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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April Recap

April was off to a good start.  I managed to check off five species early on, and had high hopes for the rest of the month.  Unfortunately I couldn’t keep up the momentum and was unable to find any of my targets in April’s second half.  I tried to locate Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus), Creeping Bluestar (Amsonia repens) and Texas Lady’s Tresses (Spiranthes brevilabris) at some historic sites with no luck.  I hoped to check some locations in northeast Texas for Tapertip Trillium (Trillium viridescens), Fire Pink (Silene virginica), and Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens), but was unable to make it that way.  I doubt that I’ll get a chance to see these species this year…maybe next year!  The following are the species on my 2017 biodiversity list I was able to find and photograph in April:

Missouri Foxtail Cactus (Escobaria missouriensis)

Nuttall’s Death Camas (Toxicoscordion nuttallii)

Widow’s Cross (Sedum pulchellum)

Blue Lupine (Lupinus perennis)

Green Adder’s Mouth Orchid (Malaxis unifolia)

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The following are some interesting observations I made in April:

I’ll start this post like March’s recap, with a giant Saturniid moth.  For me, seeing this Promethea Moth (Callosamia promethea) was one of the most exciting of the year thus far.  The Promethea Moth is a species typical of the rich deciduous forests of the Eastern U.S. Though range maps show it entering extreme eastern Texas, I am aware of few records of its occurrence in the state. I certainly have never seen one.  Pictured is a female. Promethea Moths are sexually dimorphic, with males being much darker. I spent some time photographic her in all of her brilliance, and left her to continue pumping pheromones into the evening air, leaving chemical trails for males to seek her out and propagate future generations.

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Promethea Moth

In April I also found a few new populations of the uncommon Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica) on the rich deciduous slopes of the Pineywoods.

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Indian Pink

While looking for the Kentucky Lady’s Slipper we came across this attractive Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis).  Most box turtles immediately withdraw into their shells when approached.  This individual was fairly bold and allowed us to approach for some portraits.

Box Turtles have an interesting relationship with Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), a spring ephemeral of rich eastern forests.  These terrestrial turtles are the primary dispersal mechanism for Mayapple seeds.  Most parts of the plant are toxic, however the ripe fruits are edible.  While other animals will consume, process, and deposit the seeds; studies have shown that those that have passed through the digestive system of the box turtle have the highest rate of germination.  Indeed, the drooping fruits seem to rest at a perfect height for a hungry box turtle.

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Three-toed Box Turtle

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Mayapple taken in March 2014

While exploring the Big Thicket we came across the uncommon Piedmont Staggerbush (Lyonia mariana).  A member of the heath family (Ericaceae).

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Piedmont Staggerbush

Carolina spotted this White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus) dutifully incubating its eggs.

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White-eyed Vireo

The Carolina Larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) is Carolina’s favorite Texas native flower.  Every year we seek them out.  This year we found a large population in a xeric sandhill north of San Augustine.  We also observed several Prairie Milkvines (Matelea cynanchoides), another species typical of these woodlands on deep sands.

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Carolina Larkspur

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Prairie Milkvine

We also spent an afternoon in a Fleming Prairie Remnant, where I photographed the Reflexed or Topeka Coneflower (Echinacea atrorubens), and Prairie Penstemon (Penstemon cobaea), two species that are rare in the Pineywoods.

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Reflexed Coneflower

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Prairie Penstemon

I hope to focus on the unique flora and fauna of xeric sandhills and prairie remnants in future blog posts.  As the temperatures warm in May I hope that I will finally be able to check the first animal species off my list, though there are still plenty of plants to seek out, and special places to explore.

 

 

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.

 

Slow and Steady

The first month of 2017 has passed by and I have yet to cross any species off my list.  Most of the species I put on the list are seasonal, so I spent January focusing on the few resident species that I included, namely the North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis).

Recently my good friend James Childress found a population close to home.  My wife Carolina and i began visiting the site on the weekends, sometimes 2-3 times per day to no avail.  However the waterway and adjacent wetlands and pine-oak uplands are rich with wildlife, and I found many photographic subjects in the otters’ absence

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Wood Duck Drake

.One group that is noticeably missing from my list are birds.  I didn’t include them because though I love bird photography, it is a difficult endeavor, and results are often unpredictable.  If I were to have made a list, however, I would have incorporated the Wood Duck (Aix sponsa).  These denizens of creeks, backwater sloughs, flooded oxbows, and ephemeral ponds can be abundant in parts of The Pineywoods.  Unfortunately they are wary and secretive, and typically all I have to show from encountering one is a memory of splashing, their whistle like vocalization as they retreat, and if I’m lucky a distant glimpse of them flying through the trees.  While pursuing the otters, however, I found a less wary subject and with a bit of patience and luck I was able to finally capture some images of what many consider to be North America’s most beautiful duck.

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Wood Duck Drake

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Wood Duck Drake

One afternoon, as I was trekking with my photographic gear to a spot where we expected the otters might show themselves, I heard my wife call out frantically.  Not in fear, but rather a sense of urgency that I might miss the treasure she had stumbled upon.  She had found a large Regal Jumping Spider (Phidippus regius).  I had tried numerous times to photographic this species, but found them too wary and difficult to approach.  But on this warm January day I found a bold, curious specimen that made for a perfect photographic subject.

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Regal Jumping Spider

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Regal Jumping Spider

I have been photographing the Pineywoods of East Texas for many years now.  While this species list project is a way to add a little spice to my photographic pursuits, I still love wandering the woods with a camera in hand, and no particular goal in mind.  On New Year’s Day Carolina and I went to one of our favorite spots.  We wandered the longleaf pine forest, admiring the fungi taking advantage of the moisture and humidity that remained after some recent rains.  As is typical in our forest wanderings, Carolina had the best find of the day – A pair of Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora) pushing skyward from the dense carpet of longleaf pine needles.  I was surprised to see it blooming so late in the season.  The habitat also seemed unusual to me, as I was accustomed to seeing it in the rich loams of moist slopes and stream bottoms.  Pleased with the days observations, we sat among the longleaf pines as the day faded, and contemplated the adventures to come.

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The Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is showy, highly toxic mushroom that appears in pine-dominated forests following late fall and winter rains.

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Ravenel’s Stinkhorn (Phallus ravenelii)

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Unlike most plants, which obtain energy through photosynthesis, Indian Pipe is a mycoheterotroph.  It obtains its energy and nutrients from the mycorrhizal fungi of tree roots.  I have read that it is named for an old Cherokee legend that states that these plants grow where old chiefs are buried so they may have something to smoke in the afterlife.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah

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An old, gnarled post oak growing among longleaf pines in an upland savannah.

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Merlin

Opting for a change of scenery, we decided to take  our pursuit of the North American River Otter to the coast.  I used to see them regularly in the wetlands around Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge when I worked there, and had heard of some recent sightings.  Hoping that we might get lucky Carolina, my mom and I spent a day exploring the Upper Texas Coast.  Though our mammalian quarry eluded us, we did see a number of birds including a variety of wintering waterfowl and wading birds.  The highlight of the day was toss up between a cooperative male Merlin ((Falco columbarius) that perched on a rustic fence post in perfect light, and an American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) that foraged in a ditch next to the road.  Relying on its camouflage it allowed us to approach to within feet of it, as it slowly stalked the reeds.

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American Bittern

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Ringneck Duck (Aythya collaris)

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Spotted Salamanders en route to a vernal pool.

Back in the Pineywoods I checked the weather daily, awaiting the conditions that would bring about one of nature’s great events – the Spotted Salamander migration.  Among the world’s most spectacular amphibians, the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) makes its home in the forests of the eastern United States.  Spotted Salamanders spend the majority of the year underground, hidden from the world in small burrows that have been excavated by rodents or other species.  In response to warm rains in later winter/early spring they emerge en masse and migrate to their breeding ponds, where they form large breeding congresses in order to propagate the next generation.  Finally we had a night with the perfect conditions and Carolina and I visited some breeding sites with our friends James and Erin Childress, where we observed hundreds of Spotted Salamanders and a handful of Mole Salamanders (Ambystoma talpoideum) swimming about the vernal pools.

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A Spotted Salamander male awaits the females’ arrival to his breeding pool.

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A gravid female Spotted Salamander

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A gravid female Mole Salamander

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A false bottomland in the East Texas Pineywoods.  False bottomlands are unique communities that occur in clay-bottomed dpressions located within upland communities.  They typically flood during the winter and spring, and become dry during the summer.  Though not associated with waterways, the community is somewhat similar to bottomland hardwood forests.  Dominant species include willow oak, overcup oak, and mayhaw.  The ephemeral nature of flooding in these communities makes for excellent amphibian habitat.

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An unidentified fungus growing on a fallen tree.

The salamanders were a nice distraction, but it was soon time to return to my pursuit of the river otter.  For Christmas my wife got a remote game camera.  Following the news that James had seen otters, she began setting the camera in areas where we observed ample otter sign.  For a couple weeks she came up empty handed.  One day, while en route to set up the cameras I caught a glimpse of something moving across the leaf litter.  It turned out to be a Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occupitomaculata), a small snake of the eastern U.S. that reaches the southwestern extent of its range in East Texas.  Though common throughout most of its range, the Red-bellied Snake is quite rare in Texas, and I took our encounter to be a good sign for things to come.

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Florida Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata obscura)

Carolina chose a place to set the camera adjacent to some logs that were covered in otter scat and hoped for the best.  Sure enough, the next time we checked the camera’s accumulated images, among the hundreds of photos of branches blowing in the wind, songbirds, and rats, we caught sight of our objective – a North American River Otter.

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With renewed energy I will continue to pursue the aquatic mammal in hopes of capturing its photograph, because slow and steady wins the race.