We’re in the heat of winter here in the Pineywoods, and I’ve got a backlog of posts to catch up on. Soapwort Gentian ended up being the last species checked off my list in 2017. Though I would not see any more of my “target species”, my November and December were still filled with incredible biodiversity and natural beauty.
In mid November Carolina and I met up with our friend Skip Pudney in the Big Thicket. We were hoping to photograph the rare orchid Spiranthes longilabris in bloom. While we did find a single plant, the true show was put on by the invertebrates – pollinators taking advantage in a flush in late season flowers. We noticed several Yellowjacket Hover Flies (Milesia virginiensis), Ornate Bell Moths (Utetheisa ornatrix), Common Buckeyes (Junonia coenia), Blister Beetles (Epicauta sp.) and more.
By mid-November the leaves had begun to change. This was a good year for fall color in East Texas. The leaves of deciduous trees begun to change color in the falls when the days are sunny and the evenings are crisp. These cues, along with the shortening photoperiod trigger a chemical reaction within the leaves. Production of chlorophyll halts, and slowly this green pigment begins to break down and is rendered clear. As the green fades, other colors such as carotenoids and anthocyanins, which have been active in the leaves all along, now become dominant, and the forest turns from green to brilliant hues of yellow, orange, and red.
In late November I spent a foggy morning photographing the maples, oaks, hickories, and elms of a rich hardwood stream bottom.
I then went on to a steep bluff over the upper reaches of the Neches River, where the Red Maples lived up to their name.
While I find broad views of a fall forest to be especially beautiful, the subtle beauty of fall can be observed up close, like in the leaves of poison ivy, as seen below…
…and in the layers of Florida Maple leaves on branches draped around the trunks of pine trees.
In early December much of East Texas was hit with an uncharacteristic snow storm. In over 20 years in the region, I have only seen snow a handful of times, and of those only a fraction actually stuck. This was one of the finest in recent memories. In East Texas fall color lingers well into December, and the result was what looked to be a battle between fire and ice.
Deeper in the forest, the landscape appeared a winter wonderland.
Having grown up in Chicago, I experienced harsh, snow-filled winters in my childhood. It was good to spend some time walking and playing in the snow again – like reuniting with an old friend. I think that for Caro it was even more special, as she seldom saw snow in her native province of Entre Rios, Argentina.
Later in December we visited a longleaf pine savannah shortly after a prescribed fire. Here we saw fresh cones on the torched leaf litter…
…and a freshly germinated seedling rising from the ashes. With luck, this tiny seedling will grow into a stately tree in this longleaf pine savannah. Perhaps it will one day harbor the cavity of a Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and Bachman’s Sparrows and Brown-headed Nuthatches will sing from its boughs while Louisiana Pine Snakes and Wild Turkey patrol among its roots.
Within the longleaf pine savannah we found Riddell’s Spike-Moss (Selaginella corallina) growing in the crevices of exposed boulders of the Catahoula Formation. S. corallina is a primitive vascular plant that is typically included with the “fern-allies”, and despite its name is more closely related to ferns than mosses. It has an interesting disjunct range, with one population in central and east Texas, northwestern Louisiana, western Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma, and another in Alabama and Georgia. I seldom encounter them in East Texas. When I do, it is generally growing off the faces of sandstone outcrops or in areas of deep sand.
After exploring the savannah we ventured to the bluffs along the Neches River. Here we found patches of fall color lingering in the American Beech trees on the bluffs’ slopes. American Beech is one of the last trees to turn in the fall, and they brighten the otherwise gray December forest. In the photo below the Neches River is visible in the distance.
In late December our friend Scott Wahlberg, Carolina, and I spent the day scouting salamander locations for the spring. Though the conditions for finding a salamander weren’t ideal, we did turn up a single, apparently gravid, female Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum).
Toward the end of December James and I spent some time looking for birds in a local park. There I was able to capture an image of a Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) in the dense underbrush along the margins of a pond using James’s new 600mm lens (more on that in the future). These striking sparrows are “skulkers” – small birds that prefer dense cover. I was lucky to get a shot of one as it momentarily paused in its dense domain of tangles.
I was also able to photograph a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) there. The birds that winter in East Texas are members of the “myrtle” race, so named because they are one of the few birds that will regularly eat wax-myrtle berries.
On December 30, Carolina and I found a Broad-banded Water Snake (Nerodia fasciata confluens) while exploring the bottomlands off the Neches River. The temperatures hovered just above freezing, and the snake could barely move, yet it was alive and well. After taking a few photos we left it to weather the cold, as it and its kind have done for countless generations.