Gem of the Pinewoods

Target Species: Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis)

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The Federally Endangered Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis)

The day broke to a bleak, gray scene.  Dense clouds blotted the sun and a gentle spring rain had begun to fall.  It was not exactly the scene I was hoping to wake to, as I was planning to stop to look for one of my 2017 targets on the way down to visit my parents in Houston.  But it was hard to be disappointed.  Despite the problems they pose to photography, these are my favorite kind of spring days.  Warm and gray, they gift a cool, nourishing rain to the earth – one that the plants will no doubt make good use of in the days to come.  Despite the dreary conditions, we were not deterred.  Carolina and I packed up and began heading south.  The further south we traveled the lighter the sky became until slivers of sun began to filter through the gray.

phlox-nivalis

To me, including this beautiful little phlox in my 2017 biodiversity goals was a no brainer.  Though I had seen the plant before, I had never seen it in bloom.  Phlox nivalis is primarily a species of the Eastern Gulf Coastal Plain, where it can be relatively common in some areas.  The disjunct population in Texas, however is anything but.  Recognized as a subspecies of the broader ranging Phlox nivalis, Texas Trailing Phlox occurs in only three counties, where it is known from only a couple of sites.  Here it can be found on deep sands in longleaf pine savannahs and certain open longleaf pine-hardwood forests.  It is evergreen and fire-dependent.  Though the above ground portion of the plant may be scorched by a passing fire, the plants thrive from the flames’ affect on opening the understory and providing rich nutrients to the soil.  This plant is so rare and its habitat in such peril that it has been listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Texas Trailing Phlox Flower Detail

We stopped first at one of the very few remaining extant natural populations.  I did not know what to expect in terms of phenology for this species, other than accounts that I read claiming they bloom primarily in March and April.  With everything being so early this year, I was 50/50 as to whether or not there might be a few blooms. We had reached the population, which is located within the Big Thicket National Preserve.  Though the leaves are distinctive, when not in bloom the plants themselves can be very difficult to detect.  We spent several minutes scouring the area to no avail, until I finally caught sight of a few bright pink blooms.  After regaining my composure I excitedly began photographing them, a task made difficult by the fluctuating light conditions and sporadic wind gusts.  In all I counted 6 plants in the area, only 2 of which were in bloom.  Another was in early bud.

After admiring the natural population, we set out to explore an area within the National Preserve where the phlox had been reintroduced.  By now it had began to rain again, and the air was filled with the fresh, rejuvenating scent of the woods on a wet spring day.  The reintroduction site was large.  It consisted of at least a couple of acres, where we counted hundreds of plants.  Though only a few were in flower, I left feeling very satisfied that the efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and other conservation groups was paying off, helping to save this Endangered Species from the brink.

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Texas Trailing Phlox.  Note the needle-like evergreen leaves.

Texas Trailing Phlox is only a small part of these interesting communities.  We observed many other natural wonders during our afternoon in the Big Thicket, including Texas Woodsorrel (Oxalis texana) which occurs in sandy woodlands primarily in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, with a rare, disjunct populations in Alabama and Florida.  The bright yellow flowers of Oxalis texana are very large compared to other woodsorrels, and are decorated with red lines near the center of the corolla.

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Texas Woodsorrel

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Texas Woodsorrel

A habit I am trying to break myself of is my tendency to pass over the most common botanical subjects.  Take Rose Mock Vervain (Glandularia canadensis) for example.  In the spring it is one of the most abundant wildflowers along forest roadways in East Texas.  I suppose that for this reason I take it for granted and never really took the opportunity to photograph it.  However this day I could not ignore the many clumps scattered about recently burned patches within the longleaf pine savannahs.  Here they literally seems to be rising from the ashes.

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Rose Mock Vervain

While exploring an open spot within the forest that I thought might harbor some interesting flora, I heard my wife excitedly call out for me to come to her, quick.  As usual her keen eyes found an incredible sight.  A mating pair of Pipevine Swallowtails (Battus philenor) in one of the patches of Glandularia.  Rightfully thinking that this find would be hard to top, we decided to call it a day and continue our trip south to spend some time with family.  Yet I must confess, that as soon as the longleaf pines disappeared in my rearview mirror, I was already contemplating the next species on my list.

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Copulating Pipevine Swallowtails

Beauty in the Barrens

Target Species: Texas Saxifrage (Micranthes texana)

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Texas Saxifrage

Some reading this may wonder why I chose to include this tiny, not particularly showy flower on my 2017 species list.  I have always been fascinated with rare, unique ecological communities and the flora and fauna that reside in them.  The Texas Saxifrage grows in some particularly unique communities.  It tends to prefer places with harsh soil conditions that create an environment where most plants would struggle to survive.  By utilizing these habitats it helps avoid competition from other plant species that would try to monopolize its resources.  In the Pineywoods of East Texas it has been recorded in two particularly interesting communities: Catahoula Barrens and Weches Glades.

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Texas Saxifrage

I set out to find this species alone.  And while I missed Carolina’s company, I treasure alone time in nature.  It is far and away the best way for me to clear my head and put things in perspective.  On a warm, mostly sunny February day I set out to an extensive Catahoula Barren less than an hour from home.  Catahoula Barrens were probably never abundant on the landscape.  They occur on coarse, shallow soils over the Catahoula formation.  These soils are acidic, and often high in aluminum content.  Taken together these conditions are not favorable for tree growth.  That is not to say, however, that trees do not occur here.  Widely scattered Longleaf Pines, and Bluejack and Blackjack Oaks can be found as stunted, gnarled versions of their counterparts elsewhere.  An old growth Longleaf Pine here, for example, may be little more than 10 inches across and thirty feet tall.

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Typical Catahoula Barren.  I captured this image in July, 2016.

Catahoula Barrens are home to a rich, diverse flora that is not observed anywhere else in East Texas.  Many of these species are globally rare, and others are rare in the state.  Typical species include Nuttall’s Rayless Goldenrod (Bigelowia nuttallii), Yellow Hedge-Hyssop (Gratiola flava), Least Daisy (Chaetopappa asteroids), San Saba Pinweed (Lechea san-sabeana), Maryland Milkwort (Polygala mariana), Smooth Phacelia (Phacelia glabra), Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia caespitosa), Sunbright (Phemeranthus parviflorus) and Blazing Star (Liatris mucronata).  Rare species found here include Texas Sunnybells (Schoenolirion wrightii), Navasota Fox Glove (Agalinis navasotensis), Gulf Blazing Star (Liatris tenuis), and Texas Saxifrage.

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Texas Saxifrage

I had visited this Catahoula Boulder many times in the past, but never so early in the year.  I worried that these miniscule plants would be elusive, however it didn’t take me long to find them among the dried grasses and fallen oak leaves.  Though tiny, I find the flowers of Micranthes texana to be quite beautiful.  Their tiny size, however makes photographing them a real challenge.  The slightest breeze makes focusing on the anthers, a standard practice of wildflower photography, almost impossible.

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Texas Saxifrage

After spending some time with this remarkable plant, I set out to see what else might be blooming in the barrens.  As one might expect so early in the year, blooms were sparse, however I was able to locate a few other wildflowers in the area.  I observed several Carolina Anemone (Anemone caroliniana) blooms on the barren’s margins.

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Carolina Anemone

Yellow Hedge-Hyssop is endemic to eastern Texas and extreme western Louisiana.  This tiny plant is scarcely 3 inches tall, and if it weren’t for its propensity to grow on exposed Catahoula boulders, it would be all but invisible.

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Yellow Hedge-Hyssop

After spending the afternoon in the barren I ventured over to the adjacent longleaf pine savannah.  Here I sat and watched a colony of Texas Leafcutter Ants (Atta texana) busily tending to their maze of subterranean tunnels and chambers, and harvesting bits of leaves by the thousands.  They do not actually consume the leaves, but rather store them in an underground chamber to cultivate a fungus that will feed the colony.  I have always been fascinated with these invertebrates, and usually try my luck at photographing them every year.  It is a challenge, but the results can be extremely rewarding.

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Texas Leafcutter Ant

With another 2017 target under my belt, I left the woods to return to civilization, if only to plan and ponder my next opportunity to escape it.

 

 

Fun in the Sun

Target Species: Woolly Sunbonnets (Chaptalia tomentosa)

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Woolly Sunbonnets in a Wetland Pine Savannah

Spring came early this year, with many wildflowers blooming as much as three weeks earlier than in an average year.  It has made planning botanical outings to find species on my 2017 target list a challenge.  Fortunately I had some help with Chaptalia tomentosa, the first species that I would check off the list.  Someone on a Facebook group I moderate (Texas Flora) posted an image of one looking for help identifying it.

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County Level Distribution of Chaptalia tomentosa from http://www.bonap.org

Woolly sunbonnets is a species of the coastal plain, ranging from North Carolina to extreme eastern Texas.  It occurs in herbaceous seeps and wetland savannahs where highly acidic soil remains perpetually saturated.  These communities are typically associated with longleaf pine uplands.  In East Texas longleaf pine typically occurs on sands of moderate depth.  Rainfall quickly percolates through the coarse sand, however if, on its journey through the soil, it encounters a dense clay layer, it will sit or gently flow, as clays are much more difficult to pass through.  Where these clay layers meet the surface, the water may pool or seep out forming a unique vegetative community.  The movement of water through these areas leaches essential nutrients and organic material tends to accumulate over time.  These harsh, damp habitats are home to interesting species including a variety of carnivorous plants and orchids.

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Woolly Sunbonnet

I have spent considerable time exploring wetland pine savannahs and forested seeps in East Texas, but never in the early spring.  Spurred by the image posted on Facebook my wife, Carolina, and I visited some locations of specimen records and other areas that I knew had suitable habitat.  I am lucky to have such a great adventuring companion.  Carolina not only makes for great company, she also has excellent eyes and spots my targets more frequently than I do.

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Woolly Sunbonnets

Also known as the Pineland Daisy, Chaptalia tomentosa is a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae).  The white blooms open midday under warm, bright conditions.  This is an adaptation shared by many plants in order to maximize exposure to potential pollinators.  At night and on cool days when most pollinators are not active, the flowers close in order to protect the pollen and the plants’ sexual structures.  We were lucky to find many open flowers on our outing, and mostly cloudy skies made for ideal photographic conditions.

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Woolly Sunbonnets

Chaptalia tomentosa was not the only species active in the bog.  Fresh spring pitchers of the Pale Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia alata) were beginning to emerge and the unmistakable red rosettes of sundews (Drosera spp.) covered the ground.  One particularly quirky plant, the Small Butterwort (Pinguicula pumila) was blooming alongside the sunbonnets.  This tiny carnivorous plant has concave leaves lined with hairs coated in sticky enzymes.  When an unsuspecting ant or other small invertebrate comes into contact with the enzymes they find themselves stuck as the leaf envelopes them like a hot dog bun.

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Small Butterwort

White Bog Violets (Viola lanceolata) were also blooming.  This attractive little flowers are common in areas with saturated soil.

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White Bog Violet

While walking through one of the wetland pine savannahs Carolina called out that she had spotted a frog.  Sure enough, at least 50 feet away was a Green Tree Frog (Hyla cinerea).  Resting on the bleak winter vegetation, it stuck out like a sore thumb.

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Green Tree Frog

After an eventful day photographing vernal bog flora Carolina and I ventured to the adjacent longleaf pine uplands to enjoy the sun’s final rays and the day’s retreat into night.  There is something about a high quality longleaf pine forest and its associated seepage communities that provide me with a feeling of wonder and excitement that is sought after yet elusive for so many.  As the light faded away we returned home, content in a day spent in some of our state’s most biodiverse habitats.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah

 

Slow and Steady

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

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

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Wood Duck Drake

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

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Wood Duck Drake

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Wood Duck Drake

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

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Regal Jumping Spider

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Regal Jumping Spider

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

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

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Ravenel’s Stinkhorn (Phallus ravenelii)

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

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Longleaf Pine Savannah

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

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Merlin

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

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American Bittern

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Ringneck Duck (Aythya collaris)

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Spotted Salamanders en route to a vernal pool.

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

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

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A gravid female Spotted Salamander

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A gravid female Mole Salamander

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

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An unidentified fungus growing on a fallen tree.

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

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Florida Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata obscura)

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

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