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 the Endless Sky

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Rolling Prairie in Hartley County near the Canadian River Breaks.

Texas is primarily a prairie state.  From the tallgrass prairies of the Gulf Coast to the Blackland Prairies and Cross Timbers and Prairies; and from the semi-arid grasslands of the Trans-Pecos to the Llano Estacado and the shortgrass prairies of the Panhandle Plains, the Lonestar State is largely defined by these graminoid-dominated communities.  Despite all of this, our native prairies are all but gone, victims of a relentless onslaught of change.  Much of our prairie was outright destroyed, converted to agricultural crops or development.  Others suffered from the removal of important disturbance elements like fire and the most iconic prairie denizen of them all, The American Bison.  At the same time these important components of prairie maintenance vanished, new, exotic species were introduced, forever changing the composition of the land.

Fortunately, there is still some good prairie left, for those who know where to look.  I have been lucky enough to see high quality virgin coastal prairies, some of the finest Blackland Prairie in the state, and the wildflower laden meadows of the Grand Prairie in spring.  Yet despite all of this, I had not spent time in the mid and shortgrass prairies of the panhandle since 2008, when I worked on a project researching Snowy Plovers in the playas and salt lakes around Lubbock.  This year I sought to change that, and Carolina and I spent a few days here on our big summer roadtrip.

Our first stop was the far northeastern corner of the Panhandle, where we went looking for milkweeds in Hemphill and Lipscomb Counties.  After a long drive from our Pineywoods home, we finally arrived to find the Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in full bloom.  This species is common around our home, but it was a different experience altogether seeing them growing in large clumps among the prairie grasses.

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Butterfly Weed in a midgrass prairie of the eastern Panhandle.

The Butterfly Weed was certainly exciting to see, but I had my heart set on a real Panhandle specialty – the Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa).  It is a wide ranging species, occurring from the Great Plains west.  It barely enters Texas, where it can be found at a few sites in the Panhandle.  We were fortunate enough to find it growing among a variety of grasses and sedges in the narrow floodplain of a small stream feeding the Canadian River.

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Showy Milkweeds blooming along a small stream in the Canadian River drainage.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying this may be our most beautiful milkweed.  The plants may reach a meter or more in height and are adorned by huge clusters of bright pink flowers with elongated hoods.  They are very fragrant, and we observed a wide variety of pollinators seeking nourishment from their blooms.

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Asclepias speciosa flower detail

After spending time among the milkweeds, we trekked west across the Panhandle.  We chose to take the lesser-traveled county roads and were rewarded with scenes of blooming wildflowers and rugged topography.

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CoreopsisGaillardia, and Monarda bloom in a Panhandle prairie.

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Carolina Larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) against a background of dried prairie grass.

While traversing the rugged Canadian River breaks, we spotted the unmistakable form of an Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata) in the road.  It’s hard to find a reptile with more personality than a good box turtle, and Carolina affectionately named this one “Manuelita”.  In my experience, there are two types of box turtles, those that seal themselves in with their hinged plastrons, and those that make a break for it. Manuelita was definitely the second type, and as soon as we put her on the ground she took off like a bullet, or at least a turtle’s version of a bullet.  I would not have been able to capture a singe photo of her if it were not for Carolina, who was able to read her body language, and gently calm her down enough that she would sit still for a brief time.  After a brief photo session, we watched as she vanished into the prairie, moving quickly away from the road.

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Ornate Box Turtle

From there we made our way to the Rita Blanca National Grasslands near the borders with Oklahoma and New Mexico. Our first evening camping here brought with it rapidly darkening skies of a blue norther that foreshadowed the violent storm to come. The wind hit first, creating turbulent waves in the sea of prairie grass. When the rain and lightning arrived, we retreated to the tent and huddled in our sleeping bags. The temperature dropped into the lower fifties, and through the rain fly of the tent we could see champagne pink flashes illuminating the darkness, and hear, or rather feel, the bone jarring thunder that followed. The wind was so strong that the tent walls flexed and the ceiling dropped several feet. I wondered if it would hold up, but when the storm passed the old sturdy ‘gal who had seen us through many adventures remained standing.

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Blue Norther approaching the Rita Blanca Grasslands

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Blue Norther approaching the Rita Blanca Grasslands

As the rain calmed to a gentle drizzle we decided to take to the roads to see if we might turn up some amphibians en route to their breeding wetlands. It turned out to be a productive evening, and we found several Bufo cognatus, Bufo woodhousii, and Spea bombifrons. I only photographed a single B. cognatus that appeared to be heavily gravid. It is amazing that organisms that rely so heavily on water can be so abundant in a place where it seems so scarce.

It was a humbling experience to be at the mercy of such a force of nature so powerful and destructive as that blue norther, and to see the vital role it played in ensuring the survival of so many species.

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Great Plains Toad (Bufo cognatus)

The next morning I had ambitions of rising early and photographing the sun rising over the prairie. When my alarm went off at some painful hour, however, I woke to the sound of gentle raindrops bouncing off the tent’s rain fly. It was the perfect sound for sleeping, so I drifted back asleep and woke again some hours later.

We went out into the damp morning to see if the rains may have spurred some animal movement. After a few miles, Caro spotted a nice Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) buck on a yucca-laden hillside. It looked at us for a moment, and took off running to the crest of the hill. A pronghorn in motion is a beautiful thing. Their movements are so fluid-like and effortless. There is nothing on this continent’s land that can match their speed, and their aloof attitude makes one think that they know it.

We moved forward along a curve in the road to try to get a closer look at the buck where the ridge intersected our path. There he stopped for a moment to mark his territory and again took to running. It became evident that he was stopping every hundred yards or so and scent marking. Caro postulated that perhaps he was concerned that the rains had washed his scent from his territory.

We watched him cross the road and find a small gap in the fence. From there he disappeared over the distant horizon. In all we probably spent 10 minutes or more watching him, and I managed an image of him mid-gallop.

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Pronghorn Buck

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Pronghorn Buck

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Pronghorn Buck Running

The wildflowers were looking rejuvenated after the rain.  In fact, the cool, wet spring and the region had experienced resulted in a verdant paradise of grasses and forbs.  I delighted in photographing a single Prairie Snowball (Abronia fragrans) plant.  The specific epithet fragrans is appropriate, as the flowers emit a wonderful aroma into the early morning air.  Like many species of Abronia, it is often pollinated by nocturnal moths, and the flowers open in the evening and generally close by mid-morning.

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Prairie Snowball

The Plains Penstemon (Penstemon ambiguus) was at peak bloom, decorating the prairie with patches of pink and white.

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Plains Penstemon

We also found a few late flowering patches of White Penstemon (Penstemon albidus).  Some had a slight hint of purple to the blooms.

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White Penstemon

With such an abundance of wildflowers, the pollinators were out in force as well.  The most striking were the striped-sweat bees (Agapostemon sp.) that were feeding on the abundant thistles.

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Striped-Sweat Bee

The Rita Blanca National Grassland is a haven for grassland birds. Many of the species that occur here are declining at an alarming rate as the prairie habitat they depend on vanishes or changes to a degree that it can no longer support them.

We drove slowly with the windows down so that we may hear them. Western Meadowlarks, Cassin’s Sparrows, and Horned Larks sang from the fence posts. We saw Burrowing Owls taking advantage of the numerous Black-tailed Prairie Dog towns scattered throughout the plains. We watched Greater Roadrunners dart along the primitive grassland roads as we listened to the distant whistling of Northern Bobwhites.  Small, isolated woodlots provided a haven for birds like Bullock’s Orioles, Western Kingbirds, and Red-headed Woodpeckers. 

At one point we were dive-bombed by aggressive Long-billed Curlew’s, a sure sign that they had a nest nearby. In Texas, these remarkable shorebirds only nest in the extreme northwest corner of the panhandle, which is close to the southern extent of their breeding range. Their nest was on the opposite side of a fence that we didn’t cross. Though the land was still public, I didn’t want to risk damaging the superbly camouflaged eggs which are laid in little more than a depression in the dried grass.

I photographed at Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus) as it foraged in the short grass, and was fortunate enough to photograph an iconic prairie bird, the Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), as it sang its hissing song from atop the fading blooms of a yucca. The birds alone would be worth the trip, but they were only one part in an incredible community of plants and animals that captivated my every moment in this special place.

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Lark Sparrow

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Grasshopper Sparrow

Among the numerous grassland birds is an elite killer, and a “respectable prairie raptor”, as my friend and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Matt Whitbeck would say: The Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsonii).  These open country specialists undertake one of the most impressive migrations of all raptors, breeding in western North America, as far north as Alaska, and wintering in Argentina.  During migration they may form large “kettles”, delighting bird watchers as they pass overhead en masse.  They take a variety of prey on their summer hunting grounds, including prairie dogs, ground squirrels, rabbits, and even Burrowing Owls.

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Swainson’s Hawk

As the rising sun warmed the prairie, we caught sight of a special creature scampering across an open patch of prairie soil.  It was a Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum), our state reptile, and one of the most famous icons of the Texas prairies.

Texas Horned Lizards have declined or disappeared throughout most of the state, however they continue to thrive in parts of the Panhandle and Trans Pecos. We saw several scurrying about in the late afternoon. These tiny dragons feed primarily on ants, and will often sit near a harvester ant mound picking off foragers as they move to and from the colony entrance.

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Texas Horned Lizard

Viewing a Texas Horned Lizard from above reveals its incredible and intricate patterns and textures.

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Texas Horned Lizard

It was a bittersweet feeling when our time at the Rita Blanca National Grassland came to an end.  It meant saying good bye to the prairies of the Panhandle, but it also meant we would be continuing our journey westward into the Land of Enchantment.  My time in the Panhandle Plains left me enamored with the landscapes and specialized flora and fauna of the area.  It is a long drive from the Pineywoods, but one I will gladly make again.  Until then, I will dream of incoming blue northers, running pronghorn, and the dawn chorus of grassland songbirds.

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Rock Outcrop in Potter County

 

 

An Encounter with a Vanishing Prairie Icon

Target Species: Crawfish Frog (Rana areolata)

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Crawfish Frog

When General Manuel de Mier y Teran crossed the Pineywoods, East Texas was a patchwork of habitats.  Pine-dominated forests were largely restricted to upland ridges, while gentle slopes and stream floodplains were dominated by hardwoods.  And situated within this matrix of woodlands, where soil conditions and disturbance regimes were just right, existed prairie patches that supported plants and animals typical of the great tallgrass prairies that extended from the Texas coasts into southern Canada.

Less than hundred years after Teran’s famous expedition, the Pineywoods would be forever changed – scarred by the saw, and later the steam engine and the dozer.  Virtually all of the magnificent virgin forests were cut.  Pockets of prairie were converted to pasture and agriculture, or developed for human habitation.  As their habitat disappeared, so did many of the prairie obligate species that depended on them.

The conversion of prairie habitat is not unique to East Texas.  It has occurred, and continues to occur throughout the country, and many species continue to experience precipitous declines as a result.  Some grassland dependent songbirds, for example, appear to have declined by over 90% in a matter of decades.  It has become evident that if drastic measures are not taken, some of these species may be lost forever.

There is a ray of hope in this story of doom and gloom, however.  Within the past few years, a prairie amphibian that had not been recorded from the heart of East Texas for decades was relocated by Toby Hibbitts and other herpetologists in a concentrated survey effort across its historic range in Texas.  The characteristic “snore” of the Crawfish Frog (Rana areolata) was once again heard in the Pineywoods.

Like the grassland songbirds, the Crawfish Frog has been experiencing sharp declines in the past several decades and is considered a species of conservation concern in most states where it occurs.  Its strongholds in Texas are in the western reaches of the coastal prairies and marshes and portions of the Post Oak Savannah and Blackland Prairies.  Hibbitts, et. al. discovered that they were still hanging on in isolated populations in the Pineywoods.

I never thought I would see one of these enigmatic prairie dwellers in the Pineywoods.  I imagined it had gone the way of the Jaguar and the Black Bear – something lost to my generation.  So when suitable conditions presented themselves this spring Carolina and I set out one misty evening with our good friends James and Erin to see if we might find one.

In all honesty my hopes weren’t all that high.  It has been a weird spring this year, with a lot of moisture and wildly fluctuating temperatures.  But within 30 miles of our house, we spotted a mottled form on the pavement in front of us.  I rushed from the car and found before me a mangled mix of frog skin and guts.  It was a roadkill Crawfish Frog.  It was a bittersweet feeling for sure.  I had seen a Pineywoods areolata, but it was dead.  Freshly dead at that, as its rear legs were still twitching.  I was at the same time disappointed and encouraged.

As I took the frog in my hands and soaked in the tranquility of the evening, I could feel my ears perk as they drew in a distant sound.  In that moment Erin turned off the engine and the night came to life.  The ratcheting call of Cajun Chorus Frogs reached me first, followed by the cackling song of Southern Leopard Frogs.  Then I heard it, fainter and more distant than the rest – the nasal snore of the Crawfish Frog.

We bagged the dead frog in order to send to Toby for his research.  I then wandered down the road, flashlight in hand.  After a while I noticed a turn for a side road heading in the direction of one of the frog choruses.  The night was very dark and a thin veil of mist hang suspended in the air.  With my light I could only see where the road began.  I turned down this road, and soon found myself walking a two track gravel pathway pushing out into what looked like a pasture.  I could not see any “No Tresspassing” signs or purple paint, and there were no lights anywhere on the horizon.  Convinced that it was not private property, I continued.  The chorus grew louder.  I scanned my flashlight in all directions.  There was a fence to my left, and to my right there were several granite pillars emerging from the fog.  It became clear that I was wandering through a graveyard.

Despite the eeriness of the situation, I felt comfortable, and continued on joined by the rest of the party.  We soon realized that the frogs were calling in a pasture beyond the fence, in a place we could not reach.  So we decided to continue down the road, but first made our way through the cemetery toward its exit.  I swept the beam of my flashlight across the ground, and to my surprise caught glimpse of a reticulated, spotted thing resting among emerging shoots of grass and prairie forbs.  It was a Crawfish Frog.  I couldn’t help but smile.  We found one.

It was a beautiful animal, and a female of decent size.  Immediately after seeing us she arched her back and inflated her mid section in order to appear larger, more threatening.  This defensive posture also presents potential predators with a more difficult-to-swallow prey item.

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Crawfish Frog in defensive posture

Crawfish Frogs are dependent on prairie communities, where they spend most of their lives in or around crayfish burrows.  In this part of the state they may utilize burrows of the Texas Prairie Crayfish (Fallicambarus devastator), a species endemic to a handful of counties in East Texas.  We would see many that night.  Research has shown that the frogs utilize both primary and secondary burrows.  They spend most of the year at primary burrows, while they utilize secondary burrows while migrating to and from breeding sites, and perhaps to a lesser degree while foraging during prolonged periods of rain outside the breeding season.  Crawfish Frogs breed in ephemeral wetlands formed in prairie depressions and in fishless manmade ponds located within suitable habitats.  They have a prolonged breeding period in Texas, but generally breed en masse following warm rains in early spring.

Interestingly, these frogs are able to persist in heavily grazed areas.  Presumably, it is because they are heavily dependent on the condition of the soil rather than the structure of vegetation.  It is important that the soil column and crayfish burrows remain in tact.  In areas where the soil is tilled or otherwise disturbed, the frogs quickly disappear.

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Crawfish Frog

She would be the only Crawfish Frog we would see that night, though we did hear a few more choruses.  It was an incredible experience.  While encountering a seemingly thriving population in the Pineywoods certainly gives me hope, it does not change the fact that this species is on the decline and highly susceptible to the loss of our prairies.  We need to “want” to have this species around, and make a serious effort to conserve its habitat, or the story of its status in the Pineywoods fifty years from now may be a very different one.  Fortunately there seems to be a genuine interest in research and conservation of the Crawfish Frog in the Lonestar State, and I remain hopeful that when the conditions are just right on warm, rainy spring nights, future generations of East Texans will continue to hear the peculiar snore of this special prairie denizen.

Autumn in the Pineywoods

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East Texas Waterfall

As I write this, on a cold and rainy day at the end of December, all but a handful of brave trees have cast their leaves in preparation for the darkness and cold that winter brings.  Days like this it’s easy to long for the milder days and brilliant colors of fall.  This year was a particularly beautiful autumn in the Pineywoods, with many species putting on displays of color that I had not seen for some time.  To fight off the gloom of this winter’s day, I decided to live vicariously through my memories as I chronicle my autumn explorations here.

We’ll start on my birthday.  At the start of October, the days have become shorter and the temperatures begin to cool.  October has always been one of my favorite months here in Texas.  The colors begin to turn, and the climate is mild.  Cool enough that it is pleasant to be outside, yet warm enough that many winter-adverse species such as reptiles and insects are still active.  A number of interesting fall-blooming plants are also on display in this month of the Hunter’s Moon.

On my birthday we set out to find a few such plants.  The first that we came across was the Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), also known as the Ghost or Corpse Plant.  This interesting fungus-eating plant is a member of the blueberry family, of all things.  It does not produce chlorophyll like most traditional plants, but rather obtains its energy and nutrients from the mycorhizzal fungi of tree roots.  In Texas they may begin to bloom in late August or early September, and I have seen them as late at January (late in the sense that it is at the end of the blooming season for this species).  The flowers’ superficial resemblance to a pipe as inspired stories in Native American folklore, including the idea that these plants mark the graves of old chiefs, and provide them a vessel with which to smoke from the afterlife.

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Indian Pipes

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Indian Pipes

Growing near the Indian Pipes, in the shade of American Beech was a rare treat, Tall Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes altissima).  Though it may line the roadsides further east, it is known from only a few isolated locations in extreme eastern Texas.  Here it grows on steep hillside springheads and the banks of springfed streams in mature hardwood forests.

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Tall Rattlesnake Root

Ample rains in September fueled a profusion of fungi, whose fibrous filaments draw moisture from the earth and feed on the ample detritus beneath the leaf litter.  Fungi are fascinating, beautiful organisms.  They lead most of their lives hidden below ground, but grace us with a spectacular display when their fruiting bodies form.  Perhaps my favorites are the many varieties of coral fungus.  Each is unique, and contain an intricate maze of protrusions that seem crafted by some avant-garde architect.

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Coral Fungus

Many species of fungus are quite toxic to humans, but there are some that are said to be delicious.  I personally have never been brave enough to try wild mushrooms.  It seems like for every edible species there is a lethal, or at least debilitating look-alike.  One species that is favored by foragers is the Indigo Milk Cap (Lactarius indigo) which an be found in hardwood bottoms in late summer and early fall.

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Indigo Milk Cap

Fungi come in a staggering array of shapes and colors.  They are also fun to photograph, and lead the mind to find interesting angles and compositions with which to present them.

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Fungi (I believe these are chanterelles)

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Fungi

Autumn also signals the beginning of the salamander breeding season in East Texas.  In mid-October conditions were right for Marbled Salamanders (Ambystoma opacum) to make their annual breeding migrations.  Unlike most members of the family Ambystomatidae, which breed in the water during late winter and early spring, the Marbled Salamander breeds on dry land, and the females lay their eggs under woody debris within dry vernal pool basins.  They will then guard the eggs as they wait for winter rains to fill the pools and disperse and hatch their offspring.  By doing this they get a leg up on the competition, so to speak, which comes in the form of other amphibian larvae that won’t begin to develop for another couple of months.

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Marbled Salamander Male

Marbled Salamanders are one of relatively few amphibian species that are sexually dimorphic.  The males (pictured above) have bright silvery white dorsal patterns while the females (pictured below) have duller silver to coppery markings.  The males also display a swollen cloaca at the base of their tail during the breeding season.

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Marbled Salamander

In late October Caro and I spent a damp autumn day in the woods with our friends James and Erin.  It provided a chance to capture more images of interesting fungi, like these Earthstars, which look like little puff balls wearing tutus.

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Earthstars

We also observed a number of insects like these seemingly affectionate Six-spotted Flower Longhorn Beetles (Strangalia sexnotata).

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Six-spotted Flower Longhorn Beetles

We also found a few Rainbow Scarabs (Phanaeus vindex), a spectacular beetle that I highlighted in a previous blog post.

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Rainbow Scarab

And then there were the Indian Pipes.  We found hundreds in a remnant Longleaf Pine savannah, pushing up through the dense carpet of needles and cones.  It became somewhat of a game seeing who could spot the most.  Per usual, Caro won by a landslide.

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Indian Pipes

One October day I received a call from my wife that she had found a recently hit Gray Fox next to the road. Being eccentric biologist types, we decided that we wanted to try to get its skeleton for study and admiration. So we called James and Erin, who own a large tract of land, and asked if we could set it out there to decompose. Being a couple of biologists themselves, they gladly agreed and we loaded the fox carcass in the bed of my truck and set out on the half-hour or so journey to their farm.

Just after we arrived, I heard my wife call out, “Look at this!” No surprise really, as she has an uncanny talent for spotting creatures, plants, and any other thing that remains invisible to most. She had found a large adult female Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina), hiding among the goldenrod blooms near the Childress cabin.

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Carolina Mantis

Of course, in our haste to make our morbid delivery I had forgotten my camera.  Fortunately James was kind enough to lend me his. We approached the scene and I tried to formulate a plan on how to best photograph this spectacular insect. As we drew near we noticed the carcasses of Common Eastern Bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) scattered about the ground, dismembered and drained of their juices. Oblivious to the danger, there were several more bees nectaring on the goldenrod just inches from the mantis. So I found a good angle and waited to see if I might capture some action. I set the lens on a bee that was slowly creeping closer and closer to this devourer of pollinators. The bee brushed against the mantis’s leg, yet still the predator remained still. Its head slowly cocked and it’s antennae twitched ever so slightly. Deliberately and methodically it crept toward the ravenous bumble bee. Its movements were almost imperceptible. I captured the image below as it zeroed in on the bee and prepared its strike.

Seconds after I captured this image the mantis did strike, though I only managed to record a blur of green. It missed, and the bee flew to a distant part of the same plant to continue feeding. Later we would see the mantis in the middle of devouring another unfortunate Bombus impatiens, though we missed the strike. In all it would seem that this ruthless hunter his doing quite well on the goldenrod she has staked claim to.  She remained on that withering goldenrod well into December.

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Seconds from Disaster

A few days before Halloween, Caro and I set out to look for signs of fall along backroads and deep in the forest. Colors were beginning to change, with vines like Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy putting on a brilliant display. Elms, hickories, and even some red maples were beginning to lose their chlorophyll while baldcypress was nearing peak color.  Monarchs are passing through en masse, and were joined at fall blooming plants by Gulf Fritillaries, Buckeyes, and American Ladies.

In the late afternoon we came across a stunning Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) taking in the Sun’s fading warmth. It was one of the lightest snakes I’ve seen, with narrow bands of almost pure white along its chevrons. I would put it at a bit under three feet in length, a decent size. And like most of its kind that I’ve encountered it rattled only briefly, and was incredible docile and non-aggressive throughout our interaction.

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Canebrake Rattlesnake

After spending some time with this spectacular denizen of the deep woods, we were able to turn up a couple of Marbled Salamanders and Southern Leopard Frogs adjacent to a series of ephemeral wetlands. I then noticed a large fallen tree, its branches arching above the forest floor. While admiring the verdance of the mosses and Resurrection Fern coating the bark, I glimpsed an unusual creature swaying back and forth. It was a huge Megarhyssa atrata (a type of giant ichneumon) busy probing the chambers of horntail wasp larvae with her ovipositor. She lays her eggs in the soft flesh of these larvae, where they will hatch and consume their host as they develop. This downed tree was literally swarming with Megarhyssa atrata and M. macrurus. Though they may be “creepy” looking, these large insects are harmless and fascinating.

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Megarhyssa atrata

In early November we set out to look for Long-lipped Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes longilabris) a rare orchid of fire-maintained Longleaf Pine Savannahs.  A species of the coastal plain, they reach the western extent of their range in East Texas.  Uncommon to rare throughout their range, in Texas they are known from only a handful of sites in the Big Thicket.

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Long-lipped Ladies’ Tresses

Another East Texas rarity is the Kidney-leaved Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia asarifolia).  To my knowledge, they only persist along a single drainage in the Pineywoods.

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Kidney-leaved Grass-of-Parnassus

A favorite past time of Carolina and me is wandering around Ellen Trout Park here in Lufkin.  There are usually a variety of interesting things to be seen, including several resident Great Egrets (Ardea alba).

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Great Egret

The star attraction of the park, however, is a pair of Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) that nest there each year.  It wasn’t so long ago that Bald Eagles were nearing extinction, but a variety of factors including the banning of DDT and Federal regulations like the Endangered Species Act and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act brought them back from the brink.

While most of East Texas’s species suffered greatly from the construction of large reservoirs, this is one of a few species that has actually benefited. The damming of the major rivers of the region created tens of thousands of acres of suitable habitat for the large raptors.  In East Texas, Bald Eagles prefer to nest near the top of large pine trees adjacent to large water bodies. I composed the image below to capture the essence of this habitat.

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Bald Eagle

By late November, fall color had begun arriving in earnest.  One one of our frequent evening drives, I spotted the stereotypical Pineywoods scene below along the backroads.

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Florida Maple (Acer floridanum) generally displays a brilliant golden yellow during autumn.  This year they put on quite a show on slopes and along riverbanks.

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Florida Maples

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Florida Maples

In some areas Florida Maples can be found growing alongside Red Maples (Acer rubrum).  In the fall, Red Maple comes in a variety of colors, including yellow, orange, and red.  In the image below it held up to its namesake, and provided an excellent contrast to the bright yellows of the Florida Maple next door.

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A Meeting of Maples

The Pineywoods of East Texas are known for their towering forests. While breathtaking in their own right, the abundance of trees blocks the horizon, and there are not many places in East Texas that offer broad views of the landscape. There are a few exceptions on high ridges, however, like this spot east of Nacogdoches. Here the crowns of pines and a diversity of hardwoods creates a beautiful fall palette of greens, oranges, and yellows.

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Bird’s Eye View

Many species of butterfly remain active well into the fall.  One of the most common is the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae).  We often see them nectaring alongside other species on fall blooming wildflowers like these asters.

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Gulf Fritillary

In late November, Carolina and I made our way north to explore the forests of Cherokee and Smith Counties.  Here we found countless beautiful scenes, of which I attempted to capture just a small fraction of their brilliance with the images below.

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Dressed in Gold

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Autumn Exposure

During this day trip, we visited Tyler State Park for the first time.  The State Park system of Texas protects a multitude of important and interesting natural and cultural features.  The park was beautiful, with ample fall color among mature mixed pine-hardwood forests and infrastructure created by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

I generally avoid including man-made elements in my images, however the road through the state park seemed to be asking to be photographed.  I captured the image to remind me of one of my favorite past times – driving quiet back roads in fall…

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The Road to Autumn

…and hiking in the autumnal forest.  If you look closely in the image below you can see a hiker’s footbridge beneath Flowering Dogwoods with foliage aflame.

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Tyler State Park Trail

The color of the day was definitely orange, a deviation from the standard yellows and occasional reds typical further south.  The Red Maples in particular were glowing.  We enjoyed our time in the park, and will likely be making a repeat visit soon!

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Autumn’s Orange

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Maples in the Midstory

Some autumn scenes display a more subtle beauty.  I captured the scene below in the floodplain of the Neches River.  The Inland Sea Oats blanketing the ground had turned brown.  The bark of Sugarberries added contrast while the fall foliage of distant elms added a splash of color.

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All that Remains

Perhaps the most spectacular fall scene would not reveal itself until December, when I went to visit a waterfall recently discovered by my friend Scott.  This waterfall is hidden deep forest in an area where steep ravines funnel water, whose power carves shallow canyons into the erodible mudstone of the Wilcox Formation. The slopes that grade down to this stream are decorated with the golden autumn foliage of American Beech and likely harbor a vernal flora rich in peripheral species of the great Eastern deciduous forests.

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There are few things that bring me more joy than a walk in the autumn woods, and though the season has turned, it’s hard to fret too much.  Winter resident birds have arrived and salamanders have begun to breed.  Though winter may seem the bleakest of seasons, there is lots of life for those willing to look.  So for now, I will look forward to the winter and spring, and say, “until next time, autumn!”

Finding Paradise in the Bandera Canyonlands

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Hill Country Waterfall

It’s a pilgrimage that many Texans undertake at some point – to see the fall colors of Lost Maples.  Despite living in Texas for over 20 years and extensively exploring all corners of the state, it was a trip I had yet to take.  This year we finally decided to see what the fuss was about.  It would turn out to be an adventure, filled with frustrations and rewards.

Carolina and I left early and made our way to the Bandera Canyonlands, a term used by the nature conservancy to describe the region in the western Hill Country that contains a labyrinth of canyons carved through the limestone over millennia by springfed streams.

We arrived at the Love Creek Preserve in the early afternoon.  We were granted special permission to visit this preserve which has limited public access.  The Love Creek Preserve is another example of the substantial conservation efforts of The Nature Conservancy in Texas.  Here they succeeded in protecting over 2,500 acres of excellent Hill Country habitat, home to rare plants and animals and numerous Texas endemics.  The preserve also protects several spring-heads which feed tributaries to the Medina River, which ultimately feeds the Edward’s Aquifer.  The Nature Conservancy truly has protected some of the most spectacular places in the Lonestar State.

It was a sunny day, and being early in the afternoon, the conditions were not ideal for photography.  I took my gear along anyway, as one never knows what they might encounter in a place such as this.  I carried my camera atop my tripod as I descended the precarious canyon walls with little difficulty.  I then rock-hopped my way across a wide stream without incident.  Then, after casually stepping on an innocuous boulder I somehow lost my footing and went down hard.  I was extremely unhappy, as Carolina can attest, but not hurt.  Then I looked at my camera, laying lens first in the cobble adjacent to the stream.  I feared the worst.  Miraculously my camera and lens survived unscathed, but my neutral density filter and circular polarizing filter had both been cracked.  I could live without the latter, but the polarizer is a crucial bit of gear for photographing fall color.  I was disheartened, to say the least.

I tried not to let this bad news dampen my enjoyment of the small canyon that we had set out to explore.  Just being in such a place – taking in it’s sights, smells, and sounds, is a joy and a privilege that I feel fortunate to have experienced.  And as the sun drew closer to the top of the canyon walls I was able to capture a sunburst through the leaves of a Bigtooth Maple that quivered in a gentle Autumn breeze.

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Hill Country Canyon

As the daylight faded, we bid farewell to Love Creek, for the time being at least.  Our base camp, so to speak, for the trip was the Cool River Cabin, located on the Native American Seed farm near Junction.  Native American Seed is a fantastic company that grows a huge assortment of native plants and offers seeds and root stock for sale.  They rent out the cabin, which is actually a three bedroom house with two porches and a full kitchen!  It is a short walk from the Llano River, and contains scenic views and abundant wildlife.  I highly recommend staying here!

The next morning we set out to the Caverns of Sonora.  It was one of the more extensive cave tours I’ve taken in Texas cave country, and we marveled at the subterranean formations.  After exploring the caves we spent some time at the Eaton Hill Nature Center in Sonora.  We discovered this little gem by chance, and thoroughly enjoyed the exhibits which include several live rattlesnakes.

As the shadows grew longer we found ourselves at South Llano River State Park.  A good portion of the park remained closed due to the unprecedented flooding experienced by the region just a month before our visit.  There was still plenty to see, however.  Not long after entering the park we were greeted by a large Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) foraging in a mowed area adjacent to some dense brush.  It was quite focused on its pursuit of dinner, and barely took a second to lift his head long enough for me to fire off a shot.  Armadillos are one of our more entertaining mammals, often allowing for a close approach due to their generally poor senses.  When they do finally realize that there is a perceived threat too close for comfort they will suddenly stop their activity, and bolt off, bounding erratically toward the safety of denser brush.

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Nine-banded Armadillo

We came upon a group of Woodhouse’s Scrub Jays (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) scouring a juniper thicket as the sun vanished behind the distant hills.  These intelligent, expressive birds are a joy to watch as they examine their surroundings.  They seem to display genuine curiosity and approach problem solving with some semblance of enjoyment.  Until recently these were considered Western Scrub Jays, but were split due to genetic evidence that suggest they, as well as the California Scrub Jay, Island Scrub Jay, and Florida Scrub Jay are distinct species.

There was very little light to work with, and I took the image below at 1600 ISO and 1/200 second.  The resulting image was grainy and softer than I would have liked.  I debated trashing the image, but decided that I liked the texture and colors on the bird, so I tried to clean it up through post processing.  I ended up with an image that i was happy with.  As digital photo processing technology continues to advance, I find myself saving more and more images that I would have otherwise thrown away.

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Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay

That night, I posed the idea of traveling the three hour round trip from our cabin to a Best Buy in San Antonio to buy a new polarizing filter, and Caro agreed.  I am very fortunate to have a wife that encourages my passions so.  We returned “home” that evening around at around 11 o’clock, with a new polarizing filter that I hoped would help my lens bring out the colors of the canyons.

The next day broke to gray skies.  We were up and out early, packing our things and bidding farewell to the Native American Seed Farm.  Our first destination would be Lost Maples State Natural Area.  This iconic park is extremely popular from mid October through November, particularly on the weekends, which just happens to be when we arrived.  We learned, as we watched vehicle after vehicle pour in, that it had been a less than stellar year for the maples in the park, apparently affected by the heavy rains a month prior.  Many of the leaves had simply turned brown and fallen from the trees.  The park was certainly beautiful, as we hiked along droves of other leaf peepers, but it did not provide that spectacular autumn color that I had hoped for.

Lost Maples gets its name for the relictual populations of Bigtooth Maple (Acer grandidentatum) that persist in the area.  Once more widespread throughout the region, as the glaciars retreated and the climate in the region warmed and dried, the maples were pushed to moist canyons along sprinfed streams and rivers.

The State Natural Area is not the only place to protect remnant groves of Bigtooth Maples however.  After spending a couple of hours hiking popular trails, we decided to return to Love Creek.  On the way we explored a few county roads to see what we might see.  The morning was cold, with temperatures never leaving the 40s.  The last thing I expected to find was a snake, however that’s exactly what I expected when we saw a group of Black-crested Titmice going crazy just a few feet off the ground.  They were chattering incessantly, crests raised, hopping from branch to branch staring directly at the ground.  Shaking off the cold I approached, and saw a gray and yellow striped serpent stretched out across the ground.

It was a young Baird’s Rat Snake (Pantherophis bairdi), not something I had expected to find here at the eastern edge of their range on such a cold November day.  They are restricted in range to the Trans-Pecos and western Edward’s Plateau of Texas, and adjacent northeastern Mexico.  They are one of our state’s most beautiful snakes, in my opinion, displaying shades of steely gray, yellow, and orange.  Despite the cold, this individual was feisty, and once disturbed never backed down from his coiled defensive posture.

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Baird’s Rat Snake

After spending some time in the company of the splendid reptile, we continued onto Love Creek  the sheltered canyons here were displaying spectacular color not seen at Lost Maples.  We marveled at the shades of orange and yellow that glowed like flames brightening the otherwise dreary day.

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Bigtooth Maples at Love Creek

My friend David Bezanson of the Nature Conservancy told us where we could find a waterfall that drained the crystal clear springfed water of one of the many canyons that cut into the preserve’s limestone bluffs.  It was like an oasis in otherwise semi-arid country.  Mosses and Maiden-hair Fern clung to the rock, kept perpetually moist by spray from the falling waters.  I could imagine the water at the base of the falls stayed cool, clear, and deep even during the height of summer.

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Each angle of the falls provided some unique perspective.  The contrast of the aquamarine waters, the bright green ferns, and the yellows of overhanging witch hazel and orange of distant maples painted a scene that seemed almost impossibly beautiful.

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Venturing into the narrow canyon that fed the falls, we found a lush forest that seemed out of place in this region that is knocking on the desert’s door.  Towering trees shaded a thick layer of leaf litter that blanketed scattered boulders and smaller rocks.  Beneath this leaf litter we found several Western Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon albagula).  Another relict of cooler time, the central Texas populations of P. albagula are isolated from the the main portion of the species’s range by hundreds of miles, with the nearest known populations occurring in southwest Oklahoma.  Genetic analyses may reveal that this disjunct population is in fact a species unto itself.

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Western Slimy Salamanders

The trees here are remarkable as well, and include several other disjunct, relictual species like American Basswood, Chinkapin Oak, and Witch Hazel.  They join the Bigtooth Maples, Lacey Oak, Texas Red Oak, Texas Mountain Laurel, Texas Redbud, and more to create a diverse, layered, closed-canopy forest.

As we ventured deeper into the canyon we found the stream’s source.  Water was literally pouring out from the base of a massive limestone cliff, nourishing verdant Maiden-hair Fern, and what I imagined to be a profusion of spring wildflowers.  The water here is home to an endemic species of neotonic Eurycea.  It was humbling to see the literal source of so much life.

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Water pours from the base of a limestone cliff, fueling a lush, diverse canyon

Deeper into the preserve we found a wider, drier canyon fed by a different spring.  Here the maples were absent, but Texas Red Oak (Quercus buckleyi) provided a splash of color to the scene.  I was truly blown away by the beauty of this place, an area unlike any other in the world.  I don’t proclaim to know if Heaven exists, but in my book, the Bandera Canyonlands are about as close to Heaven on Earth as one can get.

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Bandera Canyonlands

Ouachita Mountain Magic

Target Species:

Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum)

Rich Mountain Salamander (Plethodon ouachitae)

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Rich Mountain Salamander

We could barely see.  Columns of air that cooled as they rose up the mountainside created a fog so dense that trees less than a hundred feet away were completely invisible.  Orthographic lift is a common occurrence here, as evidenced by the dense coats of lichen and moss coating nearly every tree trunk.  I was happy.  To some nature lovers happiness is a wide open mountain vista, or an endless beach breaking brilliant blue waters.  But to me, it is a forest in the fog.  We were high on Rich Mountain, a long mountain ridge in the western Ouachitas, an ancient range that runs from east to west in western Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma.

Most of my blog posts thusfar have focused on the biodiversity of my home state, Texas.  But for this one we take a journey to our neighbors to the north.  I first visited the Ouachitas over 15 years ago on a backpacking trip with a college friend.  We hiked the first leg of the Ouachita Trail, and I was instantly hooked.  I have made many trips since.  Most of these have focused on finding the Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum), an enigmatic, elusive salamander endemic to the Interior Highlands.  As Carolina and I set out from the Pineywoods of East Texas this late September day, I thought back on these trips, and how, despite my considerable efforts, I had still yet to see an adult Ringed Salamander.

We made our camp on Rich Mountain near a sign warning of bear activity in the area.  I have read that American Black Bear populations in the Ouachitas were increasing, but I wondered how often encounters occur.  Later this very trip we would come to find a large pile of scat that we both believed to be from a bear, complete with a long red cord from someone’s garbage.

The north-facing slopes of Rich Mountain harbor lush, rich forests not unlike those further east in the southern Appalachians.  Here a diverse canopy of oaks, maples, hickories, basswood and Cucumber Magnolia towers above an understory of pawpaws, redbuds, and dogwoods.  Familiar Appalachian plants like Jewelweed, False Solomon’s Seal and Rattlesnake Root line the roadsides that wind up the mountainside and a lush carpet of ferns flanks the numerous small streams and springs that run from the rocky hillsides.

 

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Rich Hardwood Forest

These forests are home to a diversity of salamanders, many of which are found nowhere else on earth.  One such Ouachita endemic is the Rich Mountain Salamander (Plethodon ouachitae), of which we found many.  This species has three distinct variations, one on Rich Mountain, one on Winding Stair Mountain, and one on Kiamichi Mountain.  Pictured here is the Rich Mountain variant, which I find to be the most attractive.  We would also find several Winding Stair Mountain variants before the trip was over, but I neglected to photograph them.  Recent rains and orthographic lift events created perfect damp conditions for salamanders, and nearby we also found Southern Redback Salamanders, Western Slimy Salamanders, Many-ribbed Salamanders, and Ouachita Dusky Salamanders.

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Rich Mountain Salamander

There are a number of salamander species endemic to only certain isolated portions of the Ouachita Mountains.  These include, along with the Rich Mountain Salamander, the Fourche Mountain Salamander and the Caddo Mountain Salamander.  I did not have the opportunity to photograph the latter two this trip, though I hope to return to do so in the near future.  This type of isolated endemism is common in older mountain ranges like the Ouachitas and southern Appalachians, where one species may occupy only a single mountaintop.  Millions of years ago, when the mountains were higher and the climate cooler, a wide expanse of habitat created which allowed salamanders to thrive over expansive ranges.  But as time wore on, these mountains weathered and the climate warmed.  Broad dry valleys formed between peaks, in essence creating islands of populations on the portions of higher peaks where suitable habitat remained.  These populations were now unable to access one another and as a result gene flow between populations was interrupted.  As a result what was once a larger population slowly began to evolve into separate, distinct species in isolation.

From the top of Rich Mountain, in the evening after the day’s fog has burned up, it’s possible to see for miles and miles in every direction.  The distant peaks and valleys looked like some turbulent undulating sea.  Caro and I spent our evenings here, basking on warm rocks as the sun dipped low in the distance.  Here we bid farewell to the day before returning to camp to prepare dinner and recover from our wanderings.

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Ouachita Mountains

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Ouachita Sunset

On the highest, most exposed ridges of Rich Mountain, a forest of gnarled, stunted dwarfs occurs.  Here White Oaks, Black Tupelos, and hickories which may tower 100 feet or more in the rich valleys at the base of the mountains, occur in miniature.  These old growth forests contain trees, like those pictured below, that are hundreds of years old but may only reach 10-20 feet in height.  Their growth is stunted due to a variety of factors, including the exposure to relentless winds, winter ice storms, and frequent fogs.  In some areas two-hundred year old White Oaks were only six or seven feet tall, and occurred in extremely dense thickets that seemed reminiscent of blueberry thickets in the Far North.  These peculiar miniature forests we noted by early travelers to the region, including Thomas Nuttall.

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Stunted White Oak Forest

Though still early in the season, fall colors were beginning to show at the higher elevations.  The classic fall-blooming goldenrods were out in force, and Black Tupelo, Sassafrass, and even some hickories had begun to display their fall foliage.

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Fall Palette

The Ouachita Mountians have a lot to offer, and we enjoyed taking in all that we could.  The real reason for the trip, however, was to try and find an adult Ringed Salamander – something I had failed to do during many previous fall trips.  Unlike most members of the family Ambystomatidae, which breed during the first warm rains of late winter and early spring, the Ringed Salamander breeds in the fall, similar to the Marbled Salamander.  However where the Marbled Salamander breeds and deposits its eggs on land, Ringed Salamanders breed and lay eggs in the water – for the most part, at least.  I have observed on a few occasions, Ringed Salamander eggs laid under leaves and logs in dry pool basins.  While previous trips had turned up thousands of larvae and eggs, the adults continued to allude me.

The Ringed Salamander is one of our most enigmatic salamander species, and in my opinion one of our most beautiful. Despite being abundant in some areas within its narrow range in the Interior Highlands, which include the Ozark Plateau and Ouachita Mountains, it is extremely difficult to observe, with very brief periods of surface activity in the fall and spring.  They emerge en masse following heavy fall rains and migrate to their breeding ponds.  It seems like they leave the ponds very quickly after mating, and quickly return below ground.  In some areas there are also breeding events in the spring, though often on a much smaller scale.

When we arrived in Ringed Salamander country there were still puddles on the ground, which I took to be a good sign. We went directly to the first of the breeding ponds, nestled deep in the woods. Wandering to the pond I wondered how these large amphibians survive here. It is not a rich, moist forest like those caudate-rich slopes of the southern Appalachians and elsewhere in the Ouachitas, but rather a rocky, dry woodland of shortleaf pine and various oaks that seemed to send its rainwater to the heart of the mountain just as soon as it hit the ground.

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Ouachita woodland near a Ringed Salamander breeding pond

There were some interesting wildflowers blooming in the area.  Beyond the goldenrods and asters I spotted this lovely Appalachian Blazing Star (Liatris squarrulosa) and watched as dozens of pollinators visited over a few minutes.

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Appalachian Blazing Star

I had high hopes as we set about exploring the first pond.  There were recently laid eggs in the water – a good sign.  Carolina and I split up and scoured the area.  Under a large, flat rock that looked perfect for a salamander, I spotted a large, breathtaking Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix).  These pit vipers are common throughout much of their range, but that does nothing to diminish their beauty, which is hard to beat.  It is hard for me to imagine wanting to kill such a beautiful thing, but unfortunately it is an all too common occurrence.  This snake showed no aggression toward me, but rather spent its time trying to escape.  I placed it for a moment on top of the rock under which it was sheltering, and after a few quick photos guided it back to its entrance and it quickly disappeared once more.

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Copperhead

We continued searching around the pond for what must have been an hour when I heard Caro call out “I got one!!”  I was overwhelmed with excitement and sprinted toward her, nearly tripping over several boulders in the process.  When I arrived, however, she looked disappointed.  She showed me a small male that was at death’s door.  It had lost nearly all color and its eyes had clouded over.  Barely able to move, it was not long for this world.  Seeing my first adult Ringed Salamander in this condition certainly put a damper on the mood.  We left the pond, with the hope that the next might prove more fruitful.

We visited four more ponds, all with the same result.  Many with eggs but not an adult in sight.  My spirits were sinking fast, and a familiar sense of failure that I had experienced in all my previous trips to the region was starting to take hold.  I try to remain positive in these moments, and think on all of the wonderful gifts the trip had already provided.  But our day was not done. We went to one final pond. It did not look as promising as the previous sites, but I did not intend to leave any stone un-turned, so to speak. So I scoured the area to no avail. Before leaving I peered under a long log that stretched from the pond’s surface about 20 feet or so up the slope that graded into the water. I immediately saw a loose cluster of eggs beneath the log at the waters edge.  I then turned my attention up-slope to the opposite end of the log. Nothing. But just as I was preparing to set the log back I noticed a series of bands of yellow and black just beneath the murky water’s surface. It was a tail. I had finally found an adult Ringed Salamander.

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Ringed Salamander

It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful sight.  Though its colors are more similar to Spotted and Tiger Salamanders, the Ringed Salamander is actually more closely related to Smallmouth and Flatwoods Salamanders, as evidenced by its smaller head and mouth.  They can grow quite large, and this female was over seven inches long.  Ringed Salamanders breed in ephemeral depressions and fishless ponds.  I have even read speculation that they once bred in large “buffalo wallows”.  I can’t help but raise an eyebrow at this claim, but considering that some believe that the Ouachitas were named for a Choctaw phrase meaning “country of large buffaloes” in response to the herds of American Bison that roamed the surrounding valleys, perhaps the concept is not so far-fetched after all.

This beautiful female would be the only individual that we would see.  There were more ponds I had hoped to visit but the road soon became impassable.  It was a very special encounter for me. Finding this species takes a concentrated, planned effort, and in this region it seems to be restricted to remote, difficult to access locations. Perhaps these are the factors that contribute to the allure of the Ringed Salamander, or perhaps its the magic of the Ouachitas.  Whatever it may be, finally encountering this species, along with the many other special moments we experienced during the weekend, left me with many fond memories that I will cherish forever.

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.

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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August and September Recap

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Sacred Datura

Between August 1 and September 30 I was able to cross 5 more species off my list, 3 of which came from another trip to the Davis Mountains:

Mountain Adder’s Mouth (Malaxis macrostachya)

Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii)

Mountain Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi)

Gulf Blazing Star (Liatris tenuis)

Barbed Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes barbata)

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Although we spent most of our time during our August trip to West Texas in the Davis Mountains, we camped the last night on the shore of Lake Balmorhea.  I found the Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii) pictured above right at daybreak as I explored the area around our tent.  The flowers of the Sacred Datura are primarily pollinated by large sphinx moths.  As a result they open in the late evening and close in the early morning.  Sacred Datura has a long history of significance for the people of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. It is well known for its potentially lethal toxicity. However it has also been used extensively for medicinal purposes. The plant was also used by many native tribes in religious ceremonies, often to induce visions.due to its hallucinogenic properties. Unfortunately, the potency of its toxins resulted in the death of many of its users.

On the drive home we stopped at a few rock outcrops to help break up the drive and stretch our legs.  It was at one of these outcrops that we spotted the Cory’s Dutchman Pipe (Aristolochia coryi).  In the U.S., this bizarre plant can only be found in central and western Texas.

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Cory’s Dutchman Pipe

Back in East Texas, my friend James Childress and I went looking for some late summer wildflowers.  Two of my favorites are the Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) and the Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii).  Both species are uncommon in East Texas.  P. ciliaris occurs in herbaceous seeps, baygall margins, and occasionally wet ditches and prairie remnants.  L. michauxii primarily occurs on the upper slopes of rich mesic ravines, often near the transition zone between slope and upland.

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Yellow Fringed Orchid

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Carolina Lily

While hunting for wildflowers James spotted a most interesting creature.  The Giant Ichneumon (Megarhyssa macrurus) is a large parasitic wasp with extremely long ovipositors.  They use these ovipositors to probe tunnels created by the larvae of horntail wasps.  Horntails bore into the wood of dead and dying trees.  The female ichneumon seeks out these larvae and with her ovipositor and lays her eggs on or in them.  Her own larvae then parasitize the horntail larvae.  The young ichmeumons will feed only on the horntails, killing them in the process.  They will then pupate and emerge as adults from the tunnel that their host created for them.

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Giant Ichneumon

In late August Hurricane Harvey passed through East Texas and dumped unprecedented amounts of rain on the region.  Following the storm, James and I went looking for reptiles and amphibians, hoping that they would be active following the prolonged period of moisture.

We found a number of Southern Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix), the most attractive of which is pictured below.

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Southern Copperhead

Among the amphibians observed was this enormous Gulf Coast Toad (Incilius nebulifer).

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Gulf Coast Toad

The prolonged rainfall brought out scores of Hurter’s Spadefoots (Scaphiopus hurteri).  These interesting frogs can be extremely abundant in certain areas, but require specific habitat conditions.  These conditions typically consist of areas with deep, undisturbed sand where they can burrow and aestivate during the hottest and driest part of the summer.  This species emerges only after heavy rains, where they may breed by the thousands in small ephemeral wetlands that may be little more than a puddle.  The tadpole stage for these spadefoots is among the shortest of any frog, requiring as little as two weeks to go from an egg to a froglet capable of leaving the water.  This short larval stage is an adaptation to allow them to breed in areas were the presence of water is a limiting factor, and allows them to breed in areas that other species are not capable of utilizing, effectively eliminating the competition.

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Hurter’s Spadefoot

September is perhaps the best time to visit Catahoula Barrens.  Wildflowers such as Texas Blazing Star (Liatris mucronata) and Nuttall’s Rayless Goldenrod (Bigelowia nuttallii) bloom in mass.  Downy Lobelia (Lobelia puberula) is fairly common in wetter areas along the margins of the barrens.

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Downy Lobelia

Small-flowered Fameflower (Phemeranthus parviflorus) occurs sporadically in Catahoula Barrens.  The flowers of this interesting succulent open in late afternoon.

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Small-flowered Fameflower

I leave you with this final shot of a Catahoula Barren.  I captured this shot at dusk and tried to highlight the rich diversity of colors that can be found in these incredible landscapes.

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Catahoula Barren