An Encounter with a Vanishing Prairie Icon

Target Species: Crawfish Frog (Rana areolata)

4N1A0838a

Crawfish Frog

When General Manuel de Mier y Teran crossed the Pineywoods, East Texas was a patchwork of habitats.  Pine-dominated forests were largely restricted to upland ridges, while gentle slopes and stream floodplains were dominated by hardwoods.  And situated within this matrix of woodlands, where soil conditions and disturbance regimes were just right, existed prairie patches that supported plants and animals typical of the great tallgrass prairies that extended from the Texas coasts into southern Canada.

Less than hundred years after Teran’s famous expedition, the Pineywoods would be forever changed – scarred by the saw, and later the steam engine and the dozer.  Virtually all of the magnificent virgin forests were cut.  Pockets of prairie were converted to pasture and agriculture, or developed for human habitation.  As their habitat disappeared, so did many of the prairie obligate species that depended on them.

The conversion of prairie habitat is not unique to East Texas.  It has occurred, and continues to occur throughout the country, and many species continue to experience precipitous declines as a result.  Some grassland dependent songbirds, for example, appear to have declined by over 90% in a matter of decades.  It has become evident that if drastic measures are not taken, some of these species may be lost forever.

There is a ray of hope in this story of doom and gloom, however.  Within the past few years, a prairie amphibian that had not been recorded from the heart of East Texas for decades was relocated by Toby Hibbitts and other herpetologists in a concentrated survey effort across its historic range in Texas.  The characteristic “snore” of the Crawfish Frog (Rana areolata) was once again heard in the Pineywoods.

Like the grassland songbirds, the Crawfish Frog has been experiencing sharp declines in the past several decades and is considered a species of conservation concern in most states where it occurs.  Its strongholds in Texas are in the western reaches of the coastal prairies and marshes and portions of the Post Oak Savannah and Blackland Prairies.  Hibbitts, et. al. discovered that they were still hanging on in isolated populations in the Pineywoods.

I never thought I would see one of these enigmatic prairie dwellers in the Pineywoods.  I imagined it had gone the way of the Jaguar and the Black Bear – something lost to my generation.  So when suitable conditions presented themselves this spring Carolina and I set out one misty evening with our good friends James and Erin to see if we might find one.

In all honesty my hopes weren’t all that high.  It has been a weird spring this year, with a lot of moisture and wildly fluctuating temperatures.  But within 30 miles of our house, we spotted a mottled form on the pavement in front of us.  I rushed from the car and found before me a mangled mix of frog skin and guts.  It was a roadkill Crawfish Frog.  It was a bittersweet feeling for sure.  I had seen a Pineywoods areolata, but it was dead.  Freshly dead at that, as its rear legs were still twitching.  I was at the same time disappointed and encouraged.

As I took the frog in my hands and soaked in the tranquility of the evening, I could feel my ears perk as they drew in a distant sound.  In that moment Erin turned off the engine and the night came to life.  The ratcheting call of Cajun Chorus Frogs reached me first, followed by the cackling song of Southern Leopard Frogs.  Then I heard it, fainter and more distant than the rest – the nasal snore of the Crawfish Frog.

We bagged the dead frog in order to send to Toby for his research.  I then wandered down the road, flashlight in hand.  After a while I noticed a turn for a side road heading in the direction of one of the frog choruses.  The night was very dark and a thin veil of mist hang suspended in the air.  With my light I could only see where the road began.  I turned down this road, and soon found myself walking a two track gravel pathway pushing out into what looked like a pasture.  I could not see any “No Tresspassing” signs or purple paint, and there were no lights anywhere on the horizon.  Convinced that it was not private property, I continued.  The chorus grew louder.  I scanned my flashlight in all directions.  There was a fence to my left, and to my right there were several granite pillars emerging from the fog.  It became clear that I was wandering through a graveyard.

Despite the eeriness of the situation, I felt comfortable, and continued on joined by the rest of the party.  We soon realized that the frogs were calling in a pasture beyond the fence, in a place we could not reach.  So we decided to continue down the road, but first made our way through the cemetery toward its exit.  I swept the beam of my flashlight across the ground, and to my surprise caught glimpse of a reticulated, spotted thing resting among emerging shoots of grass and prairie forbs.  It was a Crawfish Frog.  I couldn’t help but smile.  We found one.

It was a beautiful animal, and a female of decent size.  Immediately after seeing us she arched her back and inflated her mid section in order to appear larger, more threatening.  This defensive posture also presents potential predators with a more difficult-to-swallow prey item.

4N1A0816.jpg

Crawfish Frog in defensive posture

Crawfish Frogs are dependent on prairie communities, where they spend most of their lives in or around crayfish burrows.  In this part of the state they may utilize burrows of the Texas Prairie Crayfish (Fallicambarus devastator), a species endemic to a handful of counties in East Texas.  We would see many that night.  Research has shown that the frogs utilize both primary and secondary burrows.  They spend most of the year at primary burrows, while they utilize secondary burrows while migrating to and from breeding sites, and perhaps to a lesser degree while foraging during prolonged periods of rain outside the breeding season.  Crawfish Frogs breed in ephemeral wetlands formed in prairie depressions and in fishless manmade ponds located within suitable habitats.  They have a prolonged breeding period in Texas, but generally breed en masse following warm rains in early spring.

Interestingly, these frogs are able to persist in heavily grazed areas.  Presumably, it is because they are heavily dependent on the condition of the soil rather than the structure of vegetation.  It is important that the soil column and crayfish burrows remain in tact.  In areas where the soil is tilled or otherwise disturbed, the frogs quickly disappear.

4N1A0859a.jpg

Crawfish Frog

She would be the only Crawfish Frog we would see that night, though we did hear a few more choruses.  It was an incredible experience.  While encountering a seemingly thriving population in the Pineywoods certainly gives me hope, it does not change the fact that this species is on the decline and highly susceptible to the loss of our prairies.  We need to “want” to have this species around, and make a serious effort to conserve its habitat, or the story of its status in the Pineywoods fifty years from now may be a very different one.  Fortunately there seems to be a genuine interest in research and conservation of the Crawfish Frog in the Lonestar State, and I remain hopeful that when the conditions are just right on warm, rainy spring nights, future generations of East Texans will continue to hear the peculiar snore of this special prairie denizen.

Autumn in the Pineywoods

IMG_7234

East Texas Waterfall

As I write this, on a cold and rainy day at the end of December, all but a handful of brave trees have cast their leaves in preparation for the darkness and cold that winter brings.  Days like this it’s easy to long for the milder days and brilliant colors of fall.  This year was a particularly beautiful autumn in the Pineywoods, with many species putting on displays of color that I had not seen for some time.  To fight off the gloom of this winter’s day, I decided to live vicariously through my memories as I chronicle my autumn explorations here.

We’ll start on my birthday.  At the start of October, the days have become shorter and the temperatures begin to cool.  October has always been one of my favorite months here in Texas.  The colors begin to turn, and the climate is mild.  Cool enough that it is pleasant to be outside, yet warm enough that many winter-adverse species such as reptiles and insects are still active.  A number of interesting fall-blooming plants are also on display in this month of the Hunter’s Moon.

On my birthday we set out to find a few such plants.  The first that we came across was the Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), also known as the Ghost or Corpse Plant.  This interesting fungus-eating plant is a member of the blueberry family, of all things.  It does not produce chlorophyll like most traditional plants, but rather obtains its energy and nutrients from the mycorhizzal fungi of tree roots.  In Texas they may begin to bloom in late August or early September, and I have seen them as late at January (late in the sense that it is at the end of the blooming season for this species).  The flowers’ superficial resemblance to a pipe as inspired stories in Native American folklore, including the idea that these plants mark the graves of old chiefs, and provide them a vessel with which to smoke from the afterlife.

IMG_4664

Indian Pipes

IMG_4680

Indian Pipes

Growing near the Indian Pipes, in the shade of American Beech was a rare treat, Tall Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes altissima).  Though it may line the roadsides further east, it is known from only a few isolated locations in extreme eastern Texas.  Here it grows on steep hillside springheads and the banks of springfed streams in mature hardwood forests.

IMG_4632

Tall Rattlesnake Root

Ample rains in September fueled a profusion of fungi, whose fibrous filaments draw moisture from the earth and feed on the ample detritus beneath the leaf litter.  Fungi are fascinating, beautiful organisms.  They lead most of their lives hidden below ground, but grace us with a spectacular display when their fruiting bodies form.  Perhaps my favorites are the many varieties of coral fungus.  Each is unique, and contain an intricate maze of protrusions that seem crafted by some avant-garde architect.

IMG_4590

Coral Fungus

Many species of fungus are quite toxic to humans, but there are some that are said to be delicious.  I personally have never been brave enough to try wild mushrooms.  It seems like for every edible species there is a lethal, or at least debilitating look-alike.  One species that is favored by foragers is the Indigo Milk Cap (Lactarius indigo) which an be found in hardwood bottoms in late summer and early fall.

IMG_4747

Indigo Milk Cap

Fungi come in a staggering array of shapes and colors.  They are also fun to photograph, and lead the mind to find interesting angles and compositions with which to present them.

IMG_4764

Fungi (I believe these are chanterelles)

IMG_4797

Fungi

Autumn also signals the beginning of the salamander breeding season in East Texas.  In mid-October conditions were right for Marbled Salamanders (Ambystoma opacum) to make their annual breeding migrations.  Unlike most members of the family Ambystomatidae, which breed in the water during late winter and early spring, the Marbled Salamander breeds on dry land, and the females lay their eggs under woody debris within dry vernal pool basins.  They will then guard the eggs as they wait for winter rains to fill the pools and disperse and hatch their offspring.  By doing this they get a leg up on the competition, so to speak, which comes in the form of other amphibian larvae that won’t begin to develop for another couple of months.

IMG_4882

Marbled Salamander Male

Marbled Salamanders are one of relatively few amphibian species that are sexually dimorphic.  The males (pictured above) have bright silvery white dorsal patterns while the females (pictured below) have duller silver to coppery markings.  The males also display a swollen cloaca at the base of their tail during the breeding season.

IMG_4891

Marbled Salamander

In late October Caro and I spent a damp autumn day in the woods with our friends James and Erin.  It provided a chance to capture more images of interesting fungi, like these Earthstars, which look like little puff balls wearing tutus.

IMG_5087

Earthstars

We also observed a number of insects like these seemingly affectionate Six-spotted Flower Longhorn Beetles (Strangalia sexnotata).

IMG_4986

Six-spotted Flower Longhorn Beetles

We also found a few Rainbow Scarabs (Phanaeus vindex), a spectacular beetle that I highlighted in a previous blog post.

IMG_5247

Rainbow Scarab

And then there were the Indian Pipes.  We found hundreds in a remnant Longleaf Pine savannah, pushing up through the dense carpet of needles and cones.  It became somewhat of a game seeing who could spot the most.  Per usual, Caro won by a landslide.

IMG_5274

Indian Pipes

One October day I received a call from my wife that she had found a recently hit Gray Fox next to the road. Being eccentric biologist types, we decided that we wanted to try to get its skeleton for study and admiration. So we called James and Erin, who own a large tract of land, and asked if we could set it out there to decompose. Being a couple of biologists themselves, they gladly agreed and we loaded the fox carcass in the bed of my truck and set out on the half-hour or so journey to their farm.

Just after we arrived, I heard my wife call out, “Look at this!” No surprise really, as she has an uncanny talent for spotting creatures, plants, and any other thing that remains invisible to most. She had found a large adult female Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina), hiding among the goldenrod blooms near the Childress cabin.

3J0A2949

Carolina Mantis

Of course, in our haste to make our morbid delivery I had forgotten my camera.  Fortunately James was kind enough to lend me his. We approached the scene and I tried to formulate a plan on how to best photograph this spectacular insect. As we drew near we noticed the carcasses of Common Eastern Bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) scattered about the ground, dismembered and drained of their juices. Oblivious to the danger, there were several more bees nectaring on the goldenrod just inches from the mantis. So I found a good angle and waited to see if I might capture some action. I set the lens on a bee that was slowly creeping closer and closer to this devourer of pollinators. The bee brushed against the mantis’s leg, yet still the predator remained still. Its head slowly cocked and it’s antennae twitched ever so slightly. Deliberately and methodically it crept toward the ravenous bumble bee. Its movements were almost imperceptible. I captured the image below as it zeroed in on the bee and prepared its strike.

Seconds after I captured this image the mantis did strike, though I only managed to record a blur of green. It missed, and the bee flew to a distant part of the same plant to continue feeding. Later we would see the mantis in the middle of devouring another unfortunate Bombus impatiens, though we missed the strike. In all it would seem that this ruthless hunter his doing quite well on the goldenrod she has staked claim to.  She remained on that withering goldenrod well into December.

3J0A3034

Seconds from Disaster

A few days before Halloween, Caro and I set out to look for signs of fall along backroads and deep in the forest. Colors were beginning to change, with vines like Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy putting on a brilliant display. Elms, hickories, and even some red maples were beginning to lose their chlorophyll while baldcypress was nearing peak color.  Monarchs are passing through en masse, and were joined at fall blooming plants by Gulf Fritillaries, Buckeyes, and American Ladies.

In the late afternoon we came across a stunning Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) taking in the Sun’s fading warmth. It was one of the lightest snakes I’ve seen, with narrow bands of almost pure white along its chevrons. I would put it at a bit under three feet in length, a decent size. And like most of its kind that I’ve encountered it rattled only briefly, and was incredible docile and non-aggressive throughout our interaction.

IMG_5424

Canebrake Rattlesnake

After spending some time with this spectacular denizen of the deep woods, we were able to turn up a couple of Marbled Salamanders and Southern Leopard Frogs adjacent to a series of ephemeral wetlands. I then noticed a large fallen tree, its branches arching above the forest floor. While admiring the verdance of the mosses and Resurrection Fern coating the bark, I glimpsed an unusual creature swaying back and forth. It was a huge Megarhyssa atrata (a type of giant ichneumon) busy probing the chambers of horntail wasp larvae with her ovipositor. She lays her eggs in the soft flesh of these larvae, where they will hatch and consume their host as they develop. This downed tree was literally swarming with Megarhyssa atrata and M. macrurus. Though they may be “creepy” looking, these large insects are harmless and fascinating.

IMG_5470

Megarhyssa atrata

In early November we set out to look for Long-lipped Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes longilabris) a rare orchid of fire-maintained Longleaf Pine Savannahs.  A species of the coastal plain, they reach the western extent of their range in East Texas.  Uncommon to rare throughout their range, in Texas they are known from only a handful of sites in the Big Thicket.

IMG_5483a

Long-lipped Ladies’ Tresses

Another East Texas rarity is the Kidney-leaved Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia asarifolia).  To my knowledge, they only persist along a single drainage in the Pineywoods.

IMG_5552

Kidney-leaved Grass-of-Parnassus

A favorite past time of Carolina and me is wandering around Ellen Trout Park here in Lufkin.  There are usually a variety of interesting things to be seen, including several resident Great Egrets (Ardea alba).

IMG_5585

Great Egret

The star attraction of the park, however, is a pair of Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) that nest there each year.  It wasn’t so long ago that Bald Eagles were nearing extinction, but a variety of factors including the banning of DDT and Federal regulations like the Endangered Species Act and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act brought them back from the brink.

While most of East Texas’s species suffered greatly from the construction of large reservoirs, this is one of a few species that has actually benefited. The damming of the major rivers of the region created tens of thousands of acres of suitable habitat for the large raptors.  In East Texas, Bald Eagles prefer to nest near the top of large pine trees adjacent to large water bodies. I composed the image below to capture the essence of this habitat.

IMG_5720a

Bald Eagle

By late November, fall color had begun arriving in earnest.  One one of our frequent evening drives, I spotted the stereotypical Pineywoods scene below along the backroads.

IMG_6674

Florida Maple (Acer floridanum) generally displays a brilliant golden yellow during autumn.  This year they put on quite a show on slopes and along riverbanks.

IMG_6711a

Florida Maples

IMG_6724

Florida Maples

In some areas Florida Maples can be found growing alongside Red Maples (Acer rubrum).  In the fall, Red Maple comes in a variety of colors, including yellow, orange, and red.  In the image below it held up to its namesake, and provided an excellent contrast to the bright yellows of the Florida Maple next door.

IMG_6738.jpg

A Meeting of Maples

The Pineywoods of East Texas are known for their towering forests. While breathtaking in their own right, the abundance of trees blocks the horizon, and there are not many places in East Texas that offer broad views of the landscape. There are a few exceptions on high ridges, however, like this spot east of Nacogdoches. Here the crowns of pines and a diversity of hardwoods creates a beautiful fall palette of greens, oranges, and yellows.

IMG_6755

Bird’s Eye View

Many species of butterfly remain active well into the fall.  One of the most common is the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae).  We often see them nectaring alongside other species on fall blooming wildflowers like these asters.

IMG_6822

Gulf Fritillary

In late November, Carolina and I made our way north to explore the forests of Cherokee and Smith Counties.  Here we found countless beautiful scenes, of which I attempted to capture just a small fraction of their brilliance with the images below.

IMG_6899

Dressed in Gold

IMG_6912

Autumn Exposure

During this day trip, we visited Tyler State Park for the first time.  The State Park system of Texas protects a multitude of important and interesting natural and cultural features.  The park was beautiful, with ample fall color among mature mixed pine-hardwood forests and infrastructure created by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

I generally avoid including man-made elements in my images, however the road through the state park seemed to be asking to be photographed.  I captured the image to remind me of one of my favorite past times – driving quiet back roads in fall…

IMG_6942

The Road to Autumn

…and hiking in the autumnal forest.  If you look closely in the image below you can see a hiker’s footbridge beneath Flowering Dogwoods with foliage aflame.

IMG_6976

Tyler State Park Trail

The color of the day was definitely orange, a deviation from the standard yellows and occasional reds typical further south.  The Red Maples in particular were glowing.  We enjoyed our time in the park, and will likely be making a repeat visit soon!

IMG_6993.jpg

Autumn’s Orange

IMG_7010a

Maples in the Midstory

Some autumn scenes display a more subtle beauty.  I captured the scene below in the floodplain of the Neches River.  The Inland Sea Oats blanketing the ground had turned brown.  The bark of Sugarberries added contrast while the fall foliage of distant elms added a splash of color.

IMG_7028

All that Remains

Perhaps the most spectacular fall scene would not reveal itself until December, when I went to visit a waterfall recently discovered by my friend Scott.  This waterfall is hidden deep forest in an area where steep ravines funnel water, whose power carves shallow canyons into the erodible mudstone of the Wilcox Formation. The slopes that grade down to this stream are decorated with the golden autumn foliage of American Beech and likely harbor a vernal flora rich in peripheral species of the great Eastern deciduous forests.

IMG_7240

There are few things that bring me more joy than a walk in the autumn woods, and though the season has turned, it’s hard to fret too much.  Winter resident birds have arrived and salamanders have begun to breed.  Though winter may seem the bleakest of seasons, there is lots of life for those willing to look.  So for now, I will look forward to the winter and spring, and say, “until next time, autumn!”

An Evening on the Neches

IMG_7044

Looking out into the vast Neches River bottoms, I couldn’t help but wonder what secrets they might hold.  Stories of feuding families, perhaps.  Maybe some untold conflict between early settlers and the Caddo Nation occurred beneath the cathedral like crowns of Willow and Overcup Oak.  Perhaps a Jaguar once called this place home, stalking White-tailed Deer that came in the autumn to gorge themselves on the bounty of acorns that rained from the oaktops.

A dense fog only added to the mystique of this place.  It rose from the bottoms flooded by the overflowing Neches.  This day there would be no story to tell, as I stood quietly in awe, watching distant tree trunks gradually vanish into the mist.  There was a quality of light that evening that I had never encountered before, and doubt that I will again.  The cool, humid air pulled steam from the swollen river that seemed to glow as if bathed in the evening light.  The sun battled a thin veil of clouds, remnants of an autumn storm, and occasionally gained the upper hand, piercing the gray.

Autumn has treated the Pineywoods well this year, and I have a wealth of images and stories to share.  And I will, in a future post.  This evening, however, deserved its own treatment.  From here I will let the photos speak for themselves, and hope that their viewers may feel some semblance of the magic that I felt that evening.

IMG_7104b

Neches River bottoms in the fog

IMG_7074

The Neches RIver

IMG_7037

Overcup Oaks dressed in their autumn foliage

IMG_7091

Overcup Oaks hang low over a flooded Neches River

IMG_7051a

Fall color on an island in the Neches

IMG_7117

The flooded Neches pours into the bottomlands

IMG_7132

The steely waters of the Neches at dusk

IMG_7126.jpg

An ethereal mist rises from the Neches

IMG_7153

The banks of the Neches River in a dense fog

IMG_7163

The fog begins to lift, revealing distant flooded oaks

 

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.

Rubber Duckies in the Longleaf

IMG_4486

A Brown-headed Nuthatch perches on the branch of a Longleaf Pine

Dawn in the longleaf is a magical thing – as the first rays of light filter through outstretched needles, casting long shadows over broad expanses of Little Bluestem and Eastern Gamagrass.  The air is clean and still as the savannah comes to life.  First with the familiar calls of the Prairie Warbler and Indigo Bunting.  Occasionally the buzzy trill of a Bachman’s Sparrow and the drumming of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers sounds in the distance.  There is one sound, however, that seems strangely out of place.  I remember the first time I heard it; I found myself looking around to see if there was some dog wrestling with a chew toy.  It was a set of high pitched squeaks, generally occurring in pairs.  The best thing I could liken it to was someone squeezing a rubber ducky.

It was, of course, the song of the Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla).  This tiny songbird is an inhabitant of pine forests of the southeastern United States.  It’s range generally follows the coastal plain from the Delmarva Peninsula to East Texas.  Though it may be found in a variety of open pine-dominated woodlands, and even parks with scattered mature pines in the vicinity, it’s preferred habitat is the longleaf pine savannah.  This becomes clear when comparing the range of the nuthatch and the iconic southern pine.

Brown-headed_Nuthatch-rangemap

Brown-headed Nuthatch Range (Image from Wikipedia)

1024px-Pinus_palustris_range_map

Longleaf Pine Range (Image from Wikipedia)

Brown-headed Nuthatches are cavity nesters and may be secondary excavators (utilizing existing cavities and modifying them to their liking) or weak primary excavators (creating their own cavities in sufficiently soft parent material).  Males select the nest site, and generally prefer large standing snags.  They will, however, compromise, and I have seen them nesting in holes at joints in wooden fences.  They then line their cavities with soft materials such as feathers, dead grass, and pine straw.

IMG_4267

A Brown-headed Nuthatch peers from its cavity

Nesting begins early in the year.  In East Texas they are often working on preparing their cavities by mid to late February.  A most interesting aspect of this nuthatch’s natural history is that it will often display cooperative breeding, a trait relatively rare among songbirds.  In a cooperative breeding system, offspring may remain in their parents’ territory for a year or more in order to help raise younger siblings.  These helpers will aid in defending territory, maintaining cavities, and gathering food for their altricial siblings.  This may be a benefit, evolutionarily speaking, as it allows these helpers to ensure that their genetic material persists by raising their siblings to maturity at a time when they themselves lack the strength and experience to pass on their genes the traditional way – by establishing their own territories, finding a mate, and successfully raising offspring.

IMG_4359a

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Small invertebrates make up the majority of the Brown-headed Nuthatch’s diet.  They bounce from tree to tree, scanning the bark for any tasty morsel unfortunate to find itself in the tiny predator’s path.  They may glean insects from branches or use their narrow, piercing beaks to seek out spiders hiding in the cracks of the bark.  However these are no ordinary hunters.  Nuthatches have been observed utilizing tools, breaking off tiny flakes of bark with their beaks and using them as leverage to pry up larger pieces of bark in search of well-hidden pray.

IMG_4379

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Though they remain common in many areas of the southeast, the Brown-headed Nuthatch has not been immune to the widespread loss of longleaf pine savannahs and other mature pine-dominated habitats over the past two centuries.  The North American Breeding Bird Survey indicates a decline in detections along its routes of almost 25% in the past 50 years.  In East Texas they remain locally common in areas where large pines and open understories persist.  This is a species that may benefit from some forestry practices, such as prescribed burning, periodic thinnings, and leaving seed and shelterwood trees during final harvest.  As long as these sustainable practices are utilized, and large protected tracts of mature longleaf pine savannahs and other open pine-dominated woodlands remain, the outlook for this quirky, fascinating species in East Texas looks promising.

IMG_4492

Brown-headed Nuthatch

I photographed these special songbirds this spring with the help of my good friend James Childress, who set out in search of these birds with me and graciously lent me his 600mm lens.  Without the zoom and image quality of that lens, these photos would have never been possible.

Spring in the Pineywoods

IMG_3303a

Kentucky Lady’s Slippers – A Gift of Spring

As I sit here typing, we are in the height of August, which has the misfortune of traditionally being our most miserable month – at least climatically speaking.  So as the dried grass crunches beneath my feet and my skin bakes under triple digit temperatures, it’s easy to escape back to a day over four months ago.

It was the last day of March.  There was a definite chill in the air as I set out into the forest.  The gray of dawn was made darker by the the canopy of beech and oak towering one hundred feet above my head.  I worried for a moment that I may not see them – my elusive botanical quarry.  But despite the dim light of the understory, the yellow egg-sized blooms of the Kentucky Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium kentuckiense) caught my eye like a beacon sent out to some wayfaring sailor, and drew me to them with a siren’s song of its enigmatic beauty.

A few days prior my friend Peter Loos had called and told me that the slippers were out early this year, a full two weeks early.  He also told me that one population, which typically has only a plant or two in flower, was displaying six perfect blooms this year.  If it weren’t for his call, I would have likely missed out on a very special experience.

The soil was cold and damp as I sat, saturated from a previous day’s rain.  It was still to early for photography, the forest too dark to properly render the color of the scene.  So I sat and waited in the company of the forest.  I admired the slippers and the ferns that grew around them.  I listen to the familiar songs of Red-eyed Vireos, Summer Tanagers and Hooded Warblers, and the distant trill of a Northern Parula.  After some time I could see hints of dappled sun in the highest leaves in the canopy.  The forest grew brighter, its colors warmed.  In this new light I could see distant azalea blooms lining the creek downslope.

I had to pay close attention to the light.  There would only be a brief moment for me to capture the image I was after.  That time when the ambient light early morning sun illuminated the forest, but before its rays penetrated the canopy, casting sun spots and uneven light on the forest floor.  Finally the moment was right, and I captured the image above.

Though the end of March may have been the height of the season, spring itself had begun nearly two months prior, when the first of the spring ephemerals pushed their way through the leaf litter.  Perhaps my favorite of these is the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), so named for the red sap of its roots that has long been used for a wide range of medicinal purposes.  Bloodroot is now rare in Texas, where it hold on in a few remnant patches of mature hardwood forest.

IMG_5185

Bloodroot – An Ode to Spring

Like the Bloodroot, the White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum) is one of our first harbingers of spring.  White Trout Lily can be found throughout the Pineywoods.  Though it is common nowhere, it is more frequently encountered in the northern and western portions of this forested ecoregion.  Elsewhere in the state it can be found in some Post Oak Savannah and Cross Timber woodlands.

IMG_5425

Trout Lily

It is not just the rich woods that experience a flush in early spring activity.  In mid February the wetland pine savannahs of East Texas appear bleak, their grasses turned brown by the short days and biting cold of winter.  But it is in that time that the Woolly Sunbonnet (Chaptalia tomentosa) emerges, opening its blooms in the midday sun.

IMG_4921

Woolly Sunbonnet

Though the forest floor may be coming to life, early spring still finds the trees leafless and dreary.  I captured the haunting scene below as a fog rolled in over the Angelina River on a cold day in mid February.

IMG_4637

The Angelina River looks to be a dismal place in early spring.

Even in early March the forest still seems gripped in winter.  At least from a distance…

IMG_6327

A rare waterfall in one of the last patches of old growth forest in East Texas.

IMG_6344

A small stream flows, fueled by spring rains

But closer examination shows that by early March the forest has come alive.  The scene below was captured at our friends Susan and Viron’s land.  Under their stewardship, a spectacular patch of rich mesic forest has persisted.  Here nearly all of the plants that have become exceedingly rare elsewhere in the states, still thrive.  Their forest contains colonies of Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium rostratum) that cover acres!

IMG_6294

Yellow Trout Lilies – Ephemeral

IMG_6161

Yellow Trout Lilies

Their land is also home to one of only two known populations of False Rue Anemone (Enemion biternatum) in the state.

IMG_6229

False Rue Anemone

Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) flourish here as well.  They are one of our most common spring ephemeral, but that in no way diminishes their beauty.

IMG_6248

Spring Beauty

One of the more unexpected denizens of early spring is the Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris rugata).  Unlike most tiger beetles, which are most active during the summer, the Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle is active in the early spring, and by late May are almost impossible to find.

IMG_6089

Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle

This jewel-like beetle is restricted to eastern Texas, western Louisiana, and extreme southwestern Arkansas and southeastern Louisiana. Here it occurs in areas with vast expanses of bare sand such as xeric sandhills and sand “blowouts” in the Pineywoods and Post Oak Savannah.

IMG_6099

Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle

By mid-March most of the woodlands in the southern Pineywoods had begun to leaf-out.  The scene below was captured in a vast floodplain adjacent Big Sandy Creek in the Big Thicket.

IMG_6062

Vernal

As the freshly emerging leaves hardwoods begin to turn the slopes and floodplains green, a different explosion of color is occurring in a precious few longleaf pine savannahs in the Big Thicket.  At the few sites where it still occurs, the Federally Endangered Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis) reaches peak bloom in mid-March.

IMG_2597

Texas Trailing Phlox

Around the same time, a very different phlox species blooms in the shade American Beech and other hardwoods of rich forested slopes.  Though common throughout much of its range in eastern North America, Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) is rare in Texas.  The combination of pale blue blooms, feathery fern fronds and a gnarly old hornbeam created a scene that seemed like something more suited for a Tolkien novel than the Pineywoods.

IMG_2690

Mirkwood

While we’re on the topic of phlox, one can’t drive the backroads of the Big Thicket without admiring the recently described Texas endemic Big Thicket Phlox (Phlox pulcherrima), a member of the Phlox pilosa complex.

IMG_2734

Big Thicket Phlox

With March in full swing, color was coming to all of the vegetative communities of the Pineywoods.  Wright’s Lily (Schoenolirion wrightii), a rare species of glades and barrens came into bloom over deposits of Catahoula Sandstone.

IMG_2666

Wright’s Lily

And expansive drifts of Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) turned the forest floor blue in this woodland in the northern Pineywoods.

IMG_2625

Rebirth

One afternoon, as we were exploring the longleaf pine savannahs of the Angelina National Forest, Carolina spotted a splash of yellow in the distance.  It turned out to be a small flatwoods pond decorated with the blooms of thousands of Floating Bladderworts (Utricularia radiata).  These plants are carnivorous, and I couldn’t help but think that below the surface was something akin to a minefield for the unfortunate aquatic invertebrates that dwell within.

IMG_2744

Floating Bladderworts – Minefield

Not all of spring’s palate is painted on the forest floor however, and a multitude of trees and shrubs put on an impressive display as they come into flower.  In the picture below White Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) flowers in the foreground while Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) blooms in the distance.

IMG_2764

White Fringetree – Old Man of the Woods

By late March the Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) have taken over the forest floor.  One of my favorite spring ephemerals, Mayapple is still quite easy to find in certain parts of East Texas, unlike so many other species of rich woods that have become increasingly rare.

IMG_2801

Mayapple – Sea of Green

The large umbrella-shaped leaves of Mayapple are actually toxic.  Only the ripe fruit is edible.  The downy white blooms hang beneath the leaves.  Non-blooming plants always sport a single leaf, while those that bloom have two.

IMG_2817

Mayapples

Along the bluffs lining the Angelina River, Carolina and I found a large colony of Wild Comfrey (Cynoglossum virginianum).  These wildflowers, with their downy basal leaves and tiny sky-blue blooms have become quite uncommon in Texas.  They often occur in the company of the Kentucky Lady’s Slipper, and I couldn’t help but wonder of the enigmatic orchid once called these hills home.

IMG_2872

Wild Comfrey Hills

IMG_2925

Wild Comfrey Blooms

Another uncommon species often found in the presence of the lady’s slipper is the Bigleaf Snowbell (Styrax grandifolia).  It’s easy to see how this species gets its common name, as thousands of small white blooms may dangle from its branches in early April.

IMG_3006

Bigleaf Snowbell

In the vast floodplain of the Neches River I spotted a large colony of Eastern Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana), and I stood in the flood waters to photograph its delicate blooms in the evening light.

IMG_3166

Eastern Bluestar

Every spring I look forward to the emergence of the trilliums.  This year I found this large colony of Sabine River Wakerobin (Trillium gracile) in a rich hardwood forest in Sabine County.

IMG_3598

Sabine River Wakerobin

By mid-April many of the spring ephemerals have already faded, and a new cast of floral characters appears on the scene.  Clasping Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) emerges from deep sands and displays its bizarre blooms for all the pollinating world to see.

IMG_5627

Clasping Milkweed

Deep in the forest a very different milkweed was blooming.  By mid April the White (A.K.A Redring) Milkweed was beginning to come into flower.

IMG_5374

White Milkweed

The Zigzag Iris (Iris brevicaulis) can be found on the margins of wetlands in the Pineywoods.

IMG_5309

Zigzag Iris

Flowering Dogwood is one of the most familiar small trees of East Texas.  Lesser known are the other species of dogwood that occur here.  This spring we found several Roughleaf Dogwoods (Cornus drummondii) in bloom along a small stream in Houston County.

IMG_5233

Roughleaf Dogwood

The Rose Pogonia (A.K.A. Snakemouth Orchid) (Pogonia ophioglossoides) is always a crowd-pleaser.  I found several blooming in late April with my friend James Childress in a remote seep on private land.

IMG_4995

Rose Pogonia

One evening in April I received a call from my friend, and author of The Wild Orchids of Texas, Joe Liggio.  He told me that while returning home from a long day of botanizing, he spotted an uncommon wildflower along a remote road in Liberty County.  It was the Foxglove Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis).  Shortly after photographing the plants at Joe’s site, I found it growing in similar remoteness in Sabine County.  This penstemon has a fairly broad distribution in the eastern third of the state, occurring in scattered populations in rich, open woodlands and their margins. There is some debate as to whether it is native outside northeast Texas, while others question whether or not its native to the state at all.  The plants that Joe and I discovered were, in my opinion, unlikely candidates for escapees from cultivation.  This leads me to believe that is in fact native to East Texas.

IMG_4905

Foxglove Penstemon

IMG_4833

Foxglove Penstemon

Also in April, my friend Scott Wahlberg and I visited a site in the Big Thicket where last year I was able to track down Wild Blue Lupine (Lupinus perennis).  I went into some detail on this species in a blog post last year, so I won’t say much here, save to mention it’s striking beauty.

IMG_4621

Wild Blue Lupine

IMG_4758

Wild Blue Lupine

Another species that I pursued last year was the Green Adder’s Mouth (Malaxis unifolia).  Carolina and I found them again this year, and I photographed them to the sound of the thunder of a rapidly approaching storm.

IMG_4331

En-route to photograph the adder’s mouth, we spotted a striking little purple legume flowering alongside the road.  It was a patch of Sampson’s Snakeroot (Orbexilum pedunculatum), a plant I only occasionally encounter in the Pineywoods.

IMG_4307

Sampson’s Snankeroot

Though it’s pushing the limits of late spring and flirting with early summer, late May still has a lot to offer, botanically speaking.  One warm evening in late May, Caro and I drove out to Walker County to photograph the Bush’s Purple Coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa var. neglecta).  This puzzling population was found growing in a calcareous prairie remnant by my friend Eric Keith.  Echinacea paradoxa is a species of coneflower found in the Ozark Plateau and isolated populations in southern Oklahoma and southeast Texas. While typically yellow, E. paradoxa var. neglecta range from pale purple to deep pink.  The population here in southeast Texas is disjunct from other known populations by hundreds of miles.

IMG_7617

So it was that the Spring of 2018 came to a close and gave way to summer.  It was hard to say goodbye to the cool, gray days of Spring, but as a naturalist I find some joy in each of our seasons.  Soon the sun would be blaring, the cicadas would be trilling, and a whole new cast of plants and animals would make themselves known.

Vernal Pools: The Kingdom of the Amphibians

IMG_7548

Ovipositing Spotted Salamander

There are few things more magical, few moments more memorable, and few experiences more rewarding than exploring a vernal pool in late winter and early spring.  I wish everyone could know the joy that I feel standing ankle deep in the frigid water amid a deafening cacophony of Spring Peepers and chorus frogs.

Vernal pools are isolated wetlands that form in upland depressions.  In the great forests of the eastern United States, of which the Pineywoods of East Texas are essentially an extension, they often occur in open, mature forests over pockets of dense clay scattered among a matrix of otherwise loamy soil.  They may also occur in the scars of old stream beds left after some waterway changed course millennia ago.  The unique topography of these areas result in pools that hold water during the winter and spring and dry in the summer and fall.

15730847680_2678992e9c_o

A dry vernal pool in fall

Vernal pools begin to fill in the late fall and early winter with the return of regular rainfall patterns associated with frequent fronts.  At the same time trees and other plants are entering a period of dormancy, when their water requirements are reduced dramatically.  This reduction in plant activity results in a rising of the water table.  In more northerly climates the pools may not fill until the spring snow melt funnels water to them.  By later spring and early summer, the water table begins to drop as thirsty roots draw from it.  Evapotranspiration increases, and by late summer these depressions will be dry as a bone.

15710537833_064f0d2610_o

A full vernal pool in late winter

The ephemeral nature of these wetlands means that fish are unable to survive here.  This does not mean that vernal pools are devoid of life, however.  A multitude of invertebrates specialize in vernal pools and a spectacular array of amphibians depend on them to breed.  It is, in fact, the absence of fish that allow these organisms to thrive here.  Without these voracious piscene predators, and with an abundance of invertebrate prey, amphibian larvae can flourish.

Many amphibians typical of eastern North America reach the southwestern extend in East Texas.  Most of these species breed during the first substantial warm rains of late winter and early spring, often undergoing mass migrations from upland refugia to reach the vernal pools.  Easily the most spectacular of these amphibians, and perhaps my favorite animal of all time, is the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum).  These large, brightly colored members of the family Ambystomatidae are like the “poster children” of vernal pools.  Their fate is so closely tied to these unique habitats that they are indicator species for them.  And as healthy vernal pools depend on a healthy, mature forest, the Spotted Salamander is, in turn, an indicator species for the health of the entire forest.

IMG_4760a

A male Spotted Salamander

Spotted salamanders spend the majority of their lives confined to small burrows, generally excavated by some species of rodent or other fossorial creature.  As the warm winter rains begin to saturate the soil they slowly emerge from their underground haunts and make their way, en masse, to the vernal pools of their birth.  The males arrive first.  They can be identified this time of year by their swollen cloacas.  When all is said and done they will outnumber the females several to one.  After entering the water they dutifully set out to find the perfect spot to deposit their spermatophore, a gelatinous deposit containing their genetic material.  Here they await the arrival of the females.

IMG_6969

A Spotted Salamander emerges from the leaf litter

When the females do arrive their are swollen with a gelatinous mass of eggs within.  The males dance and display around their spermatophore with a series of flips, gyrations, and underwater acrobatics.  Once they have caught the eye of a female they gently guide her over their spermatophore.  She picks it up with her cloaca and uses it to fertilize her eggs.  She then deposits an impossibly massive egg mass on a submerged twig or vegetation.  The salamanders do not dawdle in the ponds, and as soon as they arrived they return to their upland burrows.  Here they will remain for the rest of the year.  Part of what makes seeing a Spotted Salamander so special is knowing that they are only visible to the above-ground world for a few shorts weeks of the year.

The salamander eggs are protected by a thick gelatinous mass that is resistant to desiccation should the pool dry for a short time during their development.  The Spotted Salamander have a mutualistic relationship with an algae, Oophila amblystomatis, which is found exclusively within the salamanders’ egg masses.  The algae benefits from the nitrogen-rich waste products produced by the developing embryos while the embryos themselves are oxygenated through the biproducts of the photosynthesizing algae.

Eventually tiny, legless gilled salamander larvae will emerge from the egg masses.  They will feed and grow within the vernal pools until sometime in late spring when their legs and lungs are fulled developed.  They will then absorb their gills, lose their tail fins, and emerge from the water to begin a terrestrial life.

8402409478_a86a443db1_o

Spotted Salamander Egg Mass

There are other species of salamander that utilize vernal pools.  The Mole Salamander (Ambystoma talpoideum) is a small, stocky salamander of the southeastern United States.  They occur in a variety of ephemeral wetlands, from vernal pools to permanent fish-free ponds within longleaf pine savannahs.  Populations in East Texas often contain both terrestrial and neotenic adults.  In neoteny, adults retain juvnile characteristics; in this case gills and aquatic morphology.  These neotonic adults enjoy an entirely aquatic existence, even breeding in the water.  If the pool begins to drain, however, these aquatic adults can absorb their gills and morph into terrestrial adults.

15916197711_8c3aa62bf6_o

Mole Salamander

In East Texas, Smallmouth Salamanders (Ambystoma texanum) seem to be most common in large ephemeral wetland complexes in floodplain forests.  They will still utilize traditional vernal pools, however.  They are variable in pattern, having a variety of lichen-like blotches and flecks ranging from blue-gray to rusty brown.  In Texas they occur in scattered populations throughout much of the eastern third of the state.

8504912344_a8425cde79_o

Smallmouth Salamander

The Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum) is an anomaly.  While the other Ambystomatid salamanders in East Texas breed in the late winter/early spring, the Marbled Salamander breeds in the fall, when the vernal pools are still dry.  During autumn’s first cool rains they migrate to the dry pool basins.  Here they breed on the land, and the female deposits her eggs on dry earth beneath logs and other natural debris within the depression.  Here she will stay, guarding her eggs, until the winter rains fill the pools and inundate the eggs.

15805943182_495be9eeda_o

A female Marbled Salamander guarding her eggs.

There is method to this madness, however.  By the time the eggs of the Spotted, Mole, and Smallmouth Salamanders have hatched, the Marbled Salamander larvae have been growing for weeks.  What ensues is a mass slaughter of intra-generic predation, as Marbled Salamander larvae consume hundreds of their congenerics.  This spring we observed hundreds of Spotted Salamander egg masses, and most had at least one Marbled Salamander larva sitting atop them.  For a short while at least, the Marbled Salamander is the king of the vernal pool.

IMG_0582a

A male Marbled Salamander

Marbled Salamander adults are sexually dimorphic.  Males have bright white to silvery dorsal markings while the markings of the female are a duller silver or copper.  Males arrive to the dry pools first, and as with the Spotted Salamander, significantly outnumber the females.

IMG_0492

Marbled Salamander male (upper right) and female (lower left)

The above mentioned salamanders all have fascinating life histories, but they pale in comparison to the complexity of the life cycle of the Central Newt (Nothophthalmus viridescens louisianensis).  The Central Newt starts life as an aquatic larva emerging from eggs laid in the water.  After a short time they morph into a terrestrial juvenile known as an “eft”.  During this time their skin is noticeably dry to the touch.  After spending a couple of years on land, these juveniles typically return to the water, where they will morph again into an aquatic adult.

8143022249_86466c821a_o

Central Newt Eft

To those exploring a vernal pool at night, their eyes are undoubtedly drawn to the salamanders swimming below the water’s surface.  Their ears, however, belong to the frogs.  Depending on the time of year, a multitude of intricate frog calls may ring out, often in deafening spectacularity.  One of the best known of these anurans is the Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer).  These tiny harbingers of spring fill the night air with their peeping calls that seem too loud to come from such a tiny thing.

IMG_1094

Spring Peeper

Our East Texas representative of the Pseudacris feriarum complex is the Cajun Chorus Frog (Pseudacris fouquettei).  These diminutive frogs seem to breed just about anywhere that water remains for more than a few weeks.  Their call has been likened to a finger running through the teeth of a comb.  In my area P. fouquettei typically starts calling in early to mid December.  I have found many a good vernal pool by following the calls of the Cajun Chorus Frog.

IMG_7651

Cajun Chorus Frog

The Gray Tree Frogs (Hyla chrysoscelis and Hyla versicolor) typically begin breeding in mid Spring, later than the Spring Peeper and Cajun Chorus Frog.  The two species of Gray Tree Frog can only be differentiated by their calls.  In East Texas they typically begin calling in late February/Early March, and may call well into the summer following heavy rains.

17731409080_26e6386271_o (1)

Cope’s Gray Tree Frog (Hyla chrysoscelis)

Perhaps my favorite anuran inhabitant of vernal pools is the Pickerel Frog (Lithobates [Ranapalustris).  They can be differentiated from the similar Southern Leopard Frog by the two rows of large-block like blotches on their back and bright yellow inner legs.  While they are common throughout much of their range, the Pickerel Frog is uncommon in East Texas.  Along with the Southern Leopard Frog, it is one of the earliest breeding Ranids in the Pineywoods.  The Pickerel Frog is known for its toxicity.  Some people who handle these frogs report sensations from mild tingling to moderate pain in their fingers afterwards.  Fortunately I have never had a reaction.  They are also toxic to other amphibians, and may kill other species that are confined to plastic bags with them.

IMG_2404

Pickerel Frog

The Southern Leopard Frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus [Rana sphenocephala]) is one of our commonest Ranids.  I remember the first time I heard their haunting call.  I thought I was listening to some dispute between raccoons or some similar mammal.  Southern Leopard Frogs are quite variable, but their spots are always smaller and more randomly distributed than those of the Pickerel Frog.  They also lack the bright yellow inner legs of their toxic cousins.

30539138911_24c190cf75_o

Southern Leopard Frog

The annual amphibian migration to vernal pools is truly one of nature’s great spectacles.  I remember one night a few years ago when Carolina and I, accompanied by some of our closest friends, went out to a vernal pool at night.  A warm front had moved in, drenching East Texas with bands of rain throughout the day and into the night.  As we began travelling to our destination the rain began to pick up, and branched lightning descended from the clouds, dancing across the sky and illuminating the columns of shadow in the dark forest. I was full of anticipation and doubt as we approached the pond. Though the conditions seemed perfect, I had tried this very thing before and turned up empty handed.

Almost inexplicably, at nearly the exact moment we arrived at the pond, the rain had stopped. I rushed to the ponds edge, flashlight in hand. Immediately it became clear that all of my doubts were for naught. As my light crossed the leafy bottom of the vernal pool I could see hundreds of yellow spots; Spots decorating the backs of dozens of Spotted Salamanders that darted back and forth beneath the clear water. We did it, I thought, we timed it perfectly. The calm night was interrupted by the voices of innumerable Cajun chorus frogs that sang from the pool’s edge. It was, without a doubt, one of the most incredible natural events I had ever witnessed.

It was at that moment, when I thought that things couldn’t be more perfect, that my heart could not be more whole, that Carolina said, “look at the sky.” I looked up and saw that the clouds had broken, and in their wake the brilliance of millions of stars shone in the moonless night sky. And though I may be a secular person, the sensation I felt at that moment was no less profound than some deeply religious experience. For the most incredible moments in life need not be some miracle brought on by divine powers, but rather the countless natural wonders of the very world to which we all are a part.