as I waded through the wet brush.

I soon came to realize that what I had expected to be little more than a deep puddle had swollen to a muddy 1/4 acre pond.  I first worked the edges with my net, and began finding eggs.  After turning up empty handed along the shallow margins, I slowly made my way deeper into the pond.  Soon the water reached my waste, and then my chest.  As I approached the deepest point of the pond, the rain again began to fall.  It’s strange, but despite air temperatures in the 60s, and a cold autumn rain, I felt perfectly comfortable submerged here, in a ridgetop pond surrounded by a stunted forest high in the Ouachita Mountains.  I held my flashlight in my teeth, and probed my net among the pond’s bottom, which was a mess of mud and rocks.  I was practically floating as I pulled the net up, and among the mud, eggs, and woody debris, I saw a wriggling line of black and yellow.  I had one.

“I got one!” I called as I made my way back to the truck, where Caro was patiently waiting.  With renewed energy, I returned to the pond, swam out to the middle, and continued my search.  After a few minutes I pulled up a large, spent female which ranks as one of the most beautiful salamanders I have ever seen.

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A spent female Ringed Salamander – one of the most beautiful salamanders I have ever seen

The overwhelming urge to breed is what brought the salamanders here.  Ambystoma annulatum and most other members of its genus breed only once or twice a year, always in response to specific weather cues.  They live the vast majority of the year hidden away in subterranean burrows, generally seeking out abandoned mammal burrows, or perhaps in the case of the Ringed Salamander, complex series of crevices and passageways created by deep layers of talus.  Here they will feed opportunistically, and likely very rarely, if ever, visit the surface outside the breeding season.

But when the temperature and timing of rainfall is just right, they will emerge from these underground haunts en masse, and migrate in droves to their ancestral breeding ponds.  Most species of Ambystoma undertake this incredible, harrowing journey in the later winter or early spring, but a few, like the Ringed Salamander, do so in the fall.  The males generally arrive at the pond first, and scope out the bottom for the perfect sites to deposit small sperm laden packets called spermatophores.  Here they will await the arrival of the females.  When the females arrive, the male guides her through a series of nudges, tickles, and sexy courtship dances toward one of his spermatophores.  If she is receptive, she will pick up his deposit with her cloaca, fertilizing the large mass of eggs that has caused her to swell to several times her normal girth.  She then proceeds to deposit the eggs, sometimes singly, sometimes in loose clusters, on vegetation, debris, or the pond bottom.  In all the process typically takes only a night or two.  The adults may hang out in or around the ponds for a week or two, but as soon as more rainy or humid nights arrive, they quickly exit the pond and return to their burrows to live a life hidden from the world for another year.  Ringed Salamanders appear to stagger their breeding events, likely an evolutionary adaptation that helps maximize the chance that some eggs and larvae will survive, however the first large rain event tends to trigger the largest migrations.

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Ringed Salamanders

Pondering the life history of these amphibians piqued my curiosity to perhaps the greatest burning question and unsolved mystery in human history: the meaning of life.  Human beings seem so eager to attach a meaning or a purpose to their lives.  But do any of our planet’s other living things do the same?  Does the Ringed Salamander ponder its existence?  Does it wonder “what it all means” as it sits essentially motionless in its burrow for 360 days of the year?  I doubt it.  In fact, I have often considered the human brain to have evolved under a mechanism similar to runaway selection, a scenario in sexual selection where a particular secondary sexual trait becomes such a strong preference in mate selection that something akin to an arms race develops with the genes for developing the trait and the genes for selecting the trait.  What results is like a loop where the genetic selection for that trait reinforces its development, resulting in a relatively rapid evolution of overly gaudy physical characteristics that serve little purpose other than to attract a mate.  Think the feathers on a peacock.

Though the example of the human brain is not necessarily related to sexual selection, a similar scenario took place as our ancestor’s brains evolved, and with them so did certain behaviors like the use of tools, which likely served to further enhance and accelerate the evolutionary development of the brain itself.  One side effect of developing such a complex, problem solving cerebrum is it developed capabilities beyond what was necessary for our survival and reproduction.  Once we found ways to make our lives easier and more comfortable, and our survival more assured, large portions of that beefy brain went unused.  We soon found a way to put them to use, however, and as a result, civilizations were formed, religions were developed, and complex ideas about our existence arose.  Our brains are so advanced, that they lead us to seek out answers to vague and rhetorical questions that serve little purpose to our survival as a species.  I don’t think that Ringed Salamanders are burdened with such questions, but rather driven by a reception of environmental cues and a cocktail of hormones that leads them to undertake this perilous journey year after year.

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Ringed Salamander

But I digress.  After some time at the first pond, we continued to another.  The next breeding site was located in a shallow depression in the field of an old abandoned farmstead.  Here the water was shallow and clear, and as I made my way about the edge of the pond I could actually see a few salamanders swimming about.  I even saw one spent female leaving the pond; having deposited the next generation, she returned to her upland refugia.  Perhaps some narrow escape from a predator or other adventure awaited her on her return journey.

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A Ringed Salamander photographed shortly after she left her breeding pond.

The rain had stopped, and Caro explored the road ahead.  Here she found another individual on the crawl, moving away from the pond.  It would seem that we timed our trip just right, and that most of the animals, in these ponds at least, were in the process of a mass exodus.  In fact, we did not turn up a single male.  All of our observations were of post breeding females, and I presumed that they likely bred during a smaller rain event a week prior.

On the drive out, Caro spotted another Ringed Salamander on the road, and I saw a large Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum).  I had not expected to see the latter species on this high, rocky ridgeline, however it was most certainly a welcome observation.  The Spotted Sally is one of my all time favorite critters.  I have dozens of pictures of them, so I did not take the time to photograph this one, save for a few record shots with my cell phone.

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A Spotted Salamander found crossing the road on a rainy night in the Ouachitas.

The roads were also full of Dwarf American Toads (Bufo americanus charlesmithi).  This species is actually on my list of biodiversity goals, however I was unsuccessful in obtaining a good image of one on this trip.  But rest assured I will return!

We arrived back in our cabin sometime after 1 A.M.  I was reeling from an incredible night, and found it difficult to sleep despite a gentle rain that continued until morning.  Overnight the temperature dropped by 30 degrees, and it was below freezing as we began to stir the next morning.  We wandered around the grounds a bit, admiring a myriad of fungi and fall blooming goldenrods and asters.  Caro even spotted Spiranthes cernua in bloom.  After a breakfast of eggs, toast, and jam, we set out to explore the Ouachitas in the daylight.  We spent most of the day exploring ponds in hopes that we might turn up a few salamanders in the daylight.

The first pond we visited is one where we found ample evidence of breeding salamanders last year.  This year was no different, but most eggs contained developing embryos that were likely laid a week or so prior.  I looked around the margins of the pond, and made a few halfhearted attempts at dipnetting.  I even found a Copperhead under the same large, flat stone that I found one last year.  It was a different individual this year, but due to the cold temperatures I opted not to disturb it, and carefully replaced the rock.

Meanwhile, Caro had seen a Ringed Salamander swim to the surface for a gulp of air.  I tried dipnetting the area but was unable to capture anything.  She also pointed out the mangled tail and hind legs of an individual that had clearly fallen victim to some predator the night before.  Though they may only move a few hundred meters or less from their upland burrows to their breeding ponds, these salamanders face incredible danger.  Many fall victim to vehicles and predators along the way.

We left that pond and continued onto another.  The next pond is where I found my first live adult last year.  After some time spent exploring the area, I turned up another spent female.  From there we visited five more ponds, all devoid of evidence of salamanders.  Visiting so many potential breeding sites, a pattern emerged.  It seemed, at least in this part of their range, that the Ringed Salamander preferred smaller ponds with an abundance of herbaceous vegetation along the margins and within the basin.

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A Ringed Salamander from the pond where I found my first adult last year.

Near one of the ponds we saw a young Striped Skunk scouring a boulder field, presumably in search of prey.  As we slowed to investigate, it “bowed up” at us.  Caro, who has a strong passion for all things Carnivora, couldn’t help but get out for a closer look.  Fortunately she kept a respectful distance, and finally returned to the truck when the skunk began raising its tail, indicating it had reached the limits of its patience.

Our pursuit of salamander ponds brought us across narrow, windy, rocky roads, which I enjoyed navigating in four-wheel drive.  The more accessible ponds had clear evidence that they had been visited recently, likely by other salamander enthusiasts, yet the ponds deeper into the wilderness showed little to no evidence of human activity.  Even the roads looked seldom traversed.  I worried for some of these populations.  It is not unheard of for collectors to harvest huge numbers of salamanders for sale in the pet trade, and just last year some friends visiting the area reported evidence of this.  One of the ponds they visited had virtually every piece of natural cover turned over and not returned to its natural position.  It’s hard for me to understand how someone with a genuine interest and passion for these organisms could be so destructive.  The complex nature of our brains that allows us to develop such passions and interests also obligates us to minimize our footprint in their pursuit, and work to bettering their populations and habitats, rather than harming them.

We returned to pavement as the sun fell low on the horizon.  We returned to our cabin, where we enjoyed the warmth and other creature comforts it provided, until the effects of a long day took their toll on our bodies, and we retired to sleep.

The next morning we woke late and cooked a big breakfast at the cabin.  We then followed the winding road up to the top of Rich Mountain, where we encountered a forest of dwarf oaks, hickories, and blackgums.  I wrote about these unique communities in my post about last year’s visit to the area.  Just below the exposed ridges where these dwarves dwell, a rich forest of diverse hardwoods can be found.  These forests are home to a rich community of plant and animal species, including a number of endemic salamander species.

Here we found a number of Southern Redback Salamanders (Plethodon serratus) and Rich Mountain Salamanders (Plethodon ouachitae).  The latter is a Ouachita Mountain endemic, and comes in a variety of forms.  The form that we encountered was the “Rich Mountain Variant”, which bears a rich chestnut brown pattern on its dorsum.

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Rich Mountain Salamander

After an hour or so spent hiking around Rich Mountain, we descended into the town of Mena, Arkansas.  While in town we visited some of the local shops and stocked up on provisions.  From Mena we went on to a very different Ringed Salamander breeding site in western Arkansas.  At this particular site, an ephemeral wetland has formed in a depression at the base of a rocky slope.  Had it not been for a friend who found this spot and was kind enough to tell me about it, I would never have expected to find pond breeding salamanders there.

I was initially hopeful as I approached the depression.  The pond itself was virtually dry, save for a few puddles an inch or less deep.  There must have been water a day or two prior, however, as there were fresh spermatophores littering the floor of the pond.  These spermatophores still contain a sperm cap, and I was later informed by the friend who shared the spot with me that this indicates they were deposited within just a couple of days.  Surely then, I thought, there must still be some salamanders hanging around the pond’s margins.

Unfortunately, this particular site is virtually lacking in the type of debris conducive to locating salamanders under cover.  The rocky nature of the slope essentially formed a talus where rocks were stacked upon other rocks, creating a porous subsurface that would allow for a salamander to retreat deep into its recesses, and well out of reach.

I was happy to find a small Ouachita Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus brimleyorum) near a small ephemeral stream adjacent to the pond.  In my Ringed Salamander fervor, however, I neglected to photograph it.  Nor did I photograph the numerous Western Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon albagula) found nearby.  I was ready to call it, when I turned a rock and spotted a massive blob of black and yellow.  It was an absolutely enormous gravid Ringed Salamander.

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A massive gravid Ringed Salamander found near a dry ephemeral pond.

Despite her comical and uncomfortable appearance, she seemed to be getting on just fine (though I’m sure she would very much welcome the rains that would fill her breeding pond to a sufficient depth for her to be courted and fertilized so that she may be rid of her undoubtedly heavy load).  Ringed Salamanders may lay more than 150 eggs, which are generally deposited either singly or in small clumps scattered among debris on the pond’s bottom and attached to submerged sticks or vegetation.

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A heavily gravid Ringed Salamander

The incredible amount of effort necessary to locate the gravid female perfectly illustrates the difficult and frustration associated with searching for this species.  Even in areas where they are abundant, and evidence indicates they were very recently at the surface, they are incredibly difficult to turn up.

The sun soon found its way toward the horizon, and the forest grew dark and cold.  We took that as our cue to begin our trek back to our cabin.  On the way we were surprised to find a large, recently hit rat snake dead on the road.  It must have been seeking the sun’s rays to warm its blood on a chilly day when it met its untimely demise.  As we followed the winding roads through the hills, we saw a brilliant moon rise over the distant trees.

That night we grilled burgers, watched television, and relaxed in the warmth of the cabin.  The next morning we slept late, ate breakfast, and packed up.  I was going to miss our cozy little temporary homestead.  On our way out we stopped at one of the ponds where we found a number of salamanders on that first rainy night.  The water had receded significantly, and in doing so exposed a large flat stone under which I found the final two Ringed Salamanders of the trip.

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One of two Ringed Salamanders flipped near a breeding pond.

The ridgetop was alive that morning, as hundreds of migrating Monarch Butterflies danced about blooming goldenrods and other late season asters in pursuit of nectar to fuel their continued southward journey.  I was sad that we too, must now head south.  Though short, this trip was full of incredible experiences, and allowed me to recharge, reflect, and reconsider my thoughts on nature, happiness, and the meaning of life.  I may not have found the answers to any of life’s existential questions, but being among the salamanders and skunks in the wildness of the Ouachita Mountains made me comfortable with the inevitable realization that I never will.

A Big Bowl of Lonestar Biodiversity

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A Pine Warbler perches on the bare twigs of a winged elm in the understory of a mature pine/oak/hickory upland.

The last month or so here in East Texas has been plagued by a barrage of heat waves that have made spending time in the woods unpleasant at best, to downright miserable at worst.  Because of the oppressive heat, and a variety of events in my personal life beyond my control, I have found myself lacking in motivation to pick up the camera and get out and explore.  I think that slumps like this are only natural, and I have certainly experienced them in the past.  Fortunately, I have always overcome them, and returned to this passion that has helped to shape the purpose that I feel in this thing we call life.

Thinking that a trip down memory lane might help rekindle the flame of my passion for the natural world, I recently went back through the many images I have taken this year.  In doing so, I realized that there were a great many images that I have captured during short day and weekend trips that I had not yet posted.

So I decided to start writing, and in reliving these memories I found my spirits instantly lifted.  Instead of breaking these images out into smaller posts I decided to make one giant post covering the last several months.  So I invite my reader to settle in and enjoy this brief tour of some of the incredible biodiversity that can be found in the Lonestar State.

Though this post was meant to cover the first half of this year, my first post actually comes from December of last year, when Caro and I went out on a salamander hunting excursion with our friends Scott and Ashley Wahlberg.  We struggled most of the day, until Ashley spotted this handsome male Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) under debris at the bottom of a dry vernal pool.  I titled the shot “Ancient Ritual”, and staged it to look like the salamander was just emerging to undertake his annual migration to the breeding pool of his birth, an event that his ancestors have undertaken for millennia.

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A Spotted Salamander emerges following a warm winter rain and begins his migration to his ancestral breeding pond.

A few days into the new year, Caro and I took a trip to Galveston.  On the way back, I spotted several Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) foraging in a tidal marsh in golden evening light. I could not resist the opportunity to try to capture some images of these beautiful, bizarre birds, so I pulled off and trudged into the mud flats. A local fisherman kept warning me of where all of the hidden holes were. Carefully I cradled my camera as I struggled to keep my balance in the muck. Finally as I drew closer I dropped down to my knees, then to my belly, and began to army crawl toward my quarry. The fisherman was kind enough to check on me frequently by shouting “are you ok”?  I responded with a simple thumbs up.

I crawled forward through the mud and shallow water until I found myself in the perfect position for a low angle shot in that beautiful light. The spoonbill is such a curious subject that seems so majestic yet awkward at the same time. When I returned to my truck I was literally coated in mud from head to toe. Fortunately I had a change of clothes, and was able to clean up a bit and return home, smiling from the perfect ending to a wonderful day.

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A Roseate Spoonbill forages in shallow tidal flats adjacent to Galveston Bay.

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A Roseate Spoonbill forages in shallow tidal flats adjacent to Galveston Bay.

During the height of January, when little else was active, I turned my lens toward wintering songbirds.  I spent several days at James Childress’s farm, where his land management activities have produced excellent habitat for a variety of species, a few of which are highlighted below.

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An American Goldfinch perches on the fruit-bearing twigs of a deciduous holly.

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A Pine Warbler forages in the limbs of a mature loblolly pine.

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A Dark-eyed Junco pauses for a moment on a branch of an old post oak.

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A White-crowned Sparrow on its wintering grounds in Angelina County.

By early February in the Pineywoods, winter begins releasing its grip, and a few brave floral souls emerge to reveal their blossoms to the world.  One of the earliest, and one of my all time favorite wildflowers, the bloodroot, blooms in the deep woods.  Likely never common in the Pineywoods, it has become exceedingly scarce over the last century due to a combination of habitat loss and over-harvest for its medicinal qualities.

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Bloodroot grows from the crook of an old tree root.

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A Bloodroot flower emerges from the dense leaf litter.

James and I also spent a few days photographing birds at the Pineywoods Native Plant Center on the Stephen F. Austin State University Campus.  It includes a remnant patch of near old growth forest, and provides excellent opportunities for wildlife observation.  The following images were all made at this special place.

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A Female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) perches in a dense tangle of dried vegetation.

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A White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) blends in to the winter browns of a prairie remnant.

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A Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus) forages on a branch of a blooming Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).

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A Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) pauses among dense winter vegetation.

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A handsome White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) out and about on a chilly early spring morning.

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A Mourning Dove (Zenaida macrura) forages on the forest floor.

As February gave way to March, spring was in full swing in the Pineywoods.  Caro and I spent an afternoon hiking in the Sam Houston National Forest.  Pollinators like the Falcate Orangetip (Anthocharis midea) were out in droves, and the violets were putting on a show on the forest floor.

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A female Falcate Orangetip nectars on the blooms of springcress (Cardamine bulbosa), on of its host plants.

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An Early Blue Violet (Viola palmata) blooms on the forest floor.

I spent one March day exploring the Columbia Bottomlands, a unique forested community in southeast Texas, where I observed a number of interesting wildflowers in bloom, including the Purple Rocket (Iodanthus pinnatifidus), which has a peculiar distribution.  This member of the mustard family (Brassicacea) can be found in many central and eastern states, including much of Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, however in Texas it is only known from a few southeastern and south-central counties.

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Purple Rocket blooms in profusion in a coastal upland forest.

I also found numerous Zigzag Irises (Iris brevicaulis) and a proliferation of Butterweed (Packera glabella) in bloom among the sedges and other wetland plants in these unique hardwood bottoms.

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Zigzag Iris blooms in the understory of the Columbia Bottomlands.

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Butterweed and Raven’s-foot Sedge (Carex crus-corvi) bloom in a forested wetland in the Columbia Bottomlands.

Back in the Pineywoods, I set out to explore a high quality forested seep where I found the imperiled Texas Trillium (Trillium texanum) coming into bloom.

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The rare Texas Trillium blooms in an old growth forested seep.

In early March, I visited our good friends Susan and Viron’s property for our annual botanical bonanza looking for rare spring ephemeral wildflowers.  As usual, we were not disappointed.  The following three images are from the outing.

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The tiny Southern Twayblade (Listera australis) is one of the earliest orchids to bloom in the Pineywoods.

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The delicate blooms of a Wood Rush (Luzula sp.) are best observed up close.

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Leaves of Cutleaf Toothwort (Cardamine concactenata) and Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium rostratum) decorate the forest floor.  I find the leaves of these species just as interesting as the blooms.

Texas is known for its roadsides brimming with bluebonnets, however wild, native populations of these dainty lupines can be hard to find, particularly in the Pineywoods.  I was happy to find and photograph what I believe to be truly wild populations of the Sandyland Bluebonnet (Lupinus subcarnosus) in Houston and Rusk Counties this spring.

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A Sandylands Bluebonnet blooms in a sandhill forest in the Pineywoods.

While taking a pit stop on our way to visit my family in Houston, I spotted a brilliant creamy-looking pink and yellow Rosy Maple Moth (Dryocampa rubicunda) clinging to a building wall, having been drawn in the night before by artificial lights.  These members of the silkworm moth family (Saturniidae) are wide-ranging in the eastern U.S., however I only occasionally encounter them in Texas.  I gently moved it from the building to a nearby patch of woods in hopes to increase its chances for survival and reproduction.

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The Rosy Maple Moth is one of our most colorful moths.

Last year my friend Jared Barnes told me about a population of Prairie Celestials (Nemastylis geminiflora) that he discovered last year deep in the Pineywoods.  This spring calciphile is common throughout much of central Texas, where calcareous soils are more prevalent, however it is quite rare in East Texas and western Louisiana, so I was thrilled at the chance to see and photograph it on my home turf.  I got the chance in late March, when I visited the site that Jared told me about and found it in full bloom.

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Prairie Celestials bloom in a remnant prairie in Nacogdoches County.

On March 30, 2014, I married the love of my life.  Five years later we spent our anniversary in San Antonio, in a quaint hotel just next to the Alamo.  We enjoyed spending time in the historic city and shopping and dining on the River Walk, however I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get a few hours of nature time in.  We visited Cascade Caverns and saw the diminutive endemic Cascade Caverns Salamander (Eurycea latitans), and spent some times along the scenic cypress lined creeks and rivers of the region.

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The clear waters of Bandera Creek flow over boulders and cypress roots.

I also stopped to explore a small chalk prairie where Lindheimer’s Paintbrush (Castilleja lindheimeri) was blooming in such numbers that it appeared the prairie was aflame.

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Lindheimer’s Paintbrush blooms in a chalk prairie in the Texas Hill Country.

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The curious blooms of a Lindheimer’s Paintbrush.

The following week, back at home, Scott and I set out in hopes of finding the rare Whorled Pogonia (Isotria verticillata) in bloom, after receiving a tip that they were flowering along the margins of a baygall about 30 minutes from my home.  Not far from the site I spotted the quick movement of some manner of skink scurrying through the leaf litter.  Fortunately I was quick enough to capture the nimble reptile, and we were excited to see that it was a Southern Coal Skink (Plestiodon anthracinus), a species that is seldom encountered in the state.

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A male Southern Coal Skink, a seldom seen denizen of the Pineywoods.

After some searching, we found the pogonias as well!  These exotic looking orchids are extremely difficult to spot, but close examination reveals a beautiful, bizarre bloom.  The Whorled Pogonia is imperiled in Texas, and has seemingly disappeared from a number of historic locations.

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The exotic looking flower of the Whorled Pogonia.

The pogonias were growing near the transition from mesic pine-hardwood forest to a highly acidic forested seep.  Nearby we found a crystal clear springfed stream flowing over pure sand.

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A creek cuts through mesic pine-hardwood forest.

That same day I would discover my own population of Nemastylis geminifolia in the Pineywoods, this time occurring in a rich calcareous woodland not far from the Louisiana border.

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Prairie Celestials bloom in an open, calcareous forest in Sabine County.

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A Zebra Longhorn (Typocerus zebra) feeds on the blooms of a Prairie Celestial.

Scott and I also enjoyed observing several other wildflowers in bloom that day, including a personal favorite, Wood Betony or Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis).

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Wood Betony blooms in the forest understory.

Mid-April Caro and I took a weekend trip to the Blackland Prairies and Cross Timbers of North-Central Texas, a region that has fast become one of my favorites in the state.  On the way, we stopped at an extensive outcrop of the iron-rich Weches Formation where I had previously seen the rare Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus) in bloom.  I was at the site too late for peak bloom last year, and only observed a few individuals in flower.  This year I timed it just right, and caught thousands upon thousands in bloom in the glades and stunted woodlands growing on this unique geologic substrate.

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The rare Clasping Jewelflower blooms in a remnant Weches Woodland.

Streptanthus maculatus was one of the species on my list of biodiversity goals for which this blog was established.  Though I technically checked it off my list last year, and posted a blog about it, I’m taking this opportunity to showcase a few more images of this striking plant.

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The rare Clasping Jewelflower blooms in a remnant Weches Woodland.

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A closeup of the fascinating blooms of the Clasping Jewelflower.

There were a number of other interesting things blooming over the Weches Formation, including Heartleaf Four-O’clock (Mirabilis nyctaginea) and Louisiana Vetch (Vicia ludoviciana).

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Heartleaf Four-O’clock blooms in a forest clearing on the Weches Formation.

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The tiny blooms of Louisiana Vetch

When we arrived in the Blackland Prairies, I was able to track down a stunning plant that I had long hoped to photograph – the Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis), a species of the east that barely enters Texas in the eastern panhandle and north-central portion of the state.

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Blue Wild Indigo blooms in a Blackland Prairie remnant.

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Blue Wild Indigo blooms in a Blackland Prairie remnant.

We were fortunate to visit a site that my friend David Bezanson of the nature conservancy describes as “the finest Blackland Prairie remnant in Texas”.  I had hoped for better light, but I was in awe in the overwhelming beauty and diversity of the place.

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A Blackland Prairie remnant in Collin County.

In a rich woodland of Bois d’arc and elm near the Oklahoma border, I found a striking Texas rarity, the Violet Blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia violacea).  We were at the tail end of their blooming season, and I hope to visit again next spring.

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Violet Blue-eyed Mary blooms in a Bois d’arc/elm woodland in Grayson County.

Driving along a rural county road in Cooke County, I spotted hints of light blue and purple along the roadside.  I could tell immediately that it was a species of hyacinth (Camassia).  I initially suspected that they were the fairly common Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), however in this part of Texas there is another possibility.  These turned out to be the much less common Prairie Hyacinth (Camassia angusta), identifiable by the large number of persistent sterile bracts.

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Prairie Camas blooms in a rich prairie remnant in Cooke County.

After exploring some area back roads, we stopped at one of my favorite prairie remnants in the state, a small (~4.5-acre) patch of Grand Prairie that harbors incredible plant species diversity.

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Prairie Paintbrush (Castilleja citrina) and Hairy Cornsalad (Valerianella amarella) bloom in the Grand Prairie.

In a good year, thousands upon thousands of Eastern Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) bloom here.  In Texas, this species is restricted to the northern Grand and Blackland Prairies, with a few remnant populations in the Edward’s Plateau.

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Eastern Shooting Star blooms in the Grand Prairie.

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The blooms of the Eastern Shooting Star are among our most photogenic native wildflowers.

The weekend after our trip to North-Central Texas, we found ourselves back on the upper coast.  Galveston Bay is lined with a number of high quality saltmarshes that provide a brief glimpse of what the Upper Texas Coast looked like before coastline development and industry took their toll.  Today, these remnant marshes are reduced in size, and generally surrounded by subdivisions or refineries.  In the image below, a luxury beach-front community can be seen in the distance.  Even if the development does not directly impact the marsh itself, it eliminates important buffer zones and reduces biodiversity in the process.  The combination of this development and accelerating rates of sea level rise make these special places one of our most imperiled communities.

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A high quality saltmarsh holds on in the face of rampant coastal development.

While on the coast we met up with my parents and James and Erin, and spent some time searching for Neotropical Migrants making their way toward northern breeding grounds.  Conditions were generally poor during that trip, but we did manage to see a few interesting things, including a male Blue Grosbeak in the process of molting into its adult plumage.

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This young male Blue Grosbeak has just begun to attain his adult plumage.

At the famous rookery at the Houston Audubon Society’s Smith Oaks Preserve we saw a number of waterbirds tending to newly hatched chicks.

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Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus) chicks beg for a meal.

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Two generations of Great Egrets (Ardea alba).

The next morning James and I rose early and made our way to the beach in hopes of capturing some images of Least Terns (Sternula antillarum) in the early morning light.  We were fortunate enough to see a number of courting pairs.

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Courting Least Terns

We watched as males would capture small fish and present them to the females while vocalizing and performing a ritualized dance.

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Courting Least Terns

Near the terns we spotted a number of Wilson’s Plovers (Charadrius wilsonii).  These boisterous shorebirds were defending their nests by feigning injury in an attempt to lure would-be predators away from the nests.

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A Wilson’s Plover hides among the dune vegetation.

A number of Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) were also seen on the dunes that morning.

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A Horned Lark among the foredunes.

As spring gradually began to give way to summer, I spent some time photographing some local residents, including a number of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) that regularly visit the feeders in James’s grandmother’s yard.

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A fluffed up Northern Cardinal on the branch of an old elm.

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A male Northern Cardinal among the leaves of a Southern Red Oak.

While wandering James’s property in search of birds, we spotted an old female Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) in a small puddle formed by recent rains.

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An old Three-toed Box Turtle takes advantage of a puddle formed by recent rains.

One of my favorite activities is driving remote, rural roads in Deep East Texas.  Such outings usually lead to interesting discoveries.  One May evening, while driving through a recent clearcut in Newton County, I heard the unmistakable buzzy trill of a Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor).  Though clearcuts are certainly unsightly and conjure up thoughts of environmental destruction, during their first few years of regeneration they provide habitat for a variety of birds including Prairie Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chats, Indigo Buntings, Northern Bobwhite and more.  When done on a proper scale and rotation, clearcuts can simulate natural disturbances and can enhance the overall health and biodiversity of a forested region.

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A Prairie Warbler sings from atop a growing pine sapling.

Mid May is my favorite time to explore the sandhills of the Post Oak Savanna.  These interesting habitats are home to a number of endemic species and in May the wildflowers are on full display.  Pictured below are Eastern Prickly Pears (Opuntia cespitosa), and the rare endemic mints Brazoria truncata var. pulcherrima and Rhododon ciliatus.

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The brilliant colors of a Post Oak Savanna sand “blowout” in spring.

One morning, while I was preparing breakfast, Caro rushed in from the backyard and told me to come quick.  There was a brightly colored Three-toed Box Turtle at the edge of our little vegetable garden.  Caro named her Frederick, and we watched as she moved about the yard, picking off slugs and other tasty morsels.  Eventually we lost sight of her in a dense tangle of vines at the back corner of the yard.

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A Three-toed Box Turtle that Caro found in our yard and lovingly named “Frederick”.

The next day, Caro ran in again, calling for me to “come and see”.  This time she had found a female stag beetle (Lucanus placidus) in her shoe!

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A female stag beetle (Lucanus placidus) that Caro found in her shoe.

As I was photographing the beetle Caro called my attention to a striking Eight-spotted Forester Moth (Alypia octomaculata) that was nectaring on the Coreopsis blooms in our garden.

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An Eight-spotted Forester Moth nectars on Coreopsis blooms.

A few days later, Caro found another interesting beetle in the yard, a colorful Line Buprestis (Buprestis lineatus).

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A Lined Buprestis Beetle

My eagle-eyed wife also spotted this little jumping spider (Colonus sylvanus) in our garden.

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A jumping spider on a Purple Coneflower bloom in our Garden.

Target Species: White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

When I added White-tailed Deer to my list of 2017 biodiversity goals, I had a very specific image in mind.  Though the image below is not exactly what I had hoped for, I was happy enough with it to cross the species off my list.  Caro and I spotted this young buck in a mature Longleaf Pine Savanna one evening, and I managed a few shots before it disappeared among the rolling terrain.

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A young White-tailed Deer Buck in a longleaf pine savanna.

Back in our yard, we came across a Fiery Searcher (Calosoma scrutator).  Also known as the Caterpillar Hunter, this large predatory beetle is, in my opinion, among the most beautiful insects in the country.

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A Fiery Searcher on the hunt in our backyard.

In early June, I found a nice male Eastern Hercules Beetle (Dynastes tityus) near our house.  One of North America’s largest and most impressive insects, these beetles inhabit mature forests with abundant hardwoods.

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A fine male Eastern Hercules Beetle

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A fine male Eastern Hercules beetle.

In late July, our old friend Frederick the Three-toed Box Turtle appeared again in our backyard.  Caro spotted her eating cantaloupe rinds from fruit that we set out to try and attract beetles and other insects to our yard.

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Frederick returns for a visit

I’ll end this post with an image from early August, the last time I set out into the woods with the intention of making images.  I spotted this Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans) feeding on predatory robber fly.  The spider had taken an ambush position among the blooms of a Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera).

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A Green Lynx Spider in ambush mode on the blooms of a Rough Blazing Star.

I am very much looking forward to fall, and hope to set out to capture new landscapes and biodiversity with a renewed passion and sense of purpose.

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

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From the high plains we continued west, deeper into the Land of Enchantment.  As we gradually climbed in elevation, our surroundings changed from shortgrass prairie to sagebrush flats to Rocky Mountain foothills dominated by pinyon and juniper.  It was in the latter community that I saw something slink across the road ahead of us, which I took to be a coyote.  We pulled up to where I saw the animal and got out, but after scanning the area a few minutes found nothing. We returned to the truck and moved forward no more than a hundred yards or so when Caro shouted, “There it is!”. The rest was a bit of a blur of excitement, however what I do remember is seeing that something didn’t look right for a coyote. Quickly grabbing the binoculars I focused on what turned out to be two animals about 50 yards away.  In that moment I heard Caro shout “Son Pumas!”, and it became clear, as I focused on two young pumas staring at us. Quickly I pulled off the road and fumbled for my camera gear, but they took off immediately. I had managed a few distant shots of their tails, when something burst out from the brush about 30 yards away and went after them. We assume this larger, more strikingly colored individual was their mother. Again I only managed a shot of her back as she ran off, but this encounter with a trio of Mountain Lions was more about the experience than the photos. This is a species I had always dreamed of seeing during the western explorations of my childhood, but despite being in the right habitat so many times, I never did. Instead, I would finally come face to face with them in a chance encounter when I least expected it.  That evening we continued into Taos, and looked longingly to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains towering around us, eager to immerse ourselves in their beauty.

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Young Pumas retreating.

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Adult Puma retreating

The next morning we set out into the semi-arid foothills around Taos in search of garnet and staurolite, two interesting minerals known to occur in the vicinity of the Rio Grande.  Our search took us through rugged 4×4 roads which I enjoyed navigating.  Along the way we stopped to admire a cast of unfamiliar wildflowers.  Of particular interest were several species of Penstemon.  I later learned that there are some 40+ species of Penstemon in New Mexico!  While we saw only a fraction of this diversity, we were quite taken with the species we did observe.  Growing among pinyon and ponderosa pines we found Penstemon virgatus.  This species is apparently quite variable, and its flowers may be blue, purple, pink, or white.

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Penstemon virgatus

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

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Penstemon inflatus

Slightly higher in elevation we spotted the five-foot tall Penstemon palmeri.  It may have been the most impressive penstemon I’ve seen, with a spike of huge, tightly packed pink blooms.  In general, penstemons are not particularly fragrant.  This species, however, filled the air around it with a strong, sweet aroma.

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Penstemon palmeri

Higher still we found several clusters of Penstemon strictus, a unique, beautiful addition to the flora of the region.  Many species of penstemon are popular in the world of horticulture, and make excellent additions to a native garden.

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Penstemon strictus

Growing among the Penstemon virgatus and P. inflatus we found several Sego Lilies (Calochortus nuttallii).  These beautiful, dainty blooms grew in clearings in the pine-dominated foothills.

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Sego Lily

Along crystal clear streams swollen from rapidly melting snow in the high country, we found abundant thickets of Woods’s Rose (Rosa woodsii).  This native rose decorates the countryside with its pink blooms and fills the summer air with its sweet aroma.

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Woods’s Rose

After searching for the better part of a day, we finally found several pieces of schist bearing the minerals we were after.  It was these minerals that prompted Caro to suggest a trip to the area, and the excitement we shared after finding them was one of the highlights of the trip.  The discovery came after a long hot morning of searching, right as an early afternoon thunderstorm bore down on us.  Hail and lightning caused us to retreat to the truck, where we waited out the weather and resumed our search with renewed intensity.  The rocks of interest were much easier to spot as they glistened, wet with rainwater.

With our thirst for rockhounding satisfied, we opted to spend the rest of the day in the high country, and made our way into the lush montane forests of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  The Sangre de Cristos run from southern colorado into northern New Mexico.  In their northern reaches they contain a number of “fourteeners”, that is mountain peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation.  They are a bit shorter here, but Wheeler Peak (the highest point in New Mexico) still climbs to over 13,000 feet and is a short distance from Taos.

As we climbed in elevation we began to notice a wealth of mountain wildflowers.  We were still too early for the incredible display of wildflowers that bloom in the summer in subalpine meadows of the Rockies – truly one of the most spectacular wildflower shows on the planet – but there were still plenty of floral diversity to admire.

Large colonies of Rocky Mountain Iris (Iris missouriensis), for example, painted clearings above 8,000 feet.  Most of these delicate blooms were damaged by recent rain and hail, yet I managed to find a few fresh individuals to photograph.

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Rocky Mountain Iris

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

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White Marsh Marigold

The most impressive wildflower displays were to be found in the shade of forests dominated by Engelmann Spruce, Subalpine Fir, and Douglas-Fir.  Here we found several species growing in close proximity, including Rock Clematis (Clematis columbiana), Western Red Columbine (Aquilegia elegantula), and Franciscan Bluebells (Mertensia franciscana).

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Rock Columbine

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Western Red Columbine

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Franciscan Bluebells

The most exciting discoveries, however, were the orchids.  I have long been fascinated by this family of peculiar plants, and was happy to finally see a number of species I have long wanted to photograph.  In one patch of forest we found three species of the myco-heterotrophic genus Corallorhiza.  I have written about one of these species, C. wisteriana in one of my first blog posts.  Myco-heterotrophy refers to the process of obtaining nutrients and energy by parasitizing the mycorhizzal fungi of tree roots.  Orchids of this genus are completely dependent on these fungi for survival, and have even lost the ability to photosynthesize.  The lack of leaves and the green pigment chlorophyll makes spotting them a real challenge.  This difficulty made finding them all the more rewarding.

I did not photograph the C. wisteriana that we observed, but I couldn’t resist photographing the beautiful blooms of the Striped Coralroot (Corallorhiza striata).  This species has been recorded in the Guadalupe and Chinati Mountains of Texas, but is by all accounts very rare.  We found only a single plant growing on a rocky wooded slope.

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Striped Coralroot

I think I probably jumped for joy when Caro called out that she had found a Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata).  This species has also been recorded in Texas, in the Davis and Chisos Mountains, and like the Striped Coralroot is believed to be very rare.  It turned out to be the most common orchid of the trip, and we found dozens in various stages from newly emerging flowering stems to individuals in full, splendid bloom like the one pictured below.

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Spotted Coralroot

The absolute floral highlight of the trip however, and perhaps second only to the pumas in terms of overall trip highlights, was finally encountering a species that I had dreamed of seeing since I was a little kid pouring through field guides and coffee table nature books – The Fairy Slipper Orchid (Calypso bulbosa).  This orchid always seemed so exotic to me.  As a kid, I probably hiked past many not knowing where or how to look. On this trip, however, Caro and I spotted many on the mossy floor of a spruce/fir forest at 10,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristos. I photographed them as I breathed in the chilly mountain air and listened to the rushing waters of a creek swollen with snow melt.

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Fairy Slipper Orchid

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Fairy Slipper Orchid

Soon our time in the Land of Enchantment came to an end.  We were sad to say goodbye to the Sange de Cristos, but grateful for the enrichment they provided us.  The Rocky Mountains hold a very special place in my heart, as it is where I fell in love with nature as a young boy, and I was glad to introduce Caro to them, and see on her face the same sense of awe and wonder that I feel for these very special places.

The Land of Enchantment Part One: Flora and Fauna of the High Plains

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Pronghorn Buck

When westward expansion was gripping the nation during the 19th century, the American frontier was not defined by the towering mountains and rugged desert that exemplify the term today, but rather endless expanses of prairie inhabited by millions of American bison, pronghorn, elk, wolves, and grizzly bears.  As countless wagons wore ruts into the prairie’s earth, black-tailed prairie dogs kept a watchful eye for badgers and black-footed ferrets, and a chorus of thriving grassland songbird populations filled the air.

Today, the prairie is a very different place, however standing in an un-plowed stretch of prairie in Union County, New Mexico that reached from horizon to horizon, I could imagine what it may have been like.  I was overwhelmed in a land that seemed so initially sparse.  But here, the diversity is in the details.  A diversity of nondescript grasses and small wildflowers, pollinators, and cryptic prairie denizens.

It had been years since I explored the natural wonders of the aptly named Land of Enchantment.  New Mexico is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, and contains a wide array of habitat from alpine tundra to low desert.  Our ultimate destination in the state was the sagebrush laden foothills around Taos and the high peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  Our journey would first take us through some of the finest expanses of shortgrass prairie in the country.

In the prairie around the base of Capulin Volcano, we found large groups of blooming Silvery Lupine (Lupinus argenteus).  This species also occurs in Texas, but is rare and confined to a few sites in the Panhandle near the border.  These New Mexican prairies, however, were loaded with them.

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Silvery Lupine

There are apparently some 11 varieties of Lupinus argenteus in New Mexico, which can make their identification a bit tricky.  We found at least two varieties growing in close proximity.

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Silvery Lupine

We also found Nebraska Lupine (Lupinus plattensis) blooming here, but its flowers were far past prime.  This species has been recorded in the Texas Panhandle as well, but like the Silvery Lupine, is very scarce.

Growing among the lupines were several other wildflowers, including several Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrushes (Castilleja integra).  I have always been fond of this genus of hemiparasites.

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Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush

James’s Penstemon (Penstemon jamesii) was also common in this area.  This lovely plant is named for Edwin James.  James was one of the first anglo naturalists to explore the American West.  I strongly recommend reading more on this fascinating and influential figure who discovered, collected, and described many western species.

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James’s Penstemon

Near Capulin we found a single Spinystar (Escobaria vivipara) in bloom.  Further west, and at a higher elevation in Colfax County, however, we found several.  I was thrilled to find this tiny prairie cactus, which would have been essentially invisible if not for the bright pink blooms.

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Escobaria vivipara

Growing at 8,000 feet I spotted a sea of blush swaying among the greens and grays of broad meadow.  It was Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum).  This iconic prairie plant is named for its puffy achenes which resemble billowing smoke of a distant fire.  These can be seen developing in the background of the photo below.  Geum triflorum was long used by native cultures as a medicinal plant, and is purported to help a variety of ailments.

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Prairie Smoke

Years ago, during my family’s annual trek west, I always looked forward to spotting Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) in the vast plains of eastern New Mexico.  This year we saw more than I ever remember seeing back then.  It was no doubt due in part to Carolina’s eagle eyes, however I like to think that the species is continuing its nearly century long rebound from near extinction in the early 1900s.

When Europeans first visited the West, there were an estimated 35 million pronghorn roaming the plains.  By the turn of the 20th century, it is estimated there were barely 10,000 left.  That’s a population decline of over 99.999%.  Like the American Bison, the open country that the pronghorn called home made them easy targets for hunters.  Fortunately, in the 1920’s conservation efforts began to protect both the species and its habitat, and today some estimates put the population at nearly a million.

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Pronghorn Buck

The pronghorn is a species that is at the same time, beautiful, bizarre, graceful, and gangly.  They are supremely adapted for life on the prairie, and for speed and endurance.  Adaptations like enlarged lungs, windpipes, and hearts, interlocking grooves in their joints that allow for a unilateral line of travel, and an enhanced circulatory system make them the fastest sustained runners on the planet.

Despite commonly being referred to as antelope, pronghorn are note closely related to true antelope, which are restricted to the Old World.  They are the only surviving member of the family Antilocapridae, which evolved in North America during the Miocene.  They’re extreme speed and endurance is believed to have evolved as a defense against the extinct American cheetah, which would have been a major predator of their habitats.  Today there are no predators that can come close to matching an adult pronghorn’s speed or endurance in open country.  Enlarged eyes with a field of vision of nearly 320 degrees that can spot a potential threat two miles away ensure that a potential predator would rarely get the chance to test this theory.  I can’t help but think that old pronghorn bucks know this, as they rarely seem concerned with my presence, even in areas where they would seldom encounter humans.  When I drop low to the ground, however, their tone changes as can be seen in the intense stare of the huge buck pictured below.

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Pronghorn Buck

I could have easily spent a few days photographing pronghorn for as long as the light would allow.  We saw bachelor groups, solitary dominant bucks, and does with fawns.  This iconic species is as good a poster child for the prairie as any, and I can’t wait to be in the speedgoat’s presence once more.

The prairie saved one of her best surprises for last.  After spending a few days in the vicinity of Taos, we made the return trip through the high plains toward home.  While driving a remote stretch of prairie road I heard Caro call out “FOX!”  I glanced in my rear view in time to see a pair of tawny, house cat sized creatures.  Turning round, we were able to fix our gaze on a pair of Swift Foxes (Vulpes velox) lounging near their burrows.  We watched them for some time, and I captured a few documentation photos.  I had hoped to approach a bit closer for higher quality images, but they were quick to retreat to their burrows.  We waited for some time, but the wind was not with us and we soon concluded it was a futile attempt.  We left content in having captured a glimpse of this elusive prairie denizen.

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Swift Fox

My parting shot for this blog entry is an image of a double rainbow taken after we passed through a late afternoon thunderstorm.  The cool air, smell of wet grass and earth, sound of distant thunder, and broad view of the prairie perfectly sum up the magic I felt here, at the western edge of the Great Plains.

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Double Rainbow

A Bucket List Beetle

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Bumelia Borer

It seems like I’m always writing about something that “I’ve wanted to see since I was a kid”. That’s because, presumably like most of my lifelong naturalist friends, I spent much of my childhood pouring over field guides and natural history books, and dreaming of one day finding the beautiful and fascinating organisms contained within.  In that respect, my bucket list grew very, very long.

Readers of this blog have also likely noticed that I love beetles. My passion for these armored insects began in earnest in 7th grade, when my first life sciences teacher, Mrs. Powell, tasked us with putting together an insect collection. I already had a strong passion for nature and science thanks to my parents, but Mrs. Powell’s assignment opened up the exciting world of insect hunting and collecting to me. I have continued to collect on and off throughout the years, though today I very rarely take specimens, preferring to record encounters with my camera.

After 7th grade, we moved from Chicago to Texas, and it opened up a whole new world of entomological wonders to me. I bought field guides on Texas insects, and immediately started marking the species I wanted to see. With the help of my parents, I targeted some of these. I remember one trip in particular, when my mom took my brother, a friend, and I on a trip toward College Station to find my first Ironclad Beetle, which I did, along with my first Wheel Bug, IO Moth, and a Striped Bark Scorpion.

Over the years my passion for insects waxed and waned, as it competed with other budding interests like birds and plants. Yet I always kept a soft spot for beetles.

One species that I immediately noticed in my Texas Field Guides was the Bumelia Borer (Plinthocoelium suaveolens), a spectacular long-horned beetle that is, in my opinion, a serious contender for the most beautiful beetle in the country.  Though this species would likely be relatively easy to find due to its host specificity and propensity to visit bait traps, I had never made the effort. I had found bits of elytral and exoskeletal remains on a few occasions in central Texas, but had yet to see a live individual.

This all changed last weekend, when I visited the Nature Conservancy’s Nash Prairie Preserve. Here I found an absolute bounty of pollinators visiting the sea of blooming Rattlesnake Master in this exceptionally high quality coastal prairie remnant. I photographed Trigonopeltastes delta, a beautiful flower scarab, and watched Carolina Mantis nymphs as they sat in ambush on the Rattlesnake Master’s flower heads.

Then I saw a massive flying insect, which appeared iridescent bluish black with an orange abdomen, and I initially took to be some manner of spider wasp. When it landed, however, I instantly recognized it as the species I have so long wanted to see.

I followed this spectacular beetle around the prairie for over an hour. It was uninterested in my presence, and allowed for a very close approach as it moved from flower to flower feeding. This species comes in a variety of color morphs, and I was lucky to see one with elements of turquoise and cobalt blue. For me, it’s beauty ranks right up there with the spectacular jewel beetles of the genus Chrysina found in West Texas.

Observing this beetle was one of those magical experiences that happened when I least expected it, and it was made all the more special by the incredible setting of the Nash Prairie – a testament to the importance of this place and the conservation work of the Nature Conservancy and other organizations like it.

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Bumelia Borer

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Bumelia Borer

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Bumelia Borer

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Carolina Mantis Nymph

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Trigonopeltastes delta