Finding Paradise in the Bandera Canyonlands

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Hill Country Waterfall

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

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

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

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

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

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Hill Country Canyon

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

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

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

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Nine-banded Armadillo

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

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

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Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay

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

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

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

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

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

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Baird’s Rat Snake

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

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Bigtooth Maples at Love Creek

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

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

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

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Western Slimy Salamanders

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

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

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

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

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Bandera Canyonlands

One in the Hand, Two in Tobusch

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Tobusch Fishhook Cactus

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

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

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

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

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Texas Map Turtle

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

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

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Tobusch Fishhook Cactus

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

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Tobusch Fishhok Cactus Flowers

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

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Tobusch Fishhook Cactus

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

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Tobusch Fishhook Cactus

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

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Metallic Sweat Bee

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

Spring in the Hill Country

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Giant Spiderwort on a granite outcrop

Three springs ago I was lucky enough to marry the love of my life.  Before and since Carolina and I have shared many adventures in the natural world.  It seemed fitting that we spend our anniversary in these wild places we love so much, so we decided to take a trip to the Texas Hill Country.  It had been years since I spent any time exploring this treasure trove of natural wonders, and Carolina had only previously passed through.  We looked forward to a trip full of searching for rocks, gems, wildflowers, and other wild things.

The rugged Texas Hill Country is part of the Edward’s Plateau, an extensive uplift in central Texas comprised of marine deposit that are 100 million years old or more.  The region is primarily comprised of limestone, however extensive granite outcrops are present in areas.  The variety of substrates harbors an incredible array of plant and animal species, many of which are found nowhere else in the world.  Perhaps no other part of the state is as uniquely Texan as the Hill Country.  The following blog post is a long one that highlights its natural beauty.

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Spring in the Texas Hill Country

We covered a lot of ground during our trip, trying to see as much as we possibly could.  Recent rains had swollen the clear streams of the region.  While hiking we came across this tributary of the Colorado River, which I suspect is normally fairly tame.  We enjoyed a swim in the cool, clear waters below the fall.

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A Hill Country Waterfall

The wild’s of the Hill Country are full of beautiful sights, like this gnarled live oak growing from the top of a massive granite boulder.

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A gnarled live oak takes hold on a granite outcrop

The Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) is certainly the most iconic of all Texas wildflowers.  While I can’t deny their beauty, I am usually reluctant to photograph bluebonnets, as they have been so extensively planted that it’s hard to know when one has encountered a truly wild population.  I found this large population in a clearing in an open oak/mesquite savannah far from any roads or developed areas, and am fairly certain it is a native population.

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Texas Bluebonnets

We were lucky that a number of cacti had begun to bloom during our trip.  I posted about the Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus coccineus) in my previous blog.  I also mentioned the Lace Cactus (Echinocereus reichenbachii).  The latter deserves mention again here, as we found many in bloom while we were driving back roads in pursuit of Topaz and Celestite.  While we did not find the precious stones, we were rewarded with the brilliant blooms of this spectacular cactus.  The largest, most impressive individuals and groups were on private land well behind fences, however we did find several beautiful individuals within camera range.

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A Lace Cactus clings to a granite outcrop

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Lace Cactus

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Lace Cactus

We also found a few Heyder’s Pincushion Cactuses (Mammillaria heyderi), which I had recently photographed in South Texas.

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus

Perhaps one of the most spectacular wildflower displays came from the Giant Spiderwort (Tradescantia gigantea) which seemed to thrive on granite and limestone alike.

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Giant Spiderwort

We observed a number of Penstemon species.  The most common and widespread was the Prairie Penstemon (Penstemon cobaea).  It was a treat to see such large, healthy populations of this species, as it is rare in the Pineywoods.

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Prairie Penstemon

We even found a few Prairie Penstemons with a striking lavender wash.

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Prairie Penstemon

We also found the much less common Guadalupe Penstemon, which is endemic to the Texas Hill Country.

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Guadalupe Penstemon

Penstemon guadalupensis

County level distribution for Penstemon guadalupensis from http://www.bonap.org.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present but rare.

The most spectacular of the Penstemons, however, was the Hill Country Penstemon (Penstemon triflorus), another Edward’s Plateau endemic.

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Hill Country Penstemon

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Hill Country Penstemon

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Hill Country Penstemon

Penstemon triflorus

County-level distribution for Penstemon triflorus from http://www.bonap.org.

The Fringed Bluestar (Amsonia ciliata) was fairly difficult to spot among the grasslands and oak savannahs, despite its bright blue blooms.

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Fringed Bluestar

The Green Milkweed Vine (Matelea reticulata) is native to Texas and northeastern Mexico.  It is easy to see where it gets one of its alternate common names: The Pearl Milkweed Vine.

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Green Milkweed Vine

After spending a couple of nights camping we visited our good friends Scott Wahlberg and Ashley Tubbs in Kerrville.  Scott and I are known for our absurd conversations and hypothetical scenarios.  We are lucky that we have such tolerant women to put up with our shenanigans.  After spending the night at their place, they showed us a beautiful series of canyons that had eroded into the limestone hills.  The Endangered Golden-Cheeked Warbler (Setophaga chrysoparia) serenaded us as we explored its domain.

In addition to being rich in endemics, the Texas Hill Country is home to many species typical of the central or Eastern United States that are disjunct from the main portion of their range.  These species generally exist in these cool, moist canyons and are relicts of cooler, wetter times.  Scott has found Western Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon albagula) here.  Luckily I had seen them in the Hill Country before, as we were unable to find any this trip.  We did, however, see several Eastern Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) in bloom.

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Eastern Red Columbine

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Eastern Red Columbine

We observed several False Day Flowers (Tinantia anomala) in bloom.  These bizarre blooms reminded me of some alien creature.

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False Day Flower

We also found another uncommon endemic growing in these canyons: The Scarlet Clematis (Clematis texensis).

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Scarlet Clematis

Clematis texensis

County-level distribution for Clematis texensis.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present but rare.

The Texas Madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) is a typical tree of the slopes grading into these canyons.  We were lucky to find a few in bloom.

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Texas Madrone

With all of the wildflowers in bloom, the pollinators were out in force as well.  Perhaps the most beautiful, and definitely the most cooperative were the many Juniper Hairstreaks (Callophrys gryneus) that we observed.

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Juniper Hairstreak

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Juniper Hairstreak

As is so often the case for me, as the trip came to an end I was hit with a feeling of sadness.  But it’s hard to be too sad when I was returning to the Pineywoods, where so many interesting species were awaiting me.

 

 

Seeking the Claret Cup

Target Species: Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus coccineus)

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Claret Cup Cactus and Fairy Swords

The Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus coccineus) is one of the few species on my list that Carolina really wanted to see.  Though she almost always accompanies me on my adventures into the natural world, and her eagle sharp vision usually spots my targets before I do, she is usually just following my lead.  Ironically, I was far more successful at spotting the bright scarlet blooms of this cactus than she was – a significant divergence from the norm.

Also known as the Scarlet Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus coccineus is a species of the desert southwest that reaches the eastern edge of its range in the Edward’s Plateau of central Texas.  Carolina and I were thinking about a quick getaway for our Anniversary, and settled on this beautiful region.  We camped at some of the many state parks in the area, and spent our Anniversary rock hounding and plant hunting.

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Claret Cup Cactus Flower Detail

I first saw this species over a decade ago when backpacking in the Hill Country.  It was in bloom among the limestone bluffs northwest of San Antonio.  I had an early point-and-shoot camera with me at the time, and did capture some photos, however I have since wanted to return with my current knowledge and photographic skill set.

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A Claret Cup Cactus takes root in a crevice in a large granite outcrop.

This time we found them blooming among crevices and at the base of large rocks in extensive granite outcrops.  While many species show preference for either limestone or granite, the Claret Cup seems able to thrive in both.  The cacti were often forced to share their preferred growing sites with other plant species seeking a refuge from the inhospitable conditions on the exposed granite.  Most notably was the arid country fern known as Fairy Swords (Cheilanthes lindheimeri).

The flowers of Echinocereus coccineus are unique for a couple of reasons.  Unlike most other members of the genus Echinocereus, whose flowers close at night and reopen in the morning, the flowers of E. coccineus apparently remain open 24-hours a day, lasting a few days.  And while most cacti are pollinated by insects, the Claret Cup is primarily pollinated by hummingbirds.

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Claret Cup Cactus and Fairy Swords

One day I would like to photograph the Claret Cup in the high Chisos of Big Bend National Park, however for now I was thrilled to have the chance to capture them near the eastern edge of their range.  It was a truly incredible thing to see them growing from what little soil was able to develop among a seemingly endless sea of granite.

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Claret Cup Cactus

There were other cacti among the granite as well.  I had really hoped to see a Lace Cactus (Echinocereus reichenbachii) in bloom.  After a few days of finding lots of plants and no blooms, we finally found a few blooms, some within a stone’s throw of the Claret Cups.  Looking at the spines of Lace Cactus, it is easy to see how it earned its name.

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Lace Cactus

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Lace Cactus

Fairy Swords were abundant, seemingly envigorated by recent rains.  The combination of the gray-green ferns and lichen stained boulders was truly beautiful.

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Fairy Swords

In deeper depressions within the granite outcrops where debris was able to collect and deeper soils could form species such as Texas Paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) and Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) were able to take hold and thrive.  While both species are exceedingly abundant, and often planted along roadways throughout much of the state, it was a thrill to see them growing in their natural habitat.

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Texas Paintbrush and Texas Bluebonnets

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Texas Bluebonnets

Another common species of the granite outcrops that was also found growing alongside the Claret Cup Cactus was the Giant Spiderwort (Tradescantia gigantea).  This species really lived up to its name, reaching heights of nearly 3 feet.  This species occurs primarily in the Texas Hill Country, with a few disjunct populations in northeast Texas and parts of Louisiana.

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Giant Spiderwort

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Giant Spiderwort with Claret Cup Cactus in the background

There was more than plants among the outcrops.  We saw many animals including Rock Squirrels (Spermophilus variegatus), Crevice Spiny Lizards (Sceloporus poinsettii), and a Texas Patchnose Snake (Salvadora grahamiae), but as is often the case, I was unable to capture any of these on film.  The scenery alone was worth the trip, however.  There is something magical about these granite monoliths and the flora and fauna that eke out a living around them.  As night fell we laid on flat slab of granite, still warm from the day’s sun, and looked up at the brilliant stars.  We pondered life’s questions, big and small, and reveled in the magic of the Texas Hill Country.

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Hill Country Magic