Beach Tigers

Target Species: Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle (Habroscelimorpha dorsalis)

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A Tiger’s World – Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle

Sunday, August 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle

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

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

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Carolina Wolfberry

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

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Black-necked Stilts

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

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Black-necked Stilt

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Black-necked Stilt

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

Friday, August 10

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

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

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

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

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Copulating Eastern Beach Tiger Beetles

Saturday, August 11

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

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

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Coastal Tiger Beetle

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

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Coastal Tiger Beetle

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

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Black-necked Stilt

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Black-necked Stilt

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

Sunday, August 12

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

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

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Beach Morning Glory

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

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Atlantic Ghost Crab

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Atlantic Ghost Crab

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

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Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle

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

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Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle

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

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

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

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.

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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Living Rocks, Golf Balls, and Other Strangely Named Cacti of the Trans-Pecos.

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Living Rock Cactus

Target Species:

Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus ornatus)

Button Cactus (Epithelantha micromeris)

Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha)

Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus)

The landscape of Big Bend is striking for its vastness; famous for its sweeping views that stretch from horizon to horizon, and seemingly beyond.  Stepping into this rugged wilderness, one is immediately hit with the harshness of this land.  Brutal conditions created by lack of rainfall and extreme temperatures.  It is easy to think that this seemingly inhospitable land  would be devoid of life, but despite its harshness it is incredibly diverse, harboring a rich flora and fauna unlike anywhere else on the planet.  And as remarkable as this vastness is, equally astounding is the beauty and variety that can be found in just one small patch of the desert floor.

Big Bend, that large peninsula of Texas that dips down into Mexico as it follow a bend in the Rio Grande, has the greatest cactus diversity in the country.  It was that diversity that brought Carolina and I to the region this October.  Specifically we were hoping to find the Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus) in bloom.

Big Bend is part of the Chihuahuan Desert.  It is the highest, wettest desert in North America, and the most biodiverse in the world.  The Big Bend Region includes a multitude of natural and cultural attractions, including Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Terlingua.  We planned to explore these areas in pursuit of our succulent quarries, and hoped that our pursuit would bring with it other natural wonders.

Cactus hunting is not without its hazards.  Aside from the obvious risk of an errant spine in the skin, there are other denizens of cactus country that pack a punch.  One such inhabitant is the Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus ornatus).  Yet despite this creatures fearsome reputation as a venomous marauder, it is one of the most docile snake species I have had the good fortune to encounter.

As I scoured a rock cut in search of spiny succulents, my eyes caught a familiar outline – a striking (as in attractive) Crotalus ornatus coiled at the mouth of a deep crevice in the limestone.  It was sitting, I presumed, waiting for some unsuspecting rodent to wander within its grasp.  Generally speaking, I think that the threat of rattlesnakes to your average desert-goer is greatly exaggerated, however seeing this beauty hidden away in the perfect hand or foot hold certainly reinforced the old adage “look before you step”.  The photo below depicts the animal as I found it.

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Black-tailed Rattlesnake

After spending a few moments with the black-tail I continued my search for cacti.  After a moment I heard Carolina call out that she had found something.  How she spotted them, I’ll never know, but she had found a population of the diminutive Button Cactus (Epithelantha micromeris).  This diminutive cactus seldom protrudes more than 2 inches above the rocky substrate it calls home.  It occurs primarily in Mexico, but also throughout much of West Texas, southern New Mexico, and extreme southeastern Arizona.

Though they were not in flower, I found these small, rock-like cacti to be quite photogenic.  They flower primarily in late winter and early spring.  Later in the year an elongated red fruit appears.  Caro likened the fruit to a particular part of an excited dog’s anatomy.

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Button Cactus

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Button Cactus

Nestled in a few populations along the Pecos/Brewster County line, one may find a particularly formidable looking cactus.  The Icicle Cholla (Cylindropuntia tunicata) is a wide ranging species, occurring in deserts throughout much of Latin America.  In the United States, however, it is known only from these few places in the Trans-Pecos of Texas.  Admiring the afternoon light filtering through its intimidating spines, it was easy to see how it earned its common name.

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Icicle Cactus

After a long day of travelling and exploring we finally made it to Marathon, but not before stopping at an extensive Black-tailed Prairie Dog town, where we admired their antics as the day began to fade.  We made our camp in Marathon, and I found myself deep in thought as we laid in our sleeping bags looking up at the twinkling wonder of space.  Along with the prerequisite existential questions inspired by such a vista, I pondered on the days to come, and the natural wonders that awaited us.

The next morning I spotted a remarkable creature on the stucco outside the campground’s bathrooms.  It was a male Chihuahuan Agapema (Agapema dyari).  A lovely member of the giant silkmoth family (Saturniidae).  I gently moved it to a nearby tree trunk, where I hoped it would be less obvious to the hoard of House Sparrows that were scouring the area.

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Chihuahuan Agapema

As the sun warmed the desert we broke our condensation-laden camp and set out for Big Bend National Park.  As we crossed into the park we immediately took notice of the diverse cactus community.  The most obvious were the abundant clumps of Strawberry Cactus (Echinocereus stramineus), the heavily armed Eagle’s Claw Cactus (Echinocactus horizonthalonius), and the ubiquitous prickly pears (Opuntia spp.).

Finding the smaller, more cryptic species, took a bit more work.  We found the Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha) to be quite common.  Also known as the Golf Ball Cactus, this tiny succulent is quite similar to the Button Cactus.  Cacti of Texas, A Field Guide by Powell, et. al discusses some of the differences.

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

The real reason for our trip, however, was to try to catch the Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus) in bloom.  This bizarre cactus is, in my opinion, one of the most spectacular plants in the country.  Hardly recognizable as a cactus, it is spineless, and consists of rough tubercles arranged in concentric rings around a center of soft fuzz.

For most of the year the dull green to gray Living Rock blends perfectly with the scattered stones that litter its limestone home, relying on camouflage rather than piercing spines for defense.  For a few short weeks in the fall, however, the limestone hills of the Trans-Pecos explode with color as thousands upon thousands of Living Rocks open their bright pink blooms to the world.

It was just such a scene that I was hoping Carolina and I would encounter in Big Bend.  We were soon to find, however, that finding these jewels of the Chihuahuan Desert in bloom would be far more difficult than we anticipated.  We spent all day scouring limestone ridges, bluffs along the Rio Grande, and flats in the low desert.  We jumped for joy when we found our first plant.  We knew we were were in the right area.  Even without their blooms, the Living Rock is a beautiful, bizarre plant and photographic subject.

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Living Rock Cactus

The desert sun is relentless, even in mid October.  Our spirits refreshed by finding our first Living Rock, we pushed on, scouring the bleached white limestone hills as the temperatures flirted with 100 degrees.  It was truly brutal, but we knew that the payoff of seeing the blooms would be well worth our suffering.  After several hours, and several hundred more Living Rocks sighted, however, the blooms did not come.  We were dismayed.  We had become proficient at spotting the near invisible cacti on the desert floor, but despite finding so many individuals in several different areas, we did not find a single bloom.  I began to think that this would not be the trip that we would see the exquisite flowers of Ariocarpus fissuratus.

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Living Rock Cactus

That night we hoped to camp in the park, but alas, all of the campgrounds were full.  We debated between staying at a primitive campsite along a backcountry road, or driving to the campground in Study Butte.  In the end we opted for the latter, and made the drive from the Rio Grande to Study Butte in the darkness, with nothing but the Common Poorwhills, Black-tailed Jackrabbits, and Western Diamondbacks to keep us company.

When we arrived at the campground, the attendant informed us that there was a party going on that would last well into the night, and recommended that we select a site on the other  side of the property.  We happily agreed.  We made camp, ate dinner, and settled in for the evening.  The “party” turned out to be a music festival that blared across the desert until after 1 am, after which the multitude of bikers attending continued to keep us awake for at least another hour.  Finally, at some point in the wee hours before dawn we drifted off.

We were awoken around 6 am to gale force wind violently shaking our tent.  The temperature had dropped by tens of degrees, and as we stepped out from behind the nylon the air met us with a chill.  I must admit, as I broke camp with powerful wind gusts and stinging dust beating down on me, I was hating life.  “Not every trip can be a success,” I reminded myself, and I tried to take solace in the incredible organisms we had thusfar encountered, and the memories we had created.  In that moment, however, it was hard to do.

We decided to spend the morning and early afternoon exploring the area, before beginning our long journey back to the Pineywoods.  The habitat at our first stop looked promising, but after a lack of blooms the previous day, I took care not to get my hopes up.  We soon saw our first Living Rock, like a star etched into the talus.  I found myself once again admiring their bizarre firm when I heard Carolina shout out in glee.  I knew.  The memory of the brutal previous night faded as I made my way to her, and saw the bright pink bloom seemingly emerging from nothing.  We did it.  It was not long before we found another, and another.

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Living Rock Cactus

The Living Rock is one of three spineless cacti in Texas.  Their lack of spines means that they must rely on camouflage to avoid predation.  They also contain foul-tasting alkaloids which likely deter would be predators.  These alkaloids, however, have made this plant popular with the Tarahumara and other early tribes and settlers.  Though they do not contain mescaline like the similarly spineless Peyote, they contain other mildly hallucinogenic compounds like hordenine, and were reportedly used as a substitute when preferable psychoactive cacti weren’t available.  Hordenine also made the Living Rock useful for a number of medicinal purposes, including a disinfectant for wounds and burns.

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Living Rock Cactus

Ariocarpus fissuratus is  endemic to the Chihuahuan Desert.  They barely enter the U.S. in West Texas.  They are incredibly tough, even for a cactus.  We found that they would grow in the harshest parts of the landscape, often where even other succulents could not survive.  They owe their success to their uncanny capacity to store water, and their ability to shrivel away to virtually nothing in times of extreme drought.  Indeed, they often times seem to be more stone than plant.  Carolina and I admired them for some time, and reluctantly bid them farewell, content with the short moment in time we were fortunate enough to spend among their fleeting blooms.

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Living Rock Cactus

There are some songs that serve to inspire us and remind of of those things in this world that are most important to us.  For me, one such song is Stubborn Love by the Lumineers, and it came up on the playlist just as the Chisos Mountains began to fade in our rearview.  I looked about the desert that stretched beyond the horizons around us, and I was filled with a sense of contentment.  It’s easy to feel sad at the end of a great trip, but I take comfort in the fact that no matter where I am, if nature is near there is some great wonder waiting to be discovered.

Keep Rolling

Target Species: Rainbow Scarab (Phanaeus vindex)

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Male Rainbow Scarab

Since I was a child I have had a fascination with beetles.  They are the most diverse group of animals on the planet, and come in an extraordinary array of shapes, sizes, and colors.  Some have iridescent, metallic carapaces, some have impressive weaponry like horns and toothed mandibles.  And some, like the Rainbow Scarab, have both.

The Rainbow Scarab is a dung beetle.  They feed on the refuse of mammals, and in doing so help to prevent an unsafe build up of animal feces.  Feces can be a vector for diseases, and by removing it from the earth’s surface, the Rainbow Scarab and other dung feeding beetles help to prevent the spread of feces-borne illnesses, some of which can be fatal.

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Male Rainbow Scarab

The benefits of dung beetles do not end there.  Rainbow Scarabs dig burrows below dung piles.  They then roll bits of the dung into balls and drag it below the surface.  The female then lays her eggs on the fecal matter, which will serve as nourishment for the developing larvae.  By spreading and depositing feces within the soil, the Rainbow Scarab is in effect fertilizing the landscape.

Rainbow Scarabs are broadly distributed east of the Rocky Mountains.  In East Texas they seem to prefer sandy soils, however elsewhere they have been documented in a variety of soil types.  The individuals pictured are from a longleaf pine savannah.

The strikingly beautiful Phanaeus vindex has been a favorite of mine since childhood.  I have observed and had the opportunity to photograph them on numerous occasions, however I have never been happy with the resulting images.  This year i hoped to capture some images that really showed off their brilliant iridescence.  Try as I might, I found that the age-old adage that “pictures can’t do them justice” really does apply with the Rainbow Scarab.  Their color seems to change depending on the angle of the light, and I found it impossible to capture their true brilliance, though I sure had fun trying.

For more on these fascinating creatures and the benefits they provide I strongly recommend this link:

http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/BENEFICIAL/BEETLES/Phanaeus_vindex.htm

August and September Recap

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Sacred Datura

Between August 1 and September 30 I was able to cross 5 more species off my list, 3 of which came from another trip to the Davis Mountains:

Mountain Adder’s Mouth (Malaxis macrostachya)

Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii)

Mountain Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi)

Gulf Blazing Star (Liatris tenuis)

Barbed Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes barbata)

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Although we spent most of our time during our August trip to West Texas in the Davis Mountains, we camped the last night on the shore of Lake Balmorhea.  I found the Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii) pictured above right at daybreak as I explored the area around our tent.  The flowers of the Sacred Datura are primarily pollinated by large sphinx moths.  As a result they open in the late evening and close in the early morning.  Sacred Datura has a long history of significance for the people of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. It is well known for its potentially lethal toxicity. However it has also been used extensively for medicinal purposes. The plant was also used by many native tribes in religious ceremonies, often to induce visions.due to its hallucinogenic properties. Unfortunately, the potency of its toxins resulted in the death of many of its users.

On the drive home we stopped at a few rock outcrops to help break up the drive and stretch our legs.  It was at one of these outcrops that we spotted the Cory’s Dutchman Pipe (Aristolochia coryi).  In the U.S., this bizarre plant can only be found in central and western Texas.

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Cory’s Dutchman Pipe

Back in East Texas, my friend James Childress and I went looking for some late summer wildflowers.  Two of my favorites are the Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) and the Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii).  Both species are uncommon in East Texas.  P. ciliaris occurs in herbaceous seeps, baygall margins, and occasionally wet ditches and prairie remnants.  L. michauxii primarily occurs on the upper slopes of rich mesic ravines, often near the transition zone between slope and upland.

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Yellow Fringed Orchid

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Carolina Lily

While hunting for wildflowers James spotted a most interesting creature.  The Giant Ichneumon (Megarhyssa macrurus) is a large parasitic wasp with extremely long ovipositors.  They use these ovipositors to probe tunnels created by the larvae of horntail wasps.  Horntails bore into the wood of dead and dying trees.  The female ichneumon seeks out these larvae and with her ovipositor and lays her eggs on or in them.  Her own larvae then parasitize the horntail larvae.  The young ichmeumons will feed only on the horntails, killing them in the process.  They will then pupate and emerge as adults from the tunnel that their host created for them.

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Giant Ichneumon

In late August Hurricane Harvey passed through East Texas and dumped unprecedented amounts of rain on the region.  Following the storm, James and I went looking for reptiles and amphibians, hoping that they would be active following the prolonged period of moisture.

We found a number of Southern Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix), the most attractive of which is pictured below.

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Southern Copperhead

Among the amphibians observed was this enormous Gulf Coast Toad (Incilius nebulifer).

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Gulf Coast Toad

The prolonged rainfall brought out scores of Hurter’s Spadefoots (Scaphiopus hurteri).  These interesting frogs can be extremely abundant in certain areas, but require specific habitat conditions.  These conditions typically consist of areas with deep, undisturbed sand where they can burrow and aestivate during the hottest and driest part of the summer.  This species emerges only after heavy rains, where they may breed by the thousands in small ephemeral wetlands that may be little more than a puddle.  The tadpole stage for these spadefoots is among the shortest of any frog, requiring as little as two weeks to go from an egg to a froglet capable of leaving the water.  This short larval stage is an adaptation to allow them to breed in areas were the presence of water is a limiting factor, and allows them to breed in areas that other species are not capable of utilizing, effectively eliminating the competition.

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Hurter’s Spadefoot

September is perhaps the best time to visit Catahoula Barrens.  Wildflowers such as Texas Blazing Star (Liatris mucronata) and Nuttall’s Rayless Goldenrod (Bigelowia nuttallii) bloom in mass.  Downy Lobelia (Lobelia puberula) is fairly common in wetter areas along the margins of the barrens.

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Downy Lobelia

Small-flowered Fameflower (Phemeranthus parviflorus) occurs sporadically in Catahoula Barrens.  The flowers of this interesting succulent open in late afternoon.

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Small-flowered Fameflower

I leave you with this final shot of a Catahoula Barren.  I captured this shot at dusk and tried to highlight the rich diversity of colors that can be found in these incredible landscapes.

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Catahoula Barren

Return to Sky Island

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

Target Species:

Mountain Adder’s Mouth (Malaxis macrostachya)

Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii)

Mountain Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi)

The sky islands of West Texas have been woven into the fabric of my being.  Each trip to these high elevation oases of the desert brings with it a sense of wonder and euphoria, and a longing to return.  Since returning from our trip in July, not even a month ago, I have been desperate to get back to the high elevation grasslands, shaded canyons, and montane forests.  There is so much to see.  Such plant and animal diversity, such natural beauty.  Here among the cool mountain peaks I feel at home.

When I approached Carolina with the idea of returning to the Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve for another open weekend in August, it didn’t take much convincing.  We decided we would return, and this time we would be bringing our good friends James and Erin Childress with us.  So we set out in the blackness of early morning on a great pilgrimage to the Trans-Pecos.

By the time the sun rose, the towering Loblolly Pines and stately hardwoods had mostly vanished in the rearview.  As dawn broke they gave way to gnarled post oaks sprawled over verdant grasslands.  Gradually the post oak gave way to mesquite, and the grass became more and more sparse, until bare rock seemed more abundant than plantlife.  We passed over the Ozona Arch into the desert scrub of the Permian Basin, and finally after what seemed like an eternity, the foothills of the Davis Mountains came into view.

We took our time on the scenic loop, admiring the scenery in every direction, and watching for plants and wildlife along the road.  When we finally arrived at the preserve, we stepped out into the cool mountain airs and paused a moment to take it all in.  We could see Madera Canyon in the distance, as it worked its way toward the slopes of Mount Livermore, the highest peak in the Davis Mountains, and the fifth highest in Texas.

We visited a moment with our friend and local landowner Gary before venturing into the preserve.  We made camp in a flat basin among scattered Alligator Juniper and Pinyon Pine growing above a rich layer of forbs and grasses.  Among this herbaceous layer I spotted the purple flowering spikes of Lobelia fenestralis, the Fringeleaf Lobelia.  This striking sky island specialist barely enters the U.S. in extreme West Texas and one county in western New Mexico.

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Fringeleaf Lobelia

After setting up camp we journeyed into Madera Canyon.  We admired the birds as we went, watching as a Common Black Hawk flew from the crown of an Alligator Juniper, and a Montezuma Quail burst from the grasses and across the road before us.  We were serenaded by Western Kingbirds, Blue Grosbeaks, and Say’s Phoebes while the occasional hummingbird shot past like a bullet, offering little opportunity to identify it to species.

As we scoured the slopes along Madera Creek in hopes of glimpsing one of the many interesting things that dwell there, I heard Carolina call out that she had found one of my targets.  Sure enough, between the large rocks at the base of a Ponderosa Pine was a single green leaf.  My search was now narrowed and intensified, as I made my way along the steep, rocky slopes hoping to catch one of these bizarre plants in bloom.  I looked and looked, until I saw what I was searching for: the single leaf and ten-inch flowering spike of the Mountain Adder’s Mouth Orchid (Malaxis macrostachya).

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Mountain Adder’s Mouth

The Mountain’s Adder Mouth is an orchid of the montane forests of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.  In Texas it is known only from the high elevation slopes of the Davis Mountains.  Though the plant itself may reach a foot in height, the flowers themselves are tiny, and a hundred or more may decorate the raceme.  This long, narrow raceme has earned this orchid the colloquial name “Rat-tail Malaxis”.  We searched the area for more orchids to no avail, and I counted myself lucky to have found such a fine specimen.

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Mountain Adder’s Mouth

As the sun vanished behind the distant peaks we slowly began making our way back to camp.  In the fading light of dusk we spotted a brown blur moving across the road ahead.  Drawing nearer we made out the shape of a large bobcat vanishing into the grass.  We paused a moment and watched, hoping that we might catch another glimpse of this elusive feline.  Our efforts were rewarded, as it occasionally appeared between breaks in the vegetation as it silently and meticulously made its way through the dark forest of pinyon and juniper.

We arrived back at camp with little light to spare.  James and I strung a large white sheet between the branches of two trees a short distance from our site.  We then propped a small florescent bulb on my tripod and aimed it at the sheet.  Our trap had been set.

As the sheet collected our six-legged quandary we prepared a meal of dehydrated broccoli cheese soup, and settled in to watch the skies.  The heavens seemed locked in some violent battle, as tailed balls of light danced across the sky,  flying from horizon to horizon.  In truth we weren’t witnessing some celestial war, but rather the peak of a perseid meteor shower, when the constellation Perseus scatters massive particles throughout space.  When our eyes and necks could no longer take in the wonder of the skies we shut off our light trap and retired for the evening.

We rose early the next morning.  The first order of business was photographing a most spectacular creature that we had found the day before.  I was lucky enough to catch a fresh Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii).  Carolina spotted the brilliant beetle as it flew about a pecan tree that had been planted at a picnic area in the foothill’s of the Davis Mountains.  As this species evolved to specialize on walnut leaves, it is not so surprising that it would also make use of Pecan, a close relative.  Anxious to arrive at the preserve, we held onto the beetle to photograph later.

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Wood’s Jewel Scarab

Now, in the beautiful early morning light we set it in our viewfinders.  I have always dreamed of finding a live Chrysina woodii.  A desire that has only been fueled after finding numerous crushed bits and pieces over the years.  C. woodii is endemic to the sky islands of West Texas, eastern New Mexico, and northern Mexico.  In Texas it has been documented in the Davis and Guadalupe Mountains.  The beetles actively feed during the day and are regularly attracted to lights by night.

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Wood’s Jewel Scarab

Chrysina woodii is also known as the Blue-legged Jewel Scarab.  It’s easy to see why, when admiring its brilliant metallic blue tarsi.  C. woodii is named for Dr. Horatio C. Wood, a pharmacologist who also published numerous papers on botany and entomology.  Wood collected a number of brilliant metallic green beetles in West Texas and gave them to his friend, George Henry Horn.  Horn was a pioneering coleopterist (entomologist specializing in beetles) active in the southwest during the late 1800s.  Horn presented the specimens at an entomological congress in 1883, and formally described Chrysina woodii in 1885.

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Wood’s Jewel Scarab

The light trap that we set the previous night was a success.  Among the flurry of moths that I was woefully under-prepared to identify, Erin spotted a creature of metallic green decorated with bright silver streaks: a Glorious Scarab (Chrysina gloriosa).  We held onto it until morning, when we opted to photograph it on the leaves of an Alligator Juniper, one of the primary food sources of the adults.  Despite the beetle’s gaudy appearance, it is incredible just how cryptic it was among the blue-green juniper leaves.

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Glorious Scarab

After breakfast and our coleopteran photo session we set back out into Madera Canyon.  Once again we paused to admire the incredible array of birds that flit about the trees, filling the mountain air with their sweet songs.  In the early morning hours the showy blooms of the Torrey’s Crag Lily (Echeandia flavescens) had opened.  By midday they will have closed, and the plants will become invisible among the sea of grass that surrounds them.

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Torrey’s Crag Lily

Along the bases of the large rocks lining Madera Creek I spotted the succulent Havard’s Stonecrop (Sedum havardii).  This species is known in the U.S. only from the Davis and Chisos Mountains of West Texas.

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Havard’s Stonecrop

Deep in Madera Canyon we turned into one of the many side canyons formed by ephemeral streams feeding Madera Creek.  We were spread out along the gradual slope when we heard Carolina call out “snake”.  I’ll admit that it took me a moment when she struggled to draw our attention to the serpent before her.  But sure enough, there, among a downed alligator juniper sat a Mottled Rock Rattlesnake (Crotalus lepidus lepidus).  The cryptic viper was nearly invisible due to its remarkable camouflage.  We all delighted in observing and photographing the beautiful reptile.  Despite its potent venom, it remained docile throughout our encounter, and would not display even the slightest bit of aggression toward us.

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Mottled Rock Rattlesnake

We bid the rattlesnake farewell, and ventured deeper into the canyon, until it flattened out into a broad high elevation basin.  The ground here was littered with small rocks.  Soon we came to realize that here some of the rocks move.  James was the first to catch movement among the pebbles, as one stone seemingly jumped out of his way.  Baffled, we looked closer, only to reveal that what looked like nothing more than one of the basin floor’s countless stones was actually a neonate Mountain Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi).

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

It soon became clear that these tiny lizards were all around us, and within the span of an hour we saw more than a dozen.  Their abundance that day is likely a product of their reproductive biology.  The females give live birth to as many as 40 or more of these living stones in July and August.  The neonates are then left to fend for themselves as they scatter about the surrounding area.  It is truly remarkable just how well-camouflaged these tiny dragons are.

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

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Mountain Short-horned Lizards

Spotting the baby lizards became something of a contest.  And while I was genuinely thrilled to have seen them, I couldn’t help but hope that we might encounter an adult.  Deeper into the basin we pushed until a distant rumble drew my attention to the peaks behind us.  Behind the mountains a massive storm was building, sending broad black clouds towering to the sky.  It was fast approaching.  Deciding that we would prefer not to wait out a storm at the base of some pine or juniper we decided to retrace our steps.

The storm drew nearer and nearer still as we retreated toward the safety of my truck.  Between the cracking thunder that echoed from the canyon walls, Erin called out “a big one! A big one!”  My eyes followed her finger to the rocky earth, where it took them a moment to spot the large Mountain Horned Lizard sitting still among the stones.

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

Despite the impending deluge, we settled in to admire this incredible creature.  Thunder rang and the sky darkened as our shutters closed in rapid succession, forever freezing a moment of the lizard’s life in time.  I couldn’t help but imagine what a bizarre, frightening experience this must have been for it.  Fortunately, for a lizard photographer, at least, most horned lizards rely on their camouflage as a defense mechanism, and are prone to hunker down in an attempt to avoid being seen.

As a group, the horned lizards of the genus Phrynosoma are often referred to as “horny toads”.  A misnomer, of course, as toads are amphibians and these are very much reptilian.  Phrynosoma hernandesi is among the most widespread of the horned lizards, occurring across much of the western U.S. and Mexico and into southern Canada.  They generally occur in high elevation woodlands, prairies, and savannahs in the southern portion of their range, and grasslands and forested foothills to the north.  In Texas they are primarily restricted to the Davis and Guadalupe Mountains, with a few scattered populations in other ranges around El Paso.

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

The Mountain Short-horned Lizard is one of a number of the Phrynosoma that is able to shoot blood from the corner of its eye.  This tactic appears to primarily be utilized against canine predators.  Fortunately it did not deem us a sufficient enough threat to warrant such an attack.

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

We spent some time in the lizard’s company, and hastily returned to the truck.  On four wheels we were able to get ahead of the storm, and after a lunch of tuna sandwiches we set out to explore the scenic loop that winds around the Davis Mountains.  We stopped a moment at the McDonald Observatory, and continued on to Fort Davis.  As we neared the small grocery store in town, the rain finally caught up with us.  It is a magical experience, rain in the desert.  The dusty earth dampens and releases its sweet, distinctive aroma to the air.  We soaked in the rain, both literally and figuratively, as we restocked some supplies and prepared to continue on the loop along the southern and western edge of the Davis Mountains.

The rain was letting up as we spotted a large Pronghorn buck and his harem of six does not far outside of Fort Davis.  We watched them as lightning descended distant clouds on the horizon.  After spending a few moments with North America’s fastest land mammal, we continued down the road where we saw a large Mule Deer Buck browsing among the cholla and desert grasses.

Scaled Quail and Roadrunners darted across the road before us as we made our way further down the scenic loop.  We stopped at the Point of Rocks Roadside Park, where James chased after a Canyon Towhee with his camera, Carolina and Erin explored the massive rock outcrop, and I prepared a dinner of macaroni and tuna.  The sun had begun to peak through the clouds, casting its rays to distant rain showers that transformed its light to a myriad of brilliant colors arching across the sky.  After dinner we returned to the loop where we found a number of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes before returning to our campsite around 11 pm.

The next morning we broke camp and said farewell to the Davis Mountains Preserve.  Our time in this remarkable sky island, however, was not yet over.  We were off to visit Gary at his property on the other side of the range.  He lives in a remote corner of Limpia Canyon far from paved roads.  The creek that helped form the canyon was running.  Its crystal clear waters pouring over boulders among the towering Ponderosa Pines looked more a scene from Colorado than West Texas.  We would later learn from Gary that it might run only a month or two out of the year.

I had visited the forested canyon on Gary’s property last year and I couldn’t wait to show James and Erin this hidden paradise.  I hoped that we might spot some Giant Coralroot Orchids (Hexalectris grandiflora).  We had looked for them on the preserve, but only succeeded in finding spent, wilted flowering stalks.  As we followed Gary up the canyon he regaled us with stories of the “Republic of Texas“, a militia group that believed that Texas should never have become part of the United States, and took it upon themselves to secede.  There were still signs and artifacts of their presence on his land.

It wasn’t long before we spotted the first group of coralroots.  It was a cluster of fresh plants, but unfortunately the flowers were all closed and drooping, a phenomenon that is fairly common among the genus Hexalectris.  We took their presence to be a good sign and continued on.  We (more accurately Carolina) spotted several Mountain Adder’s Mouth Orchids.  They seemed to be more numerous here than in Madera Canyon.

Just as we were debating turning around, James pointed out a splash of color in the deep shade of some low hanging branches of an Emory Oak.  It was a pair of Giant Coralroots in perfect bloom.  I had grown accustomed to seeing only one or two open flowers on any given individual at a time.  One of these, however, had three that were clustered closely together.  After a long, uncomfortable photo session we bid the orchids farewell and returned down the trail as an afternoon thunderstorm, typical of the monsoon season, began to build behind the peaks surrounding the canyon.

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Giant Coralroot

Gary invited us in for snacks and alcoholic cider, an offer that was hard to turn down.  We enjoyed his company and knowledge of the area’s natural and cultural history.  After visiting a while James and I set out to photograph the wealth of scenery around Gary’s home when James spotted a peculiar pattern on a nearby boulder.  “Do you see what I see?” he asked pointing at the rock.  It took a moment, but finally I saw it – a young Mottled Rock Rattlesnake resting still and silent.  In that moment our photographic priorities changed and we set about capturing the beautiful snake.  Just as we were finishing the building clouds reached their critical mass and began releasing their moisture in the form of an afternoon downpour.

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Mottled Rock Rattlesnake

We bid our reluctant “good bye’s” to Gary and the mountains he calls home.  That night we would descend from the sky islands and make our camp in the desert scrub around Lake Balmorhea.  Here we watched a large group of Clark’s Grebes on the water, while we listened to a Pyrrhuloxia call from among the impenetrable thorn fortress of the surrounding desert.  Carolina spent the evening rock hounding in search of the elusive Marfa Agate while James and I looked for signs of life and Erin enjoyed one of her favorite books in the spectacular setting of the Chihuahuan Desert.  Carolina was lucky enough to find a few choice pieces of agate while James and I spotted a number of large Tarantula Hawks and Western Green June Beetles.  All of our attention, however, soon turned to the horizon, where the setting sun painted a rainbow on the black clouds of a distant thunderstorm.  It was a fine final chapter to an incredible Trans-Pecos adventure.

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A distant thunderstorm rages over the desert scrub near Balmorhea.