Spring in the Desert Part 1: The Beauty of Black Gap

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A monolith of rock rises from the desert floor in Maravillas Canyon

My first trip to Big Bend Country was over 20 years ago, in 1997, having spent just a month as a Texan.  We went in August, and it was hot.  Hot, intimidating, and seemingly inhospitable – at least in the surface.  But despite all of this I quickly fell in love with the land.  We watched a curious Gray Fox from the balcony of our room at the Chisos Mountain Lodge.  I chased Tarantula Hawks, velvet ants, and Horse Lubbers; and I found the glittering remains of a departed Glorious Jewel Beetle.  I marveled at the significant respite from the heat that the mountains provided, and the monsoonal rains that seemed so out of place in this arid landscape.

Since that day I have returned many times, and have been rewarded with incredible discoveries and remarkable experiences.  Yet in all these years I had never visited in the spring, one of the most spectacular times to be immersed in the Chihuahuan Desert.  I have long wanted to, but have always been somewhat intimidated by the crowds.  One thing I love about Big Bend is its remoteness, and the feeling of isolation and insignificance that comes with it.  During spring break, which generally coincides with the peak wildflower bloom, the park is flooded with visitors from all around the Lonestar State and beyond.

This year, however, I could not resist.  I began seeing reports that Big Bend was experiencing one of the most spectacular Big Bend Bluebonnet (Lupinus havardii) blooms in recent memory.  After a short conversation, Carolina and I made the decision to make the trek.  I consulted my friend Michael Eason, author of Wildflowers of Texas, and resident of the region.  He recommended that we spend a day in Black Gap Wildlife Management Area.  Black Gap is just northeast of the park, and we would come to find that it sports a diversity of life and quality of scenery on par with that of the park.

Though I highly recommend exploring Black Gap, I will add a word of caution.  At just over 100,000 acres, it is huge and it is very remote.  Access to the interior is via high clearance gravel and rock roads, and there are no services and very few visitors.  Despite being at the peak time for visitation to the region, we only saw one other vehicle all day.  There is no cell phone service, and it would be easy to become stranded, so visitors should come prepared.

Fortunately our visit went smoothly.  We arrived mid afternoon to the Stillwell Store.  Stillwell’s boasts a large camping area with well-spaced sites that offer a truly isolated feel, despite the large number of spring breakers.  They say that they never fill, and will accommodate all campers by opening additional property if necessary.  While the store and showers were packed every evening, from our campsite we could barely hear another soul.  Stillwell’s is directly adjacent to Black Gap and only 8 miles from the north entrance to Big Bend National Park, and provided the perfect base for our adventures.

We quickly made camp, and ventured into Black Gap.  Bicolored Mustard lined the roads and filled the desert air with their sweet aroma.  It wasn’t long until we began seeing our first Big Bend Bluebonnets roadside.  Once in Black Gap we began exploring desert washes painted by the blooms of millions of wildflowers.  The highlights were two species endemic to the Big Bend region of Texas and adjacent Mexico: Phacelia infundibuliformis and Streptanthus cutleri.

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Phacelia infundibuliformis

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Streptanthus cutleri

There were many more blooms to be seen, but it was growing dark.  We returned to the truck and continued on to the river.  I had to drive slow, as Collared Peccaries and Mule Deer crossed the road before us, and our headlights reflected in the eyes of countless Common Poorwills sitting in the roadway.

Tired from a long day, we returned to camp where we took advantage of the Stillwell Store’s showers and I boiled hot dogs for dinner.  As I was cleaning after dinner I heard Caro call out to me.  I knew from the sense of urgency in her tone that she had found something interesting, and she had!  In the light of her flashlight I could see a kangaroo rat casually foraging on the desert floor.  It was not concerned in the least as I approached with my camera.  Unfortunately just after I captured this image it made its way beneath a massive Tasajillo, so close but out of reach of my lens.

I believe it to be a Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys merriami).  This species is very similar to the Ord’s Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys ordii), and both species occur in this region.  Morphologically they are quite similar and are most easily separated by counting toes – Merriam’s have four toes on their hind feet while Ord’s have five.  I did not have the luxury of counting its toes, unfortunately, however it is also reported that the two species have slightly different habitat preferences, with Merriam’s occuring on rocky, gravelly soils and Ord’s occurring in areas of loose sand.

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Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat

Where there are rodents, invariably there are things that eat rodents.  This large Kansas Glossy Snake (Arizona elegans elegans) had extensive scarring on its head and appeared to be blind in one eye.  In spite of all this, it seemed very healthy.  It would be the only live snake we would see this trip, though we found a freshly hit Western Diamondback Rattlesnake and Western Coachwhip nearby.

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Kansas Glossy Snake

That night a few raindrops fell – just enough to draw the smell of earth from the desert and serenade us with a gentle pattering on the rainfly.  We woke early the next morning, and made our way into Black Gap.  We opted to spend the morning exploring along the paved FM road down to La Linda.  There is an old closed bridge across the Rio Grande there, a sign of more prosperous times when it served to transport flourite into the U.S. from mines in Coahuila.  Today the bridge is in ruins and La Linda is a ghost town.

While the evening before we had seen a few Big Bend Bluebonnets lining the roadside, today we saw them sprawling across the hillsides in a carpet of blue.  It was a sight to behold, and though I knew they could never do this view justice, I couldn’t resist taking a few pictures.

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Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap

A short hike from the road provided a spectacular view of the lower canyons of the Rio Grande.  Here we found Yellow Rocknettle (Eucnide bartonioides) clinging to the cliffs above the river.  Below I watched a group of Cinnamon Teal floating lazily downstream.  Taken in by the grandeur of it all, I paused a moment to lose myself in contemplation – a pastime that I find trips to wide open places greatly enhance.

To capture the image below I had to lie precariously on my stomach on a narrow ledge and lower my camera a few feet.  I relied on the LCD screen to compose the shot.  It may not have been the golden hour for photography, but I was not willing to pass up the opportunity to capture such an incredible moment in time.

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Yellow Rocknettle blooms above the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande.

The Yellow Rocknettle was incredible!  We found several large groups blooming on sheer cliff faces.  While most were high on canyon walls, well out of reach, a few were low and safe enough to approach.  The large, showy flowers may appear virtually any time of year when there is sufficient rainfall.

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Yellow Rocknettle

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Yellow Rocknettle

As the sun rose higher in the sky, cactus blooms began to open to the world.  We would end up finding 9 species in flower over the course of the trip.  In Black Gap, however, we only observed one species blooming – the Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha).  Like the Big Bend Bluebonnet and Yellow Rocknettle, this was one of the biodiversity goals on my list when I first started this blog.  Though I was able to photograph this species sans flowers in October 2017, this was my first time seeing the spectacular, albeit miniature, blooms.

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

As late morning turned to early afternoon, a thin veil of clouds began passing in front of the sun, creating one of my favorite qualities of light.  I took the opportunity to photograph more Big Bend Bluebonnets, whose cobalt hues mirrored the sky.

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Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap

Michael had suggested that we drive into the interior of Black Gap to experience Maravillas Canyon, and I’m glad he did.  In my opinion, the scenery here was on par with that in the National Park.  We left the pavement mid afternoon and ventured down the 4X4 road that led into the canyon.  It is 18 miles one way to the river, and though we found the road to be easily passable in my truck, it was rough.  I never put it into four-wheel drive, however high clearance was a must.

The road was lined with botanical wonders that only became more interesting and more numerous as we approached the river.  Here we found more proliferations of Big Bend Bluebonnet blooming among Lechuguilla, Candelilla, and Creosote.

As the sun vanished down behind the distant canyon walls, we made the long trek back to the pavement in the dark.  It was a somewhat eerie feeling being out in the night in the middle of so much nothingness, but I welcomed it.  It may seem counter intuitive, but I never feel more alive than those times when I’m reminded just how fragile and insignificant my life is, in the grand scheme of things.

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and Lechuguilla

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and Candelilla with Maravillas Canyon in the background

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and other desert flora in Maravillas Canyon

Exploring Black Gap was an experience I will never forget, and one I hope to repeat.  It really is the perfect playground for one who loves biodiversity, dramatic landscapes and solitude.  That night we arrived to our campsite late and completely drained, but we took in the moonless night sky where the brilliance of countless stars cast shadows across the desert floor.  It was another in a long list of humbling experience that the day offered.  The next morning we would venture into the park to experience a wildflower bloom, the abundance and diversity of which hardly seemed possible in such an unforgiving landscape.

Hidden Denizens of the Columbia Bottomlands

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Copperhead

Austin’s Woods were vibrant.  On that gray spring day in late February, the forest came to life.  Recent rains had vitalized the Resurrection Ferns and mosses that coated the trunks and arching limbs of ancient oaks.  The Roughleaf Dogwood was beginning to bloom and fresh leaves were emerging from the swamp privet and Possumhaw in the understory.  In the distance a Gray Tree Frog called half-heartedly.  The day was warm enough to encourage snakes and lizards from their refugia, and cool and cloudy enough that the cardinals, chickadees, and other resident birds remained active throughout the day.  Beetles scoured the forest floors, yet a recent cold snap kept the mosquitoes at bay.

I put myself in the boots of Stephen F. Austin, and other early anglo explorers to the region.  Unlike most of the forested regions of Texas, much of the remaining Columbia Bottomlands is old growth, and still looks much as it did two-hundred years ago – despite the absence of Jaguars, Pumas, Red Wolves, Black Bears, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, Carolina Parakeets, and other species that have long-since been banished by our hand.  These forests were largely spared the saw due to the poor growth form and low timber value of trees in the region combined with the difficulty of accessing many areas with logging equipment.  That is not to say that these forests are safe, however, as huge tracts are lost every year to urban sprawl and the increasing pressure for development in the greater Houston area.  Fortunately, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, and other local conservation organizations have been successful at protecting thousands of acres of habitat in the region.

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Columbia Bottomland Forest in the Nature Conservancy’s San Bernard Woods Preserve

The Columbia Bottomlands is so named because Stephen F. Austin established his first colony here, which would become the first “capitol” of Texas.  It was known as East Columbia.  This influential figure in Texas history also lends the region another name: Austin’s Woods.  Prior to anglo settlement these woods were home to the Karankawa and Tonkawa Peoples.

These unique forests occur in the broad interconnected floodplains of the Brazos, San Bernard, and Colorado Rivers and their many tributaries in southeast Texas.  They approach within a few miles of the coast in many areas, and are one of the few forested communities within the broader Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes ecoregion.  Indeed, the region encompassing the Columbia Bottomlands was historically a patchwork of forested bottoms and prairie uplands.

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Map of the Columbia Bottomlands.  Source: Texas Parks and Wildlife

The forest here supports a diversity of oaks, which are the primary overstory species in most areas.  Perhaps the most iconic characteristic species is the Coastal Live Oak, which can reach truly massive proportions here.  They occur alongside Water Oak, Willow Oak, Shumard Oak, and Nuttall Oak.  Burr Oak occurs sporadically.  These oaks share the overstory with Cedar Elm, American Elm, Sugarberry, and Green Ash.  In some areas stands of large Eastern Redcedar can be found, growing in areas much wetter than their typical preferred habitat.  The understory is typically open, influenced by the presence of standing water and saturated soils through much of the year.  In some areas dense layers of dwarf palmetto form nearly impenetrable thickets, and there are curious trunked palms present in isolated patches.  Historic accounts indicate that vast “canebrakes” or Giant Cane thickets were once present.  These conditions combine to create a primeval forest that appears out of place among the surrounding prairies.

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Columbia Bottomland Forest in the Nature Conservancy’s San Bernard Woods Preserve

It was my good fortune to spend a wonderful spring day in those woods with my good friend John Williams.  We spent the day exploring various units of the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, and the Nature Conservancy’s San Bernard Woods Preserve, which was accessed with permission.  That day we were fortunate, and observed many of the forest’s seldom seen inhabitants, including twenty snakes.

A mere few minutes into our adventure we encountered three Southern Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix).  These would prove to be the most commonly encountered species of the trip, and we found nine before the day was over.  The animals here are variable, and seem to show some influence from the Broad-banded Copperhead (Agkistrodon controtrix laticinctus), which occurs further south and west.

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Southern Copperhead

While wandering through chest-high palmettos, John spotted a Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor) clinging to one of the fronds.  It was perhaps the prettiest individual of this species that I had ever seen.  Subtle variation in the shades of gray and lichen green combined with hints of lime green to produce a truly beautiful animal.

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Southern Copperhead

At one particularly productive spot we found a Texas Coral Snake (Micrurus tener).  Though its skin was dulled by an impending shed, I could not resist the opportunity to photograph this beautiful Elapid.  Though they are highly venemous, these snakes are inoffensive and extremely reluctant to bite, and envenomation from them is exceedingly rare.  They have an entertaining defense mechanism, where they slightly curl and raise their tail in order to confuse predators into thinking it is the snake’s head.  They sway it back and forth and then jerk their body from side to side, seemingly flopping about.

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Texas Coral Snake

In close proximity to the coral snake we found four more copperheads, four Texas Brown (Dekay’s) Snakes (Storeria dekayi texana), and four Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis proximus).  One of the ribbon snakes was so large that we momentarily mistook it for an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis), a snake that is quite uncommon in Texas and generally restricted to the forests and prairies of this region.

A bit deeper into the woods we encountered a most spectacular organism, and the highlight of the day.  I heard John say “Holy $#!+!”, and looked to see a large Timber (Canebrake) Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).  This iconic pit viper approaches the southwestern extent of their range in the Columbia Bottomlands.  The snake looked to have recently shed, and was quite literally glowing.  It was a large snake, probably around three and a half feet, and though it did rattle its displeasure at us, it was docile and non-aggressive throughout our encounter.  Spending time with these woodland snakes is truly one of the most enjoyable experience that a forest dweller like myself can experience.

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Timber Rattlesnake

Snakes were certainly the topic of the day.  We did, however, encounter some of the forest’s smaller, more easily overlooked denizens.  Coming in a close second to the Timber Rattlesnake for the day’s highlight was Dicaelus purpuratus, a ground beetle adorned with a brilliant iridescent blue and purple exoskeleton.  Though this species has a broad range across the eastern United States, it is my experience that they are generally infrequently encountered.  In the Columbia Bottomlands, however, they are quite common and we found several that day.  D. purpuratus has large, powerful mandibles that are specially adapted for crushing the shells of small snails, their primary prey.

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Dicaelus purpuratus

We ended the day in the San Bernard Woods Preserve.  This preserve protects crucial bottomland hardwood and riparian forests and serves as an important component to provide connectivity to other protected areas in the Columbia Bottomlands.  It is another of the many examples of the fine work that the Nature Conservancy in Texas does to protect our states wild places, and biodiversity.

The Columbia Bottomlands are unlike any other forested community that I’ve been to.  They provide an important link to the natural and cultural history of Texas, and will forever hold a special place in my heart.  I look forward to visiting Austin’s Woods again soon, and experience the little wonders that contained within this primeval forest.

Autumn in the Pineywoods

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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.

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Indian Pipes

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Fungi (I believe these are chanterelles)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Earthstars

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Florida Maples

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Dressed in Gold

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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…

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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.

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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!

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Autumn’s Orange

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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.

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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.

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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!”

Finding Paradise in the Bandera Canyonlands

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Hill Country Waterfall

It’s a pilgrimage that many Texans undertake at some point – to see the fall colors of Lost Maples.  Despite living in Texas for over 20 years and extensively exploring all corners of the state, it was a trip I had yet to take.  This year we finally decided to see what the fuss was about.  It would turn out to be an adventure, filled with frustrations and rewards.

Carolina and I left early and made our way to the Bandera Canyonlands, a term used by the nature conservancy to describe the region in the western Hill Country that contains a labyrinth of canyons carved through the limestone over millennia by springfed streams.

We arrived at the Love Creek Preserve in the early afternoon.  We were granted special permission to visit this preserve which has limited public access.  The Love Creek Preserve is another example of the substantial conservation efforts of The Nature Conservancy in Texas.  Here they succeeded in protecting over 2,500 acres of excellent Hill Country habitat, home to rare plants and animals and numerous Texas endemics.  The preserve also protects several spring-heads which feed tributaries to the Medina River, which ultimately feeds the Edward’s Aquifer.  The Nature Conservancy truly has protected some of the most spectacular places in the Lonestar State.

It was a sunny day, and being early in the afternoon, the conditions were not ideal for photography.  I took my gear along anyway, as one never knows what they might encounter in a place such as this.  I carried my camera atop my tripod as I descended the precarious canyon walls with little difficulty.  I then rock-hopped my way across a wide stream without incident.  Then, after casually stepping on an innocuous boulder I somehow lost my footing and went down hard.  I was extremely unhappy, as Carolina can attest, but not hurt.  Then I looked at my camera, laying lens first in the cobble adjacent to the stream.  I feared the worst.  Miraculously my camera and lens survived unscathed, but my neutral density filter and circular polarizing filter had both been cracked.  I could live without the latter, but the polarizer is a crucial bit of gear for photographing fall color.  I was disheartened, to say the least.

I tried not to let this bad news dampen my enjoyment of the small canyon that we had set out to explore.  Just being in such a place – taking in it’s sights, smells, and sounds, is a joy and a privilege that I feel fortunate to have experienced.  And as the sun drew closer to the top of the canyon walls I was able to capture a sunburst through the leaves of a Bigtooth Maple that quivered in a gentle Autumn breeze.

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Hill Country Canyon

As the daylight faded, we bid farewell to Love Creek, for the time being at least.  Our base camp, so to speak, for the trip was the Cool River Cabin, located on the Native American Seed farm near Junction.  Native American Seed is a fantastic company that grows a huge assortment of native plants and offers seeds and root stock for sale.  They rent out the cabin, which is actually a three bedroom house with two porches and a full kitchen!  It is a short walk from the Llano River, and contains scenic views and abundant wildlife.  I highly recommend staying here!

The next morning we set out to the Caverns of Sonora.  It was one of the more extensive cave tours I’ve taken in Texas cave country, and we marveled at the subterranean formations.  After exploring the caves we spent some time at the Eaton Hill Nature Center in Sonora.  We discovered this little gem by chance, and thoroughly enjoyed the exhibits which include several live rattlesnakes.

As the shadows grew longer we found ourselves at South Llano River State Park.  A good portion of the park remained closed due to the unprecedented flooding experienced by the region just a month before our visit.  There was still plenty to see, however.  Not long after entering the park we were greeted by a large Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) foraging in a mowed area adjacent to some dense brush.  It was quite focused on its pursuit of dinner, and barely took a second to lift his head long enough for me to fire off a shot.  Armadillos are one of our more entertaining mammals, often allowing for a close approach due to their generally poor senses.  When they do finally realize that there is a perceived threat too close for comfort they will suddenly stop their activity, and bolt off, bounding erratically toward the safety of denser brush.

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Nine-banded Armadillo

We came upon a group of Woodhouse’s Scrub Jays (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) scouring a juniper thicket as the sun vanished behind the distant hills.  These intelligent, expressive birds are a joy to watch as they examine their surroundings.  They seem to display genuine curiosity and approach problem solving with some semblance of enjoyment.  Until recently these were considered Western Scrub Jays, but were split due to genetic evidence that suggest they, as well as the California Scrub Jay, Island Scrub Jay, and Florida Scrub Jay are distinct species.

There was very little light to work with, and I took the image below at 1600 ISO and 1/200 second.  The resulting image was grainy and softer than I would have liked.  I debated trashing the image, but decided that I liked the texture and colors on the bird, so I tried to clean it up through post processing.  I ended up with an image that i was happy with.  As digital photo processing technology continues to advance, I find myself saving more and more images that I would have otherwise thrown away.

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Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay

That night, I posed the idea of traveling the three hour round trip from our cabin to a Best Buy in San Antonio to buy a new polarizing filter, and Caro agreed.  I am very fortunate to have a wife that encourages my passions so.  We returned “home” that evening around at around 11 o’clock, with a new polarizing filter that I hoped would help my lens bring out the colors of the canyons.

The next day broke to gray skies.  We were up and out early, packing our things and bidding farewell to the Native American Seed Farm.  Our first destination would be Lost Maples State Natural Area.  This iconic park is extremely popular from mid October through November, particularly on the weekends, which just happens to be when we arrived.  We learned, as we watched vehicle after vehicle pour in, that it had been a less than stellar year for the maples in the park, apparently affected by the heavy rains a month prior.  Many of the leaves had simply turned brown and fallen from the trees.  The park was certainly beautiful, as we hiked along droves of other leaf peepers, but it did not provide that spectacular autumn color that I had hoped for.

Lost Maples gets its name for the relictual populations of Bigtooth Maple (Acer grandidentatum) that persist in the area.  Once more widespread throughout the region, as the glaciars retreated and the climate in the region warmed and dried, the maples were pushed to moist canyons along sprinfed streams and rivers.

The State Natural Area is not the only place to protect remnant groves of Bigtooth Maples however.  After spending a couple of hours hiking popular trails, we decided to return to Love Creek.  On the way we explored a few county roads to see what we might see.  The morning was cold, with temperatures never leaving the 40s.  The last thing I expected to find was a snake, however that’s exactly what I expected when we saw a group of Black-crested Titmice going crazy just a few feet off the ground.  They were chattering incessantly, crests raised, hopping from branch to branch staring directly at the ground.  Shaking off the cold I approached, and saw a gray and yellow striped serpent stretched out across the ground.

It was a young Baird’s Rat Snake (Pantherophis bairdi), not something I had expected to find here at the eastern edge of their range on such a cold November day.  They are restricted in range to the Trans-Pecos and western Edward’s Plateau of Texas, and adjacent northeastern Mexico.  They are one of our state’s most beautiful snakes, in my opinion, displaying shades of steely gray, yellow, and orange.  Despite the cold, this individual was feisty, and once disturbed never backed down from his coiled defensive posture.

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Baird’s Rat Snake

After spending some time in the company of the splendid reptile, we continued onto Love Creek  the sheltered canyons here were displaying spectacular color not seen at Lost Maples.  We marveled at the shades of orange and yellow that glowed like flames brightening the otherwise dreary day.

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Bigtooth Maples at Love Creek

My friend David Bezanson of the Nature Conservancy told us where we could find a waterfall that drained the crystal clear springfed water of one of the many canyons that cut into the preserve’s limestone bluffs.  It was like an oasis in otherwise semi-arid country.  Mosses and Maiden-hair Fern clung to the rock, kept perpetually moist by spray from the falling waters.  I could imagine the water at the base of the falls stayed cool, clear, and deep even during the height of summer.

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Each angle of the falls provided some unique perspective.  The contrast of the aquamarine waters, the bright green ferns, and the yellows of overhanging witch hazel and orange of distant maples painted a scene that seemed almost impossibly beautiful.

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Venturing into the narrow canyon that fed the falls, we found a lush forest that seemed out of place in this region that is knocking on the desert’s door.  Towering trees shaded a thick layer of leaf litter that blanketed scattered boulders and smaller rocks.  Beneath this leaf litter we found several Western Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon albagula).  Another relict of cooler time, the central Texas populations of P. albagula are isolated from the the main portion of the species’s range by hundreds of miles, with the nearest known populations occurring in southwest Oklahoma.  Genetic analyses may reveal that this disjunct population is in fact a species unto itself.

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Western Slimy Salamanders

The trees here are remarkable as well, and include several other disjunct, relictual species like American Basswood, Chinkapin Oak, and Witch Hazel.  They join the Bigtooth Maples, Lacey Oak, Texas Red Oak, Texas Mountain Laurel, Texas Redbud, and more to create a diverse, layered, closed-canopy forest.

As we ventured deeper into the canyon we found the stream’s source.  Water was literally pouring out from the base of a massive limestone cliff, nourishing verdant Maiden-hair Fern, and what I imagined to be a profusion of spring wildflowers.  The water here is home to an endemic species of neotonic Eurycea.  It was humbling to see the literal source of so much life.

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Water pours from the base of a limestone cliff, fueling a lush, diverse canyon

Deeper into the preserve we found a wider, drier canyon fed by a different spring.  Here the maples were absent, but Texas Red Oak (Quercus buckleyi) provided a splash of color to the scene.  I was truly blown away by the beauty of this place, an area unlike any other in the world.  I don’t proclaim to know if Heaven exists, but in my book, the Bandera Canyonlands are about as close to Heaven on Earth as one can get.

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Bandera Canyonlands

Reflecting on Summer in the Pineywoods

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Chapman’s Fringed Orchid

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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S-banded Tiger Beetle

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Spotted Sandpiper on the prowl

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Spotted Sandpiper

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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.

Ouachita Mountain Magic

Target Species:

Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum)

Rich Mountain Salamander (Plethodon ouachitae)

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Rich Mountain Salamander

We could barely see.  Columns of air that cooled as they rose up the mountainside created a fog so dense that trees less than a hundred feet away were completely invisible.  Orthographic lift is a common occurrence here, as evidenced by the dense coats of lichen and moss coating nearly every tree trunk.  I was happy.  To some nature lovers happiness is a wide open mountain vista, or an endless beach breaking brilliant blue waters.  But to me, it is a forest in the fog.  We were high on Rich Mountain, a long mountain ridge in the western Ouachitas, an ancient range that runs from east to west in western Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma.

Most of my blog posts thusfar have focused on the biodiversity of my home state, Texas.  But for this one we take a journey to our neighbors to the north.  I first visited the Ouachitas over 15 years ago on a backpacking trip with a college friend.  We hiked the first leg of the Ouachita Trail, and I was instantly hooked.  I have made many trips since.  Most of these have focused on finding the Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum), an enigmatic, elusive salamander endemic to the Interior Highlands.  As Carolina and I set out from the Pineywoods of East Texas this late September day, I thought back on these trips, and how, despite my considerable efforts, I had still yet to see an adult Ringed Salamander.

We made our camp on Rich Mountain near a sign warning of bear activity in the area.  I have read that American Black Bear populations in the Ouachitas were increasing, but I wondered how often encounters occur.  Later this very trip we would come to find a large pile of scat that we both believed to be from a bear, complete with a long red cord from someone’s garbage.

The north-facing slopes of Rich Mountain harbor lush, rich forests not unlike those further east in the southern Appalachians.  Here a diverse canopy of oaks, maples, hickories, basswood and Cucumber Magnolia towers above an understory of pawpaws, redbuds, and dogwoods.  Familiar Appalachian plants like Jewelweed, False Solomon’s Seal and Rattlesnake Root line the roadsides that wind up the mountainside and a lush carpet of ferns flanks the numerous small streams and springs that run from the rocky hillsides.

 

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Rich Hardwood Forest

These forests are home to a diversity of salamanders, many of which are found nowhere else on earth.  One such Ouachita endemic is the Rich Mountain Salamander (Plethodon ouachitae), of which we found many.  This species has three distinct variations, one on Rich Mountain, one on Winding Stair Mountain, and one on Kiamichi Mountain.  Pictured here is the Rich Mountain variant, which I find to be the most attractive.  We would also find several Winding Stair Mountain variants before the trip was over, but I neglected to photograph them.  Recent rains and orthographic lift events created perfect damp conditions for salamanders, and nearby we also found Southern Redback Salamanders, Western Slimy Salamanders, Many-ribbed Salamanders, and Ouachita Dusky Salamanders.

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Rich Mountain Salamander

There are a number of salamander species endemic to only certain isolated portions of the Ouachita Mountains.  These include, along with the Rich Mountain Salamander, the Fourche Mountain Salamander and the Caddo Mountain Salamander.  I did not have the opportunity to photograph the latter two this trip, though I hope to return to do so in the near future.  This type of isolated endemism is common in older mountain ranges like the Ouachitas and southern Appalachians, where one species may occupy only a single mountaintop.  Millions of years ago, when the mountains were higher and the climate cooler, a wide expanse of habitat created which allowed salamanders to thrive over expansive ranges.  But as time wore on, these mountains weathered and the climate warmed.  Broad dry valleys formed between peaks, in essence creating islands of populations on the portions of higher peaks where suitable habitat remained.  These populations were now unable to access one another and as a result gene flow between populations was interrupted.  As a result what was once a larger population slowly began to evolve into separate, distinct species in isolation.

From the top of Rich Mountain, in the evening after the day’s fog has burned up, it’s possible to see for miles and miles in every direction.  The distant peaks and valleys looked like some turbulent undulating sea.  Caro and I spent our evenings here, basking on warm rocks as the sun dipped low in the distance.  Here we bid farewell to the day before returning to camp to prepare dinner and recover from our wanderings.

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Ouachita Mountains

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Ouachita Sunset

On the highest, most exposed ridges of Rich Mountain, a forest of gnarled, stunted dwarfs occurs.  Here White Oaks, Black Tupelos, and hickories which may tower 100 feet or more in the rich valleys at the base of the mountains, occur in miniature.  These old growth forests contain trees, like those pictured below, that are hundreds of years old but may only reach 10-20 feet in height.  Their growth is stunted due to a variety of factors, including the exposure to relentless winds, winter ice storms, and frequent fogs.  In some areas two-hundred year old White Oaks were only six or seven feet tall, and occurred in extremely dense thickets that seemed reminiscent of blueberry thickets in the Far North.  These peculiar miniature forests we noted by early travelers to the region, including Thomas Nuttall.

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Stunted White Oak Forest

Though still early in the season, fall colors were beginning to show at the higher elevations.  The classic fall-blooming goldenrods were out in force, and Black Tupelo, Sassafrass, and even some hickories had begun to display their fall foliage.

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Fall Palette

The Ouachita Mountians have a lot to offer, and we enjoyed taking in all that we could.  The real reason for the trip, however, was to try and find an adult Ringed Salamander – something I had failed to do during many previous fall trips.  Unlike most members of the family Ambystomatidae, which breed during the first warm rains of late winter and early spring, the Ringed Salamander breeds in the fall, similar to the Marbled Salamander.  However where the Marbled Salamander breeds and deposits its eggs on land, Ringed Salamanders breed and lay eggs in the water – for the most part, at least.  I have observed on a few occasions, Ringed Salamander eggs laid under leaves and logs in dry pool basins.  While previous trips had turned up thousands of larvae and eggs, the adults continued to allude me.

The Ringed Salamander is one of our most enigmatic salamander species, and in my opinion one of our most beautiful. Despite being abundant in some areas within its narrow range in the Interior Highlands, which include the Ozark Plateau and Ouachita Mountains, it is extremely difficult to observe, with very brief periods of surface activity in the fall and spring.  They emerge en masse following heavy fall rains and migrate to their breeding ponds.  It seems like they leave the ponds very quickly after mating, and quickly return below ground.  In some areas there are also breeding events in the spring, though often on a much smaller scale.

When we arrived in Ringed Salamander country there were still puddles on the ground, which I took to be a good sign. We went directly to the first of the breeding ponds, nestled deep in the woods. Wandering to the pond I wondered how these large amphibians survive here. It is not a rich, moist forest like those caudate-rich slopes of the southern Appalachians and elsewhere in the Ouachitas, but rather a rocky, dry woodland of shortleaf pine and various oaks that seemed to send its rainwater to the heart of the mountain just as soon as it hit the ground.

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Ouachita woodland near a Ringed Salamander breeding pond

There were some interesting wildflowers blooming in the area.  Beyond the goldenrods and asters I spotted this lovely Appalachian Blazing Star (Liatris squarrulosa) and watched as dozens of pollinators visited over a few minutes.

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Appalachian Blazing Star

I had high hopes as we set about exploring the first pond.  There were recently laid eggs in the water – a good sign.  Carolina and I split up and scoured the area.  Under a large, flat rock that looked perfect for a salamander, I spotted a large, breathtaking Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix).  These pit vipers are common throughout much of their range, but that does nothing to diminish their beauty, which is hard to beat.  It is hard for me to imagine wanting to kill such a beautiful thing, but unfortunately it is an all too common occurrence.  This snake showed no aggression toward me, but rather spent its time trying to escape.  I placed it for a moment on top of the rock under which it was sheltering, and after a few quick photos guided it back to its entrance and it quickly disappeared once more.

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Copperhead

We continued searching around the pond for what must have been an hour when I heard Caro call out “I got one!!”  I was overwhelmed with excitement and sprinted toward her, nearly tripping over several boulders in the process.  When I arrived, however, she looked disappointed.  She showed me a small male that was at death’s door.  It had lost nearly all color and its eyes had clouded over.  Barely able to move, it was not long for this world.  Seeing my first adult Ringed Salamander in this condition certainly put a damper on the mood.  We left the pond, with the hope that the next might prove more fruitful.

We visited four more ponds, all with the same result.  Many with eggs but not an adult in sight.  My spirits were sinking fast, and a familiar sense of failure that I had experienced in all my previous trips to the region was starting to take hold.  I try to remain positive in these moments, and think on all of the wonderful gifts the trip had already provided.  But our day was not done. We went to one final pond. It did not look as promising as the previous sites, but I did not intend to leave any stone un-turned, so to speak. So I scoured the area to no avail. Before leaving I peered under a long log that stretched from the pond’s surface about 20 feet or so up the slope that graded into the water. I immediately saw a loose cluster of eggs beneath the log at the waters edge.  I then turned my attention up-slope to the opposite end of the log. Nothing. But just as I was preparing to set the log back I noticed a series of bands of yellow and black just beneath the murky water’s surface. It was a tail. I had finally found an adult Ringed Salamander.

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Ringed Salamander

It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful sight.  Though its colors are more similar to Spotted and Tiger Salamanders, the Ringed Salamander is actually more closely related to Smallmouth and Flatwoods Salamanders, as evidenced by its smaller head and mouth.  They can grow quite large, and this female was over seven inches long.  Ringed Salamanders breed in ephemeral depressions and fishless ponds.  I have even read speculation that they once bred in large “buffalo wallows”.  I can’t help but raise an eyebrow at this claim, but considering that some believe that the Ouachitas were named for a Choctaw phrase meaning “country of large buffaloes” in response to the herds of American Bison that roamed the surrounding valleys, perhaps the concept is not so far-fetched after all.

This beautiful female would be the only individual that we would see.  There were more ponds I had hoped to visit but the road soon became impassable.  It was a very special encounter for me. Finding this species takes a concentrated, planned effort, and in this region it seems to be restricted to remote, difficult to access locations. Perhaps these are the factors that contribute to the allure of the Ringed Salamander, or perhaps its the magic of the Ouachitas.  Whatever it may be, finally encountering this species, along with the many other special moments we experienced during the weekend, left me with many fond memories that I will cherish forever.

One in the Hand, Two in Tobusch

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Tobusch Fishhook Cactus

This past weekend I spoke at the Native Plant Society of Texas Spring Symposium about photographing the biodiversity of Texas.  The symposium was in Austin, and happened to occur during the blooming period of the Federally Endangered Tobusch Fishhook Cactus (Sclerocactus brevihamatus ssp. tobuschii).  Though the cacti do not occur particularly close to Austin, it was the closest we would get for the foreseeable future, so Carolina and I decided we would stay an extra night in the Hill Country and try for the cactus the day after the symposium.

We arrive in Austin on Friday afternoon and took the day to explore the city.  While big cities are certainly not my thing, I really enjoyed visiting the Texas State Capitol building.  Plumes of Cedar Waxwings danced and buzzed among the many trees that decorated the capitol lawn and the redbuds were just coming into bloom.  Inside we marveled at the architecture and artwork, and took in the history of the place.

Saturday we rose early and made our way to the symposium.  We thoroughly enjoyed the event.  I saw some old friends and met a lot of friendly, interesting people.  The symposium was over by 3 or so, so Carolina and I took some time to explore the area.  Early spring wildflowers were just coming into bloom and Texas Spiny Lizards (Sceloporus olivaceus) were out basking on the limestone, though they did not take kindly to our approach.

In one of the many tributaries of the Colorado River we spotted a pair of Texas Map Turtles (Graptemys versa).  The Texas Map Turtle is one of a number of species of turtles endemic to central Texas.  This beautiful, fascinating species is restricted to the Colorado River basin.  The females are significantly larger than the males, and each sex has specialized head morphology to utilize different food sources.  Males feed primarily on aquatic insect larvae and other invertebrates, while adult females feed primarily on mollusks, shell and all.  We spotted the pair basking on some rocks, but the tiny male soon sank into the cool clear water.  The female allowed a slow approach as she took in the warmth of an early spring afternoon.

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Texas Map Turtle

That evening we made our way to San Antonio.  I wanted to show Carolina some of the old Spanish and German architecture of the city, and we would be closer to the cacti.  We spent some time exploring downtown, and grabbed a hotel on the outskirts of town.  The next morning we slept in.  Generally speaking, cacti flowers open midday in order to take advantage of the peak of pollinator activity.  Our destination was an hour and a half or so west of the Alamo City.  The path took us through the scenic country of the western Edwards Plateau, over oak and juniper hilltops, and down through rocky river valleys, where crystal clear water cut through limestone.

We finally arrived at a Tobusch Fishhook Cactus population that I had access to.  We began exploring.  It wasn’t long until I spotted the first cactus, and it was in bloom!  They were smaller than I had expecting, most being only a few inches across.  This cryptic species is extremely difficult to spot when not in bloom.  In late winter/early spring, however, they bloom, and their striking, albeit tiny, yellow flowers make them ever so slightly more conspicuous.

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Tobusch Fishhook Cactus

The story of the Tobusch Fishhook Cactus is an interesting one.  In the late 1970s there were only four known populations in two Texas counties.  In 1978 a flood hit and wiped out half of these populations in one fell swoop.  Fearing that S. brevihamatus ssp. tobuschii would soon be lost forever, the government afforded them protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1979, designated them a Federally Endangered Species.  At the time that it was listed it was believed to be restricted to limestone ledges and gravelly stream terraces adjacent to streams in just two Texas Counties.

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Tobusch Fishhok Cactus Flowers

Once it was listed, survey and conservation efforts were undertaken in earnest.  In the following decades several new populations were discovered, including many on protected land.  It also became evident that its habitat preferences were not as narrow as previously thought.  Today we know that it also occurs in shallow soils over slabs of limestone within clearings within a broader matrix of oak-juniper and oak-juniper-pinyon woodlands.  Many of these areas are well away from streams and their associated floodplains and terraces.

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Tobusch Fishhook Cactus

Armed with the knowledge that this diminutive cactus is doing better than previously thought, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to downlist the Tobusch Fishhook Cactus from Endangered to Threatened in December 2016.  While this Texas endemic may be more common than initially thought, it still faces very real threats, and a number of historic populations have become extirpated, including the original populations at the time of listing.  Even in the face of these threats, today the future for this subspecies looks promising.

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Tobusch Fishhook Cactus

That day we would see many Tobusch Fishhooks, most of them in bloom.  In the sunny warmth of that spring afternoon the pollinators were out in force.  We watched as a variety of butterflies and bees bounced from flower to flower in search of the sweet nectar within.  Perhaps my favorite of these propagators were the metallic green sweat bees (Agopostemon sp.).  Their brilliant metallic sheen added the perfect compliment to the greenish yellow blooms of the cacti.

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Metallic Sweat Bee

The title of today’s blog comes from my good friend Toby Hibbitts.  Many of my friends enjoy a good pun as much as anyone should.  Last year after a friend posted a photo of the Tobusch Fishhook Cactus, Toby commented that he had always heard that “a bird in the hand is worth two in Tobusch”.  He was undoubtedly, and understandably pleased with himself.  I can only hope that this species persists for future generations of cactus lovers, naturalists, pollinators, weevils, and bad pun lovers to enjoy.