Spring in the Desert Part 3: The Marathon Basin

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An hour or so north of Big Bend National Park, nestled between the Stockton Plateau and the Eastern Front Ranges of the Trans-Pecos lies a unique geoecological area with floral and faunal associations that seem out of place in the otherwise semi-arid desert scrub that surrounds it.  The Marathon Basin, at is is commonly described, is surrounded by a series northeast trending ridges known as the Marathon Uplift, which contains a unique geology important to a suite of endemic, endangered species.

The Basin’s most dramatic feature just might be a vast remnant patch of short grass prairie that appears like a vast sea of refuge from the surrounding desert scrub.   I always look forward to seeing this prairie and its residents.  This spring we were fortunate to see a group of Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) among the undulating grassy ridges.

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Pronghorn Buck

The star attraction of the Marathon Grasslands, however, is the massive prairie dog town.  Here a thriving colony of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) entertains visitors to their prairie realm with their inquisitive nature, comical antics, and high-pitched alarm calls.

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog

South of the town of Marathon exist a series of ridges with conspicuous exposed layers of multi-colored rock known as Caballos Novaculite.  Primarily composed of chert, this formation is the same as the Novaculite outcrops in the Ouachita Mountains of Oklahoma and Arkansas, located hundreds of miles to the east, and both exposures originated from a collision of the land masses Gondwana and Laurentia in the Late Paleozoic.  The quartz present in the Caballos makes the rocks extremely hard and often sharp.

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Caballos Novaculite Outcrops

The Caballos Novaculite is home to three species of endemic cacti, all of which are entirely confined to this small portion of Brewster County.  Two of these species, Nellie’s Cory Cactus (Escobaria minima) and Davis Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus davisii) are Federally Endangered.  Both species have suffered heavily from over collection and as a result are now entirely confined to private land.

We were fortunate enough to observe several Echinocereus davisii plants in bloom.  This is one of the smallest cactus species in the world, rarely reaching heights greater than an in and a half.  They are almost entirely hidden beneath grasses and other vegetation growing among the Novaculite, rendering them practically invisible.  Only when the small yellow-green flowers emerge in early Spring to they become visible.

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Davis Hedgehog Cactus

The Marathon Basin and Uplift are bordered to the northwest by the Glass Mountains.  The lower slopes of this range are dominated by typical Chihuahuan Desert Scrub, where we observed a number of interesting plants in bloom, including Woolly Locoweed (Astragalus mollissimus), Feathery Dalea (Dalea formosa), and Downy Paintbrush (Castilleja sessiliflora).

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Woolly Locoweed

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Feathery Dalea

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Downy Paintbrush

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Downy Paintbrush

In my humble opinion, no trip to the Big Bend Region is complete without a stop in the Marathon Basin.  It serves as a reminder of the staggering diversity of the Trans-Pecos, and a humbling exposure to the wide open spaces that West Texas is famous for.

Spring in the Desert Part 2: The Super Bloom

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

In the absence of rain, this place may seem some endless sea of stone, only occasionally broken by scattered shrubs, cacti, or other thorny things.  In the hottest and driest of times it is easy to think that life shuns this place.  But such thoughts could not be farther from the truth.  The Chihuahuan Desert in the Big Bend region is one of the most biodiverse arid places on the planet.  Perhaps there is no better time to witness this biodiversity than early spring following a wet fall and winter.  Fueled by life-bringing moisture, countless billions of seeds germinate and send up a staggering array of flowers from the parched soil.  Perennial species, including cactus, also react to the increased moisture by concentrating energy into blooming en masse, painting the desert in a rainbow of colors, and shattering its stereotype as a barren wasteland.

After an incredible day exploring Black Gap, Caro and I set out early to Big Bend National Park in order to avoid the spring break crowds.  We arrived at the Panther Junction visitor center right as it opened so that we could explore the book store and refill some of our water bottles.  Within 30 minutes, the place was overrun with a variety of characters, all from different walks of life, seeking different experiences, yet united in their admiration for this incredible place.

Wanting to avoid the bulk of the crowds, we opted to explore some remote 4X4 roads, which would offer ample opportunities to explore a variety of habitats.  It was a good choice, and aside from a few vehicles before lunch, we had countless acres of wilderness to ourselves.

As the day began, we stopped to admire an explosive bloom of Bicolored Mustered (Nerisyrenia camporum) in the dry bed of Tornillo Creek.  The blooms are strongly fragrant and filled the spring air with their sweet aroma.

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Nerisyrenia camporum Super Bloom

In areas adjacent to the creek we found the mustard blooming alongside some towering Big Bend Bluebonnets (Lupinus havardii) and a variety of other wildflowers, offering a varied sampling of the palette that the desert was soon to provide.

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Spring in the Desert

We had seen our fair share of Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap, but Big Bend provided a whole new perspective to this striking plant.  The sky was overcast all day, providing a soft light that made landscape photography a challenge, but provided excellent opportunities to capture intimate portraits of many of the incredible wildflowers that we encountered.  Some of the bluebonnets we encountered were approaching four feet in height, and sported racemes bearing dozens of flowers.

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Big Bend Bluebonnet

While passing adjacent to a series of gypsic hills, Carolina shouted for me to stop.  This is usually a good thing, and means that she has spotted something interesting.  And indeed she had.  She pointed to bright yellow spot on a hillside hundreds of meters away.  How she spots these things, I’ll never know.  Moving closer to investigate, it soon became evident that it was a healthy Texas Rainbow Cactus (Echinocereus dasyacanthus).  This is a species that I included in my list of biodiversity goals.  I have seen the plant many times, but had never experienced the splendor of its blooms.  I was concerned that we were too early, but I was very wrong.  We would find many plants in full, glorious bloom in the lower elevations of the park.

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

I had always presumed these cacti had a preference for limestone, but we saw them in a variety of substrates throughout the day.  They have some of the most striking blooms of any cactus.  They are generally lemon yellow with green throats, and may approach 4 inches across.

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

Interestingly, their common name is not derived from their stunning flowers, but rather the rusty-colored bands decorating their stems.  Seeing many old, multi-stemmed individuals in such a remote setting was certainly one of the highlights of the trip.

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

A few of the plants contained Cactus Bees (Diadasia sp.) feeding on nectar from deep within the blooms.  The bees’ hairy exoskeleton served as the perfect vessel for trapping pollen, ensuring that the insects would play their part in propagating future generations of Texas Rainbow Cactus.

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Cactus Bee

There were other species of cactus in bloom as well.  Perhaps the most conspicuous were the large colonies of Purple Prickly Pears (Opuntia azurea), which were just coming into flower.  The blooms of most cactus species open in late morning or early afternoon, and close by late afternoon.  It was a wonderful thing to see these prickly pear flowers open to reveal their bright red centers to the world.

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Purple Prickly Pear

While it was easy to get lost in the grandeur of endless expanses of blooming wildflowers, pausing to admire more subtle, intimate scenes proved just as rewarding.  I photographed the Edward’s Hole-in-the-Sand Plant (Nicolletia edwardsii) and Sand Bells (Nama hispidum) just after the latter’s flowers opened for the day.

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Edward’s Hole-in-the-Sand plant and Sand Bells

The combination of wildflowers was endless.  Below Pope’s Phacelia (Phacelia popei) can be seen blooming alongside Bicolored Mustard along an ephemeral drainage.

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Pope’s Phacelia and Bicolored Mustard bloom along an ephemeral drainage.

The kaleidoscope of colors continued in this rocky wash, where I spotted several nice clumps of Havard’s Fiddleleaf (Nama havardii), known in the United States only from the Big Bend region.

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Havard’s Fiddleleaf and Bicolored Mustard bloom in a gravelly wash.

It seemed like around every bend in the road there was some new fusion of color to be discovered.  One of my favorites was the combination of the yellows of Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata) and the purples of Nama hispidum blooming among scattered Ocotillo and Creosote Bush.

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Baileya multiradiata and Nama hispidum bloom in profusion.

Deep in the interior of the park, we explored a series of limestone ridges and shale slopes on hills rising from the Rio Grande.  Here we found many interesting, uncommon species like the Lyreleaf Jewelflower (Streptanthus carinatus).  This denizen of the desert southwest bares purplish blooms in Texas, but they are primarily white and yellow as one moves further west in their range.

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Lyreleaf Jewelflower

We found several Candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphilitica) plants growing in the same general area.  This interesting succulent has a long history of use by human cultures.  As the specific epithet suggests, it was long used to treat sexually-transmitted diseases.  It has also been extensively harvested for a wax produced from its leaves.  This wax has been used for a variety of applications, including use as a food additive for glazing agents, as an ingredient in lip balm, and perhaps most famously as a binder for chewing gum.

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Candelilla

On one of the limestone slopes Caro spotted a beautiful Texas Rainbow Cactus that sported bright orange flowers as opposed to the more typical lemon colored blooms.  We saw a few of this color, and even a few with a pinkish tinge.

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

Caro’s sharp eyes also spotted the diminutive Duncan’s Foxtail Cactus (Escobaria duncanii), a rare cactus is primarily confined to a very narrow range near the Rio Grande in Big Bend and adjacent Mexico, though there is an isolated population in New Mexico.  This cryptic cactus grows from fissures and crevices in the limestone and is one of the first cacti to bloom in spring.  By our visit in early March, many of the blooms were already spent.

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Duncan’s Foxtail Cactus

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Duncan’s Foxtail Cactus

Another cactus I had really hoped to see was Warnock’s Pineapple Cactus (Echinomastus warnockii), named for the famous botanist and pioneer of the flora of the Trans-Pecos, Barton Warnock.  We actually saw several with closed blooms in the early afternoon, however this species opens later than most and we couldn’t wait around.  Fortunately Caro spotted one growing in a clump of dried grass on one of the limestone slopes a couple hours later.  Like many cacti of the region, E. warnockii is known only from West Texas and adjacent Mexico.

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Warnock’s Pineapple Cactus

Those limestone hills were full of a diversity of cactus!  Caro spotted another rare, early-blooming species, the Silver-Lace Cob Cactus (Escobaria albicolumnaria).  Consider by some to be a variety of Escobaria sneedii.  When investigating the cacti of Texas, one notices a pattern: many species are confined only to the Big Bend region.  In fact, this (relatively) small area in West Texas has the highest diversity of Texas in the United States.  E. albicolumnaria is another early bloomer, and sports pink flowers that never open fully.

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Silver-Lace Cob Cactus

Throughout the day we had seen several clumps of Big Bend Prickly Pear (Grusonia aggeria), another species whose U.S. range is confined to far West Texas.  A type of “dog cholla”, this cactus sports very sharp, strong spines that can become the bane of any desert wanderer.  Fortunately the bright yellow blooms make up for their pricklier side.

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Big Bend Prickly Pear

As the day neared its end we found some clumps of Purple Prickly Pear loaded with blooms and developing buds.  Their beauty combined with that of a carpet of composites and Nama, and the Chisos Mountains as a backdrop created a dramatic scene that I felt privileged to witness.

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Desert Abloom

Throughout the day we saw several blister beetles (Cysteodemus wislizeni) scurrying across the desert floor.  These chunky, iridescent beetles are flightless, and their elytra (outer wings) are partially fused.  They were constantly in motion, providing a challenge to photography, but it was a challenge I welcomed as I chased after them, camera in hand, uttering colorful phrases in my frustration.

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Cysteodemus wislizeni

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Cysteodemus wislizeni

While I was busily tending to the beetles, Caro came rushing over to me with her hands cupped one over the other.  What she revealed was a large grasshopper, which I believe to be a female Toad Lubber (Phrynotettix robustus).  I placed it adjacent to a few plants of the diminutive Matted Fiddleleaf (Nama torynophyllum).

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A Glimpse of the Desert Floor

As afternoon turned to evening we once again found ourselves among the overwhelming beauty of vast expanses of Big Bend Bluebonnet.  For the briefest of moments the sun broke through the wall of clouds, and illuminated the bluebonnet laden slopes and distant Chisos Mountains.

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Land of the Blue

As the light began to fade I thought back on one of the most incredible days I had spent in the desert.  Just as I was expecting photography to wind down, I caught a flash of pink in a sandy desert wash.  It was a species that I had very much hoped to find: Havard’s Ipomopsis (Ipomopsis havardii), another generally uncommon species unique to the region.  I quickly went about photographing it, as daylight was fading fast.

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Havard’s Ipomopsis

Though they are small, the colorful blooms are among the most interesting that I have seen.

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Havard’s Ipompsis

As I finished photographing the Havard’s Ipompsis, the light faded fast.  We spent last light driving through an expanse of volcanic tough that looked like some alien landscape.  As darkness set in we still had 10 miles until we would reach pavement.  It was an eerie feeling driving through some of that terrain in total darkness.  The eeriness did not diminish after we returned to pavement.  Shortly after doing so we pulled into a parking area to stretch our legs.  Immediately after leaving the truck we heard a pair of Coyotes sounding off.  Now I have spent many evenings being serenaded by the mournful calls of “God’s Dog”, and they often deceive one into thinking they are much closer than they actually are.  But these were CLOSE.  Caro suggested that I turn on the headlights, and as I did we could see the pair just at the edge of the beam’s reach.  They trotted across the road and continued into the vast desert beyond.

The experience rounded out a most spectacular day.  I leave you with a parting shot, of a splendid Texas Rainbow Cactus in all its glory, thriving in the desert flats below the venerable Chisos Mountains.

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

Spring in the Desert Part 1: The Beauty of Black Gap

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A monolith of rock rises from the desert floor in Maravillas Canyon

My first trip to Big Bend Country was over 20 years ago, in 1997, having spent just a month as a Texan.  We went in August, and it was hot.  Hot, intimidating, and seemingly inhospitable – at least in the surface.  But despite all of this I quickly fell in love with the land.  We watched a curious Gray Fox from the balcony of our room at the Chisos Mountain Lodge.  I chased Tarantula Hawks, velvet ants, and Horse Lubbers; and I found the glittering remains of a departed Glorious Jewel Beetle.  I marveled at the significant respite from the heat that the mountains provided, and the monsoonal rains that seemed so out of place in this arid landscape.

Since that day I have returned many times, and have been rewarded with incredible discoveries and remarkable experiences.  Yet in all these years I had never visited in the spring, one of the most spectacular times to be immersed in the Chihuahuan Desert.  I have long wanted to, but have always been somewhat intimidated by the crowds.  One thing I love about Big Bend is its remoteness, and the feeling of isolation and insignificance that comes with it.  During spring break, which generally coincides with the peak wildflower bloom, the park is flooded with visitors from all around the Lonestar State and beyond.

This year, however, I could not resist.  I began seeing reports that Big Bend was experiencing one of the most spectacular Big Bend Bluebonnet (Lupinus havardii) blooms in recent memory.  After a short conversation, Carolina and I made the decision to make the trek.  I consulted my friend Michael Eason, author of Wildflowers of Texas, and resident of the region.  He recommended that we spend a day in Black Gap Wildlife Management Area.  Black Gap is just northeast of the park, and we would come to find that it sports a diversity of life and quality of scenery on par with that of the park.

Though I highly recommend exploring Black Gap, I will add a word of caution.  At just over 100,000 acres, it is huge and it is very remote.  Access to the interior is via high clearance gravel and rock roads, and there are no services and very few visitors.  Despite being at the peak time for visitation to the region, we only saw one other vehicle all day.  There is no cell phone service, and it would be easy to become stranded, so visitors should come prepared.

Fortunately our visit went smoothly.  We arrived mid afternoon to the Stillwell Store.  Stillwell’s boasts a large camping area with well-spaced sites that offer a truly isolated feel, despite the large number of spring breakers.  They say that they never fill, and will accommodate all campers by opening additional property if necessary.  While the store and showers were packed every evening, from our campsite we could barely hear another soul.  Stillwell’s is directly adjacent to Black Gap and only 8 miles from the north entrance to Big Bend National Park, and provided the perfect base for our adventures.

We quickly made camp, and ventured into Black Gap.  Bicolored Mustard lined the roads and filled the desert air with their sweet aroma.  It wasn’t long until we began seeing our first Big Bend Bluebonnets roadside.  Once in Black Gap we began exploring desert washes painted by the blooms of millions of wildflowers.  The highlights were two species endemic to the Big Bend region of Texas and adjacent Mexico: Phacelia infundibuliformis and Streptanthus cutleri.

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Phacelia infundibuliformis

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Streptanthus cutleri

There were many more blooms to be seen, but it was growing dark.  We returned to the truck and continued on to the river.  I had to drive slow, as Collared Peccaries and Mule Deer crossed the road before us, and our headlights reflected in the eyes of countless Common Poorwills sitting in the roadway.

Tired from a long day, we returned to camp where we took advantage of the Stillwell Store’s showers and I boiled hot dogs for dinner.  As I was cleaning after dinner I heard Caro call out to me.  I knew from the sense of urgency in her tone that she had found something interesting, and she had!  In the light of her flashlight I could see a kangaroo rat casually foraging on the desert floor.  It was not concerned in the least as I approached with my camera.  Unfortunately just after I captured this image it made its way beneath a massive Tasajillo, so close but out of reach of my lens.

I believe it to be a Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys merriami).  This species is very similar to the Ord’s Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys ordii), and both species occur in this region.  Morphologically they are quite similar and are most easily separated by counting toes – Merriam’s have four toes on their hind feet while Ord’s have five.  I did not have the luxury of counting its toes, unfortunately, however it is also reported that the two species have slightly different habitat preferences, with Merriam’s occuring on rocky, gravelly soils and Ord’s occurring in areas of loose sand.

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Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat

Where there are rodents, invariably there are things that eat rodents.  This large Kansas Glossy Snake (Arizona elegans elegans) had extensive scarring on its head and appeared to be blind in one eye.  In spite of all this, it seemed very healthy.  It would be the only live snake we would see this trip, though we found a freshly hit Western Diamondback Rattlesnake and Western Coachwhip nearby.

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Kansas Glossy Snake

That night a few raindrops fell – just enough to draw the smell of earth from the desert and serenade us with a gentle pattering on the rainfly.  We woke early the next morning, and made our way into Black Gap.  We opted to spend the morning exploring along the paved FM road down to La Linda.  There is an old closed bridge across the Rio Grande there, a sign of more prosperous times when it served to transport flourite into the U.S. from mines in Coahuila.  Today the bridge is in ruins and La Linda is a ghost town.

While the evening before we had seen a few Big Bend Bluebonnets lining the roadside, today we saw them sprawling across the hillsides in a carpet of blue.  It was a sight to behold, and though I knew they could never do this view justice, I couldn’t resist taking a few pictures.

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Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap

A short hike from the road provided a spectacular view of the lower canyons of the Rio Grande.  Here we found Yellow Rocknettle (Eucnide bartonioides) clinging to the cliffs above the river.  Below I watched a group of Cinnamon Teal floating lazily downstream.  Taken in by the grandeur of it all, I paused a moment to lose myself in contemplation – a pastime that I find trips to wide open places greatly enhance.

To capture the image below I had to lie precariously on my stomach on a narrow ledge and lower my camera a few feet.  I relied on the LCD screen to compose the shot.  It may not have been the golden hour for photography, but I was not willing to pass up the opportunity to capture such an incredible moment in time.

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Yellow Rocknettle blooms above the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande.

The Yellow Rocknettle was incredible!  We found several large groups blooming on sheer cliff faces.  While most were high on canyon walls, well out of reach, a few were low and safe enough to approach.  The large, showy flowers may appear virtually any time of year when there is sufficient rainfall.

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Yellow Rocknettle

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Yellow Rocknettle

As the sun rose higher in the sky, cactus blooms began to open to the world.  We would end up finding 9 species in flower over the course of the trip.  In Black Gap, however, we only observed one species blooming – the Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha).  Like the Big Bend Bluebonnet and Yellow Rocknettle, this was one of the biodiversity goals on my list when I first started this blog.  Though I was able to photograph this species sans flowers in October 2017, this was my first time seeing the spectacular, albeit miniature, blooms.

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

As late morning turned to early afternoon, a thin veil of clouds began passing in front of the sun, creating one of my favorite qualities of light.  I took the opportunity to photograph more Big Bend Bluebonnets, whose cobalt hues mirrored the sky.

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Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap

Michael had suggested that we drive into the interior of Black Gap to experience Maravillas Canyon, and I’m glad he did.  In my opinion, the scenery here was on par with that in the National Park.  We left the pavement mid afternoon and ventured down the 4X4 road that led into the canyon.  It is 18 miles one way to the river, and though we found the road to be easily passable in my truck, it was rough.  I never put it into four-wheel drive, however high clearance was a must.

The road was lined with botanical wonders that only became more interesting and more numerous as we approached the river.  Here we found more proliferations of Big Bend Bluebonnet blooming among Lechuguilla, Candelilla, and Creosote.

As the sun vanished down behind the distant canyon walls, we made the long trek back to the pavement in the dark.  It was a somewhat eerie feeling being out in the night in the middle of so much nothingness, but I welcomed it.  It may seem counter intuitive, but I never feel more alive than those times when I’m reminded just how fragile and insignificant my life is, in the grand scheme of things.

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and Lechuguilla

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and Candelilla with Maravillas Canyon in the background

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and other desert flora in Maravillas Canyon

Exploring Black Gap was an experience I will never forget, and one I hope to repeat.  It really is the perfect playground for one who loves biodiversity, dramatic landscapes and solitude.  That night we arrived to our campsite late and completely drained, but we took in the moonless night sky where the brilliance of countless stars cast shadows across the desert floor.  It was another in a long list of humbling experience that the day offered.  The next morning we would venture into the park to experience a wildflower bloom, the abundance and diversity of which hardly seemed possible in such an unforgiving landscape.

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 3: Las Estrellas del Sur

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It was of the utmost importance that we keep our eyes firmly fixed on the ground – scanning among the stones and parched earth.  Important, because we were in the realm of the Star Cactus (Astrophytum asterias), a very rare, Federally Endangered cactus of the Tamaulipan Thornscrub.  The plants themselves are often flush with the ground, look like little more than some stone or anomaly in the soil.  Their flowers, however, announce their presence to the world in spectacular fashion.  Carolina and I had looked for the Star Cactus in 2017 during a trip with my family.  While we found several plants, we did not have the good fortune to find them in bloom.  This year, however, would be different.

This year we were visiting with our good friends James and Erin Childress.  Having developed a search image during our previous trip, I began noticing a few plants scattered about.  My attention was soon diverted, however, when James and I spotted the brilliant magenta blooms of a group of Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus.  It was in that moment, as we admired a very different cactus, that Carolina called out that she had found one in flower.  Barely able to contain my excitement, I rushed to her.  It soon become evident that we had timed this visit perfectly, as the floor of the Tamaulipan Thornscrub before me was decorated with dozens of bright yellow and orange blooms.

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Though few known populations exist, where it does occur the Star Cactus can be quite abundant.  Today most of the state’s populations are protected and some are thriving.  We would be telling a very different story, however, if it weren’t for The Nature Conservancy in Texas.  Through the acquisition of land and partnerships with private landowners, The Nature Conservancy has ensured that Astrophytum asterias will not disappear from our state’s diverse flora.  In all, the Nature Conservancy through their Las Estrellas Conservation Cooperative has been able to protect over 2,500 acres of Star Cactus habitat, providing safe refuge for thousands of individuals.

Though it is promising, these successes do not mean that the Star Cactus does not still face threats to its existence.  While speaking with Sonia Najera, Grasslands Program Manager of the Nature Conservancy in Texas, she informed me that continued development adjacent to protected land is threatening A. asterias populations that have no protection.  A. asterias is also under threat from poachers who may collect plants for its popularity in cultivation, and for its resemblance to Peyote, which is extensively collected for its psychoactive properties.

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Despite the many threats that they face, I am optimistic for the future of the Star Cactus in Texas, thanks in large part to the Nature Conservancy and dedicated professionals like Sonia.

The day we spent among Las Estrellas in bloom was really the experience of a lifetime.  We observed and photographed so many spectacular plants in bloom that it was nearly impossible trying to narrow them down to decide what to post.  Below is a small selection of favorites from an unforgettable day in the field.

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The Biodiversity of the Rio Grande Valley Part 2: The Cacti

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Peyote

Spring in the Tamaulipan Thornscrub is a beautiful, albeit deceiving thing.  When the chaparro, huisachillo, and guayacan bloom above a carpet of wildflowers, its easy to forget just what a harsh, unforgiving land this can be.  I was bleeding through my jeans when I sat a moment to rest in the shade of a mesquite tree.  I don’t think that Carolina, James, or Erin had fared much better.  Despite being early March, it was pushing 90 degrees, and the sun was beating down.  After taking a long draw from my water bottle, I got up and continued my search.  I winced as I pushed through the allthorn, and felt the tasajillo spines pierce my skin.  It’s safe to say at that point my spirits weren’t at their highest.  But then I heard the voice of my wife as she called out, “I found one, with a flower!”  In that moment, pain seemed like an insignificant consideration as I pushed through the tangle of thorns that lay between me and my succulent quarry.  I saw Carolina squatting down looking at the base of a large shrub.  There, under the shade and protection of a condalia I could see the iconic Peyote in bloom.

Despite being very un-cactus like, the Peyote may be the famous of all cacti.  Once fairly common in parts of south and west Texas, decades of over-harvest, poaching, and habitat loss of significantly reduced the populations to the point that today they are a rare sight among the thornscrub.  The reason that it has been so persecuted is the psychoactive compound mescaline contained within its flesh.

In fact, Peyote is one of the most well known psychoactive plants.  It has been utilized for centuries by native peoples for both its medicinal and hallucinogenic effects. Today Peyote is a controlled substance in the United States due to its use as a recreational drug. It is, however, legal for many native tribes to harvest and consume for ritualistic purposes.  And though it may be illegal to harvest or possess, poachers continue to devastate Peyote populations to sell them on the black market.

In the United States Peyote is known only from extreme southern and western Texas. Here it occurs in desert scrub and arid brushland, typically growing beneath dense shrubs. It is one of three spineless cacti in Texas. We were lucky enough to observe some in bloom on an extensive private ranch in the Tamaulipan Thornscrub of South Texas, with the help of our dear friends Toby Hibbits and Connor Adams.

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Peyote

In our pursuit of Peyote we observed several other species growing beneath the shelter of their nurse plants.  We seemed to catch the Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus (Mammillaria heyderi) in full bloom.  This small cactus grows low to the ground, and like many species with this growth habit, is very difficult to spot when not in bloom.  In the early spring a single plant may put on a dozen or more flowers, generally organized in a ring along the top of the cactus.  It occurs from Mexico through south and central Texas west across eastern and southern New Mexico into southern Arizona.

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus

While the Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus may be difficult to spot when not in bloom, the Hair-covered Cactus (Mammillaria prolifera) is difficult to spot even when in flower.  This species is tiny, with individual stems not much larger than an egg, though they may occasionally form large clumps.  The Hair-covered Cactus is known in the United States only from Texas, where it occurs in only a handful of counties in southern and south-central Texas, most of them along the Rio Grande.

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Hair-covered Cactus

Though it is superficially similar to the Mammillaria prolifera, the Runyon’s Pincushion Cactus (Coryphantha pottsiana) is easily differentiate when in flower.  Like many species of cactus, the taxonomy for Coryphantha pottsiana is a bit cloudy.  It has variably been known as Coryphantha robertii, Mammillaria robertii, Mammillaria bella, Escobaria bella, Escobaria runyonii, and Escobaria emskoetteriana.  Some authorities still use the latter, though Coryphantha pottsiana seems to be more widely accepted.  The Runyon’s Pincushion Cactus is known from northern Mexico and a few Texas Counties along the Rio Grande, where it is generally uncommon.

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Runyon’s Pincushion Cactus

While the previous cacti are generally small, the Horse Crippler (Echinocactus texensis) can reach much larger proportions.  While most seem to be about the size of a basketball, we saw some that were easily 3 or 4 times as large.  They tend to occur in looser soil including sandy alluvium.  They are also frequently found growing in the open, away from nurse plants, though its likely that many plants get their start in the less hostile microclimate of a nurse plant.  Their impressive spines seem to be an effective deterrent against mammalian predators.

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Horse Crippler

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Horse Crippler

Among the most beautiful of all cacti are the hedgehog cacti of the genus Echinocereus, a few of which are endemic to the Tamaulipan Thornscrub of South Texas and northern Mexico.  This year our trip coincided with the peak bloom of Echinocereus fitchii, the Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus.  Though they are generally hard to find, in the right habitat they can be abundant, and we saw dozens, blazing the thornscrub with their pink blooms.  Like Coryphantha pottsiana and so many other cactus taxa, the taxonomy of Echinocereus fitchii is murky at best.  It is considered by many to be a subspecies of the more broadly distributed Echinocereus reichenbachii.  For anyone interested in the topic I strongly recommend reading “A hard-to-manage taxon: The Black Lace Cactus (Echinocereus fitchii ssp. albertii)“.  Though it discusses the Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus’s Federally Endangered cousin, it includes a good discussion on the taxonomy of E. fitchii and E. reichenbachii, including characteristics used to distinguish the two.

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Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus

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Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus

In my opinion, the Lady Finger Cactus (Echinocereus pentalophus) is perhaps the most spectacular cactus native to the United States.  Confined to northern Mexico and extreme southern Texas, they can form huge mats under the shade of mesquite and other trees and large shrubs.  They have even been found growing upon protected ridges adjacent to the Laguna Madre.  Their bright blooms shine neon pink under the midday sun.

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Lady Finger Cactus

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Lady Finger Cactus

The bizarre Pencil Cactus (Echinocereus pentalophus) seems less a cactus and more a tangle of dried branches resting at the base of some thorny shrub.  That is, until it’s giant pink blooms open in the early spring and betray its presence to the world.  Unlike most other members of its genus, the Pencil Cactus produces a massive tuberous roots that aid in water storage.

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Pencil Cactus

The highlight our South Texas cactus hunt, however, was finding the Federally Endangered Star Cactus (Astrophytum asterias) in peak bloom, an experience which I will share in my next blog post.

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Star Cactus

One in the Hand, Two in Tobusch

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Tobusch Fishhook Cactus

This past weekend I spoke at the Native Plant Society of Texas Spring Symposium about photographing the biodiversity of Texas.  The symposium was in Austin, and happened to occur during the blooming period of the Federally Endangered Tobusch Fishhook Cactus (Sclerocactus brevihamatus ssp. tobuschii).  Though the cacti do not occur particularly close to Austin, it was the closest we would get for the foreseeable future, so Carolina and I decided we would stay an extra night in the Hill Country and try for the cactus the day after the symposium.

We arrive in Austin on Friday afternoon and took the day to explore the city.  While big cities are certainly not my thing, I really enjoyed visiting the Texas State Capitol building.  Plumes of Cedar Waxwings danced and buzzed among the many trees that decorated the capitol lawn and the redbuds were just coming into bloom.  Inside we marveled at the architecture and artwork, and took in the history of the place.

Saturday we rose early and made our way to the symposium.  We thoroughly enjoyed the event.  I saw some old friends and met a lot of friendly, interesting people.  The symposium was over by 3 or so, so Carolina and I took some time to explore the area.  Early spring wildflowers were just coming into bloom and Texas Spiny Lizards (Sceloporus olivaceus) were out basking on the limestone, though they did not take kindly to our approach.

In one of the many tributaries of the Colorado River we spotted a pair of Texas Map Turtles (Graptemys versa).  The Texas Map Turtle is one of a number of species of turtles endemic to central Texas.  This beautiful, fascinating species is restricted to the Colorado River basin.  The females are significantly larger than the males, and each sex has specialized head morphology to utilize different food sources.  Males feed primarily on aquatic insect larvae and other invertebrates, while adult females feed primarily on mollusks, shell and all.  We spotted the pair basking on some rocks, but the tiny male soon sank into the cool clear water.  The female allowed a slow approach as she took in the warmth of an early spring afternoon.

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Texas Map Turtle

That evening we made our way to San Antonio.  I wanted to show Carolina some of the old Spanish and German architecture of the city, and we would be closer to the cacti.  We spent some time exploring downtown, and grabbed a hotel on the outskirts of town.  The next morning we slept in.  Generally speaking, cacti flowers open midday in order to take advantage of the peak of pollinator activity.  Our destination was an hour and a half or so west of the Alamo City.  The path took us through the scenic country of the western Edwards Plateau, over oak and juniper hilltops, and down through rocky river valleys, where crystal clear water cut through limestone.

We finally arrived at a Tobusch Fishhook Cactus population that I had access to.  We began exploring.  It wasn’t long until I spotted the first cactus, and it was in bloom!  They were smaller than I had expecting, most being only a few inches across.  This cryptic species is extremely difficult to spot when not in bloom.  In late winter/early spring, however, they bloom, and their striking, albeit tiny, yellow flowers make them ever so slightly more conspicuous.

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Tobusch Fishhook Cactus

The story of the Tobusch Fishhook Cactus is an interesting one.  In the late 1970s there were only four known populations in two Texas counties.  In 1978 a flood hit and wiped out half of these populations in one fell swoop.  Fearing that S. brevihamatus ssp. tobuschii would soon be lost forever, the government afforded them protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1979, designated them a Federally Endangered Species.  At the time that it was listed it was believed to be restricted to limestone ledges and gravelly stream terraces adjacent to streams in just two Texas Counties.

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Tobusch Fishhok Cactus Flowers

Once it was listed, survey and conservation efforts were undertaken in earnest.  In the following decades several new populations were discovered, including many on protected land.  It also became evident that its habitat preferences were not as narrow as previously thought.  Today we know that it also occurs in shallow soils over slabs of limestone within clearings within a broader matrix of oak-juniper and oak-juniper-pinyon woodlands.  Many of these areas are well away from streams and their associated floodplains and terraces.

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Tobusch Fishhook Cactus

Armed with the knowledge that this diminutive cactus is doing better than previously thought, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to downlist the Tobusch Fishhook Cactus from Endangered to Threatened in December 2016.  While this Texas endemic may be more common than initially thought, it still faces very real threats, and a number of historic populations have become extirpated, including the original populations at the time of listing.  Even in the face of these threats, today the future for this subspecies looks promising.

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Tobusch Fishhook Cactus

That day we would see many Tobusch Fishhooks, most of them in bloom.  In the sunny warmth of that spring afternoon the pollinators were out in force.  We watched as a variety of butterflies and bees bounced from flower to flower in search of the sweet nectar within.  Perhaps my favorite of these propagators were the metallic green sweat bees (Agopostemon sp.).  Their brilliant metallic sheen added the perfect compliment to the greenish yellow blooms of the cacti.

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Metallic Sweat Bee

The title of today’s blog comes from my good friend Toby Hibbitts.  Many of my friends enjoy a good pun as much as anyone should.  Last year after a friend posted a photo of the Tobusch Fishhook Cactus, Toby commented that he had always heard that “a bird in the hand is worth two in Tobusch”.  He was undoubtedly, and understandably pleased with himself.  I can only hope that this species persists for future generations of cactus lovers, naturalists, pollinators, weevils, and bad pun lovers to enjoy.