A Big Bowl of Lonestar Biodiversity

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A Pine Warbler perches on the bare twigs of a winged elm in the understory of a mature pine/oak/hickory upland.

The last month or so here in East Texas has been plagued by a barrage of heat waves that have made spending time in the woods unpleasant at best, to downright miserable at worst.  Because of the oppressive heat, and a variety of events in my personal life beyond my control, I have found myself lacking in motivation to pick up the camera and get out and explore.  I think that slumps like this are only natural, and I have certainly experienced them in the past.  Fortunately, I have always overcome them, and returned to this passion that has helped to shape the purpose that I feel in this thing we call life.

Thinking that a trip down memory lane might help rekindle the flame of my passion for the natural world, I recently went back through the many images I have taken this year.  In doing so, I realized that there were a great many images that I have captured during short day and weekend trips that I had not yet posted.

So I decided to start writing, and in reliving these memories I found my spirits instantly lifted.  Instead of breaking these images out into smaller posts I decided to make one giant post covering the last several months.  So I invite my reader to settle in and enjoy this brief tour of some of the incredible biodiversity that can be found in the Lonestar State.

Though this post was meant to cover the first half of this year, my first post actually comes from December of last year, when Caro and I went out on a salamander hunting excursion with our friends Scott and Ashley Wahlberg.  We struggled most of the day, until Ashley spotted this handsome male Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) under debris at the bottom of a dry vernal pool.  I titled the shot “Ancient Ritual”, and staged it to look like the salamander was just emerging to undertake his annual migration to the breeding pool of his birth, an event that his ancestors have undertaken for millennia.

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A Spotted Salamander emerges following a warm winter rain and begins his migration to his ancestral breeding pond.

A few days into the new year, Caro and I took a trip to Galveston.  On the way back, I spotted several Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) foraging in a tidal marsh in golden evening light. I could not resist the opportunity to try to capture some images of these beautiful, bizarre birds, so I pulled off and trudged into the mud flats. A local fisherman kept warning me of where all of the hidden holes were. Carefully I cradled my camera as I struggled to keep my balance in the muck. Finally as I drew closer I dropped down to my knees, then to my belly, and began to army crawl toward my quarry. The fisherman was kind enough to check on me frequently by shouting “are you ok”?  I responded with a simple thumbs up.

I crawled forward through the mud and shallow water until I found myself in the perfect position for a low angle shot in that beautiful light. The spoonbill is such a curious subject that seems so majestic yet awkward at the same time. When I returned to my truck I was literally coated in mud from head to toe. Fortunately I had a change of clothes, and was able to clean up a bit and return home, smiling from the perfect ending to a wonderful day.

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A Roseate Spoonbill forages in shallow tidal flats adjacent to Galveston Bay.

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A Roseate Spoonbill forages in shallow tidal flats adjacent to Galveston Bay.

During the height of January, when little else was active, I turned my lens toward wintering songbirds.  I spent several days at James Childress’s farm, where his land management activities have produced excellent habitat for a variety of species, a few of which are highlighted below.

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An American Goldfinch perches on the fruit-bearing twigs of a deciduous holly.

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A Pine Warbler forages in the limbs of a mature loblolly pine.

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A Dark-eyed Junco pauses for a moment on a branch of an old post oak.

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A White-crowned Sparrow on its wintering grounds in Angelina County.

By early February in the Pineywoods, winter begins releasing its grip, and a few brave floral souls emerge to reveal their blossoms to the world.  One of the earliest, and one of my all time favorite wildflowers, the bloodroot, blooms in the deep woods.  Likely never common in the Pineywoods, it has become exceedingly scarce over the last century due to a combination of habitat loss and over-harvest for its medicinal qualities.

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Bloodroot grows from the crook of an old tree root.

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A Bloodroot flower emerges from the dense leaf litter.

James and I also spent a few days photographing birds at the Pineywoods Native Plant Center on the Stephen F. Austin State University Campus.  It includes a remnant patch of near old growth forest, and provides excellent opportunities for wildlife observation.  The following images were all made at this special place.

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A Female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) perches in a dense tangle of dried vegetation.

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A White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) blends in to the winter browns of a prairie remnant.

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A Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus) forages on a branch of a blooming Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).

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A Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) pauses among dense winter vegetation.

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A handsome White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) out and about on a chilly early spring morning.

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A Mourning Dove (Zenaida macrura) forages on the forest floor.

As February gave way to March, spring was in full swing in the Pineywoods.  Caro and I spent an afternoon hiking in the Sam Houston National Forest.  Pollinators like the Falcate Orangetip (Anthocharis midea) were out in droves, and the violets were putting on a show on the forest floor.

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A female Falcate Orangetip nectars on the blooms of springcress (Cardamine bulbosa), on of its host plants.

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An Early Blue Violet (Viola palmata) blooms on the forest floor.

I spent one March day exploring the Columbia Bottomlands, a unique forested community in southeast Texas, where I observed a number of interesting wildflowers in bloom, including the Purple Rocket (Iodanthus pinnatifidus), which has a peculiar distribution.  This member of the mustard family (Brassicacea) can be found in many central and eastern states, including much of Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, however in Texas it is only known from a few southeastern and south-central counties.

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Purple Rocket blooms in profusion in a coastal upland forest.

I also found numerous Zigzag Irises (Iris brevicaulis) and a proliferation of Butterweed (Packera glabella) in bloom among the sedges and other wetland plants in these unique hardwood bottoms.

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Zigzag Iris blooms in the understory of the Columbia Bottomlands.

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Butterweed and Raven’s-foot Sedge (Carex crus-corvi) bloom in a forested wetland in the Columbia Bottomlands.

Back in the Pineywoods, I set out to explore a high quality forested seep where I found the imperiled Texas Trillium (Trillium texanum) coming into bloom.

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The rare Texas Trillium blooms in an old growth forested seep.

In early March, I visited our good friends Susan and Viron’s property for our annual botanical bonanza looking for rare spring ephemeral wildflowers.  As usual, we were not disappointed.  The following three images are from the outing.

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The tiny Southern Twayblade (Listera australis) is one of the earliest orchids to bloom in the Pineywoods.

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The delicate blooms of a Wood Rush (Luzula sp.) are best observed up close.

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Leaves of Cutleaf Toothwort (Cardamine concactenata) and Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium rostratum) decorate the forest floor.  I find the leaves of these species just as interesting as the blooms.

Texas is known for its roadsides brimming with bluebonnets, however wild, native populations of these dainty lupines can be hard to find, particularly in the Pineywoods.  I was happy to find and photograph what I believe to be truly wild populations of the Sandyland Bluebonnet (Lupinus subcarnosus) in Houston and Rusk Counties this spring.

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A Sandylands Bluebonnet blooms in a sandhill forest in the Pineywoods.

While taking a pit stop on our way to visit my family in Houston, I spotted a brilliant creamy-looking pink and yellow Rosy Maple Moth (Dryocampa rubicunda) clinging to a building wall, having been drawn in the night before by artificial lights.  These members of the silkworm moth family (Saturniidae) are wide-ranging in the eastern U.S., however I only occasionally encounter them in Texas.  I gently moved it from the building to a nearby patch of woods in hopes to increase its chances for survival and reproduction.

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The Rosy Maple Moth is one of our most colorful moths.

Last year my friend Jared Barnes told me about a population of Prairie Celestials (Nemastylis geminiflora) that he discovered last year deep in the Pineywoods.  This spring calciphile is common throughout much of central Texas, where calcareous soils are more prevalent, however it is quite rare in East Texas and western Louisiana, so I was thrilled at the chance to see and photograph it on my home turf.  I got the chance in late March, when I visited the site that Jared told me about and found it in full bloom.

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Prairie Celestials bloom in a remnant prairie in Nacogdoches County.

On March 30, 2014, I married the love of my life.  Five years later we spent our anniversary in San Antonio, in a quaint hotel just next to the Alamo.  We enjoyed spending time in the historic city and shopping and dining on the River Walk, however I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get a few hours of nature time in.  We visited Cascade Caverns and saw the diminutive endemic Cascade Caverns Salamander (Eurycea latitans), and spent some times along the scenic cypress lined creeks and rivers of the region.

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The clear waters of Bandera Creek flow over boulders and cypress roots.

I also stopped to explore a small chalk prairie where Lindheimer’s Paintbrush (Castilleja lindheimeri) was blooming in such numbers that it appeared the prairie was aflame.

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Lindheimer’s Paintbrush blooms in a chalk prairie in the Texas Hill Country.

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The curious blooms of a Lindheimer’s Paintbrush.

The following week, back at home, Scott and I set out in hopes of finding the rare Whorled Pogonia (Isotria verticillata) in bloom, after receiving a tip that they were flowering along the margins of a baygall about 30 minutes from my home.  Not far from the site I spotted the quick movement of some manner of skink scurrying through the leaf litter.  Fortunately I was quick enough to capture the nimble reptile, and we were excited to see that it was a Southern Coal Skink (Plestiodon anthracinus), a species that is seldom encountered in the state.

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A male Southern Coal Skink, a seldom seen denizen of the Pineywoods.

After some searching, we found the pogonias as well!  These exotic looking orchids are extremely difficult to spot, but close examination reveals a beautiful, bizarre bloom.  The Whorled Pogonia is imperiled in Texas, and has seemingly disappeared from a number of historic locations.

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The exotic looking flower of the Whorled Pogonia.

The pogonias were growing near the transition from mesic pine-hardwood forest to a highly acidic forested seep.  Nearby we found a crystal clear springfed stream flowing over pure sand.

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A creek cuts through mesic pine-hardwood forest.

That same day I would discover my own population of Nemastylis geminifolia in the Pineywoods, this time occurring in a rich calcareous woodland not far from the Louisiana border.

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Prairie Celestials bloom in an open, calcareous forest in Sabine County.

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A Zebra Longhorn (Typocerus zebra) feeds on the blooms of a Prairie Celestial.

Scott and I also enjoyed observing several other wildflowers in bloom that day, including a personal favorite, Wood Betony or Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis).

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Wood Betony blooms in the forest understory.

Mid-April Caro and I took a weekend trip to the Blackland Prairies and Cross Timbers of North-Central Texas, a region that has fast become one of my favorites in the state.  On the way, we stopped at an extensive outcrop of the iron-rich Weches Formation where I had previously seen the rare Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus) in bloom.  I was at the site too late for peak bloom last year, and only observed a few individuals in flower.  This year I timed it just right, and caught thousands upon thousands in bloom in the glades and stunted woodlands growing on this unique geologic substrate.

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The rare Clasping Jewelflower blooms in a remnant Weches Woodland.

Streptanthus maculatus was one of the species on my list of biodiversity goals for which this blog was established.  Though I technically checked it off my list last year, and posted a blog about it, I’m taking this opportunity to showcase a few more images of this striking plant.

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The rare Clasping Jewelflower blooms in a remnant Weches Woodland.

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A closeup of the fascinating blooms of the Clasping Jewelflower.

There were a number of other interesting things blooming over the Weches Formation, including Heartleaf Four-O’clock (Mirabilis nyctaginea) and Louisiana Vetch (Vicia ludoviciana).

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Heartleaf Four-O’clock blooms in a forest clearing on the Weches Formation.

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The tiny blooms of Louisiana Vetch

When we arrived in the Blackland Prairies, I was able to track down a stunning plant that I had long hoped to photograph – the Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis), a species of the east that barely enters Texas in the eastern panhandle and north-central portion of the state.

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Blue Wild Indigo blooms in a Blackland Prairie remnant.

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Blue Wild Indigo blooms in a Blackland Prairie remnant.

We were fortunate to visit a site that my friend David Bezanson of the nature conservancy describes as “the finest Blackland Prairie remnant in Texas”.  I had hoped for better light, but I was in awe in the overwhelming beauty and diversity of the place.

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A Blackland Prairie remnant in Collin County.

In a rich woodland of Bois d’arc and elm near the Oklahoma border, I found a striking Texas rarity, the Violet Blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia violacea).  We were at the tail end of their blooming season, and I hope to visit again next spring.

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Violet Blue-eyed Mary blooms in a Bois d’arc/elm woodland in Grayson County.

Driving along a rural county road in Cooke County, I spotted hints of light blue and purple along the roadside.  I could tell immediately that it was a species of hyacinth (Camassia).  I initially suspected that they were the fairly common Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), however in this part of Texas there is another possibility.  These turned out to be the much less common Prairie Hyacinth (Camassia angusta), identifiable by the large number of persistent sterile bracts.

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Prairie Camas blooms in a rich prairie remnant in Cooke County.

After exploring some area back roads, we stopped at one of my favorite prairie remnants in the state, a small (~4.5-acre) patch of Grand Prairie that harbors incredible plant species diversity.

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Prairie Paintbrush (Castilleja citrina) and Hairy Cornsalad (Valerianella amarella) bloom in the Grand Prairie.

In a good year, thousands upon thousands of Eastern Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) bloom here.  In Texas, this species is restricted to the northern Grand and Blackland Prairies, with a few remnant populations in the Edward’s Plateau.

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Eastern Shooting Star blooms in the Grand Prairie.

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The blooms of the Eastern Shooting Star are among our most photogenic native wildflowers.

The weekend after our trip to North-Central Texas, we found ourselves back on the upper coast.  Galveston Bay is lined with a number of high quality saltmarshes that provide a brief glimpse of what the Upper Texas Coast looked like before coastline development and industry took their toll.  Today, these remnant marshes are reduced in size, and generally surrounded by subdivisions or refineries.  In the image below, a luxury beach-front community can be seen in the distance.  Even if the development does not directly impact the marsh itself, it eliminates important buffer zones and reduces biodiversity in the process.  The combination of this development and accelerating rates of sea level rise make these special places one of our most imperiled communities.

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A high quality saltmarsh holds on in the face of rampant coastal development.

While on the coast we met up with my parents and James and Erin, and spent some time searching for Neotropical Migrants making their way toward northern breeding grounds.  Conditions were generally poor during that trip, but we did manage to see a few interesting things, including a male Blue Grosbeak in the process of molting into its adult plumage.

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This young male Blue Grosbeak has just begun to attain his adult plumage.

At the famous rookery at the Houston Audubon Society’s Smith Oaks Preserve we saw a number of waterbirds tending to newly hatched chicks.

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Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus) chicks beg for a meal.

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Two generations of Great Egrets (Ardea alba).

The next morning James and I rose early and made our way to the beach in hopes of capturing some images of Least Terns (Sternula antillarum) in the early morning light.  We were fortunate enough to see a number of courting pairs.

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Courting Least Terns

We watched as males would capture small fish and present them to the females while vocalizing and performing a ritualized dance.

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Courting Least Terns

Near the terns we spotted a number of Wilson’s Plovers (Charadrius wilsonii).  These boisterous shorebirds were defending their nests by feigning injury in an attempt to lure would-be predators away from the nests.

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A Wilson’s Plover hides among the dune vegetation.

A number of Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) were also seen on the dunes that morning.

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A Horned Lark among the foredunes.

As spring gradually began to give way to summer, I spent some time photographing some local residents, including a number of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) that regularly visit the feeders in James’s grandmother’s yard.

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A fluffed up Northern Cardinal on the branch of an old elm.

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A male Northern Cardinal among the leaves of a Southern Red Oak.

While wandering James’s property in search of birds, we spotted an old female Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) in a small puddle formed by recent rains.

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An old Three-toed Box Turtle takes advantage of a puddle formed by recent rains.

One of my favorite activities is driving remote, rural roads in Deep East Texas.  Such outings usually lead to interesting discoveries.  One May evening, while driving through a recent clearcut in Newton County, I heard the unmistakable buzzy trill of a Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor).  Though clearcuts are certainly unsightly and conjure up thoughts of environmental destruction, during their first few years of regeneration they provide habitat for a variety of birds including Prairie Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chats, Indigo Buntings, Northern Bobwhite and more.  When done on a proper scale and rotation, clearcuts can simulate natural disturbances and can enhance the overall health and biodiversity of a forested region.

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A Prairie Warbler sings from atop a growing pine sapling.

Mid May is my favorite time to explore the sandhills of the Post Oak Savanna.  These interesting habitats are home to a number of endemic species and in May the wildflowers are on full display.  Pictured below are Eastern Prickly Pears (Opuntia cespitosa), and the rare endemic mints Brazoria truncata var. pulcherrima and Rhododon ciliatus.

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The brilliant colors of a Post Oak Savanna sand “blowout” in spring.

One morning, while I was preparing breakfast, Caro rushed in from the backyard and told me to come quick.  There was a brightly colored Three-toed Box Turtle at the edge of our little vegetable garden.  Caro named her Frederick, and we watched as she moved about the yard, picking off slugs and other tasty morsels.  Eventually we lost sight of her in a dense tangle of vines at the back corner of the yard.

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A Three-toed Box Turtle that Caro found in our yard and lovingly named “Frederick”.

The next day, Caro ran in again, calling for me to “come and see”.  This time she had found a female stag beetle (Lucanus placidus) in her shoe!

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A female stag beetle (Lucanus placidus) that Caro found in her shoe.

As I was photographing the beetle Caro called my attention to a striking Eight-spotted Forester Moth (Alypia octomaculata) that was nectaring on the Coreopsis blooms in our garden.

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An Eight-spotted Forester Moth nectars on Coreopsis blooms.

A few days later, Caro found another interesting beetle in the yard, a colorful Line Buprestis (Buprestis lineatus).

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A Lined Buprestis Beetle

My eagle-eyed wife also spotted this little jumping spider (Colonus sylvanus) in our garden.

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A jumping spider on a Purple Coneflower bloom in our Garden.

Target Species: White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

When I added White-tailed Deer to my list of 2017 biodiversity goals, I had a very specific image in mind.  Though the image below is not exactly what I had hoped for, I was happy enough with it to cross the species off my list.  Caro and I spotted this young buck in a mature Longleaf Pine Savanna one evening, and I managed a few shots before it disappeared among the rolling terrain.

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A young White-tailed Deer Buck in a longleaf pine savanna.

Back in our yard, we came across a Fiery Searcher (Calosoma scrutator).  Also known as the Caterpillar Hunter, this large predatory beetle is, in my opinion, among the most beautiful insects in the country.

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A Fiery Searcher on the hunt in our backyard.

In early June, I found a nice male Eastern Hercules Beetle (Dynastes tityus) near our house.  One of North America’s largest and most impressive insects, these beetles inhabit mature forests with abundant hardwoods.

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A fine male Eastern Hercules Beetle

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A fine male Eastern Hercules beetle.

In late July, our old friend Frederick the Three-toed Box Turtle appeared again in our backyard.  Caro spotted her eating cantaloupe rinds from fruit that we set out to try and attract beetles and other insects to our yard.

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Frederick returns for a visit

I’ll end this post with an image from early August, the last time I set out into the woods with the intention of making images.  I spotted this Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans) feeding on predatory robber fly.  The spider had taken an ambush position among the blooms of a Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera).

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A Green Lynx Spider in ambush mode on the blooms of a Rough Blazing Star.

I am very much looking forward to fall, and hope to set out to capture new landscapes and biodiversity with a renewed passion and sense of purpose.

The Land of Enchantment Part Two: Biodiversity in the Sangre de Cristos

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From the high plains we continued west, deeper into the Land of Enchantment.  As we gradually climbed in elevation, our surroundings changed from shortgrass prairie to sagebrush flats to Rocky Mountain foothills dominated by pinyon and juniper.  It was in the latter community that I saw something slink across the road ahead of us, which I took to be a coyote.  We pulled up to where I saw the animal and got out, but after scanning the area a few minutes found nothing. We returned to the truck and moved forward no more than a hundred yards or so when Caro shouted, “There it is!”. The rest was a bit of a blur of excitement, however what I do remember is seeing that something didn’t look right for a coyote. Quickly grabbing the binoculars I focused on what turned out to be two animals about 50 yards away.  In that moment I heard Caro shout “Son Pumas!”, and it became clear, as I focused on two young pumas staring at us. Quickly I pulled off the road and fumbled for my camera gear, but they took off immediately. I had managed a few distant shots of their tails, when something burst out from the brush about 30 yards away and went after them. We assume this larger, more strikingly colored individual was their mother. Again I only managed a shot of her back as she ran off, but this encounter with a trio of Mountain Lions was more about the experience than the photos. This is a species I had always dreamed of seeing during the western explorations of my childhood, but despite being in the right habitat so many times, I never did. Instead, I would finally come face to face with them in a chance encounter when I least expected it.  That evening we continued into Taos, and looked longingly to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains towering around us, eager to immerse ourselves in their beauty.

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Young Pumas retreating.

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Adult Puma retreating

The next morning we set out into the semi-arid foothills around Taos in search of garnet and staurolite, two interesting minerals known to occur in the vicinity of the Rio Grande.  Our search took us through rugged 4×4 roads which I enjoyed navigating.  Along the way we stopped to admire a cast of unfamiliar wildflowers.  Of particular interest were several species of Penstemon.  I later learned that there are some 40+ species of Penstemon in New Mexico!  While we saw only a fraction of this diversity, we were quite taken with the species we did observe.  Growing among pinyon and ponderosa pines we found Penstemon virgatus.  This species is apparently quite variable, and its flowers may be blue, purple, pink, or white.

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Penstemon virgatus

Growing nearby we found Penstemon inflatus, a New Mexico endemic.

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Penstemon inflatus

Slightly higher in elevation we spotted the five-foot tall Penstemon palmeri.  It may have been the most impressive penstemon I’ve seen, with a spike of huge, tightly packed pink blooms.  In general, penstemons are not particularly fragrant.  This species, however, filled the air around it with a strong, sweet aroma.

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Penstemon palmeri

Higher still we found several clusters of Penstemon strictus, a unique, beautiful addition to the flora of the region.  Many species of penstemon are popular in the world of horticulture, and make excellent additions to a native garden.

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Penstemon strictus

Growing among the Penstemon virgatus and P. inflatus we found several Sego Lilies (Calochortus nuttallii).  These beautiful, dainty blooms grew in clearings in the pine-dominated foothills.

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Sego Lily

Along crystal clear streams swollen from rapidly melting snow in the high country, we found abundant thickets of Woods’s Rose (Rosa woodsii).  This native rose decorates the countryside with its pink blooms and fills the summer air with its sweet aroma.

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Woods’s Rose

After searching for the better part of a day, we finally found several pieces of schist bearing the minerals we were after.  It was these minerals that prompted Caro to suggest a trip to the area, and the excitement we shared after finding them was one of the highlights of the trip.  The discovery came after a long hot morning of searching, right as an early afternoon thunderstorm bore down on us.  Hail and lightning caused us to retreat to the truck, where we waited out the weather and resumed our search with renewed intensity.  The rocks of interest were much easier to spot as they glistened, wet with rainwater.

With our thirst for rockhounding satisfied, we opted to spend the rest of the day in the high country, and made our way into the lush montane forests of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  The Sangre de Cristos run from southern colorado into northern New Mexico.  In their northern reaches they contain a number of “fourteeners”, that is mountain peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation.  They are a bit shorter here, but Wheeler Peak (the highest point in New Mexico) still climbs to over 13,000 feet and is a short distance from Taos.

As we climbed in elevation we began to notice a wealth of mountain wildflowers.  We were still too early for the incredible display of wildflowers that bloom in the summer in subalpine meadows of the Rockies – truly one of the most spectacular wildflower shows on the planet – but there were still plenty of floral diversity to admire.

Large colonies of Rocky Mountain Iris (Iris missouriensis), for example, painted clearings above 8,000 feet.  Most of these delicate blooms were damaged by recent rain and hail, yet I managed to find a few fresh individuals to photograph.

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Rocky Mountain Iris

Along wet seepage slopes and seep-fed streams we found the lovely White Marsh Marigold (Caltha leptosepala) in bloom.

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White Marsh Marigold

The most impressive wildflower displays were to be found in the shade of forests dominated by Engelmann Spruce, Subalpine Fir, and Douglas-Fir.  Here we found several species growing in close proximity, including Rock Clematis (Clematis columbiana), Western Red Columbine (Aquilegia elegantula), and Franciscan Bluebells (Mertensia franciscana).

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Rock Columbine

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Western Red Columbine

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Franciscan Bluebells

The most exciting discoveries, however, were the orchids.  I have long been fascinated by this family of peculiar plants, and was happy to finally see a number of species I have long wanted to photograph.  In one patch of forest we found three species of the myco-heterotrophic genus Corallorhiza.  I have written about one of these species, C. wisteriana in one of my first blog posts.  Myco-heterotrophy refers to the process of obtaining nutrients and energy by parasitizing the mycorhizzal fungi of tree roots.  Orchids of this genus are completely dependent on these fungi for survival, and have even lost the ability to photosynthesize.  The lack of leaves and the green pigment chlorophyll makes spotting them a real challenge.  This difficulty made finding them all the more rewarding.

I did not photograph the C. wisteriana that we observed, but I couldn’t resist photographing the beautiful blooms of the Striped Coralroot (Corallorhiza striata).  This species has been recorded in the Guadalupe and Chinati Mountains of Texas, but is by all accounts very rare.  We found only a single plant growing on a rocky wooded slope.

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Striped Coralroot

I think I probably jumped for joy when Caro called out that she had found a Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata).  This species has also been recorded in Texas, in the Davis and Chisos Mountains, and like the Striped Coralroot is believed to be very rare.  It turned out to be the most common orchid of the trip, and we found dozens in various stages from newly emerging flowering stems to individuals in full, splendid bloom like the one pictured below.

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Spotted Coralroot

The absolute floral highlight of the trip however, and perhaps second only to the pumas in terms of overall trip highlights, was finally encountering a species that I had dreamed of seeing since I was a little kid pouring through field guides and coffee table nature books – The Fairy Slipper Orchid (Calypso bulbosa).  This orchid always seemed so exotic to me.  As a kid, I probably hiked past many not knowing where or how to look. On this trip, however, Caro and I spotted many on the mossy floor of a spruce/fir forest at 10,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristos. I photographed them as I breathed in the chilly mountain air and listened to the rushing waters of a creek swollen with snow melt.

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Fairy Slipper Orchid

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Fairy Slipper Orchid

Soon our time in the Land of Enchantment came to an end.  We were sad to say goodbye to the Sange de Cristos, but grateful for the enrichment they provided us.  The Rocky Mountains hold a very special place in my heart, as it is where I fell in love with nature as a young boy, and I was glad to introduce Caro to them, and see on her face the same sense of awe and wonder that I feel for these very special places.

The Land of Enchantment Part One: Flora and Fauna of the High Plains

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Pronghorn Buck

When westward expansion was gripping the nation during the 19th century, the American frontier was not defined by the towering mountains and rugged desert that exemplify the term today, but rather endless expanses of prairie inhabited by millions of American bison, pronghorn, elk, wolves, and grizzly bears.  As countless wagons wore ruts into the prairie’s earth, black-tailed prairie dogs kept a watchful eye for badgers and black-footed ferrets, and a chorus of thriving grassland songbird populations filled the air.

Today, the prairie is a very different place, however standing in an un-plowed stretch of prairie in Union County, New Mexico that reached from horizon to horizon, I could imagine what it may have been like.  I was overwhelmed in a land that seemed so initially sparse.  But here, the diversity is in the details.  A diversity of nondescript grasses and small wildflowers, pollinators, and cryptic prairie denizens.

It had been years since I explored the natural wonders of the aptly named Land of Enchantment.  New Mexico is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, and contains a wide array of habitat from alpine tundra to low desert.  Our ultimate destination in the state was the sagebrush laden foothills around Taos and the high peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  Our journey would first take us through some of the finest expanses of shortgrass prairie in the country.

In the prairie around the base of Capulin Volcano, we found large groups of blooming Silvery Lupine (Lupinus argenteus).  This species also occurs in Texas, but is rare and confined to a few sites in the Panhandle near the border.  These New Mexican prairies, however, were loaded with them.

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Silvery Lupine

There are apparently some 11 varieties of Lupinus argenteus in New Mexico, which can make their identification a bit tricky.  We found at least two varieties growing in close proximity.

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Silvery Lupine

We also found Nebraska Lupine (Lupinus plattensis) blooming here, but its flowers were far past prime.  This species has been recorded in the Texas Panhandle as well, but like the Silvery Lupine, is very scarce.

Growing among the lupines were several other wildflowers, including several Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrushes (Castilleja integra).  I have always been fond of this genus of hemiparasites.

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Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush

James’s Penstemon (Penstemon jamesii) was also common in this area.  This lovely plant is named for Edwin James.  James was one of the first anglo naturalists to explore the American West.  I strongly recommend reading more on this fascinating and influential figure who discovered, collected, and described many western species.

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James’s Penstemon

Near Capulin we found a single Spinystar (Escobaria vivipara) in bloom.  Further west, and at a higher elevation in Colfax County, however, we found several.  I was thrilled to find this tiny prairie cactus, which would have been essentially invisible if not for the bright pink blooms.

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Escobaria vivipara

Growing at 8,000 feet I spotted a sea of blush swaying among the greens and grays of broad meadow.  It was Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum).  This iconic prairie plant is named for its puffy achenes which resemble billowing smoke of a distant fire.  These can be seen developing in the background of the photo below.  Geum triflorum was long used by native cultures as a medicinal plant, and is purported to help a variety of ailments.

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Prairie Smoke

Years ago, during my family’s annual trek west, I always looked forward to spotting Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) in the vast plains of eastern New Mexico.  This year we saw more than I ever remember seeing back then.  It was no doubt due in part to Carolina’s eagle eyes, however I like to think that the species is continuing its nearly century long rebound from near extinction in the early 1900s.

When Europeans first visited the West, there were an estimated 35 million pronghorn roaming the plains.  By the turn of the 20th century, it is estimated there were barely 10,000 left.  That’s a population decline of over 99.999%.  Like the American Bison, the open country that the pronghorn called home made them easy targets for hunters.  Fortunately, in the 1920’s conservation efforts began to protect both the species and its habitat, and today some estimates put the population at nearly a million.

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Pronghorn Buck

The pronghorn is a species that is at the same time, beautiful, bizarre, graceful, and gangly.  They are supremely adapted for life on the prairie, and for speed and endurance.  Adaptations like enlarged lungs, windpipes, and hearts, interlocking grooves in their joints that allow for a unilateral line of travel, and an enhanced circulatory system make them the fastest sustained runners on the planet.

Despite commonly being referred to as antelope, pronghorn are note closely related to true antelope, which are restricted to the Old World.  They are the only surviving member of the family Antilocapridae, which evolved in North America during the Miocene.  They’re extreme speed and endurance is believed to have evolved as a defense against the extinct American cheetah, which would have been a major predator of their habitats.  Today there are no predators that can come close to matching an adult pronghorn’s speed or endurance in open country.  Enlarged eyes with a field of vision of nearly 320 degrees that can spot a potential threat two miles away ensure that a potential predator would rarely get the chance to test this theory.  I can’t help but think that old pronghorn bucks know this, as they rarely seem concerned with my presence, even in areas where they would seldom encounter humans.  When I drop low to the ground, however, their tone changes as can be seen in the intense stare of the huge buck pictured below.

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Pronghorn Buck

I could have easily spent a few days photographing pronghorn for as long as the light would allow.  We saw bachelor groups, solitary dominant bucks, and does with fawns.  This iconic species is as good a poster child for the prairie as any, and I can’t wait to be in the speedgoat’s presence once more.

The prairie saved one of her best surprises for last.  After spending a few days in the vicinity of Taos, we made the return trip through the high plains toward home.  While driving a remote stretch of prairie road I heard Caro call out “FOX!”  I glanced in my rear view in time to see a pair of tawny, house cat sized creatures.  Turning round, we were able to fix our gaze on a pair of Swift Foxes (Vulpes velox) lounging near their burrows.  We watched them for some time, and I captured a few documentation photos.  I had hoped to approach a bit closer for higher quality images, but they were quick to retreat to their burrows.  We waited for some time, but the wind was not with us and we soon concluded it was a futile attempt.  We left content in having captured a glimpse of this elusive prairie denizen.

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Swift Fox

My parting shot for this blog entry is an image of a double rainbow taken after we passed through a late afternoon thunderstorm.  The cool air, smell of wet grass and earth, sound of distant thunder, and broad view of the prairie perfectly sum up the magic I felt here, at the western edge of the Great Plains.

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Double Rainbow

The Land of the Endless Sky

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Rolling Prairie in Hartley County near the Canadian River Breaks.

Texas is primarily a prairie state.  From the tallgrass prairies of the Gulf Coast to the Blackland Prairies and Cross Timbers and Prairies; and from the semi-arid grasslands of the Trans-Pecos to the Llano Estacado and the shortgrass prairies of the Panhandle Plains, the Lonestar State is largely defined by these graminoid-dominated communities.  Despite all of this, our native prairies are all but gone, victims of a relentless onslaught of change.  Much of our prairie was outright destroyed, converted to agricultural crops or development.  Others suffered from the removal of important disturbance elements like fire and the most iconic prairie denizen of them all, The American Bison.  At the same time these important components of prairie maintenance vanished, new, exotic species were introduced, forever changing the composition of the land.

Fortunately, there is still some good prairie left, for those who know where to look.  I have been lucky enough to see high quality virgin coastal prairies, some of the finest Blackland Prairie in the state, and the wildflower laden meadows of the Grand Prairie in spring.  Yet despite all of this, I had not spent time in the mid and shortgrass prairies of the panhandle since 2008, when I worked on a project researching Snowy Plovers in the playas and salt lakes around Lubbock.  This year I sought to change that, and Carolina and I spent a few days here on our big summer roadtrip.

Our first stop was the far northeastern corner of the Panhandle, where we went looking for milkweeds in Hemphill and Lipscomb Counties.  After a long drive from our Pineywoods home, we finally arrived to find the Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in full bloom.  This species is common around our home, but it was a different experience altogether seeing them growing in large clumps among the prairie grasses.

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Butterfly Weed in a midgrass prairie of the eastern Panhandle.

The Butterfly Weed was certainly exciting to see, but I had my heart set on a real Panhandle specialty – the Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa).  It is a wide ranging species, occurring from the Great Plains west.  It barely enters Texas, where it can be found at a few sites in the Panhandle.  We were fortunate enough to find it growing among a variety of grasses and sedges in the narrow floodplain of a small stream feeding the Canadian River.

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Showy Milkweeds blooming along a small stream in the Canadian River drainage.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying this may be our most beautiful milkweed.  The plants may reach a meter or more in height and are adorned by huge clusters of bright pink flowers with elongated hoods.  They are very fragrant, and we observed a wide variety of pollinators seeking nourishment from their blooms.

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Asclepias speciosa flower detail

After spending time among the milkweeds, we trekked west across the Panhandle.  We chose to take the lesser-traveled county roads and were rewarded with scenes of blooming wildflowers and rugged topography.

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CoreopsisGaillardia, and Monarda bloom in a Panhandle prairie.

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Carolina Larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) against a background of dried prairie grass.

While traversing the rugged Canadian River breaks, we spotted the unmistakable form of an Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata) in the road.  It’s hard to find a reptile with more personality than a good box turtle, and Carolina affectionately named this one “Manuelita”.  In my experience, there are two types of box turtles, those that seal themselves in with their hinged plastrons, and those that make a break for it. Manuelita was definitely the second type, and as soon as we put her on the ground she took off like a bullet, or at least a turtle’s version of a bullet.  I would not have been able to capture a singe photo of her if it were not for Carolina, who was able to read her body language, and gently calm her down enough that she would sit still for a brief time.  After a brief photo session, we watched as she vanished into the prairie, moving quickly away from the road.

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Ornate Box Turtle

From there we made our way to the Rita Blanca National Grasslands near the borders with Oklahoma and New Mexico. Our first evening camping here brought with it rapidly darkening skies of a blue norther that foreshadowed the violent storm to come. The wind hit first, creating turbulent waves in the sea of prairie grass. When the rain and lightning arrived, we retreated to the tent and huddled in our sleeping bags. The temperature dropped into the lower fifties, and through the rain fly of the tent we could see champagne pink flashes illuminating the darkness, and hear, or rather feel, the bone jarring thunder that followed. The wind was so strong that the tent walls flexed and the ceiling dropped several feet. I wondered if it would hold up, but when the storm passed the old sturdy ‘gal who had seen us through many adventures remained standing.

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Blue Norther approaching the Rita Blanca Grasslands

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Blue Norther approaching the Rita Blanca Grasslands

As the rain calmed to a gentle drizzle we decided to take to the roads to see if we might turn up some amphibians en route to their breeding wetlands. It turned out to be a productive evening, and we found several Bufo cognatus, Bufo woodhousii, and Spea bombifrons. I only photographed a single B. cognatus that appeared to be heavily gravid. It is amazing that organisms that rely so heavily on water can be so abundant in a place where it seems so scarce.

It was a humbling experience to be at the mercy of such a force of nature so powerful and destructive as that blue norther, and to see the vital role it played in ensuring the survival of so many species.

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Great Plains Toad (Bufo cognatus)

The next morning I had ambitions of rising early and photographing the sun rising over the prairie. When my alarm went off at some painful hour, however, I woke to the sound of gentle raindrops bouncing off the tent’s rain fly. It was the perfect sound for sleeping, so I drifted back asleep and woke again some hours later.

We went out into the damp morning to see if the rains may have spurred some animal movement. After a few miles, Caro spotted a nice Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) buck on a yucca-laden hillside. It looked at us for a moment, and took off running to the crest of the hill. A pronghorn in motion is a beautiful thing. Their movements are so fluid-like and effortless. There is nothing on this continent’s land that can match their speed, and their aloof attitude makes one think that they know it.

We moved forward along a curve in the road to try to get a closer look at the buck where the ridge intersected our path. There he stopped for a moment to mark his territory and again took to running. It became evident that he was stopping every hundred yards or so and scent marking. Caro postulated that perhaps he was concerned that the rains had washed his scent from his territory.

We watched him cross the road and find a small gap in the fence. From there he disappeared over the distant horizon. In all we probably spent 10 minutes or more watching him, and I managed an image of him mid-gallop.

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Pronghorn Buck

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Pronghorn Buck

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Pronghorn Buck Running

The wildflowers were looking rejuvenated after the rain.  In fact, the cool, wet spring and the region had experienced resulted in a verdant paradise of grasses and forbs.  I delighted in photographing a single Prairie Snowball (Abronia fragrans) plant.  The specific epithet fragrans is appropriate, as the flowers emit a wonderful aroma into the early morning air.  Like many species of Abronia, it is often pollinated by nocturnal moths, and the flowers open in the evening and generally close by mid-morning.

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Prairie Snowball

The Plains Penstemon (Penstemon ambiguus) was at peak bloom, decorating the prairie with patches of pink and white.

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Plains Penstemon

We also found a few late flowering patches of White Penstemon (Penstemon albidus).  Some had a slight hint of purple to the blooms.

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White Penstemon

With such an abundance of wildflowers, the pollinators were out in force as well.  The most striking were the striped-sweat bees (Agapostemon sp.) that were feeding on the abundant thistles.

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Striped-Sweat Bee

The Rita Blanca National Grassland is a haven for grassland birds. Many of the species that occur here are declining at an alarming rate as the prairie habitat they depend on vanishes or changes to a degree that it can no longer support them.

We drove slowly with the windows down so that we may hear them. Western Meadowlarks, Cassin’s Sparrows, and Horned Larks sang from the fence posts. We saw Burrowing Owls taking advantage of the numerous Black-tailed Prairie Dog towns scattered throughout the plains. We watched Greater Roadrunners dart along the primitive grassland roads as we listened to the distant whistling of Northern Bobwhites.  Small, isolated woodlots provided a haven for birds like Bullock’s Orioles, Western Kingbirds, and Red-headed Woodpeckers. 

At one point we were dive-bombed by aggressive Long-billed Curlew’s, a sure sign that they had a nest nearby. In Texas, these remarkable shorebirds only nest in the extreme northwest corner of the panhandle, which is close to the southern extent of their breeding range. Their nest was on the opposite side of a fence that we didn’t cross. Though the land was still public, I didn’t want to risk damaging the superbly camouflaged eggs which are laid in little more than a depression in the dried grass.

I photographed at Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus) as it foraged in the short grass, and was fortunate enough to photograph an iconic prairie bird, the Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), as it sang its hissing song from atop the fading blooms of a yucca. The birds alone would be worth the trip, but they were only one part in an incredible community of plants and animals that captivated my every moment in this special place.

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Lark Sparrow

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Grasshopper Sparrow

Among the numerous grassland birds is an elite killer, and a “respectable prairie raptor”, as my friend and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Matt Whitbeck would say: The Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsonii).  These open country specialists undertake one of the most impressive migrations of all raptors, breeding in western North America, as far north as Alaska, and wintering in Argentina.  During migration they may form large “kettles”, delighting bird watchers as they pass overhead en masse.  They take a variety of prey on their summer hunting grounds, including prairie dogs, ground squirrels, rabbits, and even Burrowing Owls.

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Swainson’s Hawk

As the rising sun warmed the prairie, we caught sight of a special creature scampering across an open patch of prairie soil.  It was a Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum), our state reptile, and one of the most famous icons of the Texas prairies.

Texas Horned Lizards have declined or disappeared throughout most of the state, however they continue to thrive in parts of the Panhandle and Trans Pecos. We saw several scurrying about in the late afternoon. These tiny dragons feed primarily on ants, and will often sit near a harvester ant mound picking off foragers as they move to and from the colony entrance.

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Texas Horned Lizard

Viewing a Texas Horned Lizard from above reveals its incredible and intricate patterns and textures.

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Texas Horned Lizard

It was a bittersweet feeling when our time at the Rita Blanca National Grassland came to an end.  It meant saying good bye to the prairies of the Panhandle, but it also meant we would be continuing our journey westward into the Land of Enchantment.  My time in the Panhandle Plains left me enamored with the landscapes and specialized flora and fauna of the area.  It is a long drive from the Pineywoods, but one I will gladly make again.  Until then, I will dream of incoming blue northers, running pronghorn, and the dawn chorus of grassland songbirds.

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Rock Outcrop in Potter County

 

 

Spring in the Desert Part 3: The Marathon Basin

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

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

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Pronghorn Buck

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

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog

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

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Caballos Novaculite Outcrops

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

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

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Davis Hedgehog Cactus

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

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Woolly Locoweed

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Feathery Dalea

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Downy Paintbrush

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Downy Paintbrush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Phacelia infundibuliformis

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Streptanthus cutleri

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

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

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

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Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat

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

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Kansas Glossy Snake

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

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

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Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap

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

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

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

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

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Yellow Rocknettle

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Yellow Rocknettle

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

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

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

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Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap

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

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

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

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and Lechuguilla

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and Candelilla with Maravillas Canyon in the background

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and other desert flora in Maravillas Canyon

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

A Productive Visit to the Upper Texas Coast

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Seaside Sparrow

When James and I first discussed taking a short trip to the Upper Texas Coast, we had two species on our mind: Black Scoters that had been seen in Galveston, and a Short-eared Owl that had been regularly observed at Anahuac.  I’ll save the suspense, and tell you know that we did not find either target.  Despite this, our short outing to the coast would end up being an especially memorable, productive trip.

Carolina and I left Saturday afternoon to stay with my parents in The Woodlands.  After 150,000 shutter actuations, my trusty Canon 7D is beginning to show its age.  It still takes excellent photos, however it is beginning to have some mechanical issues including occasional trouble powering on.  I had mentioned to my mom that I was considering purchasing a new camera, and she completely surprised me by offering to buy it for me using some money left to her by her late Aunt Jan.  I remember Aunt Jan from all of our family outings growing up in Chicago.  After we moved to Texas she would faithfully send me a birthday card every year up until just a few years ago.  My mom wanted to use some of the money left to her to do something nice for my brother and I, and this was as nice as it gets.  When I arrived at my parent’s house I became the proud new owner of a Canon 7D Mark II.  That evening we visited with my folks, ate my Dad’s famous New York strip and baked potato, and I readied my gear for the next day.

The next morning we woke at an inhumane hour.  I wanted to arrive on the coast before sunrise in order to try out my new gear and try to capture some images in that golden morning light that photographers are always raving about.  We would be meeting James and Erin on the beach.  They had left a day earlier and were camped at High Island.

We arrived just as the sun was cresting the undulating Gulf, casting its warmth upon the beach.  It wasn’t long before the first photo op presented itself.  I spotted a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) in a clump of dried camphor daisy.  The bird was surprisingly trusting and allowed for a close approach as it flit from bush to bush.  The trip was off to a good start.

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Loggerhead Shrike

James and Erin arrived just as I was finishing up with the shrike, and much to James’s disappointment, it vanished into the distant dunes.  We would end up seeing many shrikes over the course of the trip, but none provided such excellent photographic opportunities as the first.  Shrikes are fascinating, morbid birds.  These vicious hunters will pounce on anything smaller than themselves and quickly eviscerate them with their hooked beaks.  When I worked at Anahuac as a research biologist over a decade ago, we trapped Loggerhead Shrikes for research purposes.  The trapping method included placing a white mouse in a circular trap with a partition in the middle.  In the chamber opposite the mouse there was a small door that provided the only opportunity for the shrike to access the mouse.  As the bird entered it would trip a trigger and the door would close.  The partition protected the mouse from harm and we were able to safely extract the shrike.  Their bites drew blood, and we had to use special steel bands, as their powerful beaks would make short work of the standard aluminum versions.  If all of this wasn’t enough evidence as to their voracity, they decorate their territory with the carcasses of their victims, impaling them on thorns and barbed wire.  This gruesome behavior has earned them the nickname “Butcher Birds”

After chatting for a few minutes, James and I set out in pursuit of shorebirds while Erin combed the beach and Caro took in the warmth of the winter sun.  The shorebirds were out in force, and within a few minutes we had seen Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, Snowy Plovers, Piping Plovers, Wilson’s Plovers, and more.  My eye was drawn to a Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) standing in a shallow pool created by the advancing tide.  It was yawning(?) repeatedly, which provided for an interesting photo.  I created the image below to highlight the layers of color and light on the beach that morning, and like how bands of color exist throughout the image, from the foreground through the background.  Black-bellied Plover seems an unfitting name when seen in their winter plumage, but in the breeding season the males will don a dramatic pattern of black and white.

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Black-bellied Plover

I had really hoped to photograph a Long-billed Curlew that morning, and we did see one.  Unfortunately it proved too skittish and vanished before we would get our chance.  We also missed an opportunity to photograph a group of Horned Larks which flew into the wrack and blended almost perfectly into their surroundings.  It’s hard to be disappointed on such a beautiful morning, however.  And as the sun rose higher and the light became too harsh, we enjoyed watching the Brown and American White Pelicans fishing just offshore.

Satisfied with our morning at the beach, we all took the Ferry to Galveston Island.  Here we drove up and down the beach diligently seeking the group of Black Scoters that had been seen in the area.  Unfortunately this day it was not to be.

After lunch and a visit to La King’s Confectionery, we set out to explore Galveston Island State Park.  James and I trudged through the mucky saltmarsh while Caro and Erin sat at the Marsh’s edge.  We encountered a handful of Swamp and Savannah Sparrows, and a pair of Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) tucked away in the grass.

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Roseate Spoonbills

After the park we took one more pass down the sea wall to look for the scoters, again we found none.  Then it was back to the Ferry where we watched dolphins from the upper deck.  Once on Bolivar we returned to the beach.  There was a special light that evening, as the setting sun pushed through wispy clouds on the horizon.  This light, and distant skies painted by interesting clouds convinced me to take a break from birds and turn my camera to the subtle yet beautiful landscapes of the area.

The first scene to catch my eye was the sky’s reflection in a Black Needlerush marsh.  I waded into the marsh to capture this image, and endured the bites of what must have been thousands of mosquitoes.  The tiny bloodsuckers hadn’t even crossed my mind as we left east Texas, but I suppose the season had thus far been mild on the coast and recent rains provided the breeding ground.  Despite being probed by hundreds of needle-like probosces, I could not pull myself away from the tranquil scene.

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Black Needlerush Marsh

It was uncharacteristically still that day.  Only the faintest breeze swept across the beach from time to time.  Some of the clumps of Camphor Daisy still had blooms on them, and when I spotted one particular clump, half in fruit, half in bloom, just above tiny windswept ridges and a myriad of mammal tracks in the sand, my mind immediately began framing a scene.  Another distant group of Camphor Daisies and ethereal clouds in the distance added to the mood.  I composed the scene and captured the image below, which ended up being one of my favorite landscape images from 2018.

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Stories in the Sand

On the water a massive raft of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) was forming.  There was little light left, but dusk had dyed the water with hues of pink and blue.  The image below was taken at ISO 2500 and a very low shutter speed, but the unique light was just too good an opportunity to squander.

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American White Pelicans

As the day’s light vanished we went to set up camp at High Island.  Caro made a very impressive fire while I prepared one of my camp specialties, macaroni and tuna.  The mosquitoes were relentless despite temperatures dipping to the upper 40s.

Dawn broke to cloudy skies.  We took down camp and set out to explore Anahuac.  It would prove to be a most productive visit to a refuge where I have spent countless hours.  The roadsides were lined with American Bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus).  The trick was spotting these incredibly cryptic birds among the grasses, sedges, and rushes of the marsh.

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American Bittern

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American Bittern

As we were photographing a bittern, a pair of male Boat-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus major).  Both birds began to display in unison, though it seemed more like a joint effort than a ritualized competitive display.  I remain curious as to the nature of their interaction.  Boat-tailed Grackles are endemic to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the U.S., occurring in coastal marshes from southeast Texas to Long Island, New York.

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Boat-tailed Grackles

We spent most of the day driving the various roads in the refuge in search of things to photograph.  As we neared one of the refuge’s boat ramps, we caught site of a ball of fluff waddling toward the marsh.  It was a Northern Raccoon (Procyon lotor) and her progeny.  She stopped for a moment at the edge of the grass and allowed time for me to fire off a handful of shots before vanishing from sight.

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Northern Raccoon

It was an amazing opportunity.  Despite being ubiquitous, ranging across most of North America, and living in close proximity to human habitations, they are seldom observed, particularly in the daylight.  Their nocturnal habits and generally secretive nature makes capturing good images a real challenge.  I got a few shots that I was happy with, but really hoped for more time with these little carnivores.

We waited a moment but they didn’t show themselves.  After some time we decided to walk the edge of the saltmarsh for a while in search of sparrows.  The mosquitoes once again proved to be relentless, so Caro and I returned to the truck so I could change my shorts for pants.  As we neared we saw that the raccoons had emerged once again from the marsh, and I was able to capture a few more images, including the photo below.  It wasn’t long before they disappeared again.  I returned to look for sparrows while Caro hung around in the area to see if they might return.  Sure enough, when we came back from the saltmarsh she showed us a video of them foraging in the marsh, not far from where she sat, obstructed by my truck.

Seeing raccoons always reminds me of my mom’s sister, my Aunt Jer.  They were her favorite animal, and I still remember portraits of them in her home in Chicago.  It has been over 20 years since she passed, and while we all still miss her to this day, it brings me some joy and comfort knowing that, for me, her memory lives on in these masked bandits of the mammal world.

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Northern Raccoon

As we set out on our quest for sparrows we immediately began observing Marsh and Sedge Wrens skulking in the dense vegetation.  These tiny songbirds are generally very secretive, so it was a surprise when one of the Marsh Wrens (Cistothorus palustris) popped up for long enough for me to capture a few images.  In the spring, their distinctive chattery songs will bring joy to these coastal wetlands.

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Marsh Wren

The stars of the entire trip, however, were the Seaside Sparrows (Ammodramus maritimus).  These saltmarsh specialists occur in an extremely narrow band along the coast from south Texas to extreme southern Maine.  They spend most of their lives hidden among the Spartina and Distichlis of the saltmarsh, but occassionally will make themselves visible for the briefest of moments.

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Seaside Sparrow

I have learned that bird photography is often just as much about luck as it is skill and equipment.  I had visited this particular part of the refuge dozens of times in search of Seaside and Nelson’s Sparrows.  I typically see a few, but they generally remain elusive, and provide only fleeting glimpses.  This day, for whatever reason, they were out in force, and provided several good, relatively open looks.  I suspect that if I returned tomorrow, they would return to their secretive ways.

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Seaside Sparrow

Though they remain common in some areas of Texas, Seaside Sparrow populations are decreasing throughout their range.  They are under assault from a variety of factors including climate change, sea level rise, and rapid human development of coastal areas.  One race, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, went extinct just over 30 years ago, while another, the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow, is Federally Endangered.  Though I have decent images of this species from my time in Maryland, I have long wanted better images, specifically from Texas, and it was a dream come true to have the opportunity to capture some.

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Seaside Sparrow

Sadly our trip had to come to an end, as they always do.  But as we returned to the Pineywoods, in my mind I kept hearing the waves breaking on the shore, smelling the salt of the sea, feeling the mud sink beneath my feet, and seeing those coastal birds in their element.  And thanks to the images I captured on the trip, I can revisit those moments at any time, until I find myself trudging through the saltmarsh once more.

Finding Paradise in the Bandera Canyonlands

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Hill Country Waterfall

It’s a pilgrimage that many Texans undertake at some point – to see the fall colors of Lost Maples.  Despite living in Texas for over 20 years and extensively exploring all corners of the state, it was a trip I had yet to take.  This year we finally decided to see what the fuss was about.  It would turn out to be an adventure, filled with frustrations and rewards.

Carolina and I left early and made our way to the Bandera Canyonlands, a term used by the nature conservancy to describe the region in the western Hill Country that contains a labyrinth of canyons carved through the limestone over millennia by springfed streams.

We arrived at the Love Creek Preserve in the early afternoon.  We were granted special permission to visit this preserve which has limited public access.  The Love Creek Preserve is another example of the substantial conservation efforts of The Nature Conservancy in Texas.  Here they succeeded in protecting over 2,500 acres of excellent Hill Country habitat, home to rare plants and animals and numerous Texas endemics.  The preserve also protects several spring-heads which feed tributaries to the Medina River, which ultimately feeds the Edward’s Aquifer.  The Nature Conservancy truly has protected some of the most spectacular places in the Lonestar State.

It was a sunny day, and being early in the afternoon, the conditions were not ideal for photography.  I took my gear along anyway, as one never knows what they might encounter in a place such as this.  I carried my camera atop my tripod as I descended the precarious canyon walls with little difficulty.  I then rock-hopped my way across a wide stream without incident.  Then, after casually stepping on an innocuous boulder I somehow lost my footing and went down hard.  I was extremely unhappy, as Carolina can attest, but not hurt.  Then I looked at my camera, laying lens first in the cobble adjacent to the stream.  I feared the worst.  Miraculously my camera and lens survived unscathed, but my neutral density filter and circular polarizing filter had both been cracked.  I could live without the latter, but the polarizer is a crucial bit of gear for photographing fall color.  I was disheartened, to say the least.

I tried not to let this bad news dampen my enjoyment of the small canyon that we had set out to explore.  Just being in such a place – taking in it’s sights, smells, and sounds, is a joy and a privilege that I feel fortunate to have experienced.  And as the sun drew closer to the top of the canyon walls I was able to capture a sunburst through the leaves of a Bigtooth Maple that quivered in a gentle Autumn breeze.

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Hill Country Canyon

As the daylight faded, we bid farewell to Love Creek, for the time being at least.  Our base camp, so to speak, for the trip was the Cool River Cabin, located on the Native American Seed farm near Junction.  Native American Seed is a fantastic company that grows a huge assortment of native plants and offers seeds and root stock for sale.  They rent out the cabin, which is actually a three bedroom house with two porches and a full kitchen!  It is a short walk from the Llano River, and contains scenic views and abundant wildlife.  I highly recommend staying here!

The next morning we set out to the Caverns of Sonora.  It was one of the more extensive cave tours I’ve taken in Texas cave country, and we marveled at the subterranean formations.  After exploring the caves we spent some time at the Eaton Hill Nature Center in Sonora.  We discovered this little gem by chance, and thoroughly enjoyed the exhibits which include several live rattlesnakes.

As the shadows grew longer we found ourselves at South Llano River State Park.  A good portion of the park remained closed due to the unprecedented flooding experienced by the region just a month before our visit.  There was still plenty to see, however.  Not long after entering the park we were greeted by a large Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) foraging in a mowed area adjacent to some dense brush.  It was quite focused on its pursuit of dinner, and barely took a second to lift his head long enough for me to fire off a shot.  Armadillos are one of our more entertaining mammals, often allowing for a close approach due to their generally poor senses.  When they do finally realize that there is a perceived threat too close for comfort they will suddenly stop their activity, and bolt off, bounding erratically toward the safety of denser brush.

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Nine-banded Armadillo

We came upon a group of Woodhouse’s Scrub Jays (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) scouring a juniper thicket as the sun vanished behind the distant hills.  These intelligent, expressive birds are a joy to watch as they examine their surroundings.  They seem to display genuine curiosity and approach problem solving with some semblance of enjoyment.  Until recently these were considered Western Scrub Jays, but were split due to genetic evidence that suggest they, as well as the California Scrub Jay, Island Scrub Jay, and Florida Scrub Jay are distinct species.

There was very little light to work with, and I took the image below at 1600 ISO and 1/200 second.  The resulting image was grainy and softer than I would have liked.  I debated trashing the image, but decided that I liked the texture and colors on the bird, so I tried to clean it up through post processing.  I ended up with an image that i was happy with.  As digital photo processing technology continues to advance, I find myself saving more and more images that I would have otherwise thrown away.

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Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay

That night, I posed the idea of traveling the three hour round trip from our cabin to a Best Buy in San Antonio to buy a new polarizing filter, and Caro agreed.  I am very fortunate to have a wife that encourages my passions so.  We returned “home” that evening around at around 11 o’clock, with a new polarizing filter that I hoped would help my lens bring out the colors of the canyons.

The next day broke to gray skies.  We were up and out early, packing our things and bidding farewell to the Native American Seed Farm.  Our first destination would be Lost Maples State Natural Area.  This iconic park is extremely popular from mid October through November, particularly on the weekends, which just happens to be when we arrived.  We learned, as we watched vehicle after vehicle pour in, that it had been a less than stellar year for the maples in the park, apparently affected by the heavy rains a month prior.  Many of the leaves had simply turned brown and fallen from the trees.  The park was certainly beautiful, as we hiked along droves of other leaf peepers, but it did not provide that spectacular autumn color that I had hoped for.

Lost Maples gets its name for the relictual populations of Bigtooth Maple (Acer grandidentatum) that persist in the area.  Once more widespread throughout the region, as the glaciars retreated and the climate in the region warmed and dried, the maples were pushed to moist canyons along sprinfed streams and rivers.

The State Natural Area is not the only place to protect remnant groves of Bigtooth Maples however.  After spending a couple of hours hiking popular trails, we decided to return to Love Creek.  On the way we explored a few county roads to see what we might see.  The morning was cold, with temperatures never leaving the 40s.  The last thing I expected to find was a snake, however that’s exactly what I expected when we saw a group of Black-crested Titmice going crazy just a few feet off the ground.  They were chattering incessantly, crests raised, hopping from branch to branch staring directly at the ground.  Shaking off the cold I approached, and saw a gray and yellow striped serpent stretched out across the ground.

It was a young Baird’s Rat Snake (Pantherophis bairdi), not something I had expected to find here at the eastern edge of their range on such a cold November day.  They are restricted in range to the Trans-Pecos and western Edward’s Plateau of Texas, and adjacent northeastern Mexico.  They are one of our state’s most beautiful snakes, in my opinion, displaying shades of steely gray, yellow, and orange.  Despite the cold, this individual was feisty, and once disturbed never backed down from his coiled defensive posture.

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Baird’s Rat Snake

After spending some time in the company of the splendid reptile, we continued onto Love Creek  the sheltered canyons here were displaying spectacular color not seen at Lost Maples.  We marveled at the shades of orange and yellow that glowed like flames brightening the otherwise dreary day.

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Bigtooth Maples at Love Creek

My friend David Bezanson of the Nature Conservancy told us where we could find a waterfall that drained the crystal clear springfed water of one of the many canyons that cut into the preserve’s limestone bluffs.  It was like an oasis in otherwise semi-arid country.  Mosses and Maiden-hair Fern clung to the rock, kept perpetually moist by spray from the falling waters.  I could imagine the water at the base of the falls stayed cool, clear, and deep even during the height of summer.

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Each angle of the falls provided some unique perspective.  The contrast of the aquamarine waters, the bright green ferns, and the yellows of overhanging witch hazel and orange of distant maples painted a scene that seemed almost impossibly beautiful.

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Venturing into the narrow canyon that fed the falls, we found a lush forest that seemed out of place in this region that is knocking on the desert’s door.  Towering trees shaded a thick layer of leaf litter that blanketed scattered boulders and smaller rocks.  Beneath this leaf litter we found several Western Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon albagula).  Another relict of cooler time, the central Texas populations of P. albagula are isolated from the the main portion of the species’s range by hundreds of miles, with the nearest known populations occurring in southwest Oklahoma.  Genetic analyses may reveal that this disjunct population is in fact a species unto itself.

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Western Slimy Salamanders

The trees here are remarkable as well, and include several other disjunct, relictual species like American Basswood, Chinkapin Oak, and Witch Hazel.  They join the Bigtooth Maples, Lacey Oak, Texas Red Oak, Texas Mountain Laurel, Texas Redbud, and more to create a diverse, layered, closed-canopy forest.

As we ventured deeper into the canyon we found the stream’s source.  Water was literally pouring out from the base of a massive limestone cliff, nourishing verdant Maiden-hair Fern, and what I imagined to be a profusion of spring wildflowers.  The water here is home to an endemic species of neotonic Eurycea.  It was humbling to see the literal source of so much life.

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Water pours from the base of a limestone cliff, fueling a lush, diverse canyon

Deeper into the preserve we found a wider, drier canyon fed by a different spring.  Here the maples were absent, but Texas Red Oak (Quercus buckleyi) provided a splash of color to the scene.  I was truly blown away by the beauty of this place, an area unlike any other in the world.  I don’t proclaim to know if Heaven exists, but in my book, the Bandera Canyonlands are about as close to Heaven on Earth as one can get.

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Bandera Canyonlands

Chasing the Monsoon

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Davis Mountains Sunrise

It’s hard to resist the prospect of venturing west during the height of summer, when the monsoon rains drench the sky islands of the Trans Pecos, and bringing with them a lush, rich paradise in high elevation forests and canyons.  It has become a bit of an annual tradition for Carolina and I to visit the Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve during their open weekends in July or August.  This year would be all the more special, as we would be joined by our new friends Jim Fowler and Walter Ezell.  I have known Jim for years through Flickr.  Jim is an orchid expert from South Carolina who has authored two books, including Wild Orchids of South Carolina: A Popular Natural History.  Jim also maintains an excellent blog about his and Walter’s botanizing adventures (click here to check it out).  For some time Jim had been commenting to me on how he wanted to see a spectacular orchid that is known in the U.S. only from a few locations in Texas.  This orchid happened to be one of my all-time favorite species, the Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora).

So I told Jim that he should join us on one of our trips to the Davis Mountains, as they are the best place to see this strange, beautiful orchid.  He would get his chance this past July, when he and Walter flew in from South Carolina and met up with Carolina and I.  We caravaned west, passing through the southern extend of the rolling plains and into the Permian Basin, and finally into Limpia Canyon.  That afternoon we planned to meet up with our friend and retired biologist Gary Freeman, who owns several hundred acres of Davis Mountain bliss.

The rains of the monsoons had arrived late this year, and had only recently begun.  The landscape was still dry and brown, exacerbated by a series of intense wildfires that spread through much of the area.  Better late than never, though, and they had arrived a couple of weeks prior to our arrival.  I hoped this would give enough time for the coralroots to emerge.  I would hate for Jim and Walter’s cross-country trip to have been in vain.

On the way to Gary’s home we spotted a large Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) buck grazing just off the road.  It’s coat was still wet from a recent rain shower as it warily eyed us.  It never attempted to flee, however, as we approached to admire and photograph it.  My experience with Pronghorn is that they will allow for a fairly close approach, as long as they can see you.  I like to think that it is because, as the fastest land mammal in North America, they are confident in their ability to outrun me.

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Satisfied with our photos of this peculiar mammal, we continued on to the rugged road that led to Gary’s place.  As we drew nearer we could see that it was raining in the surrounding mountains, and hoped that we could avoid a downpour long enough to find a few orchids.  As we made our way down the wet, rough road to Gary’s, I worried that our timing was off, and the coralroots would not make an appearance.  How wrong I was.  Not long after the road climbed into a broad canyon with Ponderosa Pine, Alligator Juniper, and a variety of oak species, I heard Caro call out “STOP!!”  She had spotted a Giant Coralroot in bloom at the base of a massive boulder.

Jim and Walter excitedly gathered their photography gear and set about photographing the electric pink myco-heterotroph.  It was not in the best location for photography, and it was somewhat entertaining watching them formulate a plan on how to best approach capturing their desired images.  Carolina and I searched the area in the meantime, and found a few dried stalks and unopened buds.  We then continued on until the road became all but impassable, and turned into Gary’s dirt driveway.

Gary’s home is settled in the middle of a rich forest of Ponderosa and Pinyon Pines, Alligator Juniper, Texas Madrone, and a variety of oaks and other hardwoods.  It is transected by numerous washes and drainages that flow like mountain streams in years with ample rainfall.  We were warmly greeted by an enthusiastic Gary.  It is always a joy touring his land with him.  He is extremely knowledgeable, energetic, and full of interesting stories.  He is also always more than willing to share a glass of hard cider or two and plenty of camaraderie following a long hike through his canyons.

It wasn’t long after setting out that we spotted our first Giant Coralroot.  We would end up seeing many, but most were just emerging and in bud or barely open.  Jim was excited to see these and stopped to photograph each one.  While I was happy that we had found some, I really wanted to show them a fully opened flower, so they could come to know the true glory of this spectacular plant.  And then, finally, near a high elevation spring we found some.

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Giant Coralroot

Giant Coralroots are non-photosynthesizing myco-heterotrophs, meaning they do not possess chlorophyll and are uncapable of metabolizing energy from the sun.  Instead they utilize underground rhizomes and roots to obtain their energy and nutrients from the mycorhizzal fungi of tree roots.  An individual plant spends most of its life underground and may only bloom once every few years.  When they do bloom, however, it is a sight to see.  Their bright pink stalks push up through the leaf litter and may bear a dozen or more blooms that open in succession as the stalk grows.

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Giant Coralroot

Satisfied with our orchid hunting trip, we returned to Gary’s house and imbibed in the aforementioned hard cider.  As the sun fell low on the horizon we bid our reluctant good byes and went on our way.  Jim and Walter would stay in Fort Davis while Caro and I camped at Davis Mountain State Park.  Generally we would camp at the Davis Mountain Preserve, which has free camping during open weekends, however the preserve was closed to camping this year due to issues with the wildfires.

Fortunately the preserve would still be open during the day, and the next morning we set out to see what other interesting things we might find.  We made our way to one of my favorite places in the preserve, an area where I have seen many Giant Coralroots in the past, as well as Malaxis macrostachya and other interesting wildflowers.  We did succeed in finding several more Giant Coralroots, but other than that there was not much blooming.

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Giant Coralroot

As I was capturing the image above, the clouds opened up and let a deluge down upon the mountains.  I was reluctant to leave the scene, but finally retreated to my truck where we waited out the storm.  Eventually the rain let up and we continued to explore the area.  We were lucky to find several Desert Saviors (Echeveria strictiflora) in bloom.  This unique succulent is another species that Jim had really hoped to see.  In the U.S. it is only known from a few sites in far West Texas.

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Desert Savior

We then made our way into Tobe Canyon, where I hoped some other interesting plants might be blooming.  On our way up we passed many stately Ponderosa Pines.  In fact, the state champion is in this very canyon.  The textures and colors of the bark and Old Man’s Beard lichen caught my eye, and inspired me to capture the image below, which is a bit more abstract than most of my work.

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Patterns in Ponderosa

We continued up into the canyon, however it was getting late and the preserve would soon be closing for the day.  Many of the species I was hoping to see remained elusive, but we were rewarded with Cliff Fendlerbush blooming in the canyon, dotting the hills with their soft white blooms.

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Cliff Fendlerbush

We descended Tobe Canyon and left the Preserve.  On our way back to Fort Davis we stopped to show Jim and Fowler several interesting places, including nice views of the Davis Mountains, the McDonald Observatory, and high elevation prairies.  Of particular interest to Jim were milkweeds, of which we saw many species.  One of my favorite is the Bract Milkweed (Asclepias brachystephana).

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Bract Milkweed

Jim and Walter would be leaving in the morning, and to thank us for showing them around they invited us to have dinner with them in Fort Davis.  We decided to head back to our campsite to clean up and rest a bit before heading into town to meet up with them again.  Back near camp Orange Fameflowers (Phemeranthus aurantiacus) were beginning to open.

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Orange Fameflower

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Orange Fameflower

We met up with Jim and Walter at the condo they were renting in Fort Davis.  There Walter prepared a delicious meal of pork chops and salad.  After we talked for some time, but eventually we had to bid our farewells and head back to camp.  We were sad that our time with our new friends was ending, but I was happy that I was able to show Jim the Giant Coralroot and a number of other interesting things along the way.

The next morning we woke early and explored the state park and adjacent Fort Davis National Historic Site, which defended the Trans Pecos in the mid to late 1800s.  By early afternoon the clouds began rolling in, and soon the monsoons drenched the earth once more.  After they passed we returned to exploring.  I chased a huge Western Coachwhip to no avail, and stalked Blue Grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) in hopes of capturing a photograph.

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Blue Grosbeak

I also took a moment to photograph the ubiquitous White-winged Doves (Zenaida asiatica), which really are quite striking up close.

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White-winged Dove

As the rain drenched the mountains, Caro and I decided to explore the grasslands around Fort Davis and Marathon.  To me, these special communities are just as interesting and diverse as those in the high country.  We spotted a number of interesting wildflowers in bloom, including the beautiful Devil’s Bouquet (Nyctagina capitata).

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Devil’s Bouquet

To my surprise, we also found several Plains Penstemon (Penstemon ambiguus) in bloom.  I was under the impression that this species bloomed earlier in the year, but perhaps the delayed onset of the monsoon impacted their phenology.  As I photographed them, I noticed a Scott’s Oriole singing from a fence post and a Swainson’s Hawk surveying its domain from the dried stalk of a Spanish Dagger bloom.

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Plains Penstemon

As we made our way across the prairie, I was hoping that I might have the opportunity to photograph some pronghorn in the interesting post-storm light.  I had my chance when we spotted a trio – two does and a young buck – near the road.  They did not immediately flee as I crept from my truck and tried to draw a bit nearer, but all three did perk up and look upon me with vigilant eyes.

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Vigilant Pronghorn

Often referred to as “antelope”, pronghorn only superficially resemble these old world ungulates.  They belong to the monotypic family Antilocapridae, and are actually more closely related to giraffes and okapis than true antelope.

Pronghorn are an iconic species of the American west, and it is always a treat seeing them in these semi-arid grasslands of West Texas.  Though once abundant, their numbers declined dramatically in the Trans-Pecos over the last 30 years.  They remain common in some areas around Marfa, Fort Davis, and Alpine, and their numbers seem to be rebounding following a number of reintroduction with animals from the Texas Panhandle.

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Pronghorn Doe

This buck below seemed indifferent to my presence, until I crouched down to get a low angle shot.  I must have triggered some primal response to concealed predators, because he perked up very quickly and began to snort and stomp his foot in displeasure.  They may be confident in their ability to outrun a predator in the open, but it seems the prospect of one concealed in the brush is another thing altogether.

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Pronghorn Buck

That night Caro and I went to see the Marfa Lights, and had a long debate about their possible source.  On the drive back to our campsite it seemed like every distant light was some mystical floating orb.  We saw a few Western Diamondbacks on the road, but otherwise it was an uneventful drive back.  The next morning we rose early and drove to the Skyline Drive in Davis Mountains State Park, where I captured the first image in this blog post.  Later, as we were breaking camp I spotted a freshly dead Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii) that looked like it had flown into a tree a bit too fast.  I was really hoping to add to my collection of photographs of this species during our trip, but it was beginning to look like it wasn’t meant to be.  We had seen two others on Gary’s land while looking for orchids, but they were flying high in the canopy.

On our way out of Limpia Canyon we stopped to examine some walnut trees, the main food source for adult Wood’s Jewel Scarabs.  After some time we spotted one flying low enough to capture.  Easier said than done.  I ran about making futile grabs at the air hoping to catch one.  Caro took a different approach.  She waited until it landed in a small oak growing from a crevice in some large boulders.  Cautiously she climbed the boulders and snatched the prize.  I took a few photos of this spectacular insect and we sent it on its way.

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Wood’s Jewel Scarab

It was a long drive home to the Pineywoods, but we had plenty of memories to reflect on during our journey.  We thought in breathtaking landscapes, incredible creatures, fleeting wildflowers, and new friends.  Each trip to the Sky Islands of West Texas brings with it some uniquely profound experience, and leaves me feeling refreshed, inspired, and eager to continue my never ending quest for biodiversity.