Back to my Roots: Fun with Bird Photography

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Blue-winged Teal

It was birds that first sparked my obsession with photography some 15 or so years ago.  I remember my excitement when I finally got a 3.2 megapixel camera with a 10x optical zoom, when digital cameras were still in their infancy.  Over the next few years I would receive my first digital SLR from my parents, which opened up a whole new world of photographic opportunities, followed shortly by a canon 100-400mm zoom lens.  I spent a lot of time photographing with that lens, and made some images that still rank among my favorites.  But over the years I began to branch out, and learned that photographing less erratic subjects, like reptiles and amphibians, wildflowers, and landscapes, while challenging in its own right, was much less frustrating than bird photography.  It was easier to get “the shot”, as I could control most aspects of the subject, and executing the shot fell largely on my skills as a photographer.  With birds, while one still must rely heavily on skill, we are at the mercy of our flighty subjects.

So bird photography took a back burner.  While I enjoyed the 100-400mm lens, it just didn’t produce the high quality images that I wanted on a regular basis.  Conditions had to be just perfect, and the subject extremely cooperative to get the type of shot I was after.  I honed my macro and landscape skills, and only occasionally returned to my feathered friends.

While I couldn’t say that I like birds more than flora or herps, it is true that in my professional career I have more experience with the Class Aves than any other group.  For my Master’s I studied the avian communities of Iguazú National Park in northeastern Argentina, where I would meet my future wife, Carolina.  I have also studied Snowy Plovers in the salt lakes and playas of the Texas Panhandle, and the rare and declining avifauna of the saltmarshes of the Delmarva Peninsula.  So as bird photography, and coincidentally birdwatching began to vanish from my life, it felt like I was left with some void.

As luck would have it, right around Christmas my good friend James Childress lucked into a fantastic deal on a very lightly used Canon 600mm.  In my book this is THE bird photography lens.  It is the lens that the pros I admired used.  It is the lens I always dreamed about but thought I would never have.  One thing that you need to know about James (and his wife Erin) is that they are extremely generous, and value shared experiences and good times over personal possessions.  Being that James and I spend a great deal of time in the field exploring and photographing together (he often credits (blames?) me for his own obsession for nature photography) , he told me that he would like me to help him test out the lens.  I was, of course, honored and overwhelmed at the thought of this dream come true.

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James with his new lens

Wanting to be a good friend, I not-so-reluctantly obliged to James’s generous offer.  So we set out to test the capabilities of the new lens.  While I will only be posting my images in this blog, I HIGHLY recommend that you check out James’s Flickr photostream (click here).

We took a weekend trip to the coast, where we first found several Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris).

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Ring-necked Duck

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Ring-necked Duck

I was supremely impressed with how the lens captured the handsome diving ducks.  But wondered how it would work on smaller, more active birds.  I would soon get my chance.  It’s hard to imagine a bird much smaller or more active than the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula), but the lens captured it beautifully among the Spanish Moss draped on an old Cedar Elm.

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Just because I was growing interested in birds again doesn’t mean I was about to neglect the other photographic subjects I had grown so fond of.  We found this huge River Cooter (Pseudemys concinna) basking on a cold day.

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River Cooter

I was amazed at how well the lens captured the ambient light.  I opted for a low angle on this Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) to help isolate it from the wetland plants it was sheltering among.

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Common Gallinule

Perhaps the highlight of our weekend trip to the coast was observing several American Bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus).  Though they are quite large, these are very cryptic birds, and can be hard to isolate from their surroundings.  Thanks to the focal length and low aperture capabilities of this lens, however, getting this master of camouflage to pop was easy.

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American Bittern

We also tried our hand at capturing some in flight images along the Gulf of Mexico.  Admittedly, with the extreme focal length this was a bit challenging, however we soon began to get the hang of it and honed our skills on dozens of Black Skimmers (Rhynchops niger) that patrolled just off shore, skimming the shallows with their specially adapted lower mandible.  When it feels a fish it snaps shut with lightning-like speed, trapping a meal for this unique member of the gull family.

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Black Skimmer

Nearby we saw waves of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) coming in to roost.

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American White Pelican

As the tide began to creep in we spotted a group of small shorebirds bouncing around in the sand.  Among the mixed species group were a few Snowy Plovers (Charadrius nivosus), the species I had spent a summer collecting data on in the Panhandle.  The lens allowed us to create images where the foreground and background seemed to blend together.

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Snowy Plover

Still reeling from the success of our trip to the coast, James and I wanted to try the lens out on our home turf.  So we spend several days exploring his expansive property in Angelina County, and documenting the birds as best we could.  I captured this American Goldfinch (Spinus tristus) on a frigid morning, when puddles from recent rains froze solid and frost clung to the leaves.

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American Goldfinch

I shot this Great Egret (Ardea alba) at a local park.  I couldn’t believe how far away from this bird I had to be to get the entire animal in the frame.  And even at a distance, the level of detail that the 600mm captures is astonishing.

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Great Egret

Back at James’s farm we spend some time strolling through the woods in search of resident and wintering birds.  Though they are common, I have always wanted to capture a good image of a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).  I think they are beautiful, and they are iconic woodland birds.  I captured this one as it called from a branch that was swaying in the breeze.  Utilizing high speed continuous shooting, I was able to catch it as the branched swayed away from the twig in the foreground, providing a clear shot at the bird.

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Blue Jay

I’m quite fond of this shot of a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), another familiar bird of the eastern United States.

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Tufted Titmouse

This Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) was one of a large group foraging on seed near James’s cabin.

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Chipping Sparrow

As we were wandering through the woods we saw and heard a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) foraging in the underbrush.  We found a spot to conceal ourselves as best we could and waited for over an hour while the bird teased us by flitting back and forth through dense vegetation before us.  Unable to get a clear shot, we were about ready to give up when it hopped out onto a large vine in the open.  Remarkably it sat still on this perch long enough for both James and I to take several shots.  See one of James’s photos here.

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Hermit Thrush

While we were busy photographing the songbirds, we heard a haunting call ring out above us.  It was a Barred Owl (Strix varia).  We came to realize that there was a pair in the treetops around us.  I struggled to get a clear shot until one of the owls flew and provided me a relatively unobstructed view.

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Barred Owl

Carolina and I are lucky to have friends like James and Erin Childress.  I know that James will make good use of his new lens, and look forward to spending many more hours with him in the field capturing images of the natural world we both love so much.

 

Fall into Winter: November and December Recap

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Fall color along a forest stream

We’re in the heat of winter here in the Pineywoods, and I’ve got a backlog of posts to catch up on.  Soapwort Gentian ended up being the last species checked off my list in 2017.  Though I would not see any more of my “target species”, my November and December were still filled with incredible biodiversity and natural beauty.

In mid November Carolina and I met up with our friend Skip Pudney in the Big Thicket.  We were hoping to photograph the rare orchid Spiranthes longilabris in bloom.  While we did find a single plant, the true show was put on by the invertebrates – pollinators taking advantage in a flush in late season flowers.  We noticed several Yellowjacket Hover Flies (Milesia virginiensis), Ornate Bell Moths (Utetheisa ornatrix), Common Buckeyes (Junonia coenia), Blister Beetles (Epicauta sp.) and more.

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Yellowjacket Hover Fly

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Ornate Bell Moth

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Common Buckeye

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Blister Beetle

By mid-November the leaves had begun to change.  This was a good year for fall color in East Texas.  The leaves of deciduous trees begun to change color in the falls when the days are sunny and the evenings are crisp.  These cues, along with the shortening photoperiod trigger a chemical reaction within the leaves.  Production of chlorophyll halts, and slowly this green pigment begins to break down and is rendered clear.  As the green fades, other colors such as carotenoids and anthocyanins, which have been active in the leaves all along, now become dominant, and the forest turns from green to brilliant hues of yellow, orange, and red.

In late November I spent a foggy morning photographing the maples, oaks, hickories, and elms of a rich hardwood stream bottom.

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Fall color in the fog

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Hickories and maples provide the yellows in this fall forest

I then went on to a steep bluff over the upper reaches of the Neches River, where the Red Maples lived up to their name.

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Fall color on a bluff over the Neches River

While I find broad views of a fall forest to be especially beautiful, the subtle beauty of fall can be observed up close, like in the leaves of poison ivy, as seen below…

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Fall color in poison ivy

…and in the layers of Florida Maple leaves on branches draped around the trunks of pine trees.

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Florida maples display their fall colors.

In early December much of East Texas was hit with an uncharacteristic snow storm.  In over 20 years in the region, I have only seen snow a handful of times, and of those only a fraction actually stuck.  This was one of the finest in recent memories.  In East Texas fall color lingers well into December, and the result was what looked to be a battle between fire and ice.

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Fire and Ice

Deeper in the forest, the landscape appeared a winter wonderland.

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Pineywoods Snowscape

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My Winter Wonderland

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Snow in the Beechwoods

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Dressed in White

Having grown up in Chicago, I experienced harsh, snow-filled winters in my childhood.  It was good to spend some time walking and playing in the snow again – like reuniting with an old friend.  I think that for Caro it was even more special, as she seldom saw snow in her native province of Entre Rios, Argentina.

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Carolina in the Snow

Later in December we visited a longleaf pine savannah shortly after a prescribed fire.  Here we saw fresh cones on the torched leaf litter…

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Borne of Ashes

…and a freshly germinated seedling rising from the ashes. With luck, this tiny seedling will grow into a stately tree in this longleaf pine savannah. Perhaps it will one day harbor the cavity of a Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and Bachman’s Sparrows and Brown-headed Nuthatches will sing from its boughs while Louisiana Pine Snakes and Wild Turkey patrol among its roots.

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New Beginnings

Within the longleaf pine savannah we found Riddell’s Spike-Moss (Selaginella corallina) growing in the crevices of exposed boulders of the Catahoula Formation.  S. corallina is a primitive vascular plant that is typically included with the “fern-allies”, and despite its name is more closely related to ferns than mosses. It has an interesting disjunct range, with one population in central and east Texas, northwestern Louisiana, western Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma, and another in Alabama and Georgia. I seldom encounter them in East Texas. When I do, it is generally growing off the faces of sandstone outcrops or in areas of deep sand.

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Riddell’s Spike Moss

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Ridell’s Spike Moss

After exploring the savannah we ventured to the bluffs along the Neches River.  Here we found patches of fall color lingering in the American Beech trees on the bluffs’ slopes.  American Beech is one of the last trees to turn in the fall, and they brighten the otherwise gray December forest.  In the photo below the Neches River is visible in the distance.

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The Bluff’s Edge

In late December our friend Scott Wahlberg, Carolina, and I spent the day scouting salamander locations for the spring.  Though the conditions for finding a salamander weren’t ideal, we did turn up a single, apparently gravid, female Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum).

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Spotted Salamander

Toward the end of December James and I spent some time looking for birds in a local park.  There I was able to capture an image of a Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) in the dense underbrush along the margins of a pond using James’s new 600mm lens (more on that in the future).  These striking sparrows are “skulkers” – small birds that prefer dense cover.  I was lucky to get a shot of one as it momentarily paused in its dense domain of tangles.

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Swamp Sparrow

I was also able to photograph a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) there.  The birds that winter in East Texas are members of the “myrtle” race, so named because they are one of the few birds that will regularly eat wax-myrtle berries.

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Yellow-rumped Warbler

On December 30, Carolina and I found a Broad-banded Water Snake (Nerodia fasciata confluens) while exploring the bottomlands off the Neches River.  The temperatures hovered just above freezing, and the snake could barely move, yet it was alive and well.  After taking a few photos we left it to weather the cold, as it and its kind have done for countless generations.

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October Recap

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A rich mesic forest dominated by American Beech and other hardwoods

October was a productive month.  I was able to photograph another six species on my biodiversity list:

Rainbow Scarab (Phanaeus vindex)

Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus ornatus)

Button Cactus (Epithelantha micromeris)

Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha)

Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus)

Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum)

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East Texas generally experiences its first significant cold fronts in October, providing our first real relief from the sweltering summers.  These cool days are the perfect time to wander around in the woods.  This year Carolina and I spent a few days in the rich mesic American beech slopes, where we searched for rare plants and early signs of fall color.

Though not particularly rare, the American Strawberry Bush (Euonymus americanus) displays its bizarre fruits in the fall.  Also known as “Hearts-a-burstin”, the fruits of this small shrub generally resemble strawberries when closed, but are hard and inedible.  In the early fall the break open to reveal the large red seeds within.

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Fruits of the American Strawberry bush

The Tall Rattlesnake Root, or Tall Wild Lettuce (Prenanthes altissima) is very rare in Texas, known only from a few sites in Jasper and Newton Counties.  Here it is at the southwestern extent of its range.  It occurs along small streams in rich mature hardwood dominated forests.

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Tall Rattlesnake Root

Always found among the roots of its host plant, Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) is parasitic on the roots of American Beech.  This bizarre plant lacks chlorophyll and is entirely dependent on its host for energy.

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Beechdrops

After a long day of botanizing, I spotted the unmistakable form of a Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) crossing the road. The sighting was remarkable, and special to me, in that it occurred on the 2nd busiest highway in my county. It had made it most of the way across two lanes of traffic, and was nearly across the shoulder when I spotted it. I quickly turned around, worried that some vehicle would come from behind and purposely put an end to this beautiful creature, an all too common occurrence here, perpetrated by the unsympathetic and uninformed. Fortunately it made it safely across the pavement, and I watched as it inched across the right-of-way toward the dense forest beyond.

This encounter also helped remind me that sometimes there are more important things than getting the shot. I’ll admit, I hoped very much to capture a spectacular image of this three and a half foot beauty. But as I tried to balance poor light, a multitude of onlookers passing by at 70 miles an hour, and issues with trespassing, I realized that not only was it futile, but completely unnecessary. Simply spending a few moments with this incredible creature was more than enough.

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Canebrake Rattlesnake

Living Rocks, Golf Balls, and Other Strangely Named Cacti of the Trans-Pecos.

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Living Rock Cactus

Target Species:

Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus ornatus)

Button Cactus (Epithelantha micromeris)

Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha)

Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus)

The landscape of Big Bend is striking for its vastness; famous for its sweeping views that stretch from horizon to horizon, and seemingly beyond.  Stepping into this rugged wilderness, one is immediately hit with the harshness of this land.  Brutal conditions created by lack of rainfall and extreme temperatures.  It is easy to think that this seemingly inhospitable land  would be devoid of life, but despite its harshness it is incredibly diverse, harboring a rich flora and fauna unlike anywhere else on the planet.  And as remarkable as this vastness is, equally astounding is the beauty and variety that can be found in just one small patch of the desert floor.

Big Bend, that large peninsula of Texas that dips down into Mexico as it follow a bend in the Rio Grande, has the greatest cactus diversity in the country.  It was that diversity that brought Carolina and I to the region this October.  Specifically we were hoping to find the Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus) in bloom.

Big Bend is part of the Chihuahuan Desert.  It is the highest, wettest desert in North America, and the most biodiverse in the world.  The Big Bend Region includes a multitude of natural and cultural attractions, including Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Terlingua.  We planned to explore these areas in pursuit of our succulent quarries, and hoped that our pursuit would bring with it other natural wonders.

Cactus hunting is not without its hazards.  Aside from the obvious risk of an errant spine in the skin, there are other denizens of cactus country that pack a punch.  One such inhabitant is the Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus ornatus).  Yet despite this creatures fearsome reputation as a venomous marauder, it is one of the most docile snake species I have had the good fortune to encounter.

As I scoured a rock cut in search of spiny succulents, my eyes caught a familiar outline – a striking (as in attractive) Crotalus ornatus coiled at the mouth of a deep crevice in the limestone.  It was sitting, I presumed, waiting for some unsuspecting rodent to wander within its grasp.  Generally speaking, I think that the threat of rattlesnakes to your average desert-goer is greatly exaggerated, however seeing this beauty hidden away in the perfect hand or foot hold certainly reinforced the old adage “look before you step”.  The photo below depicts the animal as I found it.

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Black-tailed Rattlesnake

After spending a few moments with the black-tail I continued my search for cacti.  After a moment I heard Carolina call out that she had found something.  How she spotted them, I’ll never know, but she had found a population of the diminutive Button Cactus (Epithelantha micromeris).  This diminutive cactus seldom protrudes more than 2 inches above the rocky substrate it calls home.  It occurs primarily in Mexico, but also throughout much of West Texas, southern New Mexico, and extreme southeastern Arizona.

Though they were not in flower, I found these small, rock-like cacti to be quite photogenic.  They flower primarily in late winter and early spring.  Later in the year an elongated red fruit appears.  Caro likened the fruit to a particular part of an excited dog’s anatomy.

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Button Cactus

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Button Cactus

Nestled in a few populations along the Pecos/Brewster County line, one may find a particularly formidable looking cactus.  The Icicle Cholla (Cylindropuntia tunicata) is a wide ranging species, occurring in deserts throughout much of Latin America.  In the United States, however, it is known only from these few places in the Trans-Pecos of Texas.  Admiring the afternoon light filtering through its intimidating spines, it was easy to see how it earned its common name.

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Icicle Cactus

After a long day of travelling and exploring we finally made it to Marathon, but not before stopping at an extensive Black-tailed Prairie Dog town, where we admired their antics as the day began to fade.  We made our camp in Marathon, and I found myself deep in thought as we laid in our sleeping bags looking up at the twinkling wonder of space.  Along with the prerequisite existential questions inspired by such a vista, I pondered on the days to come, and the natural wonders that awaited us.

The next morning I spotted a remarkable creature on the stucco outside the campground’s bathrooms.  It was a male Chihuahuan Agapema (Agapema dyari).  A lovely member of the giant silkmoth family (Saturniidae).  I gently moved it to a nearby tree trunk, where I hoped it would be less obvious to the hoard of House Sparrows that were scouring the area.

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Chihuahuan Agapema

As the sun warmed the desert we broke our condensation-laden camp and set out for Big Bend National Park.  As we crossed into the park we immediately took notice of the diverse cactus community.  The most obvious were the abundant clumps of Strawberry Cactus (Echinocereus stramineus), the heavily armed Eagle’s Claw Cactus (Echinocactus horizonthalonius), and the ubiquitous prickly pears (Opuntia spp.).

Finding the smaller, more cryptic species, took a bit more work.  We found the Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha) to be quite common.  Also known as the Golf Ball Cactus, this tiny succulent is quite similar to the Button Cactus.  Cacti of Texas, A Field Guide by Powell, et. al discusses some of the differences.

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

The real reason for our trip, however, was to try to catch the Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus) in bloom.  This bizarre cactus is, in my opinion, one of the most spectacular plants in the country.  Hardly recognizable as a cactus, it is spineless, and consists of rough tubercles arranged in concentric rings around a center of soft fuzz.

For most of the year the dull green to gray Living Rock blends perfectly with the scattered stones that litter its limestone home, relying on camouflage rather than piercing spines for defense.  For a few short weeks in the fall, however, the limestone hills of the Trans-Pecos explode with color as thousands upon thousands of Living Rocks open their bright pink blooms to the world.

It was just such a scene that I was hoping Carolina and I would encounter in Big Bend.  We were soon to find, however, that finding these jewels of the Chihuahuan Desert in bloom would be far more difficult than we anticipated.  We spent all day scouring limestone ridges, bluffs along the Rio Grande, and flats in the low desert.  We jumped for joy when we found our first plant.  We knew we were were in the right area.  Even without their blooms, the Living Rock is a beautiful, bizarre plant and photographic subject.

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Living Rock Cactus

The desert sun is relentless, even in mid October.  Our spirits refreshed by finding our first Living Rock, we pushed on, scouring the bleached white limestone hills as the temperatures flirted with 100 degrees.  It was truly brutal, but we knew that the payoff of seeing the blooms would be well worth our suffering.  After several hours, and several hundred more Living Rocks sighted, however, the blooms did not come.  We were dismayed.  We had become proficient at spotting the near invisible cacti on the desert floor, but despite finding so many individuals in several different areas, we did not find a single bloom.  I began to think that this would not be the trip that we would see the exquisite flowers of Ariocarpus fissuratus.

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Living Rock Cactus

That night we hoped to camp in the park, but alas, all of the campgrounds were full.  We debated between staying at a primitive campsite along a backcountry road, or driving to the campground in Study Butte.  In the end we opted for the latter, and made the drive from the Rio Grande to Study Butte in the darkness, with nothing but the Common Poorwhills, Black-tailed Jackrabbits, and Western Diamondbacks to keep us company.

When we arrived at the campground, the attendant informed us that there was a party going on that would last well into the night, and recommended that we select a site on the other  side of the property.  We happily agreed.  We made camp, ate dinner, and settled in for the evening.  The “party” turned out to be a music festival that blared across the desert until after 1 am, after which the multitude of bikers attending continued to keep us awake for at least another hour.  Finally, at some point in the wee hours before dawn we drifted off.

We were awoken around 6 am to gale force wind violently shaking our tent.  The temperature had dropped by tens of degrees, and as we stepped out from behind the nylon the air met us with a chill.  I must admit, as I broke camp with powerful wind gusts and stinging dust beating down on me, I was hating life.  “Not every trip can be a success,” I reminded myself, and I tried to take solace in the incredible organisms we had thusfar encountered, and the memories we had created.  In that moment, however, it was hard to do.

We decided to spend the morning and early afternoon exploring the area, before beginning our long journey back to the Pineywoods.  The habitat at our first stop looked promising, but after a lack of blooms the previous day, I took care not to get my hopes up.  We soon saw our first Living Rock, like a star etched into the talus.  I found myself once again admiring their bizarre firm when I heard Carolina shout out in glee.  I knew.  The memory of the brutal previous night faded as I made my way to her, and saw the bright pink bloom seemingly emerging from nothing.  We did it.  It was not long before we found another, and another.

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Living Rock Cactus

The Living Rock is one of three spineless cacti in Texas.  Their lack of spines means that they must rely on camouflage to avoid predation.  They also contain foul-tasting alkaloids which likely deter would be predators.  These alkaloids, however, have made this plant popular with the Tarahumara and other early tribes and settlers.  Though they do not contain mescaline like the similarly spineless Peyote, they contain other mildly hallucinogenic compounds like hordenine, and were reportedly used as a substitute when preferable psychoactive cacti weren’t available.  Hordenine also made the Living Rock useful for a number of medicinal purposes, including a disinfectant for wounds and burns.

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Living Rock Cactus

Ariocarpus fissuratus is  endemic to the Chihuahuan Desert.  They barely enter the U.S. in West Texas.  They are incredibly tough, even for a cactus.  We found that they would grow in the harshest parts of the landscape, often where even other succulents could not survive.  They owe their success to their uncanny capacity to store water, and their ability to shrivel away to virtually nothing in times of extreme drought.  Indeed, they often times seem to be more stone than plant.  Carolina and I admired them for some time, and reluctantly bid them farewell, content with the short moment in time we were fortunate enough to spend among their fleeting blooms.

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Living Rock Cactus

There are some songs that serve to inspire us and remind of of those things in this world that are most important to us.  For me, one such song is Stubborn Love by the Lumineers, and it came up on the playlist just as the Chisos Mountains began to fade in our rearview.  I looked about the desert that stretched beyond the horizons around us, and I was filled with a sense of contentment.  It’s easy to feel sad at the end of a great trip, but I take comfort in the fact that no matter where I am, if nature is near there is some great wonder waiting to be discovered.

August and September Recap

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Sacred Datura

Between August 1 and September 30 I was able to cross 5 more species off my list, 3 of which came from another trip to the Davis Mountains:

Mountain Adder’s Mouth (Malaxis macrostachya)

Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii)

Mountain Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi)

Gulf Blazing Star (Liatris tenuis)

Barbed Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes barbata)

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Although we spent most of our time during our August trip to West Texas in the Davis Mountains, we camped the last night on the shore of Lake Balmorhea.  I found the Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii) pictured above right at daybreak as I explored the area around our tent.  The flowers of the Sacred Datura are primarily pollinated by large sphinx moths.  As a result they open in the late evening and close in the early morning.  Sacred Datura has a long history of significance for the people of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. It is well known for its potentially lethal toxicity. However it has also been used extensively for medicinal purposes. The plant was also used by many native tribes in religious ceremonies, often to induce visions.due to its hallucinogenic properties. Unfortunately, the potency of its toxins resulted in the death of many of its users.

On the drive home we stopped at a few rock outcrops to help break up the drive and stretch our legs.  It was at one of these outcrops that we spotted the Cory’s Dutchman Pipe (Aristolochia coryi).  In the U.S., this bizarre plant can only be found in central and western Texas.

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Cory’s Dutchman Pipe

Back in East Texas, my friend James Childress and I went looking for some late summer wildflowers.  Two of my favorites are the Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) and the Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii).  Both species are uncommon in East Texas.  P. ciliaris occurs in herbaceous seeps, baygall margins, and occasionally wet ditches and prairie remnants.  L. michauxii primarily occurs on the upper slopes of rich mesic ravines, often near the transition zone between slope and upland.

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Yellow Fringed Orchid

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Carolina Lily

While hunting for wildflowers James spotted a most interesting creature.  The Giant Ichneumon (Megarhyssa macrurus) is a large parasitic wasp with extremely long ovipositors.  They use these ovipositors to probe tunnels created by the larvae of horntail wasps.  Horntails bore into the wood of dead and dying trees.  The female ichneumon seeks out these larvae and with her ovipositor and lays her eggs on or in them.  Her own larvae then parasitize the horntail larvae.  The young ichmeumons will feed only on the horntails, killing them in the process.  They will then pupate and emerge as adults from the tunnel that their host created for them.

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Giant Ichneumon

In late August Hurricane Harvey passed through East Texas and dumped unprecedented amounts of rain on the region.  Following the storm, James and I went looking for reptiles and amphibians, hoping that they would be active following the prolonged period of moisture.

We found a number of Southern Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix), the most attractive of which is pictured below.

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Southern Copperhead

Among the amphibians observed was this enormous Gulf Coast Toad (Incilius nebulifer).

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Gulf Coast Toad

The prolonged rainfall brought out scores of Hurter’s Spadefoots (Scaphiopus hurteri).  These interesting frogs can be extremely abundant in certain areas, but require specific habitat conditions.  These conditions typically consist of areas with deep, undisturbed sand where they can burrow and aestivate during the hottest and driest part of the summer.  This species emerges only after heavy rains, where they may breed by the thousands in small ephemeral wetlands that may be little more than a puddle.  The tadpole stage for these spadefoots is among the shortest of any frog, requiring as little as two weeks to go from an egg to a froglet capable of leaving the water.  This short larval stage is an adaptation to allow them to breed in areas were the presence of water is a limiting factor, and allows them to breed in areas that other species are not capable of utilizing, effectively eliminating the competition.

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Hurter’s Spadefoot

September is perhaps the best time to visit Catahoula Barrens.  Wildflowers such as Texas Blazing Star (Liatris mucronata) and Nuttall’s Rayless Goldenrod (Bigelowia nuttallii) bloom in mass.  Downy Lobelia (Lobelia puberula) is fairly common in wetter areas along the margins of the barrens.

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Downy Lobelia

Small-flowered Fameflower (Phemeranthus parviflorus) occurs sporadically in Catahoula Barrens.  The flowers of this interesting succulent open in late afternoon.

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Small-flowered Fameflower

I leave you with this final shot of a Catahoula Barren.  I captured this shot at dusk and tried to highlight the rich diversity of colors that can be found in these incredible landscapes.

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Catahoula Barren

Return to Sky Island

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

Target Species:

Mountain Adder’s Mouth (Malaxis macrostachya)

Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii)

Mountain Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi)

The sky islands of West Texas have been woven into the fabric of my being.  Each trip to these high elevation oases of the desert brings with it a sense of wonder and euphoria, and a longing to return.  Since returning from our trip in July, not even a month ago, I have been desperate to get back to the high elevation grasslands, shaded canyons, and montane forests.  There is so much to see.  Such plant and animal diversity, such natural beauty.  Here among the cool mountain peaks I feel at home.

When I approached Carolina with the idea of returning to the Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve for another open weekend in August, it didn’t take much convincing.  We decided we would return, and this time we would be bringing our good friends James and Erin Childress with us.  So we set out in the blackness of early morning on a great pilgrimage to the Trans-Pecos.

By the time the sun rose, the towering Loblolly Pines and stately hardwoods had mostly vanished in the rearview.  As dawn broke they gave way to gnarled post oaks sprawled over verdant grasslands.  Gradually the post oak gave way to mesquite, and the grass became more and more sparse, until bare rock seemed more abundant than plantlife.  We passed over the Ozona Arch into the desert scrub of the Permian Basin, and finally after what seemed like an eternity, the foothills of the Davis Mountains came into view.

We took our time on the scenic loop, admiring the scenery in every direction, and watching for plants and wildlife along the road.  When we finally arrived at the preserve, we stepped out into the cool mountain airs and paused a moment to take it all in.  We could see Madera Canyon in the distance, as it worked its way toward the slopes of Mount Livermore, the highest peak in the Davis Mountains, and the fifth highest in Texas.

We visited a moment with our friend and local landowner Gary before venturing into the preserve.  We made camp in a flat basin among scattered Alligator Juniper and Pinyon Pine growing above a rich layer of forbs and grasses.  Among this herbaceous layer I spotted the purple flowering spikes of Lobelia fenestralis, the Fringeleaf Lobelia.  This striking sky island specialist barely enters the U.S. in extreme West Texas and one county in western New Mexico.

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Fringeleaf Lobelia

After setting up camp we journeyed into Madera Canyon.  We admired the birds as we went, watching as a Common Black Hawk flew from the crown of an Alligator Juniper, and a Montezuma Quail burst from the grasses and across the road before us.  We were serenaded by Western Kingbirds, Blue Grosbeaks, and Say’s Phoebes while the occasional hummingbird shot past like a bullet, offering little opportunity to identify it to species.

As we scoured the slopes along Madera Creek in hopes of glimpsing one of the many interesting things that dwell there, I heard Carolina call out that she had found one of my targets.  Sure enough, between the large rocks at the base of a Ponderosa Pine was a single green leaf.  My search was now narrowed and intensified, as I made my way along the steep, rocky slopes hoping to catch one of these bizarre plants in bloom.  I looked and looked, until I saw what I was searching for: the single leaf and ten-inch flowering spike of the Mountain Adder’s Mouth Orchid (Malaxis macrostachya).

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Mountain Adder’s Mouth

The Mountain’s Adder Mouth is an orchid of the montane forests of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.  In Texas it is known only from the high elevation slopes of the Davis Mountains.  Though the plant itself may reach a foot in height, the flowers themselves are tiny, and a hundred or more may decorate the raceme.  This long, narrow raceme has earned this orchid the colloquial name “Rat-tail Malaxis”.  We searched the area for more orchids to no avail, and I counted myself lucky to have found such a fine specimen.

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Mountain Adder’s Mouth

As the sun vanished behind the distant peaks we slowly began making our way back to camp.  In the fading light of dusk we spotted a brown blur moving across the road ahead.  Drawing nearer we made out the shape of a large bobcat vanishing into the grass.  We paused a moment and watched, hoping that we might catch another glimpse of this elusive feline.  Our efforts were rewarded, as it occasionally appeared between breaks in the vegetation as it silently and meticulously made its way through the dark forest of pinyon and juniper.

We arrived back at camp with little light to spare.  James and I strung a large white sheet between the branches of two trees a short distance from our site.  We then propped a small florescent bulb on my tripod and aimed it at the sheet.  Our trap had been set.

As the sheet collected our six-legged quandary we prepared a meal of dehydrated broccoli cheese soup, and settled in to watch the skies.  The heavens seemed locked in some violent battle, as tailed balls of light danced across the sky,  flying from horizon to horizon.  In truth we weren’t witnessing some celestial war, but rather the peak of a perseid meteor shower, when the constellation Perseus scatters massive particles throughout space.  When our eyes and necks could no longer take in the wonder of the skies we shut off our light trap and retired for the evening.

We rose early the next morning.  The first order of business was photographing a most spectacular creature that we had found the day before.  I was lucky enough to catch a fresh Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii).  Carolina spotted the brilliant beetle as it flew about a pecan tree that had been planted at a picnic area in the foothill’s of the Davis Mountains.  As this species evolved to specialize on walnut leaves, it is not so surprising that it would also make use of Pecan, a close relative.  Anxious to arrive at the preserve, we held onto the beetle to photograph later.

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Wood’s Jewel Scarab

Now, in the beautiful early morning light we set it in our viewfinders.  I have always dreamed of finding a live Chrysina woodii.  A desire that has only been fueled after finding numerous crushed bits and pieces over the years.  C. woodii is endemic to the sky islands of West Texas, eastern New Mexico, and northern Mexico.  In Texas it has been documented in the Davis and Guadalupe Mountains.  The beetles actively feed during the day and are regularly attracted to lights by night.

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Wood’s Jewel Scarab

Chrysina woodii is also known as the Blue-legged Jewel Scarab.  It’s easy to see why, when admiring its brilliant metallic blue tarsi.  C. woodii is named for Dr. Horatio C. Wood, a pharmacologist who also published numerous papers on botany and entomology.  Wood collected a number of brilliant metallic green beetles in West Texas and gave them to his friend, George Henry Horn.  Horn was a pioneering coleopterist (entomologist specializing in beetles) active in the southwest during the late 1800s.  Horn presented the specimens at an entomological congress in 1883, and formally described Chrysina woodii in 1885.

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Wood’s Jewel Scarab

The light trap that we set the previous night was a success.  Among the flurry of moths that I was woefully under-prepared to identify, Erin spotted a creature of metallic green decorated with bright silver streaks: a Glorious Scarab (Chrysina gloriosa).  We held onto it until morning, when we opted to photograph it on the leaves of an Alligator Juniper, one of the primary food sources of the adults.  Despite the beetle’s gaudy appearance, it is incredible just how cryptic it was among the blue-green juniper leaves.

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Glorious Scarab

After breakfast and our coleopteran photo session we set back out into Madera Canyon.  Once again we paused to admire the incredible array of birds that flit about the trees, filling the mountain air with their sweet songs.  In the early morning hours the showy blooms of the Torrey’s Crag Lily (Echeandia flavescens) had opened.  By midday they will have closed, and the plants will become invisible among the sea of grass that surrounds them.

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Torrey’s Crag Lily

Along the bases of the large rocks lining Madera Creek I spotted the succulent Havard’s Stonecrop (Sedum havardii).  This species is known in the U.S. only from the Davis and Chisos Mountains of West Texas.

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Havard’s Stonecrop

Deep in Madera Canyon we turned into one of the many side canyons formed by ephemeral streams feeding Madera Creek.  We were spread out along the gradual slope when we heard Carolina call out “snake”.  I’ll admit that it took me a moment when she struggled to draw our attention to the serpent before her.  But sure enough, there, among a downed alligator juniper sat a Mottled Rock Rattlesnake (Crotalus lepidus lepidus).  The cryptic viper was nearly invisible due to its remarkable camouflage.  We all delighted in observing and photographing the beautiful reptile.  Despite its potent venom, it remained docile throughout our encounter, and would not display even the slightest bit of aggression toward us.

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Mottled Rock Rattlesnake

We bid the rattlesnake farewell, and ventured deeper into the canyon, until it flattened out into a broad high elevation basin.  The ground here was littered with small rocks.  Soon we came to realize that here some of the rocks move.  James was the first to catch movement among the pebbles, as one stone seemingly jumped out of his way.  Baffled, we looked closer, only to reveal that what looked like nothing more than one of the basin floor’s countless stones was actually a neonate Mountain Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi).

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

It soon became clear that these tiny lizards were all around us, and within the span of an hour we saw more than a dozen.  Their abundance that day is likely a product of their reproductive biology.  The females give live birth to as many as 40 or more of these living stones in July and August.  The neonates are then left to fend for themselves as they scatter about the surrounding area.  It is truly remarkable just how well-camouflaged these tiny dragons are.

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

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Mountain Short-horned Lizards

Spotting the baby lizards became something of a contest.  And while I was genuinely thrilled to have seen them, I couldn’t help but hope that we might encounter an adult.  Deeper into the basin we pushed until a distant rumble drew my attention to the peaks behind us.  Behind the mountains a massive storm was building, sending broad black clouds towering to the sky.  It was fast approaching.  Deciding that we would prefer not to wait out a storm at the base of some pine or juniper we decided to retrace our steps.

The storm drew nearer and nearer still as we retreated toward the safety of my truck.  Between the cracking thunder that echoed from the canyon walls, Erin called out “a big one! A big one!”  My eyes followed her finger to the rocky earth, where it took them a moment to spot the large Mountain Horned Lizard sitting still among the stones.

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

Despite the impending deluge, we settled in to admire this incredible creature.  Thunder rang and the sky darkened as our shutters closed in rapid succession, forever freezing a moment of the lizard’s life in time.  I couldn’t help but imagine what a bizarre, frightening experience this must have been for it.  Fortunately, for a lizard photographer, at least, most horned lizards rely on their camouflage as a defense mechanism, and are prone to hunker down in an attempt to avoid being seen.

As a group, the horned lizards of the genus Phrynosoma are often referred to as “horny toads”.  A misnomer, of course, as toads are amphibians and these are very much reptilian.  Phrynosoma hernandesi is among the most widespread of the horned lizards, occurring across much of the western U.S. and Mexico and into southern Canada.  They generally occur in high elevation woodlands, prairies, and savannahs in the southern portion of their range, and grasslands and forested foothills to the north.  In Texas they are primarily restricted to the Davis and Guadalupe Mountains, with a few scattered populations in other ranges around El Paso.

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

The Mountain Short-horned Lizard is one of a number of the Phrynosoma that is able to shoot blood from the corner of its eye.  This tactic appears to primarily be utilized against canine predators.  Fortunately it did not deem us a sufficient enough threat to warrant such an attack.

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

We spent some time in the lizard’s company, and hastily returned to the truck.  On four wheels we were able to get ahead of the storm, and after a lunch of tuna sandwiches we set out to explore the scenic loop that winds around the Davis Mountains.  We stopped a moment at the McDonald Observatory, and continued on to Fort Davis.  As we neared the small grocery store in town, the rain finally caught up with us.  It is a magical experience, rain in the desert.  The dusty earth dampens and releases its sweet, distinctive aroma to the air.  We soaked in the rain, both literally and figuratively, as we restocked some supplies and prepared to continue on the loop along the southern and western edge of the Davis Mountains.

The rain was letting up as we spotted a large Pronghorn buck and his harem of six does not far outside of Fort Davis.  We watched them as lightning descended distant clouds on the horizon.  After spending a few moments with North America’s fastest land mammal, we continued down the road where we saw a large Mule Deer Buck browsing among the cholla and desert grasses.

Scaled Quail and Roadrunners darted across the road before us as we made our way further down the scenic loop.  We stopped at the Point of Rocks Roadside Park, where James chased after a Canyon Towhee with his camera, Carolina and Erin explored the massive rock outcrop, and I prepared a dinner of macaroni and tuna.  The sun had begun to peak through the clouds, casting its rays to distant rain showers that transformed its light to a myriad of brilliant colors arching across the sky.  After dinner we returned to the loop where we found a number of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes before returning to our campsite around 11 pm.

The next morning we broke camp and said farewell to the Davis Mountains Preserve.  Our time in this remarkable sky island, however, was not yet over.  We were off to visit Gary at his property on the other side of the range.  He lives in a remote corner of Limpia Canyon far from paved roads.  The creek that helped form the canyon was running.  Its crystal clear waters pouring over boulders among the towering Ponderosa Pines looked more a scene from Colorado than West Texas.  We would later learn from Gary that it might run only a month or two out of the year.

I had visited the forested canyon on Gary’s property last year and I couldn’t wait to show James and Erin this hidden paradise.  I hoped that we might spot some Giant Coralroot Orchids (Hexalectris grandiflora).  We had looked for them on the preserve, but only succeeded in finding spent, wilted flowering stalks.  As we followed Gary up the canyon he regaled us with stories of the “Republic of Texas“, a militia group that believed that Texas should never have become part of the United States, and took it upon themselves to secede.  There were still signs and artifacts of their presence on his land.

It wasn’t long before we spotted the first group of coralroots.  It was a cluster of fresh plants, but unfortunately the flowers were all closed and drooping, a phenomenon that is fairly common among the genus Hexalectris.  We took their presence to be a good sign and continued on.  We (more accurately Carolina) spotted several Mountain Adder’s Mouth Orchids.  They seemed to be more numerous here than in Madera Canyon.

Just as we were debating turning around, James pointed out a splash of color in the deep shade of some low hanging branches of an Emory Oak.  It was a pair of Giant Coralroots in perfect bloom.  I had grown accustomed to seeing only one or two open flowers on any given individual at a time.  One of these, however, had three that were clustered closely together.  After a long, uncomfortable photo session we bid the orchids farewell and returned down the trail as an afternoon thunderstorm, typical of the monsoon season, began to build behind the peaks surrounding the canyon.

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Giant Coralroot

Gary invited us in for snacks and alcoholic cider, an offer that was hard to turn down.  We enjoyed his company and knowledge of the area’s natural and cultural history.  After visiting a while James and I set out to photograph the wealth of scenery around Gary’s home when James spotted a peculiar pattern on a nearby boulder.  “Do you see what I see?” he asked pointing at the rock.  It took a moment, but finally I saw it – a young Mottled Rock Rattlesnake resting still and silent.  In that moment our photographic priorities changed and we set about capturing the beautiful snake.  Just as we were finishing the building clouds reached their critical mass and began releasing their moisture in the form of an afternoon downpour.

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Mottled Rock Rattlesnake

We bid our reluctant “good bye’s” to Gary and the mountains he calls home.  That night we would descend from the sky islands and make our camp in the desert scrub around Lake Balmorhea.  Here we watched a large group of Clark’s Grebes on the water, while we listened to a Pyrrhuloxia call from among the impenetrable thorn fortress of the surrounding desert.  Carolina spent the evening rock hounding in search of the elusive Marfa Agate while James and I looked for signs of life and Erin enjoyed one of her favorite books in the spectacular setting of the Chihuahuan Desert.  Carolina was lucky enough to find a few choice pieces of agate while James and I spotted a number of large Tarantula Hawks and Western Green June Beetles.  All of our attention, however, soon turned to the horizon, where the setting sun painted a rainbow on the black clouds of a distant thunderstorm.  It was a fine final chapter to an incredible Trans-Pecos adventure.

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A distant thunderstorm rages over the desert scrub near Balmorhea.

June Recap

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Eastern Featherbells (Stenanthium gramineum) bloom in a mature pine-hardwood forest.

June got off to a slow start, but I finished strong, checking four more species off my list:

Saltmarsh False Foxglove (Agalinis maritima)

Velvetleaf Milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa)

Correll’s False Dragonhead (Physostegia correllii)

Starry Campion (Silene stellata)

2017GoalsJune

In early June I photographed this pair of ox beetles (Strategus antaeus) with my good friend James Childress.  We have two species of ox beetles in East Texas.  Strategus antaeus is smaller, with proportionately longer, pointed horns.  Strategus aloeus is much larger, with blunt tipped horns.  S. antaeus is primarily a species of the coastal plain, with East Texas marking the southwestern limit of its range.  It occurs in open, sandy woodlands, savannahs, and prairie openings.  The large horns of the male are used in combat to with other males to win the favor of a female.

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Strategus antaeus

In mid June I visited one of my favorite vegetative communities: the herbaceous hillside seep.  This particular site is on private land that is managed by a combination of fire and mechanical clearing.  Historically these communities would have been kept free from woody vegetation through a combination of frequent lightning-ignited fires and poor, saturated soils.  These communities are home to a variety of rare and interesting species including carnivorous plants and a variety of orchids.  Pictured below are Pale Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia alata) and blooming Pinewoods Rose Gentians (Sabatia gentianoides).  I hope to highlight this community more in a future blog entry.

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Herbaceous Hillside Seep

One of the herbaceous seep’s most striking summer displays comes from the Bog Coneflower (Rudbeckia scabrifolia).  This rare plant is confined to extreme eastern Texas and western Louisiana.  Here it’s habitat has all but disappeared over the past century and a half.

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Bog Coneflowers bloom in a herbaceous hillside seep.

Similar to the herbaceous hillside seep, but occurring in areas where fire historically did not penetrate is the forested seep.  These areas are locally known as “baygalls” in reference to two typically dominant species: Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) and Tall Gallberry Holly (Ilex coriaceae).  Like the herbaceous seep, baygalls are home to many rare species.  Pictured here are the blooms of the toxic Virginia Bunchflower (Veratrum virginicum).  These handsome plants may reach a height of 7 feet.

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Virginia Bunchflower blooms in an East Texas baygall

Another impressive summer bloomer is Physostegia digitalis, one of the false dragonheads.  They can reach heights of six feet or more and bear dozens of pale pink flowers.  Like the Bog Coneflowers, they are a species endemic to the West Gulf Coastal Plain, and are limited to East Texas, western Louisiana, and extreme southwestern Arkansas.  They are quite common in East Texas, existing in open sandy woodlands and highway right-of-ways.

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Physostegia digitalis

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Physostegia digitalis

Ongoing survey efforts for the extremely rare Louisiana Pine Snake (Pituophis ruthveni) on private land produced this Northern Scarlet Snake (Cemorphora coccinea copei).  Though they may be locally common in appropriate habitat, their preferred habitat, which includes sandy longleaf pine savannahs, xeric sandhills, and similar habitats has all but disappeared.  Scarlet snakes are specially adapted for burrowing, and they spend most of their time below ground. In East Texas their greatest periods of surface activity seem to coincide with the peak season for reptile nesting. During this time they seek out their favorite prey: reptile eggs.

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Northern Scarlet Snake

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Northern Scarlet Snake

I photographed this jewel beetle (Acmaeodera sp.) as it went about unwittingly pollinating Woodland Poppymallow (Callirhoe papaver).

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Acmeodera sp.

This has been a good year for Eastern Featherbells (Stenanthium gramineum).  I prefer landscape shots that showcase their whispy blooms over detailed shots of individual flowers.  Eastern Featherbells is one of a suite of species typical of the eastern United States that reaches it southwestern limit in the Pineywoods of East Texas.  It seems to be uncommon to rare throughout most of its range.

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Eastern Featherbells in a dry-mesic forest.

A number of milkweed species bloom in the height of summer.  One of the more easily overlooked species is the Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), whose tiny flower clusters hardly look like blooms from a distance.

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Whorled Milkweed

The Federally Threatened Neches River Rosemallow (Hibiscus dasycalyx) occurs in just a few East Texas Counties.  It can be differentiated from the similar Halberd-leaved Hibiscus (Hibiscus laevis) by the dense hairs on its calyces.

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Neches River Rosemallow

As the Texas summer wears on, spending time outside becomes more and more unpleasant, however some of our most interesting species are most active and easiest to see in these sweltering months.  I look forward to seeing what July has in store.