Vernal Pools: The Kingdom of the Amphibians

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Ovipositing Spotted Salamander

There are few things more magical, few moments more memorable, and few experiences more rewarding than exploring a vernal pool in late winter and early spring.  I wish everyone could know the joy that I feel standing ankle deep in the frigid water amid a deafening cacophony of Spring Peepers and chorus frogs.

Vernal pools are isolated wetlands that form in upland depressions.  In the great forests of the eastern United States, of which the Pineywoods of East Texas are essentially an extension, they often occur in open, mature forests over pockets of dense clay scattered among a matrix of otherwise loamy soil.  They may also occur in the scars of old stream beds left after some waterway changed course millennia ago.  The unique topography of these areas result in pools that hold water during the winter and spring and dry in the summer and fall.

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A dry vernal pool in fall

Vernal pools begin to fill in the late fall and early winter with the return of regular rainfall patterns associated with frequent fronts.  At the same time trees and other plants are entering a period of dormancy, when their water requirements are reduced dramatically.  This reduction in plant activity results in a rising of the water table.  In more northerly climates the pools may not fill until the spring snow melt funnels water to them.  By later spring and early summer, the water table begins to drop as thirsty roots draw from it.  Evapotranspiration increases, and by late summer these depressions will be dry as a bone.

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A full vernal pool in late winter

The ephemeral nature of these wetlands means that fish are unable to survive here.  This does not mean that vernal pools are devoid of life, however.  A multitude of invertebrates specialize in vernal pools and a spectacular array of amphibians depend on them to breed.  It is, in fact, the absence of fish that allow these organisms to thrive here.  Without these voracious piscene predators, and with an abundance of invertebrate prey, amphibian larvae can flourish.

Many amphibians typical of eastern North America reach the southwestern extend in East Texas.  Most of these species breed during the first substantial warm rains of late winter and early spring, often undergoing mass migrations from upland refugia to reach the vernal pools.  Easily the most spectacular of these amphibians, and perhaps my favorite animal of all time, is the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum).  These large, brightly colored members of the family Ambystomatidae are like the “poster children” of vernal pools.  Their fate is so closely tied to these unique habitats that they are indicator species for them.  And as healthy vernal pools depend on a healthy, mature forest, the Spotted Salamander is, in turn, an indicator species for the health of the entire forest.

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A male Spotted Salamander 

Spotted salamanders spend the majority of their lives confined to small burrows, generally excavated by some species of rodent or other fossorial creature.  As the warm winter rains begin to saturate the soil they slowly emerge from their underground haunts and make their way, en masse, to the vernal pools of their birth.  The males arrive first.  They can be identified this time of year by their swollen cloacas.  When all is said and done they will outnumber the females several to one.  After entering the water they dutifully set out to find the perfect spot to deposit their spermatophore, a gelatinous deposit containing their genetic material.  Here they await the arrival of the females.

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A Spotted Salamander emerges from the leaf litter

When the females do arrive their are swollen with a gelatinous mass of eggs within.  The males dance and display around their spermatophore with a series of flips, gyrations, and underwater acrobatics.  Once they have caught the eye of a female they gently guide her over their spermatophore.  She picks it up with her cloaca and uses it to fertilize her eggs.  She then deposits an impossibly massive egg mass on a submerged twig or vegetation.  The salamanders do not dawdle in the ponds, and as soon as they arrived they return to their upland burrows.  Here they will remain for the rest of the year.  Part of what makes seeing a Spotted Salamander so special is knowing that they are only visible to the above-ground world for a few shorts weeks of the year.

The salamander eggs are protected by a thick gelatinous mass that is resistant to desiccation should the pool dry for a short time during their development.  The Spotted Salamander have a mutualistic relationship with an algae, Oophila amblystomatis, which is found exclusively within the salamanders’ egg masses.  The algae benefits from the nitrogen-rich waste products produced by the developing embryos while the embryos themselves are oxygenated through the biproducts of the photosynthesizing algae.

Eventually tiny, legless gilled salamander larvae will emerge from the egg masses.  They will feed and grow within the vernal pools until sometime in late spring when their legs and lungs are fulled developed.  They will then absorb their gills, lose their tail fins, and emerge from the water to begin a terrestrial life.

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Spotted Salamander Egg Mass

There are other species of salamander that utilize vernal pools.  The Mole Salamander (Ambystoma talpoideum) is a small, stocky salamander of the southeastern United States.  They occur in a variety of ephemeral wetlands, from vernal pools to permanent fish-free ponds within longleaf pine savannahs.  Populations in East Texas often contain both terrestrial and neotenic adults.  In neoteny, adults retain juvnile characteristics; in this case gills and aquatic morphology.  These neotonic adults enjoy an entirely aquatic existence, even breeding in the water.  If the pool begins to drain, however, these aquatic adults can absorb their gills and morph into terrestrial adults.

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Mole Salamander

In East Texas, Smallmouth Salamanders (Ambystoma texanum) seem to be most common in large ephemeral wetland complexes in floodplain forests.  They will still utilize traditional vernal pools, however.  They are variable in pattern, having a variety of lichen-like blotches and flecks ranging from blue-gray to rusty brown.  In Texas they occur in scattered populations throughout much of the eastern third of the state.

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Smallmouth Salamander

The Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum) is an anomaly.  While the other Ambystomatid salamanders in East Texas breed in the late winter/early spring, the Marbled Salamander breeds in the fall, when the vernal pools are still dry.  During autumn’s first cool rains they migrate to the dry pool basins.  Here they breed on the land, and the female deposits her eggs on dry earth beneath logs and other natural debris within the depression.  Here she will stay, guarding her eggs, until the winter rains fill the pools and inundate the eggs.

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A female Marbled Salamander guarding her eggs.

There is method to this madness, however.  By the time the eggs of the Spotted, Mole, and Smallmouth Salamanders have hatched, the Marbled Salamander larvae have been growing for weeks.  What ensues is a mass slaughter of intra-generic predation, as Marbled Salamander larvae consume hundreds of their congenerics.  This spring we observed hundreds of Spotted Salamander egg masses, and most had at least one Marbled Salamander larva sitting atop them.  For a short while at least, the Marbled Salamander is the king of the vernal pool.

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A male Marbled Salamander

Marbled Salamander adults are sexually dimorphic.  Males have bright white to silvery dorsal markings while the markings of the female are a duller silver or copper.  Males arrive to the dry pools first, and as with the Spotted Salamander, significantly outnumber the females.

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Marbled Salamander male (upper right) and female (lower left)

The above mentioned salamanders all have fascinating life histories, but they pale in comparison to the complexity of the life cycle of the Central Newt (Nothophthalmus viridescens louisianensis).  The Central Newt starts life as an aquatic larva emerging from eggs laid in the water.  After a short time they morph into a terrestrial juvenile known as an “eft”.  During this time their skin is noticeably dry to the touch.  After spending a couple of years on land, these juveniles typically return to the water, where they will morph again into an aquatic adult.

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Central Newt Eft

To those exploring a vernal pool at night, their eyes are undoubtedly drawn to the salamanders swimming below the water’s surface.  Their ears, however, belong to the frogs.  Depending on the time of year, a multitude of intricate frog calls may ring out, often in deafening spectacularity.  One of the best known of these anurans is the Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer).  These tiny harbingers of spring fill the night air with their peeping calls that seem too loud to come from such a tiny thing.

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Spring Peeper

Our East Texas representative of the Pseudacris feriarum complex is the Cajun Chorus Frog (Pseudacris fouquettei).  These diminutive frogs seem to breed just about anywhere that water remains for more than a few weeks.  Their call has been likened to a finger running through the teeth of a comb.  In my area P. fouquettei typically starts calling in early to mid December.  I have found many a good vernal pool by following the calls of the Cajun Chorus Frog.

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Cajun Chorus Frog

The Gray Tree Frogs (Hyla chrysoscelis and Hyla versicolor) typically begin breeding in mid Spring, later than the Spring Peeper and Cajun Chorus Frog.  The two species of Gray Tree Frog can only be differentiated by their calls.  In East Texas they typically begin calling in late February/Early March, and may call well into the summer following heavy rains.

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Cope’s Gray Tree Frog (Hyla chrysoscelis)

Perhaps my favorite anuran inhabitant of vernal pools is the Pickerel Frog (Lithobates [Ranapalustris).  They can be differentiated from the similar Southern Leopard Frog by the two rows of large-block like blotches on their back and bright yellow inner legs.  While they are common throughout much of their range, the Pickerel Frog is uncommon in East Texas.  Along with the Southern Leopard Frog, it is one of the earliest breeding Ranids in the Pineywoods.  The Pickerel Frog is known for its toxicity.  Some people who handle these frogs report sensations from mild tingling to moderate pain in their fingers afterwards.  Fortunately I have never had a reaction.  They are also toxic to other amphibians, and may kill other species that are confined to plastic bags with them.

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Pickerel Frog

The Southern Leopard Frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus [Rana sphenocephala]) is one of our commonest Ranids.  I remember the first time I heard their haunting call.  I thought I was listening to some dispute between raccoons or some similar mammal.  Southern Leopard Frogs are quite variable, but their spots are always smaller and more randomly distributed than those of the Pickerel Frog.  They also lack the bright yellow inner legs of their toxic cousins.

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Southern Leopard Frog

The annual amphibian migration to vernal pools is truly one of nature’s great spectacles.  I remember one night a few years ago when Carolina and I, accompanied by some of our closest friends, went out to a vernal pool at night.  A warm front had moved in, drenching East Texas with bands of rain throughout the day and into the night.  As we began travelling to our destination the rain began to pick up, and branched lightning descended from the clouds, dancing across the sky and illuminating the columns of shadow in the dark forest. I was full of anticipation and doubt as we approached the pond. Though the conditions seemed perfect, I had tried this very thing before and turned up empty handed.

Almost inexplicably, at nearly the exact moment we arrived at the pond, the rain had stopped. I rushed to the ponds edge, flashlight in hand. Immediately it became clear that all of my doubts were for naught. As my light crossed the leafy bottom of the vernal pool I could see hundreds of yellow spots; Spots decorating the backs of dozens of Spotted Salamanders that darted back and forth beneath the clear water. We did it, I thought, we timed it perfectly. The calm night was interrupted by the voices of innumerable Cajun chorus frogs that sang from the pool’s edge. It was, without a doubt, one of the most incredible natural events I had ever witnessed.

It was at that moment, when I thought that things couldn’t be more perfect, that my heart could not be more whole, that Carolina said, “look at the sky.” I looked up and saw that the clouds had broken, and in their wake the brilliance of millions of stars shone in the moonless night sky. And though I may be a secular person, the sensation I felt at that moment was no less profound than some deeply religious experience. For the most incredible moments in life need not be some miracle brought on by divine powers, but rather the countless natural wonders of the very world to which we all are a part.

How To: Bluebird Photography

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Eastern Bluebird Male

For the past several years I’ve been collecting images for a book I hope to publish on the natural history of the Pineywoods.  I have set out to capture images of species both common and rare, and those unknown and iconic.  Some of our more iconic birds, however, can be difficult to capture in a natural setting.

Take one of our most iconic American birds, the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis), for example.  This member of the thrush family can be found open areas, such as pastures, fallow fields, rural residences, golf courses, etc. provided that there are at least some trees in the vicinity.  They are most often seen perched on fence posts, telephone wires, or similar human constructs.  For my book, however, I wanted to capture them in a setting that would mimic their habitat prior to human settlement.

Before I get into how we went about creating the images, I would like to share a little information on my subject.  The story of the Eastern Bluebird is a long an interesting one, filled with ups and downs. Historic accounts indicate that as the first settlers pushed into the bluebird’s habitat they were restricted to open pine savannahs, mature woodlands with open understories, prairie inclusions within broader expanses of forests, and similar habitats. The bluebird likely benefited from the these early settlers, as they cleared small patches of forests, resulting in an increase of the open habitat preferred by the birds.

Bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters, meaning that they nest in cavities that have already been excavated by primary cavity nesters like woodpeckers. Historically they would have selected abandoned tree cavities. Unfortunately for the bluebird, in the late 19th century two invasive cavity nesters, the European Starling and the House Sparrow, were introduced from the Old World. They quickly proliferated and outcompeted native Bluebirds for cavity sites.

As the 20th century wore on land conversion continued, and in increased urbanization eliminated the habitats that the bluebird, and so many other species depend on. The one-two punch of habitat loss and competition from the invading cavity nesters caused a sharp decline in bluebird populations, until by the 1970s naturalists noted that they had become exceedingly scarce.

Around this time bluebird boxes began to gain in popularity, and landowners who were enthralled by the striking beauty of the little thrushes established “bluebird trails” on their property. Bluebird boxes are crafted in a way that they are unsuitable for use by European Starlings. This, coupled with increased environmental awareness and regulations enacted to protect native wildlife, has resulted in a steady increase in bluebird populations. Today this iconic species is once again a common sight throughout much of the American countryside.

Armed with the knowledge of their historic habitat, James and I set out to capture them in a naturalistic setting.  James has a large group of bluebirds that utilize the bluebird trail around the cabin on his ranch.  We looked around the area for ideas to create suitable natural perches, and came across a Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata), its branches laden with pine cones.  Similar to its cousin the Longleaf Pine, shortleaf often occurred in open, occassionally savannah-like uplands alongside scattered oaks and hickories.  I speculate that in their old growth condition, these forests would have been ideal Eastern Bluebird habitat.

So we selected some prime looking shortleaf boughs and fastened them to the back of the bluebird boxes and adjacent fence posts.  We then set up a portable blind and waited.  Once again James lent me his Canon 600mm lens.  A note on the photo below, following our photo session I forgot to take an image of the setup, so I asked James to grab one for me the next time he was at his property.  When he set out to do so he realized that his cows had pulled down all of our perches.  He set them back up the best he could, and the setup in the image is essentially the same as the one we used to capture the image.

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Bluebird Photography Setup

We waited for some time before the male bluebird came in to check on his box.  Almost immediately he landed on one of the perches.  Excitedly I rattled off a series of shots and as soon as he had arrived, he hopped down to the fence.

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Eastern Bluebird Male

Ecstatic that our idea had worked so effectively, we anticipated that any moment he would hop back up onto one of the perches for more opportunities, but instead he just sat on the fence.  Occasionally he went to examine his nest box, but soon returned to the fence or to forage on the ground nearby.  After a while a female and a few of last year’s offspring showed up.  They were much more willing to land on the perches than the showier mature male.

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Eastern Bluebird Female

Eventually he did return to some of the perches, each time providing us a few seconds to try and craft an image.  Though a setup like this requires a lot patience and downtime in the blind, ultimately it paid off with the type of images I was seeking.  If we can find a way to keep the cows from pulling down the perches, I think these limbs can also provide some benefit to the bluebirds.  Perhaps they will provide a better means to survey their territory, and attract invertebrates to provide an easy meal to their future offspring.  Either way, I’m happy for the opportunity to provide a glimpse into what the life of the Eastern Bluebird may have been like before the hand of man changed the landscape forever.

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Eastern Bluebird Male

Witches in Winter

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Big-leaf Witch-hazel

There are three species of Hamamelis a.k.a. Witch-hazel in the United States.  All three species occur in East Texas, and today I present two of them.  Witch-hazel was an important plant for native cultures and settlers, both for its wide range of uses and associated folklore.

Witch-hazels contain a variety of medicinal compounds.  Native Americans used witch-hazel extract to treat skin conditions, swelling, inflammation, burns, insect bites, poison ivy, stomach issues, colds, and more.  Early settlers adopted these uses, and with-hazel extract is still used today for a multitude of skin products including aftershave.

Witch-hazel twigs were also frequently used for “witching for water”.  Also known as “divining”, witching involves walking while lightly holding a forked twig at the points of each side of the split.  Legend has it when the twig passes over water, the opposite end will point toward the ground.

Once while visiting an East Texas old graveyard with long-time resident and expert on everything East Texas, Keith Stephens, he told me and the group we were with a legend I hadn’t heard.  This legend states that if one carries a small witch-hazel twig in each hand pointing straight in front of them, the twigs will turn to the right or left when passing over the grave of a woman.  Every member of the group proceeded to try, and it proved true for each of us.  Perhaps there is a little magic in this interesting genus.

Their blooms certainly seem to be magical, blooming at the height of winter when no other plant dares to.  I’ve seen them bloom from mid December to mid January.  It seems foolhardy for a plant to bloom at this time, but by doing so they receive little to no competition from other species for hungry pollinators.  Though few insects are active this time of year I have observed several hover flies visiting the same witch-hazel shrub on a cool January day.

The most common and wide-spread species of witch-hazel in the U.S. is the American Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).  In Texas it ranges over much of the southern Pineywoods with a disjunct population in the Edward’s Plateau.  It can be identified by its pure yellow flowers.

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American Witch-hazel

The Big-leaf Witch-hazel (Hamamelis ovalis) was only recently discovered in Texas.  This species was first described in 2006.  At the time it was thought to be restricted to just a single site in Mississippi. Shortly after it was discovered at a handful of other sites in Mississippi and Alabama.  A couple of years ago it was found in the rich forested slopes of extreme eastern Texas. Though it may yet be discovered in parts of Louisiana, it appears to exhibit an interesting disjunction noted in a number of other species in the coastal plain.

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Big-leaf Witch-hazel

The flowers of Hamamelis ovalis are generally maroon or wine-colored, however they can occasionally be orange or bi-colored, with orange centers and yellow petal-tips.

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Big-leaf Witch-hazel

Observing the witch-hazel in winter helps to satisfy the wildflower withdrawal that tends to come with winter.  Fortunately here in East Texas our winters are fairly short, and in just a few short weeks we should begin to see the blooms of our brilliant spring ephemerals!

Back to my Roots: Fun with Bird Photography

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Blue-winged Teal

It was birds that first sparked my obsession with photography some 15 or so years ago.  I remember my excitement when I finally got a 3.2 megapixel camera with a 10x optical zoom, when digital cameras were still in their infancy.  Over the next few years I would receive my first digital SLR from my parents, which opened up a whole new world of photographic opportunities, followed shortly by a canon 100-400mm zoom lens.  I spent a lot of time photographing with that lens, and made some images that still rank among my favorites.  But over the years I began to branch out, and learned that photographing less erratic subjects, like reptiles and amphibians, wildflowers, and landscapes, while challenging in its own right, was much less frustrating than bird photography.  It was easier to get “the shot”, as I could control most aspects of the subject, and executing the shot fell largely on my skills as a photographer.  With birds, while one still must rely heavily on skill, we are at the mercy of our flighty subjects.

So bird photography took a back burner.  While I enjoyed the 100-400mm lens, it just didn’t produce the high quality images that I wanted on a regular basis.  Conditions had to be just perfect, and the subject extremely cooperative to get the type of shot I was after.  I honed my macro and landscape skills, and only occasionally returned to my feathered friends.

While I couldn’t say that I like birds more than flora or herps, it is true that in my professional career I have more experience with the Class Aves than any other group.  For my Master’s I studied the avian communities of Iguazú National Park in northeastern Argentina, where I would meet my future wife, Carolina.  I have also studied Snowy Plovers in the salt lakes and playas of the Texas Panhandle, and the rare and declining avifauna of the saltmarshes of the Delmarva Peninsula.  So as bird photography, and coincidentally birdwatching began to vanish from my life, it felt like I was left with some void.

As luck would have it, right around Christmas my good friend James Childress lucked into a fantastic deal on a very lightly used Canon 600mm.  In my book this is THE bird photography lens.  It is the lens that the pros I admired used.  It is the lens I always dreamed about but thought I would never have.  One thing that you need to know about James (and his wife Erin) is that they are extremely generous, and value shared experiences and good times over personal possessions.  Being that James and I spend a great deal of time in the field exploring and photographing together (he often credits (blames?) me for his own obsession for nature photography) , he told me that he would like me to help him test out the lens.  I was, of course, honored and overwhelmed at the thought of this dream come true.

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James with his new lens

Wanting to be a good friend, I not-so-reluctantly obliged to James’s generous offer.  So we set out to test the capabilities of the new lens.  While I will only be posting my images in this blog, I HIGHLY recommend that you check out James’s Flickr photostream (click here).

We took a weekend trip to the coast, where we first found several Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris).

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Ring-necked Duck

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Ring-necked Duck

I was supremely impressed with how the lens captured the handsome diving ducks.  But wondered how it would work on smaller, more active birds.  I would soon get my chance.  It’s hard to imagine a bird much smaller or more active than the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula), but the lens captured it beautifully among the Spanish Moss draped on an old Cedar Elm.

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Just because I was growing interested in birds again doesn’t mean I was about to neglect the other photographic subjects I had grown so fond of.  We found this huge River Cooter (Pseudemys concinna) basking on a cold day.

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River Cooter

I was amazed at how well the lens captured the ambient light.  I opted for a low angle on this Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) to help isolate it from the wetland plants it was sheltering among.

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Common Gallinule

Perhaps the highlight of our weekend trip to the coast was observing several American Bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus).  Though they are quite large, these are very cryptic birds, and can be hard to isolate from their surroundings.  Thanks to the focal length and low aperture capabilities of this lens, however, getting this master of camouflage to pop was easy.

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American Bittern

We also tried our hand at capturing some in flight images along the Gulf of Mexico.  Admittedly, with the extreme focal length this was a bit challenging, however we soon began to get the hang of it and honed our skills on dozens of Black Skimmers (Rhynchops niger) that patrolled just off shore, skimming the shallows with their specially adapted lower mandible.  When it feels a fish it snaps shut with lightning-like speed, trapping a meal for this unique member of the gull family.

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Black Skimmer

Nearby we saw waves of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) coming in to roost.

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American White Pelican

As the tide began to creep in we spotted a group of small shorebirds bouncing around in the sand.  Among the mixed species group were a few Snowy Plovers (Charadrius nivosus), the species I had spent a summer collecting data on in the Panhandle.  The lens allowed us to create images where the foreground and background seemed to blend together.

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Snowy Plover

Still reeling from the success of our trip to the coast, James and I wanted to try the lens out on our home turf.  So we spend several days exploring his expansive property in Angelina County, and documenting the birds as best we could.  I captured this American Goldfinch (Spinus tristus) on a frigid morning, when puddles from recent rains froze solid and frost clung to the leaves.

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American Goldfinch

I shot this Great Egret (Ardea alba) at a local park.  I couldn’t believe how far away from this bird I had to be to get the entire animal in the frame.  And even at a distance, the level of detail that the 600mm captures is astonishing.

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Great Egret

Back at James’s farm we spend some time strolling through the woods in search of resident and wintering birds.  Though they are common, I have always wanted to capture a good image of a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).  I think they are beautiful, and they are iconic woodland birds.  I captured this one as it called from a branch that was swaying in the breeze.  Utilizing high speed continuous shooting, I was able to catch it as the branched swayed away from the twig in the foreground, providing a clear shot at the bird.

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Blue Jay

I’m quite fond of this shot of a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), another familiar bird of the eastern United States.

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Tufted Titmouse

This Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) was one of a large group foraging on seed near James’s cabin.

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Chipping Sparrow

As we were wandering through the woods we saw and heard a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) foraging in the underbrush.  We found a spot to conceal ourselves as best we could and waited for over an hour while the bird teased us by flitting back and forth through dense vegetation before us.  Unable to get a clear shot, we were about ready to give up when it hopped out onto a large vine in the open.  Remarkably it sat still on this perch long enough for both James and I to take several shots.  See one of James’s photos here.

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Hermit Thrush

While we were busy photographing the songbirds, we heard a haunting call ring out above us.  It was a Barred Owl (Strix varia).  We came to realize that there was a pair in the treetops around us.  I struggled to get a clear shot until one of the owls flew and provided me a relatively unobstructed view.

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Barred Owl

Carolina and I are lucky to have friends like James and Erin Childress.  I know that James will make good use of his new lens, and look forward to spending many more hours with him in the field capturing images of the natural world we both love so much.

 

Looking Back: 2017 Highlights in Biodiversity

I managed to photograph 39 of 80 species on my 2017 biodiversity list.  Just to break down some stats on the list, I was able to check off:

20 of 37 species I had never seen

9 of 23 species I had seen but not photographed

3 of 5 species I wanted better photographs of

7 of 15 species I wanted additional photographs of

1 of 10 amphibians

2 of 9 reptiles

1 of 4 mammals

3 of 11 invertebrates

32 of 46 plants

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Most importantly, I was able to photograph over 150 species that I had not previously captured through the lens, and hundreds of new images of some of my favorite organisms.  Below are some of the highlights:

In January Carolina spotted this Regal Jumping Spider (Phidippus regius) in the parking lot of a local park.  Fortunately I had my camera with me and took the opportunity to photograph this crazy looking creature.

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Regal Jumping Spider

Wolly Sunbonnets (Chaptalia tomentosa) was the first species I checked off my 2017 biodiversity list.  It is a specialist of the coastal plain that occurs in herbaceous seeps and wetland pine savannahs.

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Woolly Sunbonnets

In February I photographed the blooms of the Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis), one of 6 or so Federally Endangered plants occurring in the Pineywoods.

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Texas Trailing Phlox

Despite having probably seen hundreds of Smallmouth Salamanders (Ambystoma texanum), I can never resist the opportunity to photograph these charismatic amphibians.

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Smallmouth Salamander

For my money, there is no finer place to be in Spring than the rich mesic forests along river bluffs and steep ravines.  Here many species of spring ephemeral plants bloom before the hardwood canopy has a chance to leave out.  Pictured below are the Louisiana Wakerobin (Trillium ludovicianum) and Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata), two species which are rare in East Texas.

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Mesic Forest in Spring

In March I spotted a spectacular scene while driving across the Attoyac River Floodplain: thousands of Butterweeds (Packera glabella) blooming in the late evening light.  I had to stop to capture a few images.

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Butterweed in the Attoyac River Floodplain

In March I took a team of botanists to survey the rich forests on the property of some friends.  It was here that I discovered the 2nd known Texas population of False Rue Anemone (Enemion biternatum) a couple of years ago.  We found a wealth of botanical treasures, including several species that are rare in the state.

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False Rue Anemone

During Spring Break Carolina and I traveled with my brother and my parents to South Texas.  Here we observed many typically Latin American species that are on the periphery of their range, barely entering the U.S. in southern Texas.  One of the most cryptic and difficult to see is the Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis).

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Common Pauraque

One of my favorite aspects of South Texas is the cactus community.  We observed many species found nowhere else in the country.  Perhaps the most spectacular of these was the Lady Finger Cactus (Echinocereus pentalophus)

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Lady Finger Cactus

For our anniversary Carolina and I did some camping in the Texas Hill Country.  We visited many beautiful places and saw several interesting species, my favorite of which was the Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus).

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Juniper Hairstreak

Back in East Texas I found this beautiful male Luna Moth (Actias luna) after a spring rain shower.

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Luna Moth

In April Carolina and I traveled a couple of hours west to find the charming little Missouri Foxtail Cactus (Escobaria missouriensis) in bloom in some unique sandstone outcrops in the post oak savannah.

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

Keeping with the state mantra of “everything is bigger in Texas,” Texas actually has several state flowers.  All members of the genus Lupinus occurring in the state have received the designation.  The rarest lupine in Texas is the Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis).  It has been extirpated from much of the state, and now occurs in only a few sites in the Big Thicket region.

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Wild Lupine

Right up there with my favorite finds of 2017 was this Promethea Moth (Callosamia promethea).  One of the largest moths in the country, the Promethea Moth reaches the southwestern extent of its range in East Texas where it’s rare.

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Promethea Moth

I was thrilled to capture this Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) nectaring on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

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Spicebush Swallowtail

This year Carolina and I spent a lot of time at our close friend James and Erin’s property in the heart of the Pineywoods.  The “farm” as we like to call it has hundreds of acres of habitat for a variety of plants and animals.  I photographed this handsome Yellow-bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster) at a scenic creek that winds its way through the property.

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Yellow-bellied Water Snake

One of the most exciting, and certainly the most unexpected find of the year was a large Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticularia) near a series of pothole wetlands in a coastal prairie.  The Chicken Turtle is rare and declining throughout most of its range, and Texas is no exception.

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Chicken Turtle

I loved the look of this patch of Featherbells (Stenanthium gramineum) blooming in the faint light of dusk.

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The Enchanted Forest

In June Carolina and I explored some high quality carnivorous plant “bogs”.  Not bogs in the true sense, they are more appropriately characterized as hillside seeps.  These seeps are unique habitats that exhibit a variety of rare species.

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Hillside Seep

In the sweltering heat of July Carolina and I visited the limbestone hills of the White Rock Escarpment, where we observed the spectacular Texas Coralroot (Hexalectris warnockii).

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Texas Coralroot

The highlight of 2017 were a couple of trips to the Davis Mountains during the summer monsoon.  The biodiversity of these “sky islands” is staggering, and mixes Rocky Mountain species with rare Mexican specialties.

Our first trip was in July, and I was finally able to photograph a species that I had admired in field guides since I was a child, the Glorious Scarab (Chrysina gloriosa)

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Glorious Scarab

Also in July we observed the spectacular Desert Savior (Echeveria strictiflora) in bloom along a series of steep, rocky canyons.

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Desert Savior

In August we returned with our friends James and Erin.  We were lucky enough to find some perfect specimens of the Mountain Adder’s Mouth (Malaxis macrostachya).  In Texas this species is only known from the high elevation woodlands of the Davis Mountains.

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Mountain Adder’s Mouth

We also observed what is, in my opinion, one of the most spectacular orchids in the country, the Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora). It is primarily Mexican in its distribution, occurring int he U.S. only in Texas.

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Giant Coralroot

We were also lucky enough to find and photograph the spectacular Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii).

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Wood’s Jewel Beetle

After seeing several hatchling Greater Horned Lizards (Phrynosoma hernandesi), Erin finally spotted a large adult.  One of three species of horned lizard in Texas, Phrynosoma hernandesi occurs throughout much of the western U.S., but occurs in Texas only in a few isolated populations in the mountains of the Trans Pecos.

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Greater Horned Lizard

As summer transitioned into fall I finally caught the Barbed Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes barbata) in bloom.  This plant of mesic forested slopes is rare in Texas.

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Barbed Rattlesnake Root

James spotted this Giant Ichneumon (Megarhyssa macrurus) on the trunk of a Sweetbay Magnolia.  These large wasps parasitize the larvae of the wood boring horntail wasps.  The female probes the horntails’ burrows with her long ovipositors and lays her eggs on the juicy larvae.  Her eggs than hatch and her own larvae feed on those of the horntails.

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Giant Ichneumon

In October Carolina and I returned to West Texas in hopes of finding the Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus) in bloom.  After some trials and tribulations we finally found a few.

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Living Rock Cactus

The Soapwort Gentian (Gentiana saponaria) would be the last species I checked off my 2017 list.  This rare beauty is known from only a few sites in the Pineywoods.

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Soapwort Gentian

In December Carolina and I spent some time in one of our favorite places, the Longleaf Pine Savannah.  I found this freshly fallen cone on a bed of ash and charred remains of needles following a prescribed burn.

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Borne of Ashes

I haven’t quite decided how I want to continue with my list in 2018, however one thing is certain, I plan to spend as much time as I can in pursuit of biodiversity and wild places.

Fall into Winter: November and December Recap

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Fall color along a forest stream

We’re in the heat of winter here in the Pineywoods, and I’ve got a backlog of posts to catch up on.  Soapwort Gentian ended up being the last species checked off my list in 2017.  Though I would not see any more of my “target species”, my November and December were still filled with incredible biodiversity and natural beauty.

In mid November Carolina and I met up with our friend Skip Pudney in the Big Thicket.  We were hoping to photograph the rare orchid Spiranthes longilabris in bloom.  While we did find a single plant, the true show was put on by the invertebrates – pollinators taking advantage in a flush in late season flowers.  We noticed several Yellowjacket Hover Flies (Milesia virginiensis), Ornate Bell Moths (Utetheisa ornatrix), Common Buckeyes (Junonia coenia), Blister Beetles (Epicauta sp.) and more.

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Yellowjacket Hover Fly

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Ornate Bell Moth

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Common Buckeye

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Blister Beetle

By mid-November the leaves had begun to change.  This was a good year for fall color in East Texas.  The leaves of deciduous trees begun to change color in the falls when the days are sunny and the evenings are crisp.  These cues, along with the shortening photoperiod trigger a chemical reaction within the leaves.  Production of chlorophyll halts, and slowly this green pigment begins to break down and is rendered clear.  As the green fades, other colors such as carotenoids and anthocyanins, which have been active in the leaves all along, now become dominant, and the forest turns from green to brilliant hues of yellow, orange, and red.

In late November I spent a foggy morning photographing the maples, oaks, hickories, and elms of a rich hardwood stream bottom.

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Fall color in the fog

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Hickories and maples provide the yellows in this fall forest

I then went on to a steep bluff over the upper reaches of the Neches River, where the Red Maples lived up to their name.

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Fall color on a bluff over the Neches River

While I find broad views of a fall forest to be especially beautiful, the subtle beauty of fall can be observed up close, like in the leaves of poison ivy, as seen below…

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Fall color in poison ivy

…and in the layers of Florida Maple leaves on branches draped around the trunks of pine trees.

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Florida maples display their fall colors.

In early December much of East Texas was hit with an uncharacteristic snow storm.  In over 20 years in the region, I have only seen snow a handful of times, and of those only a fraction actually stuck.  This was one of the finest in recent memories.  In East Texas fall color lingers well into December, and the result was what looked to be a battle between fire and ice.

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Fire and Ice

Deeper in the forest, the landscape appeared a winter wonderland.

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Pineywoods Snowscape

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My Winter Wonderland

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Snow in the Beechwoods

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Dressed in White

Having grown up in Chicago, I experienced harsh, snow-filled winters in my childhood.  It was good to spend some time walking and playing in the snow again – like reuniting with an old friend.  I think that for Caro it was even more special, as she seldom saw snow in her native province of Entre Rios, Argentina.

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Carolina in the Snow

Later in December we visited a longleaf pine savannah shortly after a prescribed fire.  Here we saw fresh cones on the torched leaf litter…

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Borne of Ashes

…and a freshly germinated seedling rising from the ashes. With luck, this tiny seedling will grow into a stately tree in this longleaf pine savannah. Perhaps it will one day harbor the cavity of a Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and Bachman’s Sparrows and Brown-headed Nuthatches will sing from its boughs while Louisiana Pine Snakes and Wild Turkey patrol among its roots.

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New Beginnings

Within the longleaf pine savannah we found Riddell’s Spike-Moss (Selaginella corallina) growing in the crevices of exposed boulders of the Catahoula Formation.  S. corallina is a primitive vascular plant that is typically included with the “fern-allies”, and despite its name is more closely related to ferns than mosses. It has an interesting disjunct range, with one population in central and east Texas, northwestern Louisiana, western Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma, and another in Alabama and Georgia. I seldom encounter them in East Texas. When I do, it is generally growing off the faces of sandstone outcrops or in areas of deep sand.

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Riddell’s Spike Moss

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Ridell’s Spike Moss

After exploring the savannah we ventured to the bluffs along the Neches River.  Here we found patches of fall color lingering in the American Beech trees on the bluffs’ slopes.  American Beech is one of the last trees to turn in the fall, and they brighten the otherwise gray December forest.  In the photo below the Neches River is visible in the distance.

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The Bluff’s Edge

In late December our friend Scott Wahlberg, Carolina, and I spent the day scouting salamander locations for the spring.  Though the conditions for finding a salamander weren’t ideal, we did turn up a single, apparently gravid, female Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum).

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Spotted Salamander

Toward the end of December James and I spent some time looking for birds in a local park.  There I was able to capture an image of a Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) in the dense underbrush along the margins of a pond using James’s new 600mm lens (more on that in the future).  These striking sparrows are “skulkers” – small birds that prefer dense cover.  I was lucky to get a shot of one as it momentarily paused in its dense domain of tangles.

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Swamp Sparrow

I was also able to photograph a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) there.  The birds that winter in East Texas are members of the “myrtle” race, so named because they are one of the few birds that will regularly eat wax-myrtle berries.

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Yellow-rumped Warbler

On December 30, Carolina and I found a Broad-banded Water Snake (Nerodia fasciata confluens) while exploring the bottomlands off the Neches River.  The temperatures hovered just above freezing, and the snake could barely move, yet it was alive and well.  After taking a few photos we left it to weather the cold, as it and its kind have done for countless generations.

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Christmas in November

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Soapwort Gentian

Target Species: Soapwort Gentian (Gentiana saponaria)

One of our country’s more enigmatic plant genera is Gentiana.  Spring may be more often associated with wildflower blooming, but many of the brightly colored species of this genus bloom in the fall, and in the case of Gentiana saponaria in Texas, into the winter.  The genus is also unusual in that many of its flowers do not open, remaining forever in a bud-like state, despite having fully developed sexual organs hidden within the closed petals.

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Soapwort Gentian

Gentiana saponaria is one of a suite of species that reach the southwestern extent of their range in extreme Eastern Texas.  In Texas it is very rare, probably occurring in five or less populations.  While elsewhere within its range it might occur in prairie remnants and moist woodlands, in East Texas they seem to be confined to a few mature forested seeps nestled within longleaf pine savannahs.  Associated species include Pinus palustrisMagnolia virginianaNyssa bifloraAcer rubrumPlatanthera ciliarisVeratrum virginicumEutrichium fistulosumOsmundastrum cinnamomeum, and more.

County-level distribution of Gentiana saponaria.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present and rare.

Soapwort Gentian has been on my radar for several years now.  Very few pictures from Texas exist, and I suspect that reflects that very few people have seen this plant in Texas.  Being at the periphery of its range, suitable habitat in East Texas is likely at a premium.  Despite their preferred habitat appearing to be relatively common in Deep East Texas, this plant persists at only a handful of sites.  It is likely that there are other factors influencing its distribution that we don’t fully understand.

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Soapwort Gentian

The perpetually closed nature of this gentian’s blooms has always intrigued me.  It is likely pollinated primarily by bumble bees and large beetles, which are strong enough to push their way through the closed petal lobes.  It may also, however, be pollinated by tiny beetles that are small enough to work their way between the tiny gaps at the tip of the blooms.  Throughout its range the flowers of Gentiana saponaria vary from white to electric blue to purple.  In Texas, the buds are lime green as the develop, and as the flower matures it turns sky blue.  Then, as it fades, it gradually turns to deep purple and ultimately tan before it withers.  My friend and author of Wild Orchids of Texas, Joe Liggio likened the blooms to a cluster of Christmas lights, a fitting description if you ask me.

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Soapwort Gentian

The genus Gentiana has long history of utilization for its medicinal properties.  The root has a multitude of purported uses including as an remedy for snakebite, digestive issues, and a variety of other ailments.  Compounds from the roots have proven to be anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and beneficial for the treatment of liver disease.

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Soapwort Gentian

To see this plant, I communicated with some contacts with the National Forests and Grasslands of Texas.  They pointed us in the right direction, and the first weekend of November Carolina, our friend Scott and I set out to look for them.  We found dozens of plants scattered along the upper reaches of a baygall within a fairly extensive rolling longleaf pine savannah.  The baygall is partially fed by a small springfed stream.  The plants were growing along the banks of the stream and in the drier portions of the baygall.

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Soapwort Gentian

After spending some time at this site, we explored some other baygalls in the area.  After striking in several areas, we found a handful of plants at what we suspect is a new location for this species in Texas.  I sent the information to the Forest Service, and they confirmed that it had not been previously documented in that area.

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Soapwort Gentian

An added bonus of searching for wildflowers in autumn is the fall foliage, set ablaze by the annual process where leaves break down chlorophyll to reveal their other brightly colored pigments.  Though it was still early in the season, that day we admired the changing colors of elms, maples and hickories.  Perhaps most striking were the fronds of Cinnamon Fern within the baygalls, that looked more like flickering flames than once lush Pteridophytes.  Though there are a few more species that may bloom into December, photographing Gentiana saponaria essentially brings a close to the East Texas wildflower season, and I can definitively say that I went out on a high note.

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Autumn in the Baygall