Hidden Denizens of the Columbia Bottomlands

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Copperhead

Austin’s Woods were vibrant.  On that gray spring day in late February, the forest came to life.  Recent rains had vitalized the Resurrection Ferns and mosses that coated the trunks and arching limbs of ancient oaks.  The Roughleaf Dogwood was beginning to bloom and fresh leaves were emerging from the swamp privet and Possumhaw in the understory.  In the distance a Gray Tree Frog called half-heartedly.  The day was warm enough to encourage snakes and lizards from their refugia, and cool and cloudy enough that the cardinals, chickadees, and other resident birds remained active throughout the day.  Beetles scoured the forest floors, yet a recent cold snap kept the mosquitoes at bay.

I put myself in the boots of Stephen F. Austin, and other early anglo explorers to the region.  Unlike most of the forested regions of Texas, much of the remaining Columbia Bottomlands is old growth, and still looks much as it did two-hundred years ago – despite the absence of Jaguars, Pumas, Red Wolves, Black Bears, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, Carolina Parakeets, and other species that have long-since been banished by our hand.  These forests were largely spared the saw due to the poor growth form and low timber value of trees in the region combined with the difficulty of accessing many areas with logging equipment.  That is not to say that these forests are safe, however, as huge tracts are lost every year to urban sprawl and the increasing pressure for development in the greater Houston area.  Fortunately, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, and other local conservation organizations have been successful at protecting thousands of acres of habitat in the region.

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Columbia Bottomland Forest in the Nature Conservancy’s San Bernard Woods Preserve

The Columbia Bottomlands is so named because Stephen F. Austin established his first colony here, which would become the first “capitol” of Texas.  It was known as East Columbia.  This influential figure in Texas history also lends the region another name: Austin’s Woods.  Prior to anglo settlement these woods were home to the Karankawa and Tonkawa Peoples.

These unique forests occur in the broad interconnected floodplains of the Brazos, San Bernard, and Colorado Rivers and their many tributaries in southeast Texas.  They approach within a few miles of the coast in many areas, and are one of the few forested communities within the broader Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes ecoregion.  Indeed, the region encompassing the Columbia Bottomlands was historically a patchwork of forested bottoms and prairie uplands.

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Map of the Columbia Bottomlands.  Source: Texas Parks and Wildlife

The forest here supports a diversity of oaks, which are the primary overstory species in most areas.  Perhaps the most iconic characteristic species is the Coastal Live Oak, which can reach truly massive proportions here.  They occur alongside Water Oak, Willow Oak, Shumard Oak, and Nuttall Oak.  Burr Oak occurs sporadically.  These oaks share the overstory with Cedar Elm, American Elm, Sugarberry, and Green Ash.  In some areas stands of large Eastern Redcedar can be found, growing in areas much wetter than their typical preferred habitat.  The understory is typically open, influenced by the presence of standing water and saturated soils through much of the year.  In some areas dense layers of dwarf palmetto form nearly impenetrable thickets, and there are curious trunked palms present in isolated patches.  Historic accounts indicate that vast “canebrakes” or Giant Cane thickets were once present.  These conditions combine to create a primeval forest that appears out of place among the surrounding prairies.

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Columbia Bottomland Forest in the Nature Conservancy’s San Bernard Woods Preserve

It was my good fortune to spend a wonderful spring day in those woods with my good friend John Williams.  We spent the day exploring various units of the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, and the Nature Conservancy’s San Bernard Woods Preserve, which was accessed with permission.  That day we were fortunate, and observed many of the forest’s seldom seen inhabitants, including twenty snakes.

A mere few minutes into our adventure we encountered three Southern Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix).  These would prove to be the most commonly encountered species of the trip, and we found nine before the day was over.  The animals here are variable, and seem to show some influence from the Broad-banded Copperhead (Agkistrodon controtrix laticinctus), which occurs further south and west.

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Southern Copperhead

While wandering through chest-high palmettos, John spotted a Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor) clinging to one of the fronds.  It was perhaps the prettiest individual of this species that I had ever seen.  Subtle variation in the shades of gray and lichen green combined with hints of lime green to produce a truly beautiful animal.

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Southern Copperhead

At one particularly productive spot we found a Texas Coral Snake (Micrurus tener).  Though its skin was dulled by an impending shed, I could not resist the opportunity to photograph this beautiful Elapid.  Though they are highly venemous, these snakes are inoffensive and extremely reluctant to bite, and envenomation from them is exceedingly rare.  They have an entertaining defense mechanism, where they slightly curl and raise their tail in order to confuse predators into thinking it is the snake’s head.  They sway it back and forth and then jerk their body from side to side, seemingly flopping about.

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Texas Coral Snake

In close proximity to the coral snake we found four more copperheads, four Texas Brown (Dekay’s) Snakes (Storeria dekayi texana), and four Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis proximus).  One of the ribbon snakes was so large that we momentarily mistook it for an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis), a snake that is quite uncommon in Texas and generally restricted to the forests and prairies of this region.

A bit deeper into the woods we encountered a most spectacular organism, and the highlight of the day.  I heard John say “Holy $#!+!”, and looked to see a large Timber (Canebrake) Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).  This iconic pit viper approaches the southwestern extent of their range in the Columbia Bottomlands.  The snake looked to have recently shed, and was quite literally glowing.  It was a large snake, probably around three and a half feet, and though it did rattle its displeasure at us, it was docile and non-aggressive throughout our encounter.  Spending time with these woodland snakes is truly one of the most enjoyable experience that a forest dweller like myself can experience.

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Timber Rattlesnake

Snakes were certainly the topic of the day.  We did, however, encounter some of the forest’s smaller, more easily overlooked denizens.  Coming in a close second to the Timber Rattlesnake for the day’s highlight was Dicaelus purpuratus, a ground beetle adorned with a brilliant iridescent blue and purple exoskeleton.  Though this species has a broad range across the eastern United States, it is my experience that they are generally infrequently encountered.  In the Columbia Bottomlands, however, they are quite common and we found several that day.  D. purpuratus has large, powerful mandibles that are specially adapted for crushing the shells of small snails, their primary prey.

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Dicaelus purpuratus

We ended the day in the San Bernard Woods Preserve.  This preserve protects crucial bottomland hardwood and riparian forests and serves as an important component to provide connectivity to other protected areas in the Columbia Bottomlands.  It is another of the many examples of the fine work that the Nature Conservancy in Texas does to protect our states wild places, and biodiversity.

The Columbia Bottomlands are unlike any other forested community that I’ve been to.  They provide an important link to the natural and cultural history of Texas, and will forever hold a special place in my heart.  I look forward to visiting Austin’s Woods again soon, and experience the little wonders that contained within this primeval forest.

Birds and Blooms along the Upper Texas Coast

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Reddish Egret

Thunder rumbled in the distance as anvil-shaped storm clouds rose to the west of the Bolivar Peninsula.  I sighed in frustration; not because I disliked these May storms that form along the Gulf, but rather because the magic hour of perfect photographic light had just begun, and the clouds were soon to blot out the sun, leaving the beach cloaked in grey.  Desperately I searched for a subject to make the most of the few minutes of usable light that remained.  Soon I spotted one of my favorite birds, a Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) standing stoic in the surf.  Quickly I dropped to the sand, laying belly flat in an attempt to meet this special wading bird on its level.  Just as I set my lens on it I noticed that the world was rapidly darkening as the wispy margins of the storm clouds drifted in front of the sun.  What I found, however, was that this thin veil of clouds actually created a very special light that seemed to paint the egret.  I managed to take advantage of a window of less than a minute before the cloud’s dense heart crossed over the sun, robbing the evening of any further photographic opportunities, and captured the image above.

Before the clouds’ arrival I did manage to capture a few images of other avian beach dwellers.  American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana) were plentiful.  It was the end of May now, and many shorebirds are still making their leisurely journeys northward as their summer breeding grounds gradually thaw.  I consider avocets to be one of our most beautiful shorebirds, particularly when their heads and necks are painted burnt orange in their alternate plumage.

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American Avocets

A variety of “peeps” were still present, and we spotted Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, and a few Western Sandpipers.  Also present were several Wilson’s and Semipalmated Plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus).  The latter allowed for a fairly close approach as it probed the wet sand for worms and other invetebrates.

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Semipalmated Plover

Though they seem scarce along much of the coast, Reddish Egrets are quite common on this stretch of the Upper Texas Coast.  They are perhaps the most entertaining feathered-thing around, and I laid for several minutes watching them perform their elaborate predatory dances.  They seemed random yet choreographed in their movements, as if putting on some performance as they skipped and danced across the shallow water’s surface, stirring up tiny fish and fanning their wings above them, confusing their prey and shading them to make them more visible at the same time.

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Reddish Egret Hunting

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Reddish Egret Hunting

Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres) were also out in force.  Many had completed molting into their breeding plumage and were truly a sight to behold.

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Ruddy Turnstone

This stretch of beach is an important breeding ground for Least Terns (Sterna antillarum), a species of conservation concern.  Here they block off the main breeding area in order to protect the fragile nests, which are little more than scrapes in the sand.  The terns’ breeding efforts were kicking into high gear during our visit, and we were fortunate enough to be bombarded by several pairs that felt we were getting too close to their precious offspring, still developing within their calcium carbonate shells.

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Least Tern

We left the beach as dusk was closing in and the Ghost Crabs left the safety of their burrows to scavenge the shore.  Caro and I watched an impressive display of lightning ahead of us, and before long the storm overtook us.  It was impressive and violent, a striking contrast to the serenity of the bird-filled beach.  Perhaps it is these contrasts – tranquility and exhilaration – that keep drawing us back to the coast.

The next day we found ourselves in the Columbia Bottomlands of Fort Bend County.  These seemingly out of place forests of ancient oaks and elms harbor staggering biodiversity including many species that are rare to uncommon elsewhere.  One such species is the Texas Pinkroot (Spigelia texana).  These dainty forbs are endemic to moist woodlands and prairie remnants in southeast Texas, with a few specimens known from isolated locations further north and west in the state.

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Texas Pinkroot

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Texas Pinkroot

Growing nearby were several Aquatic Milkweeds (Asclepias perennis).  This species is sporadically encountered in East Texas, though it seems most common in these bottomlands near the coast.

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Aquatic Milkweed

The Columbia Bottomlands are also home to a diversity of birdlife.  In the shallow waters of an ancient oxbow off the Brazos River we observed Anhingas, Great and Snowy Egrets, Great, Little Blue, Tricolored, and Green Herons, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, White Ibis, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Common Gallinules, and more.  Prothonotary Warblers and Northern Parulas called from the trees lining the water’s edge and the call of a Barred Owl rang out in the distance.  Perhaps the most spectacular of all was the Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus), which dazzled us with its seemingly impossible sheen of iridescent blue and green.

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Purple Gallinule

In early July we found ourselves back on the coast.  This trip we spent more time on the beach and in the shops in Galveston, however we found ourselves in the saltmarsh of Galveston Island State Park during the final hour of daylight.  Here I struggled to capture images of Black-necked Stilts, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.  At the end of the day I found myself instead pursuing one of the most familiar coastal birds – the Willet (Tringa semipalmata).  Though common and by many accounts “drab”, I set out to capture an interesting image of these charismatic shorebirds.  I laid belly-flat in the mud and scanned the landscape to try and formulate a plan as hordes of mosquitoes drained my blood.  Soon, as I watched a Willet approach, I developed a concept in my head.  I framed the shot by turning my lens to an open patch of mud in front of me, and utilized the Salicornia and other halophytic vegetation in order to create a blurred foreground and background that I hoped would make the bird pop.  I lucked out as the bird moved into the frame and called out its displeasure, likely to my proximity to its nest or chicks I imagined.  And with some luck and patience, I captured the image below.

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Willet

Each trip to the coast brings with it some new adventure and opportunity to witness a unique natural beauty not found elsewhere in the state.  It also offers some of our state’s best photographic opportunities, particularly for birds.  I look forward to many future trips, and hope that I may continue to document in some way the very special plants, animals, and natural communities that can be found there.