A Productive Visit to the Upper Texas Coast

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Seaside Sparrow

When James and I first discussed taking a short trip to the Upper Texas Coast, we had two species on our mind: Black Scoters that had been seen in Galveston, and a Short-eared Owl that had been regularly observed at Anahuac.  I’ll save the suspense, and tell you know that we did not find either target.  Despite this, our short outing to the coast would end up being an especially memorable, productive trip.

Carolina and I left Saturday afternoon to stay with my parents in The Woodlands.  After 150,000 shutter actuations, my trusty Canon 7D is beginning to show its age.  It still takes excellent photos, however it is beginning to have some mechanical issues including occasional trouble powering on.  I had mentioned to my mom that I was considering purchasing a new camera, and she completely surprised me by offering to buy it for me using some money left to her by her late Aunt Jan.  I remember Aunt Jan from all of our family outings growing up in Chicago.  After we moved to Texas she would faithfully send me a birthday card every year up until just a few years ago.  My mom wanted to use some of the money left to her to do something nice for my brother and I, and this was as nice as it gets.  When I arrived at my parent’s house I became the proud new owner of a Canon 7D Mark II.  That evening we visited with my folks, ate my Dad’s famous New York strip and baked potato, and I readied my gear for the next day.

The next morning we woke at an inhumane hour.  I wanted to arrive on the coast before sunrise in order to try out my new gear and try to capture some images in that golden morning light that photographers are always raving about.  We would be meeting James and Erin on the beach.  They had left a day earlier and were camped at High Island.

We arrived just as the sun was cresting the undulating Gulf, casting its warmth upon the beach.  It wasn’t long before the first photo op presented itself.  I spotted a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) in a clump of dried camphor daisy.  The bird was surprisingly trusting and allowed for a close approach as it flit from bush to bush.  The trip was off to a good start.

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Loggerhead Shrike

James and Erin arrived just as I was finishing up with the shrike, and much to James’s disappointment, it vanished into the distant dunes.  We would end up seeing many shrikes over the course of the trip, but none provided such excellent photographic opportunities as the first.  Shrikes are fascinating, morbid birds.  These vicious hunters will pounce on anything smaller than themselves and quickly eviscerate them with their hooked beaks.  When I worked at Anahuac as a research biologist over a decade ago, we trapped Loggerhead Shrikes for research purposes.  The trapping method included placing a white mouse in a circular trap with a partition in the middle.  In the chamber opposite the mouse there was a small door that provided the only opportunity for the shrike to access the mouse.  As the bird entered it would trip a trigger and the door would close.  The partition protected the mouse from harm and we were able to safely extract the shrike.  Their bites drew blood, and we had to use special steel bands, as their powerful beaks would make short work of the standard aluminum versions.  If all of this wasn’t enough evidence as to their voracity, they decorate their territory with the carcasses of their victims, impaling them on thorns and barbed wire.  This gruesome behavior has earned them the nickname “Butcher Birds”

After chatting for a few minutes, James and I set out in pursuit of shorebirds while Erin combed the beach and Caro took in the warmth of the winter sun.  The shorebirds were out in force, and within a few minutes we had seen Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, Snowy Plovers, Piping Plovers, Wilson’s Plovers, and more.  My eye was drawn to a Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) standing in a shallow pool created by the advancing tide.  It was yawning(?) repeatedly, which provided for an interesting photo.  I created the image below to highlight the layers of color and light on the beach that morning, and like how bands of color exist throughout the image, from the foreground through the background.  Black-bellied Plover seems an unfitting name when seen in their winter plumage, but in the breeding season the males will don a dramatic pattern of black and white.

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Black-bellied Plover

I had really hoped to photograph a Long-billed Curlew that morning, and we did see one.  Unfortunately it proved too skittish and vanished before we would get our chance.  We also missed an opportunity to photograph a group of Horned Larks which flew into the wrack and blended almost perfectly into their surroundings.  It’s hard to be disappointed on such a beautiful morning, however.  And as the sun rose higher and the light became too harsh, we enjoyed watching the Brown and American White Pelicans fishing just offshore.

Satisfied with our morning at the beach, we all took the Ferry to Galveston Island.  Here we drove up and down the beach diligently seeking the group of Black Scoters that had been seen in the area.  Unfortunately this day it was not to be.

After lunch and a visit to La King’s Confectionery, we set out to explore Galveston Island State Park.  James and I trudged through the mucky saltmarsh while Caro and Erin sat at the Marsh’s edge.  We encountered a handful of Swamp and Savannah Sparrows, and a pair of Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) tucked away in the grass.

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Roseate Spoonbills

After the park we took one more pass down the sea wall to look for the scoters, again we found none.  Then it was back to the Ferry where we watched dolphins from the upper deck.  Once on Bolivar we returned to the beach.  There was a special light that evening, as the setting sun pushed through wispy clouds on the horizon.  This light, and distant skies painted by interesting clouds convinced me to take a break from birds and turn my camera to the subtle yet beautiful landscapes of the area.

The first scene to catch my eye was the sky’s reflection in a Black Needlerush marsh.  I waded into the marsh to capture this image, and endured the bites of what must have been thousands of mosquitoes.  The tiny bloodsuckers hadn’t even crossed my mind as we left east Texas, but I suppose the season had thus far been mild on the coast and recent rains provided the breeding ground.  Despite being probed by hundreds of needle-like probosces, I could not pull myself away from the tranquil scene.

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Black Needlerush Marsh

It was uncharacteristically still that day.  Only the faintest breeze swept across the beach from time to time.  Some of the clumps of Camphor Daisy still had blooms on them, and when I spotted one particular clump, half in fruit, half in bloom, just above tiny windswept ridges and a myriad of mammal tracks in the sand, my mind immediately began framing a scene.  Another distant group of Camphor Daisies and ethereal clouds in the distance added to the mood.  I composed the scene and captured the image below, which ended up being one of my favorite landscape images from 2018.

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Stories in the Sand

On the water a massive raft of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) was forming.  There was little light left, but dusk had dyed the water with hues of pink and blue.  The image below was taken at ISO 2500 and a very low shutter speed, but the unique light was just too good an opportunity to squander.

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American White Pelicans

As the day’s light vanished we went to set up camp at High Island.  Caro made a very impressive fire while I prepared one of my camp specialties, macaroni and tuna.  The mosquitoes were relentless despite temperatures dipping to the upper 40s.

Dawn broke to cloudy skies.  We took down camp and set out to explore Anahuac.  It would prove to be a most productive visit to a refuge where I have spent countless hours.  The roadsides were lined with American Bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus).  The trick was spotting these incredibly cryptic birds among the grasses, sedges, and rushes of the marsh.

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American Bittern

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American Bittern

As we were photographing a bittern, a pair of male Boat-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus major).  Both birds began to display in unison, though it seemed more like a joint effort than a ritualized competitive display.  I remain curious as to the nature of their interaction.  Boat-tailed Grackles are endemic to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the U.S., occurring in coastal marshes from southeast Texas to Long Island, New York.

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Boat-tailed Grackles

We spent most of the day driving the various roads in the refuge in search of things to photograph.  As we neared one of the refuge’s boat ramps, we caught site of a ball of fluff waddling toward the marsh.  It was a Northern Raccoon (Procyon lotor) and her progeny.  She stopped for a moment at the edge of the grass and allowed time for me to fire off a handful of shots before vanishing from sight.

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Northern Raccoon

It was an amazing opportunity.  Despite being ubiquitous, ranging across most of North America, and living in close proximity to human habitations, they are seldom observed, particularly in the daylight.  Their nocturnal habits and generally secretive nature makes capturing good images a real challenge.  I got a few shots that I was happy with, but really hoped for more time with these little carnivores.

We waited a moment but they didn’t show themselves.  After some time we decided to walk the edge of the saltmarsh for a while in search of sparrows.  The mosquitoes once again proved to be relentless, so Caro and I returned to the truck so I could change my shorts for pants.  As we neared we saw that the raccoons had emerged once again from the marsh, and I was able to capture a few more images, including the photo below.  It wasn’t long before they disappeared again.  I returned to look for sparrows while Caro hung around in the area to see if they might return.  Sure enough, when we came back from the saltmarsh she showed us a video of them foraging in the marsh, not far from where she sat, obstructed by my truck.

Seeing raccoons always reminds me of my mom’s sister, my Aunt Jer.  They were her favorite animal, and I still remember portraits of them in her home in Chicago.  It has been over 20 years since she passed, and while we all still miss her to this day, it brings me some joy and comfort knowing that, for me, her memory lives on in these masked bandits of the mammal world.

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Northern Raccoon

As we set out on our quest for sparrows we immediately began observing Marsh and Sedge Wrens skulking in the dense vegetation.  These tiny songbirds are generally very secretive, so it was a surprise when one of the Marsh Wrens (Cistothorus palustris) popped up for long enough for me to capture a few images.  In the spring, their distinctive chattery songs will bring joy to these coastal wetlands.

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Marsh Wren

The stars of the entire trip, however, were the Seaside Sparrows (Ammodramus maritimus).  These saltmarsh specialists occur in an extremely narrow band along the coast from south Texas to extreme southern Maine.  They spend most of their lives hidden among the Spartina and Distichlis of the saltmarsh, but occassionally will make themselves visible for the briefest of moments.

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Seaside Sparrow

I have learned that bird photography is often just as much about luck as it is skill and equipment.  I had visited this particular part of the refuge dozens of times in search of Seaside and Nelson’s Sparrows.  I typically see a few, but they generally remain elusive, and provide only fleeting glimpses.  This day, for whatever reason, they were out in force, and provided several good, relatively open looks.  I suspect that if I returned tomorrow, they would return to their secretive ways.

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Seaside Sparrow

Though they remain common in some areas of Texas, Seaside Sparrow populations are decreasing throughout their range.  They are under assault from a variety of factors including climate change, sea level rise, and rapid human development of coastal areas.  One race, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, went extinct just over 30 years ago, while another, the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow, is Federally Endangered.  Though I have decent images of this species from my time in Maryland, I have long wanted better images, specifically from Texas, and it was a dream come true to have the opportunity to capture some.

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Seaside Sparrow

Sadly our trip had to come to an end, as they always do.  But as we returned to the Pineywoods, in my mind I kept hearing the waves breaking on the shore, smelling the salt of the sea, feeling the mud sink beneath my feet, and seeing those coastal birds in their element.  And thanks to the images I captured on the trip, I can revisit those moments at any time, until I find myself trudging through the saltmarsh once more.

Birds and Blooms along the Upper Texas Coast

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Reddish Egret

Thunder rumbled in the distance as anvil-shaped storm clouds rose to the west of the Bolivar Peninsula.  I sighed in frustration; not because I disliked these May storms that form along the Gulf, but rather because the magic hour of perfect photographic light had just begun, and the clouds were soon to blot out the sun, leaving the beach cloaked in grey.  Desperately I searched for a subject to make the most of the few minutes of usable light that remained.  Soon I spotted one of my favorite birds, a Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) standing stoic in the surf.  Quickly I dropped to the sand, laying belly flat in an attempt to meet this special wading bird on its level.  Just as I set my lens on it I noticed that the world was rapidly darkening as the wispy margins of the storm clouds drifted in front of the sun.  What I found, however, was that this thin veil of clouds actually created a very special light that seemed to paint the egret.  I managed to take advantage of a window of less than a minute before the cloud’s dense heart crossed over the sun, robbing the evening of any further photographic opportunities, and captured the image above.

Before the clouds’ arrival I did manage to capture a few images of other avian beach dwellers.  American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana) were plentiful.  It was the end of May now, and many shorebirds are still making their leisurely journeys northward as their summer breeding grounds gradually thaw.  I consider avocets to be one of our most beautiful shorebirds, particularly when their heads and necks are painted burnt orange in their alternate plumage.

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American Avocets

A variety of “peeps” were still present, and we spotted Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, and a few Western Sandpipers.  Also present were several Wilson’s and Semipalmated Plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus).  The latter allowed for a fairly close approach as it probed the wet sand for worms and other invetebrates.

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Semipalmated Plover

Though they seem scarce along much of the coast, Reddish Egrets are quite common on this stretch of the Upper Texas Coast.  They are perhaps the most entertaining feathered-thing around, and I laid for several minutes watching them perform their elaborate predatory dances.  They seemed random yet choreographed in their movements, as if putting on some performance as they skipped and danced across the shallow water’s surface, stirring up tiny fish and fanning their wings above them, confusing their prey and shading them to make them more visible at the same time.

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Reddish Egret Hunting

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Reddish Egret Hunting

Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres) were also out in force.  Many had completed molting into their breeding plumage and were truly a sight to behold.

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Ruddy Turnstone

This stretch of beach is an important breeding ground for Least Terns (Sterna antillarum), a species of conservation concern.  Here they block off the main breeding area in order to protect the fragile nests, which are little more than scrapes in the sand.  The terns’ breeding efforts were kicking into high gear during our visit, and we were fortunate enough to be bombarded by several pairs that felt we were getting too close to their precious offspring, still developing within their calcium carbonate shells.

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Least Tern

We left the beach as dusk was closing in and the Ghost Crabs left the safety of their burrows to scavenge the shore.  Caro and I watched an impressive display of lightning ahead of us, and before long the storm overtook us.  It was impressive and violent, a striking contrast to the serenity of the bird-filled beach.  Perhaps it is these contrasts – tranquility and exhilaration – that keep drawing us back to the coast.

The next day we found ourselves in the Columbia Bottomlands of Fort Bend County.  These seemingly out of place forests of ancient oaks and elms harbor staggering biodiversity including many species that are rare to uncommon elsewhere.  One such species is the Texas Pinkroot (Spigelia texana).  These dainty forbs are endemic to moist woodlands and prairie remnants in southeast Texas, with a few specimens known from isolated locations further north and west in the state.

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Texas Pinkroot

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Texas Pinkroot

Growing nearby were several Aquatic Milkweeds (Asclepias perennis).  This species is sporadically encountered in East Texas, though it seems most common in these bottomlands near the coast.

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Aquatic Milkweed

The Columbia Bottomlands are also home to a diversity of birdlife.  In the shallow waters of an ancient oxbow off the Brazos River we observed Anhingas, Great and Snowy Egrets, Great, Little Blue, Tricolored, and Green Herons, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, White Ibis, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Common Gallinules, and more.  Prothonotary Warblers and Northern Parulas called from the trees lining the water’s edge and the call of a Barred Owl rang out in the distance.  Perhaps the most spectacular of all was the Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus), which dazzled us with its seemingly impossible sheen of iridescent blue and green.

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Purple Gallinule

In early July we found ourselves back on the coast.  This trip we spent more time on the beach and in the shops in Galveston, however we found ourselves in the saltmarsh of Galveston Island State Park during the final hour of daylight.  Here I struggled to capture images of Black-necked Stilts, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.  At the end of the day I found myself instead pursuing one of the most familiar coastal birds – the Willet (Tringa semipalmata).  Though common and by many accounts “drab”, I set out to capture an interesting image of these charismatic shorebirds.  I laid belly-flat in the mud and scanned the landscape to try and formulate a plan as hordes of mosquitoes drained my blood.  Soon, as I watched a Willet approach, I developed a concept in my head.  I framed the shot by turning my lens to an open patch of mud in front of me, and utilized the Salicornia and other halophytic vegetation in order to create a blurred foreground and background that I hoped would make the bird pop.  I lucked out as the bird moved into the frame and called out its displeasure, likely to my proximity to its nest or chicks I imagined.  And with some luck and patience, I captured the image below.

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Willet

Each trip to the coast brings with it some new adventure and opportunity to witness a unique natural beauty not found elsewhere in the state.  It also offers some of our state’s best photographic opportunities, particularly for birds.  I look forward to many future trips, and hope that I may continue to document in some way the very special plants, animals, and natural communities that can be found there.

Beach Tigers

Target Species: Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle (Habroscelimorpha dorsalis)

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A Tiger’s World – Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle

Sunday, August 5

I didn’t know what to expect, as we set out toward the coast.  We woke up late this morning, and I had no plans save to relax after a weekend of chores.  Carolina, however, had other plans, and presented me with an interesting idea.  She wanted to head down to explore the coast where Texas and Louisiana meet.  Outside a couple spring birding trips to the area over a decade ago, I had spent little time in that area, so I jumped at the idea.  By 11 am we were off.

This stretch of beach is actually the closest to our home, yet we always opt for the more obvious choice of Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.  The skies were gray as we made our way south on the Big Thicket National Preserve Parkway.  Just south of Woodville it began to rain, hard.  We wondered if this spur the moment trip would turn into a bust.  It rained almost until Beaumont, but stopped shortly after.  The storm left in its wake a thin veil of wispy clouds that dulled the sun’s rays.

We first made our way into southwestern Louisiana, and as we crossed Sabine Lake, a vast swath of coastal marsh came into view.  It was a beautiful thing to see, as Tricolored Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, Black-necked Stilts, and a wary Clapper Rail patrolled the roadside ditches.  We passed an American Alligator resting haphazardly a few feet from the shoulder of the roadway.  Before long we found a secluded stretch of beach and decided to sink our toes into the sand.

The coarse chatter of Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls filled the air as we scoured the beach.  I had no expectations for the day’s adventure, but that soon changed, when I saw a series of tiny blurs scatter before me.  There, where the gentle surf lapped at the sandy shore, I spied the Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle (Habroscelimorpha dorsalis).  This was a species on my list of biodiversity goals, and I came across it by the pure luck and happenstance of a spontaneous trip to the beach.

The first thing that struck me was the sheer number of them.  There were hundreds, the beach was literally crawling with them.  This is significant, I should note, as this species is rare and declining throughout its range.  They are dependent on pristine beaches and do not fare well in the face of human disturbance.  The northeastern subspecies (H. dorsalis dorsalis) has become so rare that it has been listed as a Federally Threatened species.

The reason it was so abundant here, I presumed, was that this particular stretch of beach was inaccessible to vehicles, and despite being undisturbed it was not particularly scenic, and therefore likely sees little human traffic.  In fact, we saw no evidence that anyone had been here for some time.

So I set out to photograph these little beach jewels.  Easier said than done.  The beetles were incredibly wary, and I couldn’t get close.  I did get one shot from above (the first image in this blog), which I think really communicates the natural history of this species.  It shows the beetle very small in the frame within a tiny patch of sand, likely no more than a few square feet.  Though seemingly minuscule to us, it is a vast landscape to the tiger.  They live out their entire lives on these tiny beaches, following the water’s edge with the ebb and flow of the tide, voraciously hunting down anything they can get their jaws around.  Even their larvae make their burrows in the sand just beyond the high tide line.

After several frustrating minutes I developed a strategy.  Ideally one would be armed with a 180 or 200mm macro lens and extension tubes to photograph such a tiny, elusive quarry.  Unfortunately I was only armed with a 100mm macro.  This meant I had to get close.  Very close – within a foot to capture the kind of image I was after. At first I tried belly crawling toward them, a strategy I have successfully used with other tigers.  They weren’t having it.  Any movement whatsoever sent them scattering.

They were so abundant here, that I thought to myself, what if I just lie in wait.  So I did.  Eventually they became somewhat accustomed to my presence.  If I could find a distant beetle moving in my direction and set it in my viewfinder, I could slowly change my focus as it moved closer and closer.  And so I had solved the problem of how to get close.  But before I could celebrate my victory, another problem presented itself.  On their endless pursuit of prey, they are constantly scurrying.  Tiger Beetles are, in fact, among the fastest organisms on the planet with respect to their body size.  I have read that they have to stop every second or so in order to reassess their surroundings, as they move so fast that they have trouble seeing the world around them when in motion.

But when they do stop, it is only for the briefest of milliseconds.  Not much time for me to adjust my focus.  And when shooting macro at this scale, focus is everything.  The beetles’ eyes and jaws need to be in focus to draw the viewer in.  So I ended up with dozens of shots that were just slightly blurred or had the focus just behind the eyes.  I was frustrated.  Then I saw a beetle that was moving much more slowly, stopping more frequently, and for longer.  And as luck would have it, it was coming my way.  Ecstatic, I fired away and captured a few shots in good focus.  It was only after I processed the image that I noticed it was missing the tarsus on one leg and had a large grain of sand on its mandibles.

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Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle

Though this hardened veteran of the Louisiana shore was interesting, it was not the image I was hoping for.  It’s hard to complain, however, when spending a day surrounded by such rare natural wonders.  I was getting nowhere fast with my efforts to photograph these beetles, so we spent some time combing the beach and swimming in the Gulf (despite the numerous warnings about bacteria levels).

That evening we crossed back into Texas and made our way to Sea Rim State Park.  Before heading back to the beach, we explored some of the surrounding marshlands.  Here we found a few Carolina Wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum) plants in bloom.  This halophytic (salt-loving) species occurs primarily along the coast of the southeastern U.S., with some inland populations in parts of Texas and Mexico.

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Carolina Wolfberry

The scattered pools in the saltmarsh were flush with bird activity.  I set my sights on a group of Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) and laid on my side at the marsh’s edge.  The light was fading and the mosquitoes were relentless (seriously).  But I endured this discomfort to try to capture some images of these bizarre shorebirds.

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Black-necked Stilts

As I was photographing a distant group, a very vocal stilt flew in and landed close, apparently oblivious to my presence.  I was able to capture a few images before it wandered off to join the others.

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Black-necked Stilt

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Black-necked Stilt

After photographing the stilts we went back to the beach, and I reveled in my own insignificance as I looked out onto the swaying waters of the Gulf.  We took to the water and enjoyed the day’s transition into dusk.  We then drove home, guided by the yellow lights of oil refineries that dotted the horizon like distant cities.  A sign of the times, I thought.

Friday, August 10

I still had tiger beetles on the brain as we made our way to Houston on this morning.  We had a meeting in the city, and had decided that afterward we would spend the remainder of the weekend on the coast.  After the meeting we drove to Port Arthur, checked into our hotel, and made our way back into Louisiana.  It was late afternoon when we arrived, and I was excited to once again try my luck photographing the beach tigers.

I laid down to try my proven technique once more, and soon encountered another problem.  While it was cloudy on my first attempt, today was sunny, and my head cast a broad shadow directly in front of me.  So now I had a narrow band of light on either side of the shadow that wouldn’t be too harsh or directional for photography.  I could have alternately tried to set up a flash system, but I decided instead to see if I could capture some images in natural light.

I had read that mating in the Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle typically occurred in the late afternoon and early evening.  It has been my experience that copulating beetles are much easier to approach, so I hoped I may be able to come across a mating pair.  After many failed attempts at single beetles I did find a coupled pair.  I managed to get a bit closer before the female finally shook the male off and they both scattered.

We spent the rest of the evening exploring the beach, the marsh, and a handful of scattered woodlots that no doubt hosted thousands of Neotropical migrant songbirds in the Spring.  On our drive back to the hotel the night sky was again interrupted with the distant lights of refineries, lighting up the night sky like dull orange stars.

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Copulating Eastern Beach Tiger Beetles

Saturday, August 11

Today we slept in a bit.  We spent the morning exploring the area around Port Arthur, and taking in the devastating toll that Harvey had on the residents of the region.  Such hurricanes, while undeniably tragic, are a normal occurrence which helped shape the natural communities of the coast. These systems evolved under the periodic disturbance of these strong storms.  This was evident as we drove through McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, where the marsh looked as vibrant and healthy as ever.  I wondered how the tiger beetles weathered the storm, for their population certainly seemed as robust as ever.  Perhaps they too benefit from the storm’s aftermath in some way.

After exploring McFaddin and catching up with a friend from College who works the Chenier Plain Wildlife Refuge Complex, Caro and I made our way to Sea Rim.  Here driving is permitted on the beach, and I struggled to find beetles.  In fact, the only place where I found them abundant was in a small football field sized area closed off to vehicular traffic.  Here I found a few Habroscelamorpha dorsalis and several Coastal Tiger Beetles (Ellipsoptera hamata).  E. hamata is much larger and more approachable than H. dorsalis.  I found that my belly crawl technique worked well with them, and I managed to capture a few images.

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Coastal Tiger Beetle

E. hamata occupies a broader range of habitats than H. dorsalis, occuring further into the dune and swale complex and salt flats adjacent to the beach.  The pattern of the maculations on their elytra are intricate and breath-taking when viewed close.  I watched them through my viewfinder, and smiled as the relentless Gulf breeze blew their antennae like errant strands of hair.

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Coastal Tiger Beetle

As the sun drew nearer to the horizon we set out to try our luck once more with the comically proportioned Black-necked Stilts.  Stilts have the longest legs relative to body size of any bird native to North America.  They can be found year-round on the Texas Coast.

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Black-necked Stilt

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Black-necked Stilt

We returned to the beach when the sun was all but gone and the mosquitoes of the marsh had drank their fill.  We laid in the shallow water and watch as dusk painted the world.  The sand, the sky, the water, it all appeared the same hue of dull pink for a brief moment in time.  It was a fine end to a fine day.

Sunday, August 12

My original plan was to wake very early this morning and head out to the Marsh to capture some images as day broke.  The pillow had other plans for me, however, and we slept in until around 8:00.  I felt better as I looked out the window to gray skies.  The plan was to head back to southwest Louisiana for one last effort to photograph the Beach Tiger Beetle.  I still hadn’t captured “the one” – the image I was after.

It was still overcast when we arrived at the beach.  The Beach Morning Glory (Ipomoea imperati) was open.  These large, showy blooms open early and wither by mid day.   It is a plant adapted to the harsh conditions of the beach, and is primarily restricted to the sandy complex of dunes and swales adjacent to the shore.

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Beach Morning Glory

As I was made my way down the beach I caught site of the slightest hint of movement.  It was a juvenile Atlantic Ghost Crab (Ocypode quadrata)!  It scurried across the sand like a wispy cloud moving against a background of gray.  I had long wanted to photograph this ethereal beach dweller, but despite having seen many large adults, I could never quite get close enough for a good shot.  This juvenile, however, allowed me to approach close enough to capture it with my macro lens.

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Atlantic Ghost Crab

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Atlantic Ghost Crab

Satisfied with my Decapodean encounter, I moved to the water’s edge, where the Eastern Beach Tiger Beetles were hard at work, hunting and scavenging along the miniature wrack of shells and debris.  The light was good, and I settled in with my camera in hand.  Watching these remarkable insects through the viewfinder offered me a rare chance to capture a glimpse into their miniature world.  The subspecies in Louisiana and Texas is H. dorsalis venusta.  It is the smallest, and most boldly patterned of the H. dorsalis subspecies.

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Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle

It wasn’t long before they came scurrying in.  However, once again I found my 100mm macro to be a bit too short.  Capturing that perfect image was further complicated as I noticed that most beetles were thermoregulating in the relatively cool morning, keeping their bodies close to the ground wherever they stopped.  Not one to be dissuaded, I set out to make my best of the situation.  Unfortunately my camera had other things in mind, and as I was reviewing images I began to receive error messages from my card and camera.  Something was wrong, and several of the images had not recorded.

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Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle

By this point my frustration had got the better of me, and I wondered if I just simply was not meant to photograph this beetle!  I went right away to download the images, and fortunately I was able to recover some of them.  In the end, the images I have included in this blog were the best I was able to get.  And while they may not be exactly what I had hoped for, I was happy with them.  I have since changed the card in my camera and it seems to be working fine.

With that, we left the beach and made our way north through western Louisiana.  The marsh in this part of the country is spectacular, and in some areas we could see a seemingly endless expanse of wetland grasses, sedges, and rushes.  I admired the subtle change in color and texture as broad stretches of Spartina grass were broken by pockets of Black Needlerush.  Eventually the marsh changed from saltmarsh to brackish to freshwater.  Before long we glimpsed our first oak trees, followed shortly by stunted pines.  And just like that, we were back in the Pineywoods, albeit the Louisiana side of things.

Tiger beetles are fascinating creatures, and photographing them can easily become an obsession.  Being so focused on getting the shot can sometime cause me to lose sight of the experience of being present in a place and moment of time.  Interestingly enough, however, by setting my lens on these bejeweled predators I was able to catch a unique glimpse into their captivating lives.  I watched as they stalked down and pounced on tiny flies, excavated burrows in search of some invertebrate prey, and tracked down mates.  Indeed, I can see myself returning at some point in the not too distant future to visit these voracious miniature tigers again.

Back to my Roots: Fun with Bird Photography

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Blue-winged Teal

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

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

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

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

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James with his new lens

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

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

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Ring-necked Duck

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Ring-necked Duck

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

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet

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

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River Cooter

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

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Common Gallinule

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

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American Bittern

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

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Black Skimmer

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

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American White Pelican

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

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Snowy Plover

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

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American Goldfinch

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

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Great Egret

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

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Blue Jay

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

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Tufted Titmouse

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

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Chipping Sparrow

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

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Hermit Thrush

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

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Barred Owl

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

 

The Chicken Turtle

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Before I post a recap of June’s discoveries, I wanted to highlight a special encounter of a seldom seen denizen of eastern Texas.  For some, the Western Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticularia miaria) is the holy grail of Texas Turtles.  It is a rarely encountered species of the coastal plain in the southeastern United States. Here they primarily inhabit ephemeral wetlands, from oxbows in floodplain forests, to seasonal marshes and potholes in coastal prairies.

They appear to be uncommon and declining throughout most of their range, and Texas is no exception. Here they are rarely seen and poorly understood, though recent studies are shedding some light onto their range and habitat preference in the state.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of this species is its extremely long neck. When I spotted this species individual in the road its neck was fully extended. It was the last thing I was expecting to see while exploring the prairies and marshes of the upper Texas coast, but I was beyond thrilled to encounter it. I moved it to a safer location where I captured this image.

Exploring the Upper Texas Coast

Target Species: Saltmarsh False Foxglove (Agalinis maritima)

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

The Upper Texas Coast is a naturalist’s paradise.  It is one of the country’s premier birding sites, and harbors an interesting flora and fauna including many species that are limited to coastlines and their associated habitats.  This region was historically largely a patchwork of coastal prairie, freshwater marsh, brackish marsh, and saltmarsh.  Trees and woody vegetation was primarily limited to larger river drainages.   Today the habitat has been heavily modified, however remnants of historic vegetation still remain.

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

I had previously observed the Saltmarsh False Foxglove while passing through bands of saltmarsh leading to the beach.  For whatever reason I never stopped to photograph it, despite the fact that it was an interesting species restricted to a thin band of habitat directly adjacent to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of North America.  Here it occurs in tidally influenced saltmarsh.

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County-level distribution of Agalinis maritima from http://www.bonap.org

This year I made a point to capture some images.  Last weekend Carolina and I took a trip to the Upper Texas Coast.  The first evening of our trip we passed through saltmarsh where I had seen it in bloom around this time last year.  I was disappointed, as I didn’t see any blooms.  I thought that I had missed my best shot at checking Agalinis maritima off my list.  The next morning, however, while revisiting the beach I saw several in bloom.  I came to the conclusion that the blooms open in the morning, and throughout the day as the relentless coastal winds hammer the marsh the blooms quickly fade and fall from the plant.  The wind made photography a challenge, but I was able to capture a few images of the Saltmarsh False Foxglove’s beautiful, bizarre-looking flower.

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

There were many other showy plants blooming alongside my target.  One of the most striking was the Texas Bluebells (Eustoma exaltatum).  This is a wide-ranging species that seems to thrive in the coastal prairies and drier margins of the saltmarsh, though they can be found well inland in open habitats as far north as Wyoming and North Dakota.

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Texas Bluebells

The large, bright blooms of the Saltmarsh Morning Glory (Ipomoea sagittata) were also prevalent.  The blooms open in the early morning and are mostly closed by early afternoon.

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Saltmarsh Morning Glory

Plentiful rains prior to our visit resulted in an abundance of rainlilies (Cooperia spp.).  I was excited to discover that a few were the uncommon Traub’s Rainlily (Cooperia traubii), which is limited to a few coastal and near coastal counties in Texas and extreme northeastern Mexico.  It can be differentiated from the similar, more widespread Evening Rainlily (Cooperia drummondii) by it’s elongated style, which extends well beyond the anthers.  The style of the Evening Rainlily is either shorter than the anthers, even with the anthers, or barely longer.

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Traub’s Rainlily

Cooperia traubii

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

The taxonomy of prickly-pears (Opuntia spp.) is a bit of a mess.  Experts offer differing opinions of how the various species and populations should be classified.  The prickly-pears of the upper Texas Coast follow this pattern.  Two species are especially contentious.  Some experts suggest that these cacti are individuals of the more widespread Opuntia lindheimeri and Opuntia stricta, while others suggest that there are two species endemic to the Upper Texas Coast: Opuntia bentonii and Opuntia anahuacensis.  If Opuntia bentonii is a valid taxon, the image below is of this species.

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Opuntia sp.

Venturing less than a mile from the coast the marsh slowly transitions from salt to brackish to fresh water.  At the margins of a handful of freshwater marshes in the Upper Texas Coast a real gem of a plant can be found: the Fewflower Milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata).  The Fewflower Milkweed is a species of the coastal plain that reaches its western limit in Southeast Texas.  Here it historically occurred in wetland pine savannahs and wet coastal prairies.  Today it exists in only a handful of populations in the Big Thicket and along the Upper Texas Coast.

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Fewflower Milkweed

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Fewflower Milkweed

Blooming in profusion within the freshwater marsh were scores of Swamp Rosemallow (Hibiscus moscheutos).  The spectacular blooms of this species open fully in the early morning, and close by the afternoon.

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Swamp Rosemallow

Every trip to the Upper Texas Coast provides unique, memorable encounters with the natural world.  There are several other species on my list that call this region home, and with any luck I’ll return soon to seek them out.

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Retreating tides and advancing clouds on the Upper Texas Coast

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Retreating tides and advancing clouds on the Upper Texas Coast

 

South Texas Part I: Along the Coast

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Coastal Dunes with Beach Morning Glory

When I was developing my 2017 list I added several species that were contingent on a spring break trip to Big Bend.  Unfortunately I did not plan ahead enough, and by the time I tried to make arrangements out west everything was already booked up.  Fortunately there are so many biodiversity hot spots in Texas that it was not hard to find a substitute.  We decided on the varied subtropical habitats of Deep South Texas.  Here one can encounter a suite of endemics and Mexican specialties that are found nowhere else in the country.  It may come as no surprise that immediately after posting my 2017 list I began thinking about my 2018 list, in which I planned to include many of the South Texas specialties.

So Carolina and I began an adventure with my entire family: my brother, Seth, my mom, Jolynn, and my dad, Jack.  We traveled south in two vehicles intent on seeking out plants, birds, herps, and good food.  Our first couple days were allocated for time along the coast, from Port Aransas to South Padre.

The South Texas coast contains several extensive dune fields, primarily along the barrier islands.  Some are ever shifting, and some have been stabilized with vegetation and debris.  One might be surprised to find plants clinging to life in these sandy wastelands, however several species thrive in these shifting sands.  The most conspicuous species during our trip was the Beach Morning Glory (Ipomoea imperati), which is a coastal specialist ranging from the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Florida to the Gulf Coast of Florida to Texas.  We enjoyed the view from the base of the dunes as Sanderlings (Calidris alba), Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres), Willets (Tringa semipalmata), and Black-bellied Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola) chased the receding waterline only to swiftly retreat with each incoming wave.

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Beach Morning Glory

Beyond the dunes lie a variety of habitats including wet and dry prairies and marshes.  Marshes vary from saline to brackish to freshwater, depending on the influence of tidal waters.  We spent time exploring some high quality saltmarshes, one of my favorite communities, where we observed several bird species including Long-billed Curlews (Numenius americanus), Marbled Godwits (Limosa fedoa), Spotted Sandpipers (Actitus maculatus), Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melenaleuca), American Oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus), Clapper Rails (Rallus crepitans (formerly R. longirostris)), American Coots (Fulica americana), Common Moorhens(Gallinula chloropus), Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Redheads (Aythya americana), Northern Pintails (Anas acuta), Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors), Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis), and Mottled Ducks (Anas fulvigula). Mottled Ducks are coastal specialists that range from Florida to central Mexico.  These close relatives of the Mallard have experienced population declines throughout much of their range as coastal habitat has been lost to development and sea level rise.

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Mottled Duck

The marshes were also home to a variety of wading birds including American Bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus), Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja), White Ibis (Eudocimus albus), Green Herons (Butorides virescens), Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias), Great Egrets (Ardea alba), Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula), Reddish Egrets (Egretta rufescens), Yellow-crowned Night-Herons (Nyctanassa violacea), Black-Crowned Night-Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), and some cooperative Tricolored Herons (Egretta tricolor) and Little Blue Herons (Egretta caerulea).

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Tricolored Heron

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Little Blue Heron

A number of songbirds were also present.  We observed several Common Yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) and scores of Red-winged Blackbirds (Agaleius phoeniceus) and Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus).  The Grackles were particular tame, and would perch on the boardwalk support posts mere feet away from us.

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Great-tailed Grackle

Slight variations of topography along the coast result in vastly different vegetative communities.  On small sandy crests and ridges dry prairies and scrublands persist.  These prairies are dominated by a variety of grasses and forbs.  The most visible member of this community is the Spanish Dagger (Yucca treculeana).  These stately yuccas are common in these dry prairies, and in the United States are restricted to southern Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

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Spanish Dagger

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Spanish Dagger Flowers

Along the wetter transition zone between marsh and prairie Carolina spotted a pair of Texas Feathershanks (Schoenocaulon texanum).  These bizarre members of the lily family can be found in south, central, and west Texas and southwest New Mexico.

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Texas Feathershank

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Texas Feathershank

The contact zone between the dunes and coastal prairie also harbor an interesting flora.  Arkansas Lazy Daisy (Aphanostephus skirrhobasis) is a widespread species of the south central states that can be common in this community.

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Arkansas Lazy Daisy

The lazy daisy is popular with pollinators, and coincidentally with their predators like this crab spider (Misumenoides formosipes) that awaits a hungry pollinator to fall into its trap.

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A crab spider awaits an unsuspecting pollinator

American Bluehearts (Buchnera americana) was also fairly common in this community.

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American Bluehearts

I have always been a fan of milkworts.  I was delighted to see several White Milkworts (Polygala alba), which we don’t have in East Texas.

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White Milkwort

Texas Palafox (Palafoxia texana) is primarily restricted to southern Texas.  Its brilliant pink blooms added a splash of color to the primarily brown grasses of the coastal prairie.

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Texas Palafox

I observed this wasp, Campsomeris tolteca (thanks to Seth Patterson for the ID), feeding on the nectar-rich flowers of the Texas Palafox..

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Campsomeris tolteca

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Campsomeris tolteca

Scattered along the coast are a series of woodlots primarily dominated by Live Oak (Quercus virginiana and Quercus fusiformis) and Hackberry (Celtis laevigata).  Here we observed a variety of Neotropical Migrant birds including Yellow-throated Vireos (Vireo flavifrons), Northern Parulas (Setophaga americana), Black-and-white Warblers (Mniotilta varia), and Yellow-throated Warblers (Setophaga dominica).

These woodlots are also home to Drummond’s Hedgenettle (Stachys drummondii).  This member of the mint family is restricted to the Texas Coast and the Rio Grande Valley.

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Drummond’s Hedgenettle

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Drummond’s Hedgenettle

Stachys drummondii

County Level Distribution for Drummond’s Hedgenettle from http://www.bonap.org

The wealth of biodiversity along the coast was not limited to land.  We observed a variety of shells, jellyfish, and dead fish along the shore, as well as a number of dolphin pods on the move offshore.  The most exciting encounter of the trip, however, came in the form of this juvenile sea turtle, which I believe is a Mexican Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas).  Thanks to a tip from my good friend John Williams, we were able to observe several foraging just offshore.  Despite the cool morning, 40 mile per hour winds, and spitting rain, everyone enjoyed watching this rare marine reptiles as they surfaced for a breath before returning to the depths.

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Green Sea Turtle

The South Texas Coast was good to us, however the trip had only begin.  Next we would be venturing into the South Texas Brush Country, famed for its biodiversity and specialty species that can be found nowhere else in the country.