The first month of 2017 has passed by and I have yet to cross any species off my list. Most of the species I put on the list are seasonal, so I spent January focusing on the few resident species that I included, namely the North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis).
Recently my good friend James Childress found a population close to home. My wife Carolina and i began visiting the site on the weekends, sometimes 2-3 times per day to no avail. However the waterway and adjacent wetlands and pine-oak uplands are rich with wildlife, and I found many photographic subjects in the otters’ absence
.One group that is noticeably missing from my list are birds. I didn’t include them because though I love bird photography, it is a difficult endeavor, and results are often unpredictable. If I were to have made a list, however, I would have incorporated the Wood Duck (Aix sponsa). These denizens of creeks, backwater sloughs, flooded oxbows, and ephemeral ponds can be abundant in parts of The Pineywoods. Unfortunately they are wary and secretive, and typically all I have to show from encountering one is a memory of splashing, their whistle like vocalization as they retreat, and if I’m lucky a distant glimpse of them flying through the trees. While pursuing the otters, however, I found a less wary subject and with a bit of patience and luck I was able to finally capture some images of what many consider to be North America’s most beautiful duck.
One afternoon, as I was trekking with my photographic gear to a spot where we expected the otters might show themselves, I heard my wife call out frantically. Not in fear, but rather a sense of urgency that I might miss the treasure she had stumbled upon. She had found a large Regal Jumping Spider (Phidippus regius). I had tried numerous times to photographic this species, but found them too wary and difficult to approach. But on this warm January day I found a bold, curious specimen that made for a perfect photographic subject.
I have been photographing the Pineywoods of East Texas for many years now. While this species list project is a way to add a little spice to my photographic pursuits, I still love wandering the woods with a camera in hand, and no particular goal in mind. On New Year’s Day Carolina and I went to one of our favorite spots. We wandered the longleaf pine forest, admiring the fungi taking advantage of the moisture and humidity that remained after some recent rains. As is typical in our forest wanderings, Carolina had the best find of the day – A pair of Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora) pushing skyward from the dense carpet of longleaf pine needles. I was surprised to see it blooming so late in the season. The habitat also seemed unusual to me, as I was accustomed to seeing it in the rich loams of moist slopes and stream bottoms. Pleased with the days observations, we sat among the longleaf pines as the day faded, and contemplated the adventures to come.
Unlike most plants, which obtain energy through photosynthesis, Indian Pipe is a mycoheterotroph. It obtains its energy and nutrients from the mycorrhizal fungi of tree roots. I have read that it is named for an old Cherokee legend that states that these plants grow where old chiefs are buried so they may have something to smoke in the afterlife.
Opting for a change of scenery, we decided to take our pursuit of the North American River Otter to the coast. I used to see them regularly in the wetlands around Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge when I worked there, and had heard of some recent sightings. Hoping that we might get lucky Carolina, my mom and I spent a day exploring the Upper Texas Coast. Though our mammalian quarry eluded us, we did see a number of birds including a variety of wintering waterfowl and wading birds. The highlight of the day was toss up between a cooperative male Merlin ((Falco columbarius) that perched on a rustic fence post in perfect light, and an American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) that foraged in a ditch next to the road. Relying on its camouflage it allowed us to approach to within feet of it, as it slowly stalked the reeds.
Back in the Pineywoods I checked the weather daily, awaiting the conditions that would bring about one of nature’s great events – the Spotted Salamander migration. Among the world’s most spectacular amphibians, the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) makes its home in the forests of the eastern United States. Spotted Salamanders spend the majority of the year underground, hidden from the world in small burrows that have been excavated by rodents or other species. In response to warm rains in later winter/early spring they emerge en masse and migrate to their breeding ponds, where they form large breeding congresses in order to propagate the next generation. Finally we had a night with the perfect conditions and Carolina and I visited some breeding sites with our friends James and Erin Childress, where we observed hundreds of Spotted Salamanders and a handful of Mole Salamanders (Ambystoma talpoideum) swimming about the vernal pools.
The salamanders were a nice distraction, but it was soon time to return to my pursuit of the river otter. For Christmas my wife got a remote game camera. Following the news that James had seen otters, she began setting the camera in areas where we observed ample otter sign. For a couple weeks she came up empty handed. One day, while en route to set up the cameras I caught a glimpse of something moving across the leaf litter. It turned out to be a Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occupitomaculata), a small snake of the eastern U.S. that reaches the southwestern extent of its range in East Texas. Though common throughout most of its range, the Red-bellied Snake is quite rare in Texas, and I took our encounter to be a good sign for things to come.
Carolina chose a place to set the camera adjacent to some logs that were covered in otter scat and hoped for the best. Sure enough, the next time we checked the camera’s accumulated images, among the hundreds of photos of branches blowing in the wind, songbirds, and rats, we caught sight of our objective – a North American River Otter.
With renewed energy I will continue to pursue the aquatic mammal in hopes of capturing its photograph, because slow and steady wins the race.