Chasing the Monsoon

IMG_0598

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.

IMG_9683

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.

IMG_9772

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.

IMG_9759

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.

IMG_9976ab

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.

43246866584_4009e96d2e_o

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.

IMG_0011

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.

IMG_0054A

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).

IMG_0088

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.

IMG_0108

Orange Fameflower

IMG_0135

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.

IMG_0267

Blue Grosbeak

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

IMG_0280a

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).

IMG_0309

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.

IMG_0517

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.

IMG_0465

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.

IMG_0462

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.

IMG_0384

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.

IMG_0810

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.

Reflecting on Summer in the Pineywoods

IMG_2657

S-banded Tiger Beetle

With the arrival of our first “real” cold front of the season, and temperatures in the extended forecast barely creeping out of the 60s, I think it’s safe to say that fall has arrived.  The forests are full of fungi and fall-blooming asters.  And just the other day I found several Marbled Salamander, a true harbinger of fall.

But before I set out to bask in the beauty of Autumn, I find myself thinking back to a summer spent in the forests of my home.  This year’s was a particularly hot, dry summer.  After a few years of relatively mild summers, at least in terms of Texas, this one was intense.  Yet even in the midst of heat waves and drought there are natural treasures to be found by those willing to look.

I found one such treasure on a sweltering day in late June.  On the advice of my friend Joe Liggio, author of Wild Orchids of Texas, I went to check on a local population of Crest Coralroot Orchids (Hexalectris spicata).  This is a wide ranging species, occurring from Arizona to Florida to Virginia.  In Texas they occur in scattered populations throughout the state, with the most robust populations being in the White Rock Escarpment of north-central Texas, the Edward’s Plateau, and the mountains of the Trans Pecos.  In the Pineywoods they are only known from a few localized populations.  Here they are generally found singly, or in small, scattered clumps.  This year however, we found a huge clump of over 30 stems.

The Crested Coralroot is a non-photosynthesizing mycoheterotroph, meaning that it lacks chlorophyll and has no real leaves to speak of.  It lives out its days a little more than an underground rhizome and small roots that penetrate the mycorrhizal fungi of tree roots in order to rob them of a portion of their energy and nutrients.  All that alerts the average forest-goer to their presence is the flesh colored flowering stalk and purple-streaked flowers that emerge all to briefly in the early summer.

IMG_8719WM

Crested Coralroot

Emerging from forest floors rich in decomposing organic material in early June is the Ox Beetle (Strategus aloeus).  These massive coleopterans are among the largest insects in the United States.  The pronotums of males are decorated with three horns that are utilized in combat to win the favor of females.  These massive beetles are familiar visitors to porch and gas station lights on warm, humid, moonless summer nights.

IMG_9046

Male Ox Beetle

Another, much more occasional, visitor to night lights is the assassin bug known as Microtomus purcis.  So named for their tendency to ambush other insects and dispatch them with their long spear-like beak, assassin bugs come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.  Microtomus purcis is one of the largest, and most striking.  When not visiting man-made lights in errors, they spend much of their time hidden beneath the bark of rotting tree trunks.

IMG_8951.jpg

Microtomus purcis

We spent much of July away from the Pineywoods, visiting the sky islands of West Texas and the beaches of the Upper Texas Coast.  I could not resist, however, seeking out the brilliant orange Platanthera orchids that light up the bog like tiny torches.  There are four species in Texas, however this year I would only photograph two of them.  Interestingly, I would find them both on the same day.

In late July we traveled to the Big Thicket, where deep in a mosquito infested baygall I spotted the brilliant inflorescence of the Crested Fringed Orchid (Platanthera cristata).  This is perhaps the second rarest of our Platanthera species, only known from a few sites in the central and southern Pineywoods.  In Texas they seem to prefer the shaded, highly acidic conditions of forested seeps, occurring either on their margins or interiors.  I have also found them at acidic seeps along springfed streams.  They are generally in the company of a variety of ferns, and other forest seep specialists like Nodding Nixie (Apteria aphylla).  This seemed a good year for them.  I often wonder what triggers an orchid bloom, as some years none will bloom, other years only a handful, and that rare year where many will bloom.  Rainfall no doubt plays some important roll, but as to when the rain should fall to trigger the bloom and what other factors may contribute, I am at a loss.

IMG_0878

Crested Fringed Orchid

After leaving the baygall we traveled east to a wetland pine savannah where we found the enigmatic Chapman’s Fringed Orchid (Platanthera chapmanii).  P. chapmanii occurs in scattered populations in Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina.  It is believed by many to have arisen from an ancient hybrid of P. cristata and P. cilliaris, seeming to display characteristics of both.  It can be differentiated from the former by its long beard and reflexed lateral sepals.  It differs from the latter by its hooked columns.  In Texas P. chapmanii is known from a few remnant wetland pine savannahs in the Big Thicket.

IMG_0968

Chapman’s Fringed Orchid

IMG_0964

Chapman’s Fringed Orchid in a wetland pine savannah

Growing alongisde the Chapman’s Orchids were a variety of carnivorous plants, including the conspicuous Pale Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia alata).  The leaves of these carnivores, known as pitchers, are hollow and form long tubes with pools of digestive enzymes at their base.  Unsuspecting insects that enter the pitchers may become trapped in the enzyme soup, where they are slowly digested, nourishing the plants.

IMG_1010

Pitcher Plants in Love

In early August Caro and I found ourselves in pursuit of another orange beauty, the Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii).  Uncommon in Texas, the Carolina Lily grows in rich, mature forests, generally on hardwood slopes, though it may occur on rocky slopes dominated by Longleaf Pine.  We actually spotted our first lily of the season growing along a county road in a remnant patch of forest surrounded by pine plantations.

IMG_0899

Carolina Lily

A few days later we went to visit a population that Caro had spotted last year long after antithesis.  This year we found them in full bloom, and even spotted one plant that had three flowers, something I had never seen before.

IMG_1113

Carolina Lily

Carolina maintains our garden, which is full of a variety of native plant species.  A benefit to a diversity of native plants in our yard is that we are able to attract a variety of native pollinators.  And with the pollinators come the predators.  In essence we get to observe the food chain in action every day.  One of my favorite back yard predators is the Widow Skimmer, which stalks the garden and occasionally pauses for a brief photo shoot.

IMG_1234

Widow Skimmer

One of my favorite summer past-times is wandering along the numerous clear, cold, springfed streams that transect portions of the Pineywoods.  There is so much to see beneath the water, along the banks, and in the surrounding forests.  It was on the banks of one such stream that I spotted these striking red fungi.

IMG_1249

Fungi

Late summer brings with it a peak in tiger beetle activity.  Undisturbed beaches along streams and rivers may literally be swarming with a variety of species, voraciously chasing down any prey item unfortunate enough to get in their path.  One species, the S-banded Tiger beetle (Cicindelidia trifasciata) was historically considered a species of the coast, however in recent years it has been found along waterways hundreds of miles inland.  In the Pineywoods it is now quite common in many areas.

IMG_2613

S-banded Tiger Beetle

IMG_2585

S-banded Tiger Beetle

The Bronzed Tiger Beetle (Cicindela repanda) is a wide-ranging, somewhat variable species.  Their elytra may appear dark brown, coppery, or even golden under the right light conditions.  They are commonly encountered on sandy stream banks and sandbars of streams and rivers.

IMG_2945

Perhaps the most commonly encountered Tiger Beetle in the Pineywoods is the Ocellated Tiger Beetle (Cicindelidia ocellata).  Unlike most species of the Pineywoods, which are characteristically eastern and at the western edge of their range, the Ocellated Tiger Beetle is primarily a species of the southwest and reaches the eastern limit of its range here.

IMG_3250

Ocellated Tiger Beetle

A visit to my good friend James Childress‘s farm is always good for turning up a few invertebrates.  The plants and woodpiles along his cabin harbor rich arachnid diversity, and we are always treated to a wealth of spider sightings.  Perhaps the most entertaining of all of the farm’s eight-legged denizens is the Bold Jumping Spider (Phiddipus audax).

IMG_3198

Bold Jumping Spider

Under a chair on James’s patio we found this large female Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans).  Perhaps the most famous/infamous spider in the country, the Black Widow has a reputation of being dangerous and ruthless due to its potent venom and tendency to cannibalize males seeking mating opportunities.  In reality, they are docile, gentle creatures disinclined to bite.

IMG_3105

Black Widow

As August turned to September, my friend Scott Wahlberg spotted something truly remarkable.  Deep in a mature hardwood stream bottom he caught a glimpse of a massive Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) that we estimated to be pushing five feet in length and as thick as my upper arm.  Finding this snake was a reminder that all manner of fantastic creatures are hidden deep in the forest, many of which will never be seen by visitors to their woodland realm. We were fortunate, however, to see one of these elusive forest spirits.  In a time and place when so many seem determined to wipe these beautiful animals out based on unfounded fears and ignorance, it is nothing short of incredible that this snake would live long enough to attain such an impressive size. Spending a moment with this gentle giant truly was a gift from the forest.

IMG_3045

Canebrake Rattlesnake

Back at James’s farm the hummingbirds had arrived in force.  South-bound Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) begin arriving in the Pineywoods in late summer.  Dozens of these tiny aerial acrobats were fighting for position among James’s feeders, eager to refuel and prepare for the continued journey south.

IMG_3320

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Many shorebirds also pass through the Pineywoods in East Texas as they migrate south.  In early September while laying flat on a river sandbar photographing tiger beetles I caught a blur of motion our of the corner of my eye. Slowly I turned my head to focus on this new distraction, and saw that it was a Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularis) darting back and forth in pursuit of invertebrate prey. Though the bird was only about 25 feet away, it was still too far for my macro to reach. Slowly I crept backwards, and then made my way to my truck to seek out my telephoto lens. I could only hope that the tiny hunter would stick around. As I retreated I watched the shorebird make several mad dashes in the area I had just left, undoubtedly snatching up some of the tiger beetles I had just been observing.

I made it to the truck and equipped my bird lens. I then cautiously made my way back to the sandbar. At first I couldn’t see the sandpiper, but after some time it became visible behind a small rise in the sand, tail a-bobbing. I got into the water and laid flat, trying to conceal as much as my form as possible. I slowly moved toward my quarry, and found it to be surprisingly tolerant. Most shorebirds are in their basic, or non-breeding plumage this time of year. In the Spotted Sandpiper, I find this look to be just as striking as its breeding plumage, particularly the fine details on the wing coverts.

I watched the sandpiper through my lens as it moved up and down the edge of the sandbar, stalking and pouncing on prey, and flipping leaves and other bits of cover to see what tasty morsels might lie beneath. After it had scoured most of the sandbar’s perimeter it took off upriver, flying southward with its characteristic erratic wingbeats. I was left with a few images and a fine memory of an unexpected encounter of the best kind.

IMG_3883

Spotted Sandpiper on the prowl

IMG_3872

Spotted Sandpiper

IMG_3868

Spotted Sandpiper

I can’t say that I’ll miss the summer heat, but I will miss many of the familiar species that vanish for the year as summer turns to autumn.  I can’t be too sad, however, as each season in the Pineywoods has a unique cast of characters, and each year I look forward to seeing familiar faces and those that I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting in these wonderful, diverse forests.

Sky Island

Target Species:

Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora)

Mexican Catchfly (Silene laciniata)

Canyon Tree Frog (Hyla arenicolor)

Glorious Scarab (Chrysina gloriosa)

IMG_2995

Glorious Scarab

There are those profound moments in life that help shape who we are.  Experiences that put things into perspective, and fill us with a sense of purpose and being.  Moments that bring clarity to an otherwise murky sea of questions, concerns, and uncertainty.  For me most of these moments occur when I’m in the natural world – in places where the advance of civilization and the concrete world is less evident.  These wild places are my “church”, for it is here that I seek the direction and advice that guides me, and puts me on my path.  Make no mistake, I do not hold any misconceptions that Mother Nature reciprocates my feelings toward her, but rather I take comfort in my insignificance in the grand scheme of the natural cycle.  In these moments I know that my life will be fulfilled, for I could never hope to run out of new natural wonders to discover.

One such moment occurred recently in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, when Carolina and I stood high in a narrow canyon overlooking the rain-drenched valley below.  We were soaked from head to toe, yet our spirits were not dampened as we pondered the denizens of the forests and meadows that lay below us.  On the walk up we had passed groves of massive Ponderosa Pines (Pinus ponderosa), one of the many Rocky Mountain relicts that persist in these sky islands.  Among these pines was the largest individual recorded in the state of Texas.

IMG_2483

High Elevation Valley with Ponderosa Pine, Texas Madrone, and a variety of oaks

Rain in West Texas is a beautiful thing.  You can literally see the world come to life as it rains.  You can smell it, hear it, feel it.  It’s a difficult sensation to describe.  Though in these sky islands, rain is not as scarce as one might think.  Sky islands are unique habitats that occur in isolated mountain ranges in the desert southwest.  Here warm air cools as it rises up the slopes and moisture accumulates.  This combines with annual monsoons that typically begin in July and last into September, soaking the mountains with nearly daily afternoon thunderstorms.  The result is annual levels of rainfall that may be 4 times greater or more than the surrounding desert.  Temperatures are significantly cooler as well.  These conditions result in the presence of several species typical of the Rocky Mountains as well as species of the desert southwest.  Couple this with the fact that West Texas and northern Mexico is a a significant center of endemism, and the importance of the Davis Mountains for biodiversity becomes clear.

We were exploring the Davis Mountains Preserve, owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy in Texas.  This 33,000 acre preserve protects the highest and most spectacular portion of the Davis Mountains.  It joins approximately 70,000 acres of additional land protected through acquisition and private landowner conservation partnerships.  The result is the protection of over 100,000 acres of sky island habitat that is critical for a number of rare and declining species and natural communities.  Here we observed an array of fascinating plant and animal species typical of these sky islands.

IMG_2252

A rain-drenched montane woodland with an overstory of large Ponderosa Pines and an understory of oaks and Texas Madrone

Topping out at over 8,000 feet, the Davis Mountains are the tallest, and largest mountain range confined entirely to the Lonestar State.  Though the Guadalupe Mountains are indeed taller and more extensive, we share them with New Mexico.  The Davis Mountains were the last refuge for Mexican Gray Wolves and Grizzly Bears in Texas.  Those these apex predators are gone, the Mountain Lion still roams here, and Black Bears are making a comeback.  Today, the Davis Mountains remain one of the final strongholds in Texas for a variety of plant and animal species.  Perhaps the most spectacular of which is the Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora).

The rain was just beginning to let up when Carolina spotted them.  A clump of pink beacons shining against the wet rocks and grasses.  She had found the Giant Coralroot.  It is hard for me to describe the sense of wonder and excitement that overcomes me while I observe such an elusive treasure.  The clump of orchids had at least 10 stems with dozens of flowers in various stages of development, from bud to senescent blooms.  Over the next two days we would end up observing four clumps and a total of approximately 15 plants.

IMG_2513

Giant Coralroot

Previously the Giant Coralroot was thought to occur in the United States only in the moist pine-oak-juniper canyons of the Davis Mountains.  Though it remains restricted to Texas, it has since been discovered in the Chisos Mountains within Big Bend National Park, the White Rock Escarpment of north-central Texas, and oak-juniper woodlands of the Edward’s Plateau.  They seem to be exceedingly rare in these areas, however, and their real stronghold in the U.S. remains the Davis Mountains, where they are relatively common in high elevation forests dominated by Alligator Juniper, Pinyon and Ponderosa Pines, Texas Madrone and a variety of oaks.

IMG_2275

Giant Coralroot

Giant Coralroots are myco-heterotrophs, obtaining energy and nutrients from the mycorrhizal fungi of tree roots.  Unlike most plants they do not photosynthesize, and therefore do not require chlorophyll-containing leaves.  They spend most of their lives as nothing more than an underground rhizome and roots, but following the onset of the summer rains, they begin to send up stalks that may bare a dozen or more bright pink blooms.  They seem to bloom sporadically from late June to mid September, likely peaking in mid to late July in most years.

IMG_2183

Giant Coralroot

These spectacular orchids are easiest to find growing beneath trees and at the base of rocks where moisture and organic material accumulate, providing ideal conditions for both the plants and the fungi they depend on.  Though there is a lot of respectable competition, the combination of their beautiful blooms, interesting life history, and the spectacular places that they inhabit make this my favorite species of orchid.

IMG_2581

Giant Coralroot

IMG_1788

Giant Coralroot

Growing near the orchids was Mexican Catchfly (Silene laciniata).  This striking wildflower occurs in the mountains of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, barely entering Texas in the mountains of the Trans-Pecos.  It’s name comes from its sticky stem, which can trap insects in order to protect the plant from predation.

IMG_1708

Mexican Catchfly

A number of milkweed species occur in the West Texas sky islands.  We observed Asclepias latifolia and Asclepias brachystephana in the lower elevation grasslands.  Higher up we came across Asclepias texanaAsclepias subverticillata, and Asclepias engelmanniana in bud.  The true star of the high elevation milkweeds was the Nodding Milkweed (Asclepias glaucescens).  We found one robust flowering plant growing alongside a rocky stream in a canyon shaded by Alligator Juniper and Pinyon Pine.

This large, showy milkweed is primarily a species of the mountains of Mexico.  It barely enters the United States in the sky islands of West Texas, and southern Arizona and New Mexico.  In Texas they are restricted to the Davis, Chisos, and Guadalupe Mountains.

IMG_1789

Nodding Milkweed

Like Asclepias glaucescens, the U.S. distribution of Threadleaf Phlox (Phlox mesoleuca) is largely restricted to the sky islands of the southwest.

IMG_1868

Threadleaf Phlox

In addition to species that are primarily Mexican in their distribution, the Davis Mountains provides refuge for a variety of Rocky Mountain relicts.  Purple Geranium (Geranium caespitosum), for example, occurs primarily in Ponderosa Pine savannahs and other coniferous woodlands of the Rockies from Wyoming to northern Mexico.

IMG_1995

Purple Geranium

IMG_2005

Purple Geranium

The Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) has an even broader distribution, occuring in the formerly glaciated northern United States and Canada down through the Rocky Mountains, and into the sky islands of the southwestern United States and Canada.  It is common in the high elevations of the Davis Mountains and puts on a spectacular show during the summer monsoon.

IMG_2020

Harebell

One of the Davis Mountains most spectacular botanical residents is the Desert Savior (Echeveria strictiflora).  This succulent member of the stonecrop family (Crassulaceae) is primarily found on rocky canyon walls and slopes of central and northern Mexico.  In the United States it is known only from Jeff Davis, Brewster, and Presidio Counties in far West Texas.

IMG_2058

Desert Savior

We found several growing from rock crevices and the bases of boulders at elevations above 6000 feet.  Here they were able to take advantage of minute amounts of soil and moisture that collect over time.  In the Davis Mountains they seem to be found primarily in exposed rock outcrops and canyon walls adjacent to rocky streams.

IMG_2125

Desert Savior

The Desert Savior is a truly spectacular plant.  It’s stalk of waxy, fiery flowers reaches up to a foot and a half over it’s thick, grayish green succulent leaves.  Each curled stalk may bare 2 dozen or more flowers that gradually open, unfurling the stalk as they develop and fade.  Hummingbirds are likely an important pollinator of these succulents, as evidenced by their bright red coloration, somewhat tubular flowers, and the fact that their peak blooming seems to coincide with the start of hummingbird migration of late summer.

IMG_2227

Desert Savior

IMG_2721

Desert Savior

The mountains of Trans-Pecos Texas boast more species of Hexalectris orchids than anywhere else in the country.  For some time I had communicated with North Texas botanist Matt White on our shared interests.  As luck would have it, while returning to the Davis Mountains Preserve visitor center, our friend, The Nature Conservancy volunteer, and local landowner Gary was talking to a man that he introduced as Matt White.  This chance encounter led to Matt guiding us to a population of Texas Coralroots (Hexalectris warnockii) that he had stumbled across on a remote rocky ridge a few hundred meters from the preserve’s main road.  He made a comment that caught my attention – that these plants and their ancestors have likely been at this spot for hundreds of years.  And in all likelihood we were the first humans to ever see them, and the last that ever will.  I smiled at the prospect, and hoped it to be true.

IMG_2333

Texas Coralroot

Following a long day of exploring the Davis Mountains Preserve, we decided to spend the evening resting our legs by taking a leisurely drive along the scenic loop that surrounds the range.  I use the term resting loosely, for it seemed like every few hundred feet we were stopping to explore some new biological or geological wonder.  After a while we passed below Sawtooth Mountain.  The mountain is a prominent landmark in the area, its peak reaching nearly 7,700 feet above sea level, and rising nearly 1500 feet above the surrounding slopes.

Like the Davis Mountains Preserve, Sawtooth Mountain and its surrounding habitat is protected by the Nature Conservancy.  However the mechanisms that protect the two are quite different.  While the Davis Mountains Preserve is owned outright by the conservancy, Sawtooth Mountain remains private, and instead is protected through a conservation easement.  Conservation Easements are legally binding documents that place restrictions on land use in order to achieve certain conservation objectives.  Sawtooth is another piece of the puzzle that has led to the protection of over 100,000 acres of these sky islands.

IMG_2396

Grassland grades into pinyon-juniper-oak woodlands on the slopes of Sawtooth Mountain

IMG_2407

Sawtooth Mountain looms over an interest rock outcrop

In addition to their unique flora, the Davis Mountains supports an equally interesting faunal community, melding species of the mountainous west, the desert southwest, and those primarily Mexican in their distribution.  In a single day one can hear the call of the Stellar’s Jay alongside that of the Cactus Wren and Painted Redstart.  Rare vagrant bird species turn up here, and reptiles like the Greater Short-horned Lizard thrive in one of the few areas of suitable habitat in the state.

The monsoon rains bring with them an increase in amphibian activity.  We observed many Red-spotted Toads (Anaxyrus punctatus) during our visit.  These large, handsome amphibians occur in a variety of habitats throughout most of the southwest, down into central Mexico.

IMG_2450

Red-spotted Toad

One of the most memorable experiences of any trip to the Davis Mountains is hunting for Canyon Tree Frogs (Hyla arenicolor) as they sit perfectly camouflaged among boulders adjacent to pools in high elevation canyon drainages.  In Texas the Canyon Tree Frog is restricted to a handful of mountain ranges of the Trans-Pecos.  Though most are brown to gray with dark brown blotches, occasionally a striking green or green-spotted individual turns up.  Carolina spotted one such animal camouflaged among the lichen on a large boulder.

IMG_2697

Canyon Tree Frog

As a child, I remember being captivated with the insect community in West Texas.  My parents indulged me as I ran about the desert with a net in hand, eagerly trying to capture and identify the staggering array of flying and crawling six-legged wonders that call the Trans-Pecos home.  There are few places in the country that provide as wonderful an entomological playground as West Texas.

One of the most conspicuous members of the insect community is the Arizona Sister (Adelpha eulalia), a member of the brush-footed butterfly family (Nymphalidae).  On warm, sunny days that can be seen dancing about the canyon floor and rocky outcrops seeking moisture and areas of mineral deposits.  At some such deposits its not uncommon to see dozens of different species sharing the same space in search of essential nutrients that their nectarivorous diet does not provide.

IMG_2768

Arizona Sister

The Orthopterans (grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets) of the Trans-Pecos range from species of muted camouflage to those with fitting, gaudy names like the Rainbow Grasshopper.  Carolina spotted this blue-winged grasshopper (Trimerotropis sp.) resting among the pebbles in a mountain wash.  Though they initially appear to be adorned in dull, muted tones, when they jump they reveal their translucent blue hind wings and cobalt blue markings on the inside of their hindlegs.

IMG_2892

Blue-winged Grasshopper

It’s always a treat observing tiger beetles.  Ruthless predators, tiger beetles are lightning fast and armed with deadly mandibles.  We observed these Western Red-bellied Tiger Beetles (Cicindelidia sedecimpunctata) scurrying about rocks adjacent to a mountain stream.  This species, like so many others in the area, barely enters the U.S. in extreme western Texas and southern New Mexico and Arizona.

IMG_1746

Western Red-bellied Tiger Beetle

The Western Rhinoceros Beetle (Xyloryctes thestalus) is one of the largest, most abundant beetles of the Davis Mountains.  Following the onset of the monsoon they emerge in droves and seek out ash trees (Fraxinus spp.), their primary food source.

IMG_3157

Western Rhinoceros Beetle

The real gems of the sky islands, however, are the beetles of the genus Chrysina.  There are five species in the United States, two of which occur in Texas.  In what I suspect is a common occurrence among lifelong naturalists, I have certain species that I always admired and dreamed of one day seeing while pouring endlessly through field guides and other nature books as a kid.  One of these species was the Glorious Scarab (Chrysina gloriosa).  It is a species that looks more at home in the tropics, in places well out of reach.

I had looked for this species on many previous trips to the Davis and Chisos Mountains, and had always left having only caught glimpses of elytra discarded by some predator, or some smashed semblance of what once was a Glorious Scarab on busy roads and trails.  But on this trip, much to my delight, a lifelong dream was realized when I saw a live Chrysina gloriosa crawling on the ground on our final evening in the mountains.  I must have made some strange gleeful sound as I reached down to pick it up.  I examined it closely, taking delight in this serendipitous encounter.

IMG_3089

Glorious Scarab

Chrysina gloriosa is highly sought after by collectors, and it is easy to see why.  Fortunately they remain common in sky islands from Arizona to West Texas.  The beetle’s brilliant greens were impossible to capture on “film”, but that didn’t stop me from trying.  The elytra (hardened outer wings) of Chrysina gloriosa are decorated with metallic silver streaks that brilliant reflect the light.  It is believed that the bright coloration and streaked pattern help break out the outline of the Glorious Scarab when it feeds on the juniper leaves that it depends on, helping to camouflage it from would-be predators.  In all we would find five individuals that night and the following morning.  It truly was the perfect ending to a spectacular trip that was rich in biodiversity.

IMG_2982

Glorious Scarab

The Davis Mountains truly are one of Texas’s natural treasures.  We can take comfort knowing that the biodiversity, scenery, and cultural history will be protected for generations to come thanks to the conservation efforts of the Nature Conservancy, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and landowners with a passion for the area.  I hope to return many times in the future, in an endless attempt to document but a mere fraction of the beautiful and interesting plants and animals that call this sky island home.

Coralroots of the White Rock Escarpment

Targets Species: Texas Coralroot (Hexalectris warnockii) and Glass Mountain Coralroot (Hexalectris nitida)

IMG_1545

Hexalectris warnockii

Texas boasts more species of the genus Hexalectris than any other state.  Here 5 of the world’s 8 species can be found (these numbers change to 6 and 9, depending on if you believe that Hexalectris spicata var. arizonica deserves species status).  Hexalectris is a genus of myco-heterotrophic orchids that are generally found in areas with abundant shade and thick, rich leaf litter.  In Texas there are three Hexalectris hotspots.  One is the  mountains of far West Texas, another the shaded canyons and oak/juniper woodlands of the Edward’s Plateau, and the last is the White Rock Escarpment of north-central Texas.  The latter is where I sought my targets.

The diversity of Hexalectris in the White Rock Escarpment was only recently discovered, when in the late 1980’s Hexalectris warnockii was discovered at an area nature preserve.  Since that time H. nitida, and H. spicata var. arizonica have also been found.  In 2005, Hexalectris grandiflora was discovered here as well, marking the first documented occurrence in the United States outside of the Davis and Chisos Mountains of West Texas.  It has since been discovered at a few sights in the Edward’s Plateau.

What makes the White Rock Escarpment so attractive to these orchids are the deposits of Austin Chalk.  This limestone-rich formation created topography and harbors species of oak and juniper that are more typical of West and Central Texas.  It is in the leaf litter under the shade of these species that the orchids grow.  The range of these Hexalectris orchids was probably once continuous and more expansive, but climate change over several millennia has pushed them into progressively smaller patches of suitable habitat, where they now exist as relicts of a once broader population.

IMG_1351

Hexalectris warnockii

Hexalectris warnockii is one of Texas’s showiest orchids.  It is named for Dr. Barton Warnock, a pioneer of Texas botany.  He is best known for exploring the flora of the Trans-Pecos, where he discovered many  new species and many other species that had never been documented in the United States.  Interestingly enough, while Warnock did discover the next species to be highlighted, Hexalectris nitida, he did not discover H. warnockii, which was named in his honor.  For more information on this influential figure in Texas natural history, click here.

I had previously observed Hexalectris warnockii growing at the base of some boulders deep in a secluded canyon in the Chisos Mountains.  It was truly fascinating to find the same species growing so far apart in conditions that were at the same time different, yet similar.  Though H. warnockii has been discovered at several locations since it was initially discovered in the mountains of West Texas, it remains rare and elusive in the state.

IMG_1302

Hexalectris warnockii

There is some mystery as to what triggers Hexalectris orchids to bloom.  The plants spend most of their life as little more than a rhizome and set of roots, and each individual may only bloom a couple of times each decade.  While rainfall is often cited as a trigger for blooming in West Texas, this doesn’t necessarily hold true elsewhere.  In the White Rock Escarpment, for example, some years may provide an excellent bloom for one species, and a sparse bloom for others.  While H. warnockii seemed to be having a banner year this year, our guide, Gary Spicer, informed us that H. nitida seemed to be showing low numbers.

Fortunately we did find a few.  Most of the H. nitida in the Edward’s Plateau and White Rock Escarpment are cleistogamous, meaning that the flowers self-pollinate and thus never open.  Gary, who frequents the area, did say that each year he sees a few plants with an open flower or two, but unfortunately we were unable to find any during out visit.

As I mentioned before, H. nitida was discovered by Barton Warnock.  He found it while working on his PhD dissertation on the vegetation of the Glass Mountains.  H. nitida is also commonly known as the Shining Coralroot due to the reflective sheen it gives off when hit by a stray beam of sun penetrating the canopy.

IMG_1507

Hexalectris nitida

Hexalectris has become one of my favorite plant genera.  They are both challenging to find and breathtakingly beautiful, and I look forward to continuing to explore  Hexalectris habitat in all three of our state’s hot spots.

In the Stars

Target Species: Starry Campion (Silene stellata)

IMG_0580

Starry Campion

Sometimes good things happen when you least expect it.  Such was the case when I checked the Starry Campion (Silene stellata) off my 2017 biodiversity list.  The botanist for the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas informed me of a new population of the Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris spicata) in Houston County.  While I had photographed this orchid before, it is so spectacular that I could’t resist checking out this newly discovered population.  I received a vague set of directions to the site, but thought that I had it figured out, so I set out to find it.

It turns out that I had gone to the wrong spot.  I arrived to where I thought the orchids would be and found nothing.  What I did find, however was what I believe is the first vouchered population of Silene stellata in Houston County.  I was not expecting to see it here, and a subsequent search of published range maps and herbaria did not turn up any records for Houston County, so I believe this is the first.

IMG_0574

Starry Campion

Starry Campion occurs in scattered populations throughout most of the eastern United States.  It prefers rich mesic to dry-mesic slopes, where it typically grows in the shade of hardwoods.  In Texas it tends to prefer calcareous sites.  It is primarily pollinated by moths, and it’s large, fluffy-looking blooms open in the evening and remain open throughout the night.  They begin to close the following morning.  I found several plants scattered about the lower reaches of a rich mesic slope.

IMG_0566

Starry Campion

It was hard to be disappointed about not finding the coralroots when the “wrong” path led me to one of my target species – one that I have never seen in bloom.  However, after some clarification on the directions I was able to make it to the Crested Coralroots after all.  These are, in my opinion, one of the most striking orchids in the country.  They occur in scattered populations in wooded areas throughout much of Texas.  It seems that a rich, undisturbed layer of leaf-litter is a prerequisite.  They are mycoheterotrophic, obtaining nutrients and energy from fungus living within the soil.  I spent the evening photographing them, and left feeling content in having found both the expected and unexpected.

IMG_0748

Crested Coralroots

IMG_0787

Crested Coralroot

IMG_0730

Crested Coralroots.  Though they are brightly colored when views up close, they can be very difficult to spot from a distance.

Among the Leaf Litter

Target Species: Spring Coralroot Orchid (Corallorhiza wisteriana)

img_6516

Spring Coralroot

I’ve always had a thing for myco-heterotrophs.  Those rebels of the plant world that decide that they don’t need the one thing that students of biology most associate with plants: chlorophyll.  Chlorophyll is that green pigment that we all learn about in biology class.  It gives leaves their characteristic green color and it is instrumental in the process of photosynthesis, where plants utilize sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to create glucose, which provides energy for the plant.  Less commonly taught is the story of the myco-heterotroph: a plant that does not undergo photosynthesis, and as such does not contain chlorophyll.

img_6506

Spring Coralroot

How then does the myco-heterotroph obtain its energy?  It is, in fact a parasite, obtaining its food and nutrients from the mycorrhizal fungi of plant roots.  These fungi form complex relationships with plants in which they bolster the plants ability to absorb water and nutrients, and in turn receive glucose and other carbohydrates from the plant.  Many orchids are myco-heterotrophs, most notably in our area are those of the genera Corallorhiza and Hexalectris.  The Spring Coralroot (Corallorhiza wisteriana) is one such example.  Ironically, the orchids themselves depend on mycorrhizal fungi for their own survival.

img_6601

Spring Coralroot

The Spring Coralroot is the most widespread member of the genus Corallorhiza.  It occurs throughout most of the United States and parts of Mexico.  Here it occurs in a variety of habitats with a common factor: dense, undisturbed leaf litter that is conducive to the formation of large populations of mycorrhizal fungi.  Coralroots and other similar orchids were long described as saprophytic, obtaining their nutrients from decaying organic matter, however recent studies have identified their parasitic nature.  Corallorhiza wisteriana is likely one of the more common orchids in East Texas, however I had never been fortunate enough to see one in bloom, despite having spent considerable time in seemingly suitable habitat.  It is entirely possible that I have walked passed many without knowing.  These diminutive orchids are nearly impossible to see against the leaf litter.  Fortunately, I had some help in checking this species off my 2017 list.  My botanist friend Sonnia Hill found a large population on her property a few years ago.  She read about my list and was kind enough to offer her assistance.  After periodically checking on the progress of the orchids, we arranged a date for Carolina and I to visit and attempt to capture their beauty on film – or more appropriately compact flash card.

img_6591

Spring Coralroot

Sonnia’s property is in a unique area, combining elements of three Texas ecoregions: the Pineywoods, Post Oak Savannah, and Blackland Prairie.  Her ranch is home to a rich and interesting flora beyond the lovely coralroots.  Though it was still early for most things to be blooming, she did point out several Carolina Violets (Viola villosa) near the orchids.  I had yet to photograph this species and delighted in the opportunity.

img_6620

Corolina Violet

En route between our house and Sonnia’s property we crossed a high ridge just north of Jacksonville.  This ridge rises a few hundred feet from the valley below.  The top of this ridge provides what is perhaps the most expansive view of East Texas.  Along the ridge the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) was in full, spectacular bloom.  I couldn’t resist stopping to capture its brilliance against the blue afternoon sky.

IMG_6684.jpg

Eastern Redbud

Though not rich in number of species, this trip was rich in the quality of those species observed, scenery, and camaraderie between friends with shared interests.  As we journeyed home I hoped that the splashes of pink from the redbuds lining the roadway were a sign of good things to come.