Rubber Duckies in the Longleaf

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

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

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

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Brown-headed Nuthatch Range (Image from Wikipedia)

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Longleaf Pine Range (Image from Wikipedia)

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

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A Brown-headed Nuthatch peers from its cavity

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

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Brown-headed Nuthatch

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

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Brown-headed Nuthatch

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

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Brown-headed Nuthatch

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

Beach Tigers

Target Species: Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle (Habroscelimorpha dorsalis)

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A Tiger’s World – Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle

Sunday, August 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle

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

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

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Carolina Wolfberry

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

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Black-necked Stilts

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

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Black-necked Stilt

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Black-necked Stilt

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

Friday, August 10

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

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

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

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

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Copulating Eastern Beach Tiger Beetles

Saturday, August 11

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

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

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Coastal Tiger Beetle

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

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Coastal Tiger Beetle

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

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Black-necked Stilt

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Black-necked Stilt

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

Sunday, August 12

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

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

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Beach Morning Glory

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

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Atlantic Ghost Crab

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Atlantic Ghost Crab

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

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Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle

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

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Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle

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

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

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

Wandering through the Cross Timbers and Prairies: Part I

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Remnant Chalk Prairie

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

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

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

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

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Purple Paintbrush

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

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Prairie View

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

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Moon over the Prairie

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

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Purple Paintbrush

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

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Missouri Evening Primrose – Chasing the Sun

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

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Eastern Shooting Star

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

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

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

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Nuttall’s Death Camas

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Nuttall’s Death Camas

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

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Buffalo Pea

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Buffalo Pea

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

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Death Comes to the Prairie

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

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Eastern Shooting Star

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

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Prairie Paintbrush

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

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Dickcissel

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

The Biodiversity of the Rio Grande Valley Part 1: The Birds

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Altamira Oriole

At first they appeared as flashes of brilliance – blurs of orange, blue, and green darting through the drab brush country.  It was when we sat still and silent that they revealed themselves to us.  A spectacular cast of avian characters emerged from the dense vegetation.  All around us Green Jays croaked and bobbed.  Plain Chachalacas switched between the earth and low hanging branches.  Only occasionally would an Altamira Oriole appear, descending from the tree tops for a brief moment, it’s bright orange plumage demanding our attention.  The trill of a Golden-fronted Woodpecker broke our concentration, competing with the Great Kiskadee for the loudest call in the thornscrub.

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The Rio Grande Valley of Texas attracts birders from around the world.  A suite of characteristically Latin American species reach the northern limit of their range here.  This subtropical paradise is a naturalist’s playground.  Ecologically speaking, it shares more in common with Mexico than the rest of the Lonestar State.  When Carolina and I began discussing our South Texas vacation with our close friends James and Erin, birds were certainly one of the main targets that we planned the trip around.

Followers of my blog may remember previous posts where I talked about borrowing James’s 600mm lens for bird photography.  Fortunately another of my generous friends (and one of the finest photographers and naturalists that I know), Seth Patterson, offered to lend me his 500mm lens and teleconverters for the trip.  Though he is an excellent bird photographer, recently Seth is more focused on contributing to the “Meet Your Neighbours” project.  Armed with this new gear, James and I would be able to pursue our photographic targets at the same time, and wouldn’t have to worry about missing a shot.

This post contains some of the avian highlights of our trip, which spanned the diverse Lower Rio Grande Valley, from barrier islands and salt marshes, through ancient palm forests into the unforgiving Tamaulipan Thornscrub.

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While there are many South Texas species on the top of birders’ wish lists, perhaps the most famous is the Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas).  They range from southern Texas through Mexico into northern South America.  Intelligent, inquisitive birds, they are a common sight in the brush country.

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Green Jay

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Green Jay

The Altamira Oriole (Icterus gularis) is the largest “true” oriole.  It takes these striking birds two years to attain their adult plumage, with first year birds being generally duller and lacking the bold black back and wings.  Altamira Orioles build pendant nests, which hang from tree branches.

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Altamira Oriole Adult

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First Year Altamira Oriole

Smaller and less commonly encountered than the Altamira Oriole is the Audubon’s Oriole (Icterus graduacauda).  They too barely enter the United States in southern Texas.  The Audubon’s Oriole is poorly understood, with few data on their natural history.  What little data are available indicate that they may be on the decline, likely due to a combination of habitat loss and nest parasitism by increasing populations of Brown-headed Cowbirds.

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Audubon’s Oriole

Another species that South Texas visitors get excited about is the Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus)  This boisterous flycatcher makes its home in resacas and riparian corridors.  I’ve been fortunate enough to observe this bird in South Texas, Costa Rica, and northern Argentina.  It certainly has one of the broadest ranges of any New World songbird.  Interestingly, both the English and Spanish names for this bird are onomatopoeas.  Kisk-a-DEE in English, and Bent-e-VEO in Spanish.  In Argentina it was locally known as “bicho feo” (ugly critter), both because this phrase also sounds like its call, and because its obnoxious vocalizations were enough to drive local communities sharing the Kiskadee’s territory crazy.

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Great Kiskadee

While enjoying an intimate view of the valley’s avifauna from the comfort of a bird blind, we witnessed an incredible moment.  The blind was especially productive, with several Green Jays, White-tipped Doves, Plain Chachalacas, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Northern Cardinals.  The occassional Altamira Oriole, Great Kiskadee, and Lincoln’s Sparrow would appear.  In an instant all of the birds scattered.  We could hear their wings cut through the still air as they vanished in a hurry.  The Plain Chachalacas (Ortalis vetula) retreated to some higher branches and began chattering furiously, sharply focused on the brush below.  It was at that moment that we noticed a series of small black blotches moving through the vegetation: the spotted pelage of a Bobcat as it slinked away, unsuccessful in its hunt.

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Plain Chachalaca vocalizing at a Bobcat

The Plain Chachalaca is a large chicken-like bird that skulks in the understory and forest floor.  They are social birds, generally found in small groups as they forage for fruits, seeds, and similar food sources.  Like the kiskadee, they are named for their raucous call.

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Plain Chachalaca

The White-tipped Dove (Leptotila verreauxi) also barely enters the United States in South Texas.  Though they are most frequently observed foraging on the ground in the shade of the dense underbrush, they would occasionally perch on low-hanging limbs.

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White-tipped Dove

Ranging deeper into the United States than the previously mentioned species, the Black-crested Titmouse (Baeolophus atricristatus) none-the-less, is one of the more range-restricted species that we observed during our trip.  It occurs from central Mexico through central and western Texas to extreme southwestern Oklahoma.

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Black-crested Titmouse

The Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Picoides scalaris) is much more widespread, occurring throughout much of Central America and the southwestern United States.  Pictured below is a male, identifiable by its red crown.

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Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Travelling west into western Hidalgo and Starr Counties, the landscape begins to transition from forested brushland to a mix of thornscrub and desert scrub.  Here we were serenaded by Cactus Wrens (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus) as we looked for the succulent plants that lend this large wren its name.  Erin spotted one particularly cooperative individual that sat atop the developing buds of a prickly pear and sang for several minutes.

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Cactus Wren

The ubiquitous Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is ever-present in the valley.  I remember on a previous trip, 10 years ago or more with my family, a couple from western Canada excitedly proclaimed that they had just seen one of the “red jays”.  It was one of the birds they were most excited to see during their trip.  It’s easy to take the common birds for granted, but the Northern Cardinal really is a beautiful species.  The generally duller female has a subtle beauty that makes for a fine image.

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Northern Cardinal

Resacas are shallow ponds and wetlands that dot the landscape of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, most of which have formed in old oxbow scars of the Rio Grande.  The term “resaca” apparently originated from a corruption of rio seco, Spanish for “dry river”.  It also means hangover (at least in Argentina).  These Resacas are home to a variety of interesting bird species.  Green and Ringed Kingfishers fish from their banks, and Least Grebes and Masked Ducks breed here.  They are also an important habitat for wintering waterfowl.  We observed several species of duck here, including Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera), Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis), and Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata).

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Cinnamon Teal

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Green-winged Teal

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Northern Shoveler

James and I spent one morning on our bellies in the tidal flats along the Gulf of Mexico.  We took advantage of the calm, shallow water to photograph foraging shorebirds and wading birds.  There were also large groups of Laughing Gulls, Royal Terns, and Black Skimmers Present.  After a while I had sand all over everything.  All over me, all over my camera.  So many grains of sand became trapped in the buttons of my camera that the shutter button became stuck in a depressed position.  As soon as I turned the camera on it would begin firing in rapid succession.  I was unable to change any settings.  Unfortunately as a result I missed some opportunities for shots of Marbled Godwits and a few other species.  Fortunately I was able to capture a few images prior to this malfunction, like this Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) on the hunt for invertebrates.

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Short-billed Dowitcher

Perhaps my favorite of the long-legged wading birds, the Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) is an uncommon species that appears to be on the decline.  They are closely tied to coastal habitats, and most population estimates put the number of birds at less than 10,000 pairs globally.

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Reddish Egret

These handsome birds put on a truly spectacular show as they forage in the shallows.  They are famous for their graceful, acrobatic hunting technique. They seemingly dance upon the shallow water, running, turning, and waving their wings in a way that seems at the same time chaotic and choreographed. This technique startles small fish in the shallows, and the egrets will then cup their wings over their head to shade out the sun so that they may more easily spot their quarry.

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Reddish Egret oh the hunt

Fortunately, with the help of a needle and some compressed air, I was able to get the sand out of my shutter button, and captured many memorable photographs during our short time in the valley.  While we observed many spectacular landscapes and organisms on our trip, our time spent with the birds was truly special, and I’ll always cherish the memories of chasing after them, camera in hand.

How To: Bluebird Photography

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Eastern Bluebird Male

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bluebird Photography Setup

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

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Eastern Bluebird Male

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

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Eastern Bluebird Female

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

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Eastern Bluebird Male

Back to my Roots: Fun with Bird Photography

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Blue-winged Teal

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

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

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

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

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James with his new lens

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

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

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Ring-necked Duck

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Ring-necked Duck

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

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet

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

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River Cooter

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

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Common Gallinule

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

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American Bittern

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

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Black Skimmer

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

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American White Pelican

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

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Snowy Plover

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

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American Goldfinch

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

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Great Egret

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

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Blue Jay

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

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Tufted Titmouse

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

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Chipping Sparrow

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

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Hermit Thrush

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

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Barred Owl

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

 

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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