The Biodiversity of the Rio Grande Valley Part 4: The Old Man of the Thornscrub

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Our last day in the Rio Grande Valley was a memorable one.  Carolina, Erin, James, and I spent the morning admiring wintering waterfowl in a shallow Resaca.  During the heat of the afternoon we found ourselves among Lady Fingers and other spined succulents.  In the evening we took a relaxing stroll to see what sort of wildlife might emerge from the dense thornscrub.

There were multiple times during the trip when the conversation between James and I turned to the Texas Tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri).  This iconic South Texas species was high on both of our lists, but thus far the lumbering reptile had evaded us.  But as the sun sank low on our final day, there it was, meandering along a line of brush foraging on just about anything it could fit in its mouth.

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The Texas Tortoise occurs in southern Texas and northeastern Mexico.  Here it can be found in a variety of habitats including desert scrub, Tamaulipan Thornscrub, and subtropical forests, grasslands and scrublands.  They feed on a variety of foods, though seem to prefer soft vegetative matter.  They are famous for gorging themselves on prickly pears.  Though they remain common in many areas, they are listed as Threatened by the State of Texas and are protected accordingly.  They face threats from habitat loss and collection for the pet trade.

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We spent close to an hour watching the antics of our states only “true” tortoise.  Armed with super telephoto lenses, we were able to observe the ancient reptile from a distance, and its behavior didn’t seem altered by our presence.  At one point it managed to get a large branch stuck on its gular projection, and spent several minutes dragging it along until it finally was able to free itself.  It then continued foraging until finally disappearing into dense grass under a canopy of mesquite.  This special encounter was the perfect ending to an incredible trip with great company.

The Biodiversity of the Rio Grande Valley Part 3: Las Estrellas del Sur

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It was of the utmost importance that we keep our eyes firmly fixed on the ground – scanning among the stones and parched earth.  Important, because we were in the realm of the Star Cactus (Astrophytum asterias), a very rare, Federally Endangered cactus of the Tamaulipan Thornscrub.  The plants themselves are often flush with the ground, look like little more than some stone or anomaly in the soil.  Their flowers, however, announce their presence to the world in spectacular fashion.  Carolina and I had looked for the Star Cactus in 2017 during a trip with my family.  While we found several plants, we did not have the good fortune to find them in bloom.  This year, however, would be different.

This year we were visiting with our good friends James and Erin Childress.  Having developed a search image during our previous trip, I began noticing a few plants scattered about.  My attention was soon diverted, however, when James and I spotted the brilliant magenta blooms of a group of Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus.  It was in that moment, as we admired a very different cactus, that Carolina called out that she had found one in flower.  Barely able to contain my excitement, I rushed to her.  It soon become evident that we had timed this visit perfectly, as the floor of the Tamaulipan Thornscrub before me was decorated with dozens of bright yellow and orange blooms.

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Though few known populations exist, where it does occur the Star Cactus can be quite abundant.  Today most of the state’s populations are protected and some are thriving.  We would be telling a very different story, however, if it weren’t for The Nature Conservancy in Texas.  Through the acquisition of land and partnerships with private landowners, The Nature Conservancy has ensured that Astrophytum asterias will not disappear from our state’s diverse flora.  In all, the Nature Conservancy through their Las Estrellas Conservation Cooperative has been able to protect over 2,500 acres of Star Cactus habitat, providing safe refuge for thousands of individuals.

Though it is promising, these successes do not mean that the Star Cactus does not still face threats to its existence.  While speaking with Sonia Najera, Grasslands Program Manager of the Nature Conservancy in Texas, she informed me that continued development adjacent to protected land is threatening A. asterias populations that have no protection.  A. asterias is also under threat from poachers who may collect plants for its popularity in cultivation, and for its resemblance to Peyote, which is extensively collected for its psychoactive properties.

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Despite the many threats that they face, I am optimistic for the future of the Star Cactus in Texas, thanks in large part to the Nature Conservancy and dedicated professionals like Sonia.

The day we spent among Las Estrellas in bloom was really the experience of a lifetime.  We observed and photographed so many spectacular plants in bloom that it was nearly impossible trying to narrow them down to decide what to post.  Below is a small selection of favorites from an unforgettable day in the field.

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The Biodiversity of the Rio Grande Valley Part 2: The Cacti

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Peyote

Spring in the Tamaulipan Thornscrub is a beautiful, albeit deceiving thing.  When the chaparro, huisachillo, and guayacan bloom above a carpet of wildflowers, its easy to forget just what a harsh, unforgiving land this can be.  I was bleeding through my jeans when I sat a moment to rest in the shade of a mesquite tree.  I don’t think that Carolina, James, or Erin had fared much better.  Despite being early March, it was pushing 90 degrees, and the sun was beating down.  After taking a long draw from my water bottle, I got up and continued my search.  I winced as I pushed through the allthorn, and felt the tasajillo spines pierce my skin.  It’s safe to say at that point my spirits weren’t at their highest.  But then I heard the voice of my wife as she called out, “I found one, with a flower!”  In that moment, pain seemed like an insignificant consideration as I pushed through the tangle of thorns that lay between me and my succulent quarry.  I saw Carolina squatting down looking at the base of a large shrub.  There, under the shade and protection of a condalia I could see the iconic Peyote in bloom.

Despite being very un-cactus like, the Peyote may be the famous of all cacti.  Once fairly common in parts of south and west Texas, decades of over-harvest, poaching, and habitat loss of significantly reduced the populations to the point that today they are a rare sight among the thornscrub.  The reason that it has been so persecuted is the psychoactive compound mescaline contained within its flesh.

In fact, Peyote is one of the most well known psychoactive plants.  It has been utilized for centuries by native peoples for both its medicinal and hallucinogenic effects. Today Peyote is a controlled substance in the United States due to its use as a recreational drug. It is, however, legal for many native tribes to harvest and consume for ritualistic purposes.  And though it may be illegal to harvest or possess, poachers continue to devastate Peyote populations to sell them on the black market.

In the United States Peyote is known only from extreme southern and western Texas. Here it occurs in desert scrub and arid brushland, typically growing beneath dense shrubs. It is one of three spineless cacti in Texas. We were lucky enough to observe some in bloom on an extensive private ranch in the Tamaulipan Thornscrub of South Texas, with the help of our dear friends Toby Hibbits and Connor Adams.

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Peyote

In our pursuit of Peyote we observed several other species growing beneath the shelter of their nurse plants.  We seemed to catch the Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus (Mammillaria heyderi) in full bloom.  This small cactus grows low to the ground, and like many species with this growth habit, is very difficult to spot when not in bloom.  In the early spring a single plant may put on a dozen or more flowers, generally organized in a ring along the top of the cactus.  It occurs from Mexico through south and central Texas west across eastern and southern New Mexico into southern Arizona.

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus

While the Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus may be difficult to spot when not in bloom, the Hair-covered Cactus (Mammillaria prolifera) is difficult to spot even when in flower.  This species is tiny, with individual stems not much larger than an egg, though they may occasionally form large clumps.  The Hair-covered Cactus is known in the United States only from Texas, where it occurs in only a handful of counties in southern and south-central Texas, most of them along the Rio Grande.

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Hair-covered Cactus

Though it is superficially similar to the Mammillaria prolifera, the Runyon’s Pincushion Cactus (Coryphantha pottsiana) is easily differentiate when in flower.  Like many species of cactus, the taxonomy for Coryphantha pottsiana is a bit cloudy.  It has variably been known as Coryphantha robertii, Mammillaria robertii, Mammillaria bella, Escobaria bella, Escobaria runyonii, and Escobaria emskoetteriana.  Some authorities still use the latter, though Coryphantha pottsiana seems to be more widely accepted.  The Runyon’s Pincushion Cactus is known from northern Mexico and a few Texas Counties along the Rio Grande, where it is generally uncommon.

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Runyon’s Pincushion Cactus

While the previous cacti are generally small, the Horse Crippler (Echinocactus texensis) can reach much larger proportions.  While most seem to be about the size of a basketball, we saw some that were easily 3 or 4 times as large.  They tend to occur in looser soil including sandy alluvium.  They are also frequently found growing in the open, away from nurse plants, though its likely that many plants get their start in the less hostile microclimate of a nurse plant.  Their impressive spines seem to be an effective deterrent against mammalian predators.

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Horse Crippler

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Horse Crippler

Among the most beautiful of all cacti are the hedgehog cacti of the genus Echinocereus, a few of which are endemic to the Tamaulipan Thornscrub of South Texas and northern Mexico.  This year our trip coincided with the peak bloom of Echinocereus fitchii, the Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus.  Though they are generally hard to find, in the right habitat they can be abundant, and we saw dozens, blazing the thornscrub with their pink blooms.  Like Coryphantha pottsiana and so many other cactus taxa, the taxonomy of Echinocereus fitchii is murky at best.  It is considered by many to be a subspecies of the more broadly distributed Echinocereus reichenbachii.  For anyone interested in the topic I strongly recommend reading “A hard-to-manage taxon: The Black Lace Cactus (Echinocereus fitchii ssp. albertii)“.  Though it discusses the Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus’s Federally Endangered cousin, it includes a good discussion on the taxonomy of E. fitchii and E. reichenbachii, including characteristics used to distinguish the two.

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Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus

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Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus

In my opinion, the Lady Finger Cactus (Echinocereus pentalophus) is perhaps the most spectacular cactus native to the United States.  Confined to northern Mexico and extreme southern Texas, they can form huge mats under the shade of mesquite and other trees and large shrubs.  They have even been found growing upon protected ridges adjacent to the Laguna Madre.  Their bright blooms shine neon pink under the midday sun.

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Lady Finger Cactus

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Lady Finger Cactus

The bizarre Pencil Cactus (Echinocereus pentalophus) seems less a cactus and more a tangle of dried branches resting at the base of some thorny shrub.  That is, until it’s giant pink blooms open in the early spring and betray its presence to the world.  Unlike most other members of its genus, the Pencil Cactus produces a massive tuberous roots that aid in water storage.

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Pencil Cactus

The highlight our South Texas cactus hunt, however, was finding the Federally Endangered Star Cactus (Astrophytum asterias) in peak bloom, an experience which I will share in my next blog post.

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Star Cactus

The Biodiversity of the Rio Grande Valley Part 1: The Birds

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Altamira Oriole

At first they appeared as flashes of brilliance – blurs of orange, blue, and green darting through the drab brush country.  It was when we sat still and silent that they revealed themselves to us.  A spectacular cast of avian characters emerged from the dense vegetation.  All around us Green Jays croaked and bobbed.  Plain Chachalacas switched between the earth and low hanging branches.  Only occasionally would an Altamira Oriole appear, descending from the tree tops for a brief moment, it’s bright orange plumage demanding our attention.  The trill of a Golden-fronted Woodpecker broke our concentration, competing with the Great Kiskadee for the loudest call in the thornscrub.

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The Rio Grande Valley of Texas attracts birders from around the world.  A suite of characteristically Latin American species reach the northern limit of their range here.  This subtropical paradise is a naturalist’s playground.  Ecologically speaking, it shares more in common with Mexico than the rest of the Lonestar State.  When Carolina and I began discussing our South Texas vacation with our close friends James and Erin, birds were certainly one of the main targets that we planned the trip around.

Followers of my blog may remember previous posts where I talked about borrowing James’s 600mm lens for bird photography.  Fortunately another of my generous friends (and one of the finest photographers and naturalists that I know), Seth Patterson, offered to lend me his 500mm lens and teleconverters for the trip.  Though he is an excellent bird photographer, recently Seth is more focused on contributing to the “Meet Your Neighbours” project.  Armed with this new gear, James and I would be able to pursue our photographic targets at the same time, and wouldn’t have to worry about missing a shot.

This post contains some of the avian highlights of our trip, which spanned the diverse Lower Rio Grande Valley, from barrier islands and salt marshes, through ancient palm forests into the unforgiving Tamaulipan Thornscrub.

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While there are many South Texas species on the top of birders’ wish lists, perhaps the most famous is the Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas).  They range from southern Texas through Mexico into northern South America.  Intelligent, inquisitive birds, they are a common sight in the brush country.

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Green Jay

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Green Jay

The Altamira Oriole (Icterus gularis) is the largest “true” oriole.  It takes these striking birds two years to attain their adult plumage, with first year birds being generally duller and lacking the bold black back and wings.  Altamira Orioles build pendant nests, which hang from tree branches.

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Altamira Oriole Adult

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First Year Altamira Oriole

Smaller and less commonly encountered than the Altamira Oriole is the Audubon’s Oriole (Icterus graduacauda).  They too barely enter the United States in southern Texas.  The Audubon’s Oriole is poorly understood, with few data on their natural history.  What little data are available indicate that they may be on the decline, likely due to a combination of habitat loss and nest parasitism by increasing populations of Brown-headed Cowbirds.

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Audubon’s Oriole

Another species that South Texas visitors get excited about is the Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus)  This boisterous flycatcher makes its home in resacas and riparian corridors.  I’ve been fortunate enough to observe this bird in South Texas, Costa Rica, and northern Argentina.  It certainly has one of the broadest ranges of any New World songbird.  Interestingly, both the English and Spanish names for this bird are onomatopoeas.  Kisk-a-DEE in English, and Bent-e-VEO in Spanish.  In Argentina it was locally known as “bicho feo” (ugly critter), both because this phrase also sounds like its call, and because its obnoxious vocalizations were enough to drive local communities sharing the Kiskadee’s territory crazy.

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Great Kiskadee

While enjoying an intimate view of the valley’s avifauna from the comfort of a bird blind, we witnessed an incredible moment.  The blind was especially productive, with several Green Jays, White-tipped Doves, Plain Chachalacas, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Northern Cardinals.  The occassional Altamira Oriole, Great Kiskadee, and Lincoln’s Sparrow would appear.  In an instant all of the birds scattered.  We could hear their wings cut through the still air as they vanished in a hurry.  The Plain Chachalacas (Ortalis vetula) retreated to some higher branches and began chattering furiously, sharply focused on the brush below.  It was at that moment that we noticed a series of small black blotches moving through the vegetation: the spotted pelage of a Bobcat as it slinked away, unsuccessful in its hunt.

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Plain Chachalaca vocalizing at a Bobcat

The Plain Chachalaca is a large chicken-like bird that skulks in the understory and forest floor.  They are social birds, generally found in small groups as they forage for fruits, seeds, and similar food sources.  Like the kiskadee, they are named for their raucous call.

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Plain Chachalaca

The White-tipped Dove (Leptotila verreauxi) also barely enters the United States in South Texas.  Though they are most frequently observed foraging on the ground in the shade of the dense underbrush, they would occasionally perch on low-hanging limbs.

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White-tipped Dove

Ranging deeper into the United States than the previously mentioned species, the Black-crested Titmouse (Baeolophus atricristatus) none-the-less, is one of the more range-restricted species that we observed during our trip.  It occurs from central Mexico through central and western Texas to extreme southwestern Oklahoma.

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Black-crested Titmouse

The Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Picoides scalaris) is much more widespread, occurring throughout much of Central America and the southwestern United States.  Pictured below is a male, identifiable by its red crown.

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Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Travelling west into western Hidalgo and Starr Counties, the landscape begins to transition from forested brushland to a mix of thornscrub and desert scrub.  Here we were serenaded by Cactus Wrens (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus) as we looked for the succulent plants that lend this large wren its name.  Erin spotted one particularly cooperative individual that sat atop the developing buds of a prickly pear and sang for several minutes.

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Cactus Wren

The ubiquitous Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is ever-present in the valley.  I remember on a previous trip, 10 years ago or more with my family, a couple from western Canada excitedly proclaimed that they had just seen one of the “red jays”.  It was one of the birds they were most excited to see during their trip.  It’s easy to take the common birds for granted, but the Northern Cardinal really is a beautiful species.  The generally duller female has a subtle beauty that makes for a fine image.

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Northern Cardinal

Resacas are shallow ponds and wetlands that dot the landscape of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, most of which have formed in old oxbow scars of the Rio Grande.  The term “resaca” apparently originated from a corruption of rio seco, Spanish for “dry river”.  It also means hangover (at least in Argentina).  These Resacas are home to a variety of interesting bird species.  Green and Ringed Kingfishers fish from their banks, and Least Grebes and Masked Ducks breed here.  They are also an important habitat for wintering waterfowl.  We observed several species of duck here, including Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera), Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis), and Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata).

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Cinnamon Teal

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Green-winged Teal

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Northern Shoveler

James and I spent one morning on our bellies in the tidal flats along the Gulf of Mexico.  We took advantage of the calm, shallow water to photograph foraging shorebirds and wading birds.  There were also large groups of Laughing Gulls, Royal Terns, and Black Skimmers Present.  After a while I had sand all over everything.  All over me, all over my camera.  So many grains of sand became trapped in the buttons of my camera that the shutter button became stuck in a depressed position.  As soon as I turned the camera on it would begin firing in rapid succession.  I was unable to change any settings.  Unfortunately as a result I missed some opportunities for shots of Marbled Godwits and a few other species.  Fortunately I was able to capture a few images prior to this malfunction, like this Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) on the hunt for invertebrates.

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Short-billed Dowitcher

Perhaps my favorite of the long-legged wading birds, the Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) is an uncommon species that appears to be on the decline.  They are closely tied to coastal habitats, and most population estimates put the number of birds at less than 10,000 pairs globally.

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Reddish Egret

These handsome birds put on a truly spectacular show as they forage in the shallows.  They are famous for their graceful, acrobatic hunting technique. They seemingly dance upon the shallow water, running, turning, and waving their wings in a way that seems at the same time chaotic and choreographed. This technique startles small fish in the shallows, and the egrets will then cup their wings over their head to shade out the sun so that they may more easily spot their quarry.

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Reddish Egret oh the hunt

Fortunately, with the help of a needle and some compressed air, I was able to get the sand out of my shutter button, and captured many memorable photographs during our short time in the valley.  While we observed many spectacular landscapes and organisms on our trip, our time spent with the birds was truly special, and I’ll always cherish the memories of chasing after them, camera in hand.

South Texas Part V: A Stop for a Sand Sheet Endemic

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Amelia’s Sand Verbena blooms in the South Texas Sand Sheet

The South Texas Sand Sheet occurs across a handful of South Texas counties.  It consists of layer of loose sand that was blown inland from the Gulf of Mexico in the Holocene.  The sand sheet is home to a suite of endemic plant species.  Perhaps the most spectacular is the Amelia’s Sand Verbena (Abronia ameliae), which can be found nowhere, save the South Texas Sand Sheet.

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Amelia’s Sand Verbena

While returning home from the Rio Grande Valley we passed through the sand sheet.  I began seeing splashes of a deep pinkish purple passing as a blur at 75 miles per hour.  Finally after seeing a large field of pink I shouted “STOP!”  And my dad, despite his better judgement pulled over into the right of way of the busy highway and backed up to the spot that caught my eye.

The Amelia’s Sand Verbena was blooming en masse.  It was great to see such a rare, range-restricted plant thriving.  Recent rains may have helped provide such a spectacular bounty of flowering plants.  Growing among the sand verbena were a number of other South Texas specialties, including Rio Grande Phlox (Phlox glabriflora).

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Amelia’s Sand Verbena

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Amelia’s Sand Verbena and Rio Grande Phlox bloom in the South Texas Sand Sheet

It was a cool, overcast morning, so there were not many pollinators around.  We did however notices a stealthy predator nestled within the amble flowers on the inflorescence of one of the sand verbenas: a Crab Spider.

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A Crab Spider hidden in the blooms of an Amelia’s Sand Verbena awaits a meal

Seeing these South Texas Sand Sheet endemics was the perfect ending to an incredible trip full of biodiversity.  I was sad that it was coming to an end, but I took comfort in the fact that there were many other natural wonders still waiting to be explored.

 

South Texas Part IV: Star Hunting

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Star Cactus

The Star Cactus (Astrophytum asterias) may be the rarest, most unique cactus in the country.  It is known from only a handful of sites in the Tamaulipan thornscrub of extreme southern Texas and northeastern Mexico.  It is so imperiled that it has been listed as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  It is severely threatened by land use conversion and habitat loss.  Fortunately The Nature Conservancy in Texas acquired the property that may have the largest remaining Star Cactus population in the country.  Here they undertake conservation measures and reintroduction efforts to ensure that this iconic cactus remains for generations to come.

I have donated a number of photographs to The Nature Conservancy in the past.  When we decided on traveling to South Texas I reached out to them to see if I could arrange a visit to see and photograph these imperiled cacti.  They graciously approved my request, and we met with volunteer Paul Bryant, who gave us an excellent tour of the property.  Having previously worked for a non-profit land trust similar to the Nature Conservancy, I know how heavily we relied on our volunteers.  I also learned to recognize the good ones, and I had no doubt that Paul was a valuable asset to the Nature Conservancy.

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Star Cactus

Though many were growing in the open, the star cactus was extremely difficult to spot.  When its not flowering, it is inconspicuous, blending in with the scattered rocks covering the gentle slopes where it grows.  Also known as the Sea Urchin Cactus, Sand Dollar Cactus, and False Peyote, it is a spineless cactus that lies relatively flat against the surface in times of drought.  Following rains, however it swells with water and can appear quite plump.  I had hoped to photograph the bright yellow blooms, but it was not to be.  We saw a number of plants that had recently blooms, and others that were preparing to, but we weren’t fortunate to catch any in the act.  That was ok though, it was a wonderful experience just to get to see them in their element.  The plant itself is beautiful, and made for some interesting photographs even without its bloom.

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Star Cactus

There were several other cacti growing in the vicinity of the Stars.  The most conspicuous was the aptly named Glory of Texas (Thelocactus bicolor).  In Texas this species only occurs in the extreme western and extreme southern portions of the state.  Though the populations are disjunct in Texas, they are more or less connected through Mexico.  We saw many of their bright pink blooms, both in the open and at the base of nurse plants.

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Glory of Texas

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Glory of Texas

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Glory of Texas

We also saw a few of the formidable Horse Cripplers (Echinocactus texensis) in bloom.  Looking at these beasts, its not hard to see how they got their name.

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Horse Crippler

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Horse Crippler

I only saw one Runyon’s Pincushion Cactus (Coryphantha pottsiana) in bloom.  Though not as scarce as the Star Cactus, this species is also rare in Texas, where it is known from only three counties along the Rio Grande.

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Horse Crippler

And then there were more Lady Fingers (Echinocereus pentalophus).  Though these proved to be fairly common during the trip I never tired of seeing them, and could not resist every opportunity to photograph them.

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Lady Finger Alicoche

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Lady Finger Alicoche

I found one particularly robust flowering specimen growing among a clump of Varilla (Varilla texana).  I came to learn that where Varilla grows, there are usually other interesting things to be found.

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Lady Finger Alicoche

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Lady Finger Alicoche

We also observed several Strawberries Pitayas (Echinocereus enneacanthus), Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus fitchii), Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus (Mammillaria heyderi), and a few Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) on the property, however these weren’t in bloom.  I had hoped to photograph Peyote this trip, but a suitable opportunity did not present itself.

There were plenty of other flowering plants to admire, however.  Perhaps the most striking was the Berlandier’s Nettlespurge (Jatropha cathartica).  It seemed to prefer the same gravelly slopes as the cacti.

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Berlandier’s Nettlespurge

While on my knees looking for Peyote I spotted a group of tiny yet striking blooms.  The Glandular Milkwort (Polygala glandulosa) occurs in only a handful of South Texas Counties.

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Glandular Milkwort

It was hard not to stop and admire the Guayacan (Guaiacum angustifolium), which was blooming throughout the thornscrub.

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Guayacan

After arriving at the property, we split up to scour the area.  Seth soon came to find me.  He had an excited grin and told me that he had something to show me.  He led me to a large Texas Tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri) that had crawled halfway down its burrow.  I wanted so badly to photograph it, but despite waiting for some time, it refused to show its face, and we had to continue our hunt for the Star Cactus.  I was luck enough to photograph another South Texas Treasure, the orb-weaver Argiope blanda.  A. blanda occurs in the United States only in extreme southern Texas.

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Argiope blanda

Though I did not get to photograph the Star Cactus in bloom, it was a day full of natural wonder spent in good company, and I left with a real sense of contentment, both in the things I had seen and photographed, and in the knowledge that organizations like the Nature Conservancy exist to protect our planet’s great biodiversity.

 

South Texas Part III: The Lady and the Pencil

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Lady Finger Alicoche

Though the Trans Pecos is the center of cacti diversity for Texas, the cactus community of the Tamaulipan thornscrub is no less spectacular.  It includes a number of Mexican species that just barely enter the states in extreme South Texas.  Two species in particular, have been on my bucket list for years now: the Lady Finger Alicoche (Echinocereus pentalophus) and the Pencil Cactus (Echinocereus poselgeri).  I would have included them on my 2017 biodiversity list, however I didn’t anticipate taking a trip to South Texas this year.  So when a march trip to Big Bend fell through, I delighted in the opportunity to finally observe these species in their natural setting.

This is the part of the story where the patience of Carolina, my parents, and my brother really come into play.  They waited patiently while I sought out and photographed these species, and even helped me in my endeavor.  Carolina has a real interest in cacti as well, and she enjoyed seeing so many species in bloom.

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Lady-Finger Alicoche

The Alicoche is a cactus of the Tamaulipan thornscrub of northeastern Mexico and South Texas.  It can form large mats under the shade of nurse plants, however its stems are relatively nondescript, and the plant itself is difficult to see when not in bloom.  When it blooms, however, its gives its presence away in spectacular fashion.  The huge pink blooms seem to explore from the thornscrub.  It is easily one of the most spectacular plants I have ever had the good fortune to observe.

Echinocereus pentalophus

County-level distribution of Echinocereus pentalophus from http://www.bonap.org.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present and rare.

I found the Lady Finger to be an extremely photogenic plant, lending itself both to portraits of the blooms and landscape shots featuring the plant as a foreground element.  We were fortunate to observe many individuals in many different settings throughout the trip.  Spending time with this species was a truly memorable experience that I look forward to repeating some day in the future.

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Lady Finger Alicoche

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Remnant Tamaulipan thornscrub forest with Lady Finger Alicoche in bloom.

Fortunately the Alicoche was fairly easy to find.  That was not the case with the Pencil Cactus.  If the Lady Finger is hard to see when not flowering, the Pencil Cactus is virtually impossible.  Also known as the Sacasil or Dahlia Hedgehog Cactus, the Pencil Cactus has an extremely narrow stem that does not look much different than a stick.  Couple that with their tendency to grow among dense tangles beneath thornscrub shrubs, and you could imagine how hard it would be to pick them out.  When they bloom, however, the light up the thornscrub.

I spent a large part of the trip looking for this species in vain.  I went to sites where others had seen them, and scoured seemingly suitable habitat.  I did not see one until late afternoon on our last day in the valley.  After trudging through the dense thornscrub, cut, tired, and full of spines from allthorn, mesquite, and prickly pears I was ready to give up.  Then, as we were preparing to leave, driving through an undeveloped area adjacent to a small subdivision Carolina shouted “STOP!  The Pencil Cactus!”.  I looked up and saw it.  It’s flower had been nipped off.  Disappointed, I looked around hoping that there might be another in the area, and then I saw it up a steep slope.  I grabbed my camera and scrambled up the slope.  As my shutter clicked I felt a real sense of contentment, both in having found the Pencil Cactus, and that I have such a wonderful family that indulges my passion and obsession for the natural world.

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Pencil Cactus

The range of the Pencil Cactus is virtually the same as that of the Lady Finger.  It seems to be found in slightly denser clumps of brush where its slender, fragile stem can lean on the limbs of nurse plants for support.

Echinocereus poselgeri

County-level distribution for Echinocereus poselgeri from http://www.bonap.org.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present and rare.

We were lucky enough to observe two other species of Echinocereus in bloom in our pursuit of the Lady and the Pencil.  The Strawberry Pitaya (Echinocereus enneacanthus) was abundant throughout much of the thornscrub.  We were a bit early in the season to see many flowers, but I was lucky enough to spot a few in bloom.  E. enneacanthus is a fairly widespread species throughout much of Mexico and southern and western Texas and New Mexico.  The variety in South Texas is Echinocereus enneacanthus var. brevispinus, identifiable by its short spines.

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Strawberry Pitaya

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Strawberry Pitaya

Much less common was the Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus fitchii).  E. fitchii was initially, and still is considered by some to be a variety of Echinocereus reichenbachii, the Lace Cactus.  There are significant differences between the two, however, including root structure and spine and flower characteristics.  Most cactus flowers are at their best midday on sunny days.  This makes photographing them a challenge, as shading them often takes away some of the brilliance of their blooms.

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Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus

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Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus

Most of the cacti we observed during our trip were on Nature Conservancy property.  I can’t say enough good things about the Nature Conservancy in Texas.  I will discuss the Nature Conservancy and their contributions to conservation in my next blog post, but wanted to mention them here, as one afternoon Seth and I took a hike at one of their South Texas preserves.  We saw more cacti on this hike than the rest of the trip combined.  Echinocereus pentalophus and E. enneacanthus were abundant, as were Texas Prickly Pear (Opuntia lindheimeri) and Dog Cholla (Grusonia schotii).  We also observed Christmas Cholla (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis) and Lower Rio Grande Valley Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus hamatacanthus var. sinuatus), though none were in bloom.  We were, however, fortunate enough to see three other species in bloom: Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus (Mammillaria heyderi), Hair-Covered Cactus (Mammillaria prolifera),  and Twisted-Rib Cactus (Hamatocactus bicolor).

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus

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Hair-Covered Cactus

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Twisted-Rub Cactus

We also observed several other interesting plants in the thornscrub.  Some of these have been covered in previous blog posts.  Others I didn’t photograph for various reasons.  One of the most interesting was the terrestrial bromeliad Gaupilla (Hechtia glomerata).  We also observed a number of birds typical of the desert southwest, including Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatis), Black-throated Sparrows (Amphispiza bilineata) and Cactus Wrens (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus).  At one point I flipped over a dried cow patty and found a little Western Narrowmouth Toad (Gastrophryne olivacea) sheltering in some remnant moisture beneath it.

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Western Narrowmouth Toad

Stay tuned for more cactus-seeking adventures in my next blog entry.