Reflecting on Summer in the Pineywoods

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S-banded Tiger Beetle

With the arrival of our first “real” cold front of the season, and temperatures in the extended forecast barely creeping out of the 60s, I think it’s safe to say that fall has arrived.  The forests are full of fungi and fall-blooming asters.  And just the other day I found several Marbled Salamander, a true harbinger of fall.

But before I set out to bask in the beauty of Autumn, I find myself thinking back to a summer spent in the forests of my home.  This year’s was a particularly hot, dry summer.  After a few years of relatively mild summers, at least in terms of Texas, this one was intense.  Yet even in the midst of heat waves and drought there are natural treasures to be found by those willing to look.

I found one such treasure on a sweltering day in late June.  On the advice of my friend Joe Liggio, author of Wild Orchids of Texas, I went to check on a local population of Crest Coralroot Orchids (Hexalectris spicata).  This is a wide ranging species, occurring from Arizona to Florida to Virginia.  In Texas they occur in scattered populations throughout the state, with the most robust populations being in the White Rock Escarpment of north-central Texas, the Edward’s Plateau, and the mountains of the Trans Pecos.  In the Pineywoods they are only known from a few localized populations.  Here they are generally found singly, or in small, scattered clumps.  This year however, we found a huge clump of over 30 stems.

The Crested Coralroot is a non-photosynthesizing mycoheterotroph, meaning that it lacks chlorophyll and has no real leaves to speak of.  It lives out its days a little more than an underground rhizome and small roots that penetrate the mycorrhizal fungi of tree roots in order to rob them of a portion of their energy and nutrients.  All that alerts the average forest-goer to their presence is the flesh colored flowering stalk and purple-streaked flowers that emerge all to briefly in the early summer.

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Crested Coralroot

Emerging from forest floors rich in decomposing organic material in early June is the Ox Beetle (Strategus aloeus).  These massive coleopterans are among the largest insects in the United States.  The pronotums of males are decorated with three horns that are utilized in combat to win the favor of females.  These massive beetles are familiar visitors to porch and gas station lights on warm, humid, moonless summer nights.

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Male Ox Beetle

Another, much more occasional, visitor to night lights is the assassin bug known as Microtomus purcis.  So named for their tendency to ambush other insects and dispatch them with their long spear-like beak, assassin bugs come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.  Microtomus purcis is one of the largest, and most striking.  When not visiting man-made lights in errors, they spend much of their time hidden beneath the bark of rotting tree trunks.

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Microtomus purcis

We spent much of July away from the Pineywoods, visiting the sky islands of West Texas and the beaches of the Upper Texas Coast.  I could not resist, however, seeking out the brilliant orange Platanthera orchids that light up the bog like tiny torches.  There are four species in Texas, however this year I would only photograph two of them.  Interestingly, I would find them both on the same day.

In late July we traveled to the Big Thicket, where deep in a mosquito infested baygall I spotted the brilliant inflorescence of the Crested Fringed Orchid (Platanthera cristata).  This is perhaps the second rarest of our Platanthera species, only known from a few sites in the central and southern Pineywoods.  In Texas they seem to prefer the shaded, highly acidic conditions of forested seeps, occurring either on their margins or interiors.  I have also found them at acidic seeps along springfed streams.  They are generally in the company of a variety of ferns, and other forest seep specialists like Nodding Nixie (Apteria aphylla).  This seemed a good year for them.  I often wonder what triggers an orchid bloom, as some years none will bloom, other years only a handful, and that rare year where many will bloom.  Rainfall no doubt plays some important roll, but as to when the rain should fall to trigger the bloom and what other factors may contribute, I am at a loss.

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Crested Fringed Orchid

After leaving the baygall we traveled east to a wetland pine savannah where we found the enigmatic Chapman’s Fringed Orchid (Platanthera chapmanii).  P. chapmanii occurs in scattered populations in Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina.  It is believed by many to have arisen from an ancient hybrid of P. cristata and P. cilliaris, seeming to display characteristics of both.  It can be differentiated from the former by its long beard and reflexed lateral sepals.  It differs from the latter by its hooked columns.  In Texas P. chapmanii is known from a few remnant wetland pine savannahs in the Big Thicket.

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Chapman’s Fringed Orchid

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Chapman’s Fringed Orchid in a wetland pine savannah

Growing alongisde the Chapman’s Orchids were a variety of carnivorous plants, including the conspicuous Pale Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia alata).  The leaves of these carnivores, known as pitchers, are hollow and form long tubes with pools of digestive enzymes at their base.  Unsuspecting insects that enter the pitchers may become trapped in the enzyme soup, where they are slowly digested, nourishing the plants.

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Pitcher Plants in Love

In early August Caro and I found ourselves in pursuit of another orange beauty, the Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii).  Uncommon in Texas, the Carolina Lily grows in rich, mature forests, generally on hardwood slopes, though it may occur on rocky slopes dominated by Longleaf Pine.  We actually spotted our first lily of the season growing along a county road in a remnant patch of forest surrounded by pine plantations.

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Carolina Lily

A few days later we went to visit a population that Caro had spotted last year long after antithesis.  This year we found them in full bloom, and even spotted one plant that had three flowers, something I had never seen before.

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Carolina Lily

Carolina maintains our garden, which is full of a variety of native plant species.  A benefit to a diversity of native plants in our yard is that we are able to attract a variety of native pollinators.  And with the pollinators come the predators.  In essence we get to observe the food chain in action every day.  One of my favorite back yard predators is the Widow Skimmer, which stalks the garden and occasionally pauses for a brief photo shoot.

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Widow Skimmer

One of my favorite summer past-times is wandering along the numerous clear, cold, springfed streams that transect portions of the Pineywoods.  There is so much to see beneath the water, along the banks, and in the surrounding forests.  It was on the banks of one such stream that I spotted these striking red fungi.

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Fungi

Late summer brings with it a peak in tiger beetle activity.  Undisturbed beaches along streams and rivers may literally be swarming with a variety of species, voraciously chasing down any prey item unfortunate enough to get in their path.  One species, the S-banded Tiger beetle (Cicindelidia trifasciata) was historically considered a species of the coast, however in recent years it has been found along waterways hundreds of miles inland.  In the Pineywoods it is now quite common in many areas.

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S-banded Tiger Beetle

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S-banded Tiger Beetle

The Bronzed Tiger Beetle (Cicindela repanda) is a wide-ranging, somewhat variable species.  Their elytra may appear dark brown, coppery, or even golden under the right light conditions.  They are commonly encountered on sandy stream banks and sandbars of streams and rivers.

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Perhaps the most commonly encountered Tiger Beetle in the Pineywoods is the Ocellated Tiger Beetle (Cicindelidia ocellata).  Unlike most species of the Pineywoods, which are characteristically eastern and at the western edge of their range, the Ocellated Tiger Beetle is primarily a species of the southwest and reaches the eastern limit of its range here.

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Ocellated Tiger Beetle

A visit to my good friend James Childress‘s farm is always good for turning up a few invertebrates.  The plants and woodpiles along his cabin harbor rich arachnid diversity, and we are always treated to a wealth of spider sightings.  Perhaps the most entertaining of all of the farm’s eight-legged denizens is the Bold Jumping Spider (Phiddipus audax).

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Bold Jumping Spider

Under a chair on James’s patio we found this large female Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans).  Perhaps the most famous/infamous spider in the country, the Black Widow has a reputation of being dangerous and ruthless due to its potent venom and tendency to cannibalize males seeking mating opportunities.  In reality, they are docile, gentle creatures disinclined to bite.

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Black Widow

As August turned to September, my friend Scott Wahlberg spotted something truly remarkable.  Deep in a mature hardwood stream bottom he caught a glimpse of a massive Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) that we estimated to be pushing five feet in length and as thick as my upper arm.  Finding this snake was a reminder that all manner of fantastic creatures are hidden deep in the forest, many of which will never be seen by visitors to their woodland realm. We were fortunate, however, to see one of these elusive forest spirits.  In a time and place when so many seem determined to wipe these beautiful animals out based on unfounded fears and ignorance, it is nothing short of incredible that this snake would live long enough to attain such an impressive size. Spending a moment with this gentle giant truly was a gift from the forest.

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Canebrake Rattlesnake

Back at James’s farm the hummingbirds had arrived in force.  South-bound Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) begin arriving in the Pineywoods in late summer.  Dozens of these tiny aerial acrobats were fighting for position among James’s feeders, eager to refuel and prepare for the continued journey south.

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Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Many shorebirds also pass through the Pineywoods in East Texas as they migrate south.  In early September while laying flat on a river sandbar photographing tiger beetles I caught a blur of motion our of the corner of my eye. Slowly I turned my head to focus on this new distraction, and saw that it was a Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularis) darting back and forth in pursuit of invertebrate prey. Though the bird was only about 25 feet away, it was still too far for my macro to reach. Slowly I crept backwards, and then made my way to my truck to seek out my telephoto lens. I could only hope that the tiny hunter would stick around. As I retreated I watched the shorebird make several mad dashes in the area I had just left, undoubtedly snatching up some of the tiger beetles I had just been observing.

I made it to the truck and equipped my bird lens. I then cautiously made my way back to the sandbar. At first I couldn’t see the sandpiper, but after some time it became visible behind a small rise in the sand, tail a-bobbing. I got into the water and laid flat, trying to conceal as much as my form as possible. I slowly moved toward my quarry, and found it to be surprisingly tolerant. Most shorebirds are in their basic, or non-breeding plumage this time of year. In the Spotted Sandpiper, I find this look to be just as striking as its breeding plumage, particularly the fine details on the wing coverts.

I watched the sandpiper through my lens as it moved up and down the edge of the sandbar, stalking and pouncing on prey, and flipping leaves and other bits of cover to see what tasty morsels might lie beneath. After it had scoured most of the sandbar’s perimeter it took off upriver, flying southward with its characteristic erratic wingbeats. I was left with a few images and a fine memory of an unexpected encounter of the best kind.

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Spotted Sandpiper on the prowl

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Spotted Sandpiper

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Spotted Sandpiper

I can’t say that I’ll miss the summer heat, but I will miss many of the familiar species that vanish for the year as summer turns to autumn.  I can’t be too sad, however, as each season in the Pineywoods has a unique cast of characters, and each year I look forward to seeing familiar faces and those that I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting in these wonderful, diverse forests.

An Ode to Longleaf

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Longleaf Pine Savannah

Before I post a May recap, I wanted to pay tribute to one of our countries most unique and biodiverse communities, the Longleaf Pine savannah.  Over the past few years I have been slowly working on a manuscript for a book about East Texas.  This post contains an excerpt of that manuscript and some photos that I intend to include in the book.

Perhaps no tree better represents the Pineywoods than the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), both in its historic influence over the landscape and its eventual plight.  It most often made its presence known in extensive savannahs, where widely scattered individuals might have lived to be 500 years old, reaching diameters pushing four feet, and stretching well over a hundred feet toward the sky.  Once ranging across the southeast, from Virginia to East Texas, the king of the southern pines has been reduced to less than 5% of its native range, and has disappeared across the vast majority of its range in Texas.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah with Little Bluestem

Remnants of the fire-loving conifer and the habitats it defines can still be found, however.  In the northern part of its range in Texas, which includes Sabine, San Augustine, Angelina, and northern Jasper and Newton Counties, it primarily occurs in rolling uplands.  In areas that are managed with regular prescribed fires, one catch a glimpse of the great longleaf pine savannahs of the past.  These were perhaps the most biodiverse communities in the southeast; a unique area where prairie and forest mingled.

Occurring on sands of moderate depth, these sprawling forests are kept free of woody understory encroachment by regular fires.  The fire-tolerant longleaf pine thrives in the face of the flames, while most other species die out.  However, on occasion hardwoods such as blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica), Southern red oak (Quercus falcata), Post oak (Quercus stellata), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), farkleberry (Vaccineum arboreum), and sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).  In the absence of fire American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) may become invasive.

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An ancient Post Oak has survived decades of regular fires in this Longleaf Pine Savannah.

The real show, however occurs on the savannah floor, where hundreds of species of grasses and forbs complete these spectacular ecosystems.  Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is an important component in East Texas, and often occurs in the company of other grasses such as Eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides), Pineywoods dropssed (Sprobolus junceus), and wiregrass (Aristida palustris).  Brackenfern (Pteridium aquilinum) often carpets the ground and xeric (drought loving) species like Louisiana yucca (Yucca louisianensis) and Eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) take advantage of the droughty conditions created by pockets of deeper sand.  Forbs typical of this community include goat’s rue (Tephrosia virginiana and Tephrosia onobrynchoides), Carolina false vervain (Verbena carnea), Pickering’s dawnflower (Stylisma pickeringii), Carolina Larkspur (Delphinium caroliniana), Sanguine’s purple coneflower (Echinacea sanguinea), soft green eyes (Berlandiera pumila), racemed milkwort (Polygala polygama), propeller flower (Alophia drummondii), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), clasping milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis), pineland milkweed (Asclepias obovata), birdfoot violet (Viola pedata), and false dragonhead (Physostegia digitalis).  A number of species that are rare and declining in East Texas occur here as well, including leadplant (Amorpha canescens) and incised groovebar.  The range-restricted scarlet catchfly (Silene subciliata) is endemic to the Pineywoods of eastern Texas and western Louisiana.

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Scarlet Catchfly blooming in a Longleaf Pine Savannah

These savannahs also harbor a unique, and declining fauna.  In fact, some species are so closely tied to this community that they are unable to adapt in its absence.  Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis) and Louisiana Pine Snake are in such peril that they have been afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act.  Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) and Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginiana) favor the dense, rich herbaceous layer beneath the longleafs, where bunch grasses provide ideal cover and high species diversity of grasses and forbs results in a bounty of insects.  Both species have become rare in East Texas, however efforts to reintroduce the wild turkey have been met with some success.

Other species such as the Bachman’s Sparrow (Peucaea aestivalis), Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla), Northern Scarlet Snake (Cemophora coccinea), and Southern Coal Skink (Plestiodon anthracinus) are on the decline.  Species such as the Eastern Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum) and Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) remain common, perhaps due to their adaptability.  The Tan Racer (Coluber constrictor etheridgei) is a race of racer that is also confined primarily to this community.  Surprisingly, even amphibians can eek out a living in these sandy environments.  Explosive breeders like the Hurter’s Spadefoot (Scaphiopus hurteri) and Mole Salamander (Ambystoma talpoideum) live the majority of their live deep underground, emerging during significant rains to breed in areas that can hold water long enough for their larvae to develop.

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Northern Scarlet Snake

The downfall of the longleaf pine savannah began with the arrival of European settlers to the region.  Longleaf lumber was of a superior quality.  Rot resistant, and straight as an arrow, it was utilized heavily for the masts of ships.  As it began to rapidly disappear, those tending to the forest’s regeneration noted that due to its unique ecology longleaf took a very long time to grow to a size suitable for harvest.  So instead of replanting them, they opted for species like loblolly (Pinus taeda) and the non-native slash pine (Pinus elliottii), that, though the quality of their wood was inferior, grew much faster and could yield a marketable stand in less time.  At the same time a culture of fire suppression was arising.  The Europeans did not see fire as a useful tool, as did the Native Americans before them, but rather as a threat to their livelihood.  As a result they took steps to eliminate fire from the landscape, and in doing so woody shrubs eventually filled in the open grass-dominated savannahs.

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Sun sets in a Longleaf Pine Savannah

 

The following are a variety of photos of the longleaf pine savannah and its flora and fauna.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah

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Longleaf Pine seedling

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Louisiana Yucca blooms in a Longleaf Pine Savannah.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah

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Slender Glass Lizard (Ophisaurus attenuatus)

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Birdfoot Violet

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Ox Beetle (Strategus antaeus)

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Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea microptera)

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Six-lined Racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineata)

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Southern Coal Skink

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Hurter’s Spadefoot Toad

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Soft Green Eyes

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Eastern Coachwhip

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Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus)

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Clasping Milkweed

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Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris rugata)

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Racemed Milkwort

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Sanguine’s Purple Coneflower

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Carolina Larkspur

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Eastern Gammagrass

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Leadplant

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Prairie Kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster)

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False Dragonhead

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Texas Red-headed Centipede (Scolopendra heros)

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Texas Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia reticulata)

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Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)

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Butterfly Weed and Bracken Fern

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Pineland Milkweed

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Carolina False Vervain

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Texas Brown Tarantula (Aphonopelma hentzi)

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Slowinski’s Corn Snake (Pantherophis slowinski)

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Eastern Fence Lizard

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Netleaf Leather Flower (Clematis reticulata)

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Propeller Flower

 

 

 

 

 

South Texas Part V: A Stop for a Sand Sheet Endemic

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Amelia’s Sand Verbena blooms in the South Texas Sand Sheet

The South Texas Sand Sheet occurs across a handful of South Texas counties.  It consists of layer of loose sand that was blown inland from the Gulf of Mexico in the Holocene.  The sand sheet is home to a suite of endemic plant species.  Perhaps the most spectacular is the Amelia’s Sand Verbena (Abronia ameliae), which can be found nowhere, save the South Texas Sand Sheet.

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Amelia’s Sand Verbena

While returning home from the Rio Grande Valley we passed through the sand sheet.  I began seeing splashes of a deep pinkish purple passing as a blur at 75 miles per hour.  Finally after seeing a large field of pink I shouted “STOP!”  And my dad, despite his better judgement pulled over into the right of way of the busy highway and backed up to the spot that caught my eye.

The Amelia’s Sand Verbena was blooming en masse.  It was great to see such a rare, range-restricted plant thriving.  Recent rains may have helped provide such a spectacular bounty of flowering plants.  Growing among the sand verbena were a number of other South Texas specialties, including Rio Grande Phlox (Phlox glabriflora).

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Amelia’s Sand Verbena

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Amelia’s Sand Verbena and Rio Grande Phlox bloom in the South Texas Sand Sheet

It was a cool, overcast morning, so there were not many pollinators around.  We did however notices a stealthy predator nestled within the amble flowers on the inflorescence of one of the sand verbenas: a Crab Spider.

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A Crab Spider hidden in the blooms of an Amelia’s Sand Verbena awaits a meal

Seeing these South Texas Sand Sheet endemics was the perfect ending to an incredible trip full of biodiversity.  I was sad that it was coming to an end, but I took comfort in the fact that there were many other natural wonders still waiting to be explored.

 

South Texas Part IV: Star Hunting

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Star Cactus

The Star Cactus (Astrophytum asterias) may be the rarest, most unique cactus in the country.  It is known from only a handful of sites in the Tamaulipan thornscrub of extreme southern Texas and northeastern Mexico.  It is so imperiled that it has been listed as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  It is severely threatened by land use conversion and habitat loss.  Fortunately The Nature Conservancy in Texas acquired the property that may have the largest remaining Star Cactus population in the country.  Here they undertake conservation measures and reintroduction efforts to ensure that this iconic cactus remains for generations to come.

I have donated a number of photographs to The Nature Conservancy in the past.  When we decided on traveling to South Texas I reached out to them to see if I could arrange a visit to see and photograph these imperiled cacti.  They graciously approved my request, and we met with volunteer Paul Bryant, who gave us an excellent tour of the property.  Having previously worked for a non-profit land trust similar to the Nature Conservancy, I know how heavily we relied on our volunteers.  I also learned to recognize the good ones, and I had no doubt that Paul was a valuable asset to the Nature Conservancy.

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Star Cactus

Though many were growing in the open, the star cactus was extremely difficult to spot.  When its not flowering, it is inconspicuous, blending in with the scattered rocks covering the gentle slopes where it grows.  Also known as the Sea Urchin Cactus, Sand Dollar Cactus, and False Peyote, it is a spineless cactus that lies relatively flat against the surface in times of drought.  Following rains, however it swells with water and can appear quite plump.  I had hoped to photograph the bright yellow blooms, but it was not to be.  We saw a number of plants that had recently blooms, and others that were preparing to, but we weren’t fortunate to catch any in the act.  That was ok though, it was a wonderful experience just to get to see them in their element.  The plant itself is beautiful, and made for some interesting photographs even without its bloom.

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Star Cactus

There were several other cacti growing in the vicinity of the Stars.  The most conspicuous was the aptly named Glory of Texas (Thelocactus bicolor).  In Texas this species only occurs in the extreme western and extreme southern portions of the state.  Though the populations are disjunct in Texas, they are more or less connected through Mexico.  We saw many of their bright pink blooms, both in the open and at the base of nurse plants.

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Glory of Texas

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Glory of Texas

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Glory of Texas

We also saw a few of the formidable Horse Cripplers (Echinocactus texensis) in bloom.  Looking at these beasts, its not hard to see how they got their name.

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Horse Crippler

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Horse Crippler

I only saw one Runyon’s Pincushion Cactus (Coryphantha pottsiana) in bloom.  Though not as scarce as the Star Cactus, this species is also rare in Texas, where it is known from only three counties along the Rio Grande.

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Horse Crippler

And then there were more Lady Fingers (Echinocereus pentalophus).  Though these proved to be fairly common during the trip I never tired of seeing them, and could not resist every opportunity to photograph them.

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Lady Finger Alicoche

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Lady Finger Alicoche

I found one particularly robust flowering specimen growing among a clump of Varilla (Varilla texana).  I came to learn that where Varilla grows, there are usually other interesting things to be found.

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Lady Finger Alicoche

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Lady Finger Alicoche

We also observed several Strawberries Pitayas (Echinocereus enneacanthus), Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus fitchii), Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus (Mammillaria heyderi), and a few Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) on the property, however these weren’t in bloom.  I had hoped to photograph Peyote this trip, but a suitable opportunity did not present itself.

There were plenty of other flowering plants to admire, however.  Perhaps the most striking was the Berlandier’s Nettlespurge (Jatropha cathartica).  It seemed to prefer the same gravelly slopes as the cacti.

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Berlandier’s Nettlespurge

While on my knees looking for Peyote I spotted a group of tiny yet striking blooms.  The Glandular Milkwort (Polygala glandulosa) occurs in only a handful of South Texas Counties.

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Glandular Milkwort

It was hard not to stop and admire the Guayacan (Guaiacum angustifolium), which was blooming throughout the thornscrub.

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Guayacan

After arriving at the property, we split up to scour the area.  Seth soon came to find me.  He had an excited grin and told me that he had something to show me.  He led me to a large Texas Tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri) that had crawled halfway down its burrow.  I wanted so badly to photograph it, but despite waiting for some time, it refused to show its face, and we had to continue our hunt for the Star Cactus.  I was luck enough to photograph another South Texas Treasure, the orb-weaver Argiope blanda.  A. blanda occurs in the United States only in extreme southern Texas.

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Argiope blanda

Though I did not get to photograph the Star Cactus in bloom, it was a day full of natural wonder spent in good company, and I left with a real sense of contentment, both in the things I had seen and photographed, and in the knowledge that organizations like the Nature Conservancy exist to protect our planet’s great biodiversity.

 

South Texas Part II: Into the Thornscrub

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Common Pauraque

Beyond the South Texas coastal dunes, marshes, and prairies lies a unique, biodiverse community dominated by a variety of shrubs and small trees.  Variably referred to as South Texas brush country, mezquital, and Tamaulipan thornscrub, this semi-arid, subtropical community occurs in South Texas and the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and Coahuila.  It is home to plants and animals found nowhere else on earth, and in South Texas, marks the northern extent of several Latin American species that just barely enter the United States.

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Tamaulipan Thornscrub with blooming Lady Finger Alicoche alongside Strawberry Pitaya.

The Tamaulipan thornscrub in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas is one of the United State’s premier birding locations.  My parents and I have made a number of birding trips here in the past, drawn in by the promise of catching a glimpse of one of these South Texas specialties.  During this trip the birding was fairly slow, but we did see many of the typical Rio Grande Valley species including Plain Chachalacas (Ortalis vetula), White-tipped Doves (Leptotila verreauxi), Green Jays (Cyanocorax yncas), Long-billed Thrashers (Toxostoma longirostre), Altamira Orioles (Icterus gularis), and Olive Sparrows (Arremonops rufivirgatus).  Unfortunately these species did not present me with any good photo ops.  I did luck out, however, when we found another Valley specialist, the Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis) roosting alongside a trail.  These members of the nightjar family are nocturnal and rely on their camouflage to roost on the ground during the day.  It was nearly invisible among the dried leaves and sticks littering the earth.  I utilized the dense natural debris to create the window effect seen on the photo at the start of this blog entry.

Many mammal species also reach the northern extent of their range in deep South Texas.  Unfortunately many of them are now gone.  The last Jaguar (Panthera onca) in Texas was killed in the Tamaulipan thornscrub in the 1940’s.  There are some that still hold onto hope that there may be a few Jaguarundi left in the Rio Grande Valley.  Though there have been no verified sightings in many years, there have been unverified reports.  Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) are still hanging on in the brush country, though they are now rare, and protected under the Endangered Species Act.  In our explorations of the thornscrub we observed a number of mammals including White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and Collared Peccaries a.k.a. Javelinas (Tayassu tajacu).  The only mammal I was able to photograph was the little Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) pictured below.

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Eastern Cottontail

There are many reptile and amphibians whose United States distribution is also limited to the Rio Grande Valley.  Being an amphibian enthusiast, I was disappointed that we missed the heavy rains that brought out such rarities as the Mexican Burrowing Toad (Rhinophrynus dorsalis) and White-lipped Frog (Leptodactylus fragilis) by just a couple of days.  These species are explosive breeders that emerge to breed after heavy rains.  I did spend some time looking for the beautiful Speckled Racer (Drymobius margaritiferus), a primarily Latin American species that is known from only a couple of sites in South Texas.  I struck out on the snakes, but was able to photograph a couple of the areas conspicuous lizards: the Texas Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus) and the Rose-bellied Lizard (Sceloporus variabilis).

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Texas Spiny Lizard

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Rose-bellied Lizard

The Rio Grande Valley is also world famous for its butterflies.  While we observed many species, the only one I obtained a decent photo of was the Common Mestra (Mestra amymone).

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Common Mestra

The Tamaulipan thornscrub is named for the typically thorny shrubs and small trees that dominate the community.  Typical species of this community include Mesquite (Prosopis gladulosa), Chaparro (Ziziphus obtusifolia),  Whitebrush (Aloysia gratissima), Texas Paloverde (Parkinsonia texana), Texas goatbush (Castela erecta), Saffron Plum (Sideroxylon celastrinum), Blackbrush Acacia (Vachellia rigidula), Corona de Cristo (Koeberlina spinosa), Guayacan (Guaiacum angustifolium), and Ebano (Ebenopsis ebano).  These shrubs form often impenetrable thickets.  On some sites, particularly as one moves further west in the Rio Grand Valley the shrubs may become more scattered, forming dense clumps with areas of exposed gravel and caliche.  It was in areas such as this where we observed the rare Baretta (Helietta parvifolia).

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Texas Paloverde

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Texas Paloverde

Occasionally growing in the crooks of mature Ebano, a real botanical treasure can be found.  The epiphytic bromeliad Tillandsia baileyi, commonly known as Bailey’s Ball Moss barely enters the United States in South Texas, where it is rare.  It is much more striking than other members of its genus, which includes the familiar Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides).

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Bailey’s Ball Moss

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Bailey’s Ball Moss

A conspicuous component of the South Texas brush country is the Anacahuita or Mexican Olive (Cordia boissieri).  Its bright blooms illuminate the native brushlands, and it is a popular native ornamental in South Texas.  The tree was reportedly utilized by native cultures and Spanish settlers to make jellies and dyes.  The leaves can be brewed in a tea that may help with rheumatism and various ailments of the lungs.

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Anacahuita

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Anacahuita

Many invertebrates can be found utilizing Anacahuita leaves and flowers.  The Wild Olive Tortoise Beetle (Physonota alutacea) is found exclusively on these small trees.

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Wild Olive Tortoise Beetle

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Wild Olive Tortoise Beetle

Many pollinators also frequent the blooms.  They due so at their own risk, however, because predators lurk beneath these flowers.  We observed this crab spider (Mecaphesa sp.) awaiting an unsuspecting victim.

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Crab Spider

South Texas is also home to a variety of native lantana species.  Brushland lantana (Lantana achyranthifolia) could occasionally be found scattered about the thornscrub.

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Brushland Lantana

We also observed a couple of species of heliotrope, including the widespread Seaside Heliotrope (Heliotropium curassivicum), and the more range restricted Scorpion Tail (Heliotropium angiospermum) which occurs in South Texas and southern Florida.

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Seaside Heliotrope

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Scorpion Tail

Fiddleleaf Tobacco (Nicotiana repanda), a species of central and southern Texas, was also fairly common.

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Fiddleleaf Tobacco

Shrubby Blue Sage (Salvia ballotiflora) occurs in the U.S. only in southern and western Texas.

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Shrubby Blue Sage

Over the millennia, the meanders of the Rio Grande has slowly changed course, leaving in their wake old depressional oxbow scars.  The scars eventually filled with rainwater and runoff and developed a unique flora.  Known as Resacas these unique wetlands provide habitat for a host of rare plant and animal species.  We observed many Least Grebes (Tachybaptus domincus), another bird species whose U.S. distribution is restricted to South Texas in them.  We also observed the rare Runyon’s Water-Willow (Justicia pacifica) here.

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Runyon’s Water Willow

As one moves further west along the valley, one begins to notice more and more of a desert influence.  I observed many familiar species that I have photographed in West Texas including Snapdragon Vine (Maurandella antirrhiniflora) and Cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens).  The latter blooms in response to rainfall and humidity.

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Snapdragon Vine

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Cenizo

I observed Purple Groundcherry (Quincula lobata) here.  These showy groundcover primarily occur in the southwestern United States.

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Purple Groundcherry

I also observed Bearded Prairie-Clover (Dalea pogonathera) here.  This member of the pea family is primarily a species of the Chihuahuan Desert.

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Bearded Dalea

South Texas is also home to a few woodsorrel species that do not have the typical “lucky clover” leaf.  Pictured here is Peonyleaf Woodsorrel (Oxalis dichondrifolia).

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Peonyleaf Woodsorrel

The open caliche hills were home to the beautiful Berlandier’s Nettlespurge (Jatropha cathartica), which is restricted to South Texas and adjacent Mexico.

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Berlandier’s Nettlespurge

The most spectacular element of the Tamaulipan thornscrub, however, were the cacti.  These famed succulents were my main target in South Texas, and I was fortunate to observe many species.  Though my next two blog posts will be dedicated to the incredible diversity of South Texas cacti, I have decided to provide a preview of things to come below.

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Lady Finger Alicoche (Echinocereus pentalophus)

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Glory of Texas (Thelocactus bicolor)

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus (Mammillaria heyderi)

South Texas Part I: Along the Coast

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Coastal Dunes with Beach Morning Glory

When I was developing my 2017 list I added several species that were contingent on a spring break trip to Big Bend.  Unfortunately I did not plan ahead enough, and by the time I tried to make arrangements out west everything was already booked up.  Fortunately there are so many biodiversity hot spots in Texas that it was not hard to find a substitute.  We decided on the varied subtropical habitats of Deep South Texas.  Here one can encounter a suite of endemics and Mexican specialties that are found nowhere else in the country.  It may come as no surprise that immediately after posting my 2017 list I began thinking about my 2018 list, in which I planned to include many of the South Texas specialties.

So Carolina and I began an adventure with my entire family: my brother, Seth, my mom, Jolynn, and my dad, Jack.  We traveled south in two vehicles intent on seeking out plants, birds, herps, and good food.  Our first couple days were allocated for time along the coast, from Port Aransas to South Padre.

The South Texas coast contains several extensive dune fields, primarily along the barrier islands.  Some are ever shifting, and some have been stabilized with vegetation and debris.  One might be surprised to find plants clinging to life in these sandy wastelands, however several species thrive in these shifting sands.  The most conspicuous species during our trip was the Beach Morning Glory (Ipomoea imperati), which is a coastal specialist ranging from the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Florida to the Gulf Coast of Florida to Texas.  We enjoyed the view from the base of the dunes as Sanderlings (Calidris alba), Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres), Willets (Tringa semipalmata), and Black-bellied Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola) chased the receding waterline only to swiftly retreat with each incoming wave.

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Beach Morning Glory

Beyond the dunes lie a variety of habitats including wet and dry prairies and marshes.  Marshes vary from saline to brackish to freshwater, depending on the influence of tidal waters.  We spent time exploring some high quality saltmarshes, one of my favorite communities, where we observed several bird species including Long-billed Curlews (Numenius americanus), Marbled Godwits (Limosa fedoa), Spotted Sandpipers (Actitus maculatus), Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melenaleuca), American Oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus), Clapper Rails (Rallus crepitans (formerly R. longirostris)), American Coots (Fulica americana), Common Moorhens(Gallinula chloropus), Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Redheads (Aythya americana), Northern Pintails (Anas acuta), Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors), Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis), and Mottled Ducks (Anas fulvigula). Mottled Ducks are coastal specialists that range from Florida to central Mexico.  These close relatives of the Mallard have experienced population declines throughout much of their range as coastal habitat has been lost to development and sea level rise.

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Mottled Duck

The marshes were also home to a variety of wading birds including American Bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus), Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja), White Ibis (Eudocimus albus), Green Herons (Butorides virescens), Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias), Great Egrets (Ardea alba), Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula), Reddish Egrets (Egretta rufescens), Yellow-crowned Night-Herons (Nyctanassa violacea), Black-Crowned Night-Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), and some cooperative Tricolored Herons (Egretta tricolor) and Little Blue Herons (Egretta caerulea).

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Tricolored Heron

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Little Blue Heron

A number of songbirds were also present.  We observed several Common Yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) and scores of Red-winged Blackbirds (Agaleius phoeniceus) and Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus).  The Grackles were particular tame, and would perch on the boardwalk support posts mere feet away from us.

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Great-tailed Grackle

Slight variations of topography along the coast result in vastly different vegetative communities.  On small sandy crests and ridges dry prairies and scrublands persist.  These prairies are dominated by a variety of grasses and forbs.  The most visible member of this community is the Spanish Dagger (Yucca treculeana).  These stately yuccas are common in these dry prairies, and in the United States are restricted to southern Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

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Spanish Dagger

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Spanish Dagger Flowers

Along the wetter transition zone between marsh and prairie Carolina spotted a pair of Texas Feathershanks (Schoenocaulon texanum).  These bizarre members of the lily family can be found in south, central, and west Texas and southwest New Mexico.

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Texas Feathershank

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Texas Feathershank

The contact zone between the dunes and coastal prairie also harbor an interesting flora.  Arkansas Lazy Daisy (Aphanostephus skirrhobasis) is a widespread species of the south central states that can be common in this community.

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Arkansas Lazy Daisy

The lazy daisy is popular with pollinators, and coincidentally with their predators like this crab spider (Misumenoides formosipes) that awaits a hungry pollinator to fall into its trap.

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A crab spider awaits an unsuspecting pollinator

American Bluehearts (Buchnera americana) was also fairly common in this community.

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American Bluehearts

I have always been a fan of milkworts.  I was delighted to see several White Milkworts (Polygala alba), which we don’t have in East Texas.

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White Milkwort

Texas Palafox (Palafoxia texana) is primarily restricted to southern Texas.  Its brilliant pink blooms added a splash of color to the primarily brown grasses of the coastal prairie.

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Texas Palafox

I observed this wasp, Campsomeris tolteca (thanks to Seth Patterson for the ID), feeding on the nectar-rich flowers of the Texas Palafox..

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Campsomeris tolteca

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Campsomeris tolteca

Scattered along the coast are a series of woodlots primarily dominated by Live Oak (Quercus virginiana and Quercus fusiformis) and Hackberry (Celtis laevigata).  Here we observed a variety of Neotropical Migrant birds including Yellow-throated Vireos (Vireo flavifrons), Northern Parulas (Setophaga americana), Black-and-white Warblers (Mniotilta varia), and Yellow-throated Warblers (Setophaga dominica).

These woodlots are also home to Drummond’s Hedgenettle (Stachys drummondii).  This member of the mint family is restricted to the Texas Coast and the Rio Grande Valley.

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Drummond’s Hedgenettle

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Drummond’s Hedgenettle

Stachys drummondii

County Level Distribution for Drummond’s Hedgenettle from http://www.bonap.org

The wealth of biodiversity along the coast was not limited to land.  We observed a variety of shells, jellyfish, and dead fish along the shore, as well as a number of dolphin pods on the move offshore.  The most exciting encounter of the trip, however, came in the form of this juvenile sea turtle, which I believe is a Mexican Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas).  Thanks to a tip from my good friend John Williams, we were able to observe several foraging just offshore.  Despite the cool morning, 40 mile per hour winds, and spitting rain, everyone enjoyed watching this rare marine reptiles as they surfaced for a breath before returning to the depths.

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Green Sea Turtle

The South Texas Coast was good to us, however the trip had only begin.  Next we would be venturing into the South Texas Brush Country, famed for its biodiversity and specialty species that can be found nowhere else in the country.

 

February – Chronicles of an Early Spring

Thanks in part to an exceptionally early spring this year, I have been able to get a good start of my list, knocking off four species in February.  These species include:

Woolly Sunbonnets (Chaptalia tomentosa)

Texas Saxifrage (Micranthes texana)

Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis)

Spring Coralroot (Corallorhiza wisteriana)

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I’m slowly making progress on my 2017 Species List

Though tracking down the species on my list has become a priority in my explorations of the natural world, I could never neglect the special places and familiar species that I have come to love over the years.  I look forward to seeing them each year, and regardless of how many photos of a given species I might have, I can never resist the urge to try and capture new details, compositions, and natural history aspects.

I spent much of early February exploring the woods with my good pal James Childress.  On one such outing we were lucky enough to find a gravid Smallmouth Salamander (Ambystoma texanum) under a log in a false bottomland.

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Smallmouth Salamander

A few days later I received a text message from James that included a photo of a seldom seen sight: an East Texas tarantula.  Tarantulas are typically associated with deserts, however the Texas Brown Tarantula (Aphonopelma hentzi) ranges as far east as East Texas and western Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.  It is an unexpected thing to see one in the forests of the West Gulf Coastal Plain, but here they persist, though their populations seem to be declining.  I have spoken to lifelong residents of the area who remember seeing many as children, and few to none in the past 20 years.  James found this female, identifiable as such by its large abdomen, crawling in his driveway one evening.  He was kind enough to hold onto it so that I may photograph it.  It’s only the fourth tarantula I have seen in the Pineywoods, and the only female.

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Texas Brown Tarantula

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Texas Brown Tarantula Portrait

When I met James for our tarantula photo session he brought another surprise with him – a Banded Tiger Moth (Apantensis vittata) that had been attracted to his garage lights.  This boldly patterned moth is equipped with bright hindwings that it will flash in an attempt to intimidate a potential predator.

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Banded Tiger Moth

After admiring these invertebrates we went on to visit a rich mesic stream bottom that supports a variety of spring ephemeral herbs.  Representing what is essentially the southwestern limit of the range of eastern deciduous forests, East Texas is on the periphery of the range of a suite of spring ephemerals.  Spring ephemerals as a group are adapted to deciduous, hardwood forests, where they can carry out the majority of their life cycle in the early spring, when an abundance of sunlight reaches the forest floor prior to leafout of the canopy.  Species are generally less common on the periphery of their range.  As a result of this coupled with habitat loss over the past century and a half, several of these species have become rare in East Texas.  These eastern forest elements are perhaps my favorite part of the Pineywoods.

The White Trout Lily (Erytrhonium albidum) is one such spring ephemeral.  It’s leaves begin to emerge by early February and are mostly gone by late April.  Members of the genus Erythronium are known as trout lilies in the eastern U.S. due to the resemblance of their leaves to the skin of the brook trout.  In the western U.S. they are often known as fawn lilies, as the leaves look like the spotted pelage of young fawns.  In Europe, they are usually referred to as dogtooth violets, a reference to the shape of the underground bulb.  Erythronium albidum is rare in the Pineywoods, with larger populations in the Post Oak Savannah and Dallas region.

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White Trout Lily

One of my all-time favorite flowers is the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).  Another characteristic spring ephemeral of the eastern deciduous forests, it too is rare in Texas.  In a typical year I can expect to see Bloodroot blooming at this site around February 20.  This year many were already in fruit on February 10.  Bloodroot is named for the thick red sap that oozes from it’s root when injured.  This sap has a myriad of health benefits, and its abrasive nature makes it a good ingredient in toothpaste.  These desirable properties have likely led to over collection of this species, adding to its rarity in the state.

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Bloodroot

One of the more difficult to spot spring ephemerals is the Southern Twayblade Orchid (Listera australis).  It’s tiny brown stems and flowers are practically invisible against the leaf litter.  They are only betrayed by two green leaves near the base of the stem.

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Southern Twayblade Orchid

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) is an abundant spring ephemeral throughout much of East Texas.  Though it is easiest to find on lawns and other cleared areas, I prefer to photograph the individuals deep in the forest, where they are less commonly seen.

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Spring Beauty

Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is a common woody vine of the southeastern U.S.  It slowly works its way from the ground to the canopy, and in early spring it paints the forest yellow with its large, tubular flowers.

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Carolina Jessamine

It is interesting just how many species have Carolina in their common name, or some variation of it in their specific epithet.  The reason is because many species native to the eastern U.S. were initially described in the far east, including the Carolinas.  Virginia also frequently occurs in taxonomic vernacular.  I take it as a good sign that my wife lends her name to so many pretty things.

Last Sunday Carolina and I had a very productive outing chasing after spring ephemerals in Deep East Texas.  We covered a lot of ground and saw a lot of species.  One of the most striking was the Birdfoot Violet (Viola pedata), named for its leaves which bear a superficial resemblance to bird’s feet.  These are our largest violets, easily twice the size of the more common species.  It occurs in scattered populations in East Texas, where it favors open dry mesic mixed pine-hardwood forests.

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Birdfoot Violet

The Wood Violet (Viola palmata) prefers slightly moister sites with a greater hardwood element.  With a few exceptions (Birdfoot Violet being one of them) the flowers of East Texas’s violets are difficult to differentiate.  Wood violet is identified by its deeply lobed leaves.

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Wood Violet

Violet Woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea) was also blooming.  This native is often mistaken for the much more common Pink Woodsorrel (Oxalis debilis), a native of South America.

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Violet Woodsorrel

The occurrence of the Louisiana Wakerobin (Trillium ludovicianum) in Texas was only recently discovered, as botanists closely examined a group of unusual-looking sessile-flowered Trillium.  They had long been masquerading as the Sabine River Wakerobin (Trillium gracile).  Differentiating the two species is a painstaking task that requires close examination of the flowers.

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Louisiana Wakerobins

Trilliums are classic spring ephemeral flowers that occur in rich woods across much of the country.  Their center of diversity, however, is in the eastern deciduous forests.  Trillium ludovicianum occurs on rich mesic slopes dominated by American Beech and other hardwoods.  Since its discovery in Texas, the Louisiana Wakerobin has only been found at a handful of sites.

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Louisiana Wakerobin

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Louisiana Wakerobin

While exploring the rich woods I stumbled upon this scene, and could not resist.  The perfect clump of trillium with the similarily rare Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) in the background represents to me, what is most magical about spring – exploring rich forests in search of ephemeral forbs and other interesting things that are awakening following a long period of dormancy.  To me, the forest feels most alive in the springtime, and so do I.  This shot ended up being one of my favorites from 2017 thusfar.

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Rich mesic forest with Trillium ludovicianum and Phlox divaricata

This site is also one of the few areas where Wild Blue Phlox can be found in Texas.  It too is a typical denizen of the rich eastern deciduous forests that reaches the southwestern extent of its range in East Texas.  And like so many of the previously mentioned species it is rare here.

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Though one might not think it so if they were to visit this particular spot, where it blooms in spectacular profusion on the banks of a clear East Texas stream.

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Flowering trees are at their peak this time of year, and many species are beginning to decorate the understory with splashes of white and pink.  Pictured below is one of the hawthorns (Crataegus sp.).  Though habitat gives some clue, identification to species is difficult without the leaves present.

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Hawthorn in Bloom

Near the hawthorn, Carolina and I stopped a moment to admire this beautiful redbud along a small ephemeral stream.  Though it was getting late and the day was growing dim, the pink blossoms of the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) brightened the woods around us.

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Eastern Redbud

I spent February busily pursuing plants, but I have not neglected the other taxa of my list.  Carolina and I continue to visit the local otter population on a weekly basis.  Though we have not yet seen them, Carolina’s remote camera captured some incredible video of a male scent marking.  Unfortunately I’m unable to upload it here, but I will leave you with the following image, otter tracks along a stream near the Trillium ludovicianum and Phlox divaricata site.  Though I have yet to capture one on camera, the elusive river wolf continues to make its presence known.

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American River Otter Tracks