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

Chasing the Monsoon

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Davis Mountains Sunrise

It’s hard to resist the prospect of venturing west during the height of summer, when the monsoon rains drench the sky islands of the Trans Pecos, and bringing with them a lush, rich paradise in high elevation forests and canyons.  It has become a bit of an annual tradition for Carolina and I to visit the Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve during their open weekends in July or August.  This year would be all the more special, as we would be joined by our new friends Jim Fowler and Walter Ezell.  I have known Jim for years through Flickr.  Jim is an orchid expert from South Carolina who has authored two books, including Wild Orchids of South Carolina: A Popular Natural History.  Jim also maintains an excellent blog about his and Walter’s botanizing adventures (click here to check it out).  For some time Jim had been commenting to me on how he wanted to see a spectacular orchid that is known in the U.S. only from a few locations in Texas.  This orchid happened to be one of my all-time favorite species, the Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora).

So I told Jim that he should join us on one of our trips to the Davis Mountains, as they are the best place to see this strange, beautiful orchid.  He would get his chance this past July, when he and Walter flew in from South Carolina and met up with Carolina and I.  We caravaned west, passing through the southern extend of the rolling plains and into the Permian Basin, and finally into Limpia Canyon.  That afternoon we planned to meet up with our friend and retired biologist Gary Freeman, who owns several hundred acres of Davis Mountain bliss.

The rains of the monsoons had arrived late this year, and had only recently begun.  The landscape was still dry and brown, exacerbated by a series of intense wildfires that spread through much of the area.  Better late than never, though, and they had arrived a couple of weeks prior to our arrival.  I hoped this would give enough time for the coralroots to emerge.  I would hate for Jim and Walter’s cross-country trip to have been in vain.

On the way to Gary’s home we spotted a large Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) buck grazing just off the road.  It’s coat was still wet from a recent rain shower as it warily eyed us.  It never attempted to flee, however, as we approached to admire and photograph it.  My experience with Pronghorn is that they will allow for a fairly close approach, as long as they can see you.  I like to think that it is because, as the fastest land mammal in North America, they are confident in their ability to outrun me.

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Satisfied with our photos of this peculiar mammal, we continued on to the rugged road that led to Gary’s place.  As we drew nearer we could see that it was raining in the surrounding mountains, and hoped that we could avoid a downpour long enough to find a few orchids.  As we made our way down the wet, rough road to Gary’s, I worried that our timing was off, and the coralroots would not make an appearance.  How wrong I was.  Not long after the road climbed into a broad canyon with Ponderosa Pine, Alligator Juniper, and a variety of oak species, I heard Caro call out “STOP!!”  She had spotted a Giant Coralroot in bloom at the base of a massive boulder.

Jim and Walter excitedly gathered their photography gear and set about photographing the electric pink myco-heterotroph.  It was not in the best location for photography, and it was somewhat entertaining watching them formulate a plan on how to best approach capturing their desired images.  Carolina and I searched the area in the meantime, and found a few dried stalks and unopened buds.  We then continued on until the road became all but impassable, and turned into Gary’s dirt driveway.

Gary’s home is settled in the middle of a rich forest of Ponderosa and Pinyon Pines, Alligator Juniper, Texas Madrone, and a variety of oaks and other hardwoods.  It is transected by numerous washes and drainages that flow like mountain streams in years with ample rainfall.  We were warmly greeted by an enthusiastic Gary.  It is always a joy touring his land with him.  He is extremely knowledgeable, energetic, and full of interesting stories.  He is also always more than willing to share a glass of hard cider or two and plenty of camaraderie following a long hike through his canyons.

It wasn’t long after setting out that we spotted our first Giant Coralroot.  We would end up seeing many, but most were just emerging and in bud or barely open.  Jim was excited to see these and stopped to photograph each one.  While I was happy that we had found some, I really wanted to show them a fully opened flower, so they could come to know the true glory of this spectacular plant.  And then, finally, near a high elevation spring we found some.

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Giant Coralroot

Giant Coralroots are non-photosynthesizing myco-heterotrophs, meaning they do not possess chlorophyll and are uncapable of metabolizing energy from the sun.  Instead they utilize underground rhizomes and roots to obtain their energy and nutrients from the mycorhizzal fungi of tree roots.  An individual plant spends most of its life underground and may only bloom once every few years.  When they do bloom, however, it is a sight to see.  Their bright pink stalks push up through the leaf litter and may bear a dozen or more blooms that open in succession as the stalk grows.

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Giant Coralroot

Satisfied with our orchid hunting trip, we returned to Gary’s house and imbibed in the aforementioned hard cider.  As the sun fell low on the horizon we bid our reluctant good byes and went on our way.  Jim and Walter would stay in Fort Davis while Caro and I camped at Davis Mountain State Park.  Generally we would camp at the Davis Mountain Preserve, which has free camping during open weekends, however the preserve was closed to camping this year due to issues with the wildfires.

Fortunately the preserve would still be open during the day, and the next morning we set out to see what other interesting things we might find.  We made our way to one of my favorite places in the preserve, an area where I have seen many Giant Coralroots in the past, as well as Malaxis macrostachya and other interesting wildflowers.  We did succeed in finding several more Giant Coralroots, but other than that there was not much blooming.

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Giant Coralroot

As I was capturing the image above, the clouds opened up and let a deluge down upon the mountains.  I was reluctant to leave the scene, but finally retreated to my truck where we waited out the storm.  Eventually the rain let up and we continued to explore the area.  We were lucky to find several Desert Saviors (Echeveria strictiflora) in bloom.  This unique succulent is another species that Jim had really hoped to see.  In the U.S. it is only known from a few sites in far West Texas.

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Desert Savior

We then made our way into Tobe Canyon, where I hoped some other interesting plants might be blooming.  On our way up we passed many stately Ponderosa Pines.  In fact, the state champion is in this very canyon.  The textures and colors of the bark and Old Man’s Beard lichen caught my eye, and inspired me to capture the image below, which is a bit more abstract than most of my work.

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Patterns in Ponderosa

We continued up into the canyon, however it was getting late and the preserve would soon be closing for the day.  Many of the species I was hoping to see remained elusive, but we were rewarded with Cliff Fendlerbush blooming in the canyon, dotting the hills with their soft white blooms.

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Cliff Fendlerbush

We descended Tobe Canyon and left the Preserve.  On our way back to Fort Davis we stopped to show Jim and Fowler several interesting places, including nice views of the Davis Mountains, the McDonald Observatory, and high elevation prairies.  Of particular interest to Jim were milkweeds, of which we saw many species.  One of my favorite is the Bract Milkweed (Asclepias brachystephana).

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Bract Milkweed

Jim and Walter would be leaving in the morning, and to thank us for showing them around they invited us to have dinner with them in Fort Davis.  We decided to head back to our campsite to clean up and rest a bit before heading into town to meet up with them again.  Back near camp Orange Fameflowers (Phemeranthus aurantiacus) were beginning to open.

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Orange Fameflower

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Orange Fameflower

We met up with Jim and Walter at the condo they were renting in Fort Davis.  There Walter prepared a delicious meal of pork chops and salad.  After we talked for some time, but eventually we had to bid our farewells and head back to camp.  We were sad that our time with our new friends was ending, but I was happy that I was able to show Jim the Giant Coralroot and a number of other interesting things along the way.

The next morning we woke early and explored the state park and adjacent Fort Davis National Historic Site, which defended the Trans Pecos in the mid to late 1800s.  By early afternoon the clouds began rolling in, and soon the monsoons drenched the earth once more.  After they passed we returned to exploring.  I chased a huge Western Coachwhip to no avail, and stalked Blue Grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) in hopes of capturing a photograph.

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Blue Grosbeak

I also took a moment to photograph the ubiquitous White-winged Doves (Zenaida asiatica), which really are quite striking up close.

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White-winged Dove

As the rain drenched the mountains, Caro and I decided to explore the grasslands around Fort Davis and Marathon.  To me, these special communities are just as interesting and diverse as those in the high country.  We spotted a number of interesting wildflowers in bloom, including the beautiful Devil’s Bouquet (Nyctagina capitata).

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Devil’s Bouquet

To my surprise, we also found several Plains Penstemon (Penstemon ambiguus) in bloom.  I was under the impression that this species bloomed earlier in the year, but perhaps the delayed onset of the monsoon impacted their phenology.  As I photographed them, I noticed a Scott’s Oriole singing from a fence post and a Swainson’s Hawk surveying its domain from the dried stalk of a Spanish Dagger bloom.

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Plains Penstemon

As we made our way across the prairie, I was hoping that I might have the opportunity to photograph some pronghorn in the interesting post-storm light.  I had my chance when we spotted a trio – two does and a young buck – near the road.  They did not immediately flee as I crept from my truck and tried to draw a bit nearer, but all three did perk up and look upon me with vigilant eyes.

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Vigilant Pronghorn

Often referred to as “antelope”, pronghorn only superficially resemble these old world ungulates.  They belong to the monotypic family Antilocapridae, and are actually more closely related to giraffes and okapis than true antelope.

Pronghorn are an iconic species of the American west, and it is always a treat seeing them in these semi-arid grasslands of West Texas.  Though once abundant, their numbers declined dramatically in the Trans-Pecos over the last 30 years.  They remain common in some areas around Marfa, Fort Davis, and Alpine, and their numbers seem to be rebounding following a number of reintroduction with animals from the Texas Panhandle.

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Pronghorn Doe

This buck below seemed indifferent to my presence, until I crouched down to get a low angle shot.  I must have triggered some primal response to concealed predators, because he perked up very quickly and began to snort and stomp his foot in displeasure.  They may be confident in their ability to outrun a predator in the open, but it seems the prospect of one concealed in the brush is another thing altogether.

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Pronghorn Buck

That night Caro and I went to see the Marfa Lights, and had a long debate about their possible source.  On the drive back to our campsite it seemed like every distant light was some mystical floating orb.  We saw a few Western Diamondbacks on the road, but otherwise it was an uneventful drive back.  The next morning we rose early and drove to the Skyline Drive in Davis Mountains State Park, where I captured the first image in this blog post.  Later, as we were breaking camp I spotted a freshly dead Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii) that looked like it had flown into a tree a bit too fast.  I was really hoping to add to my collection of photographs of this species during our trip, but it was beginning to look like it wasn’t meant to be.  We had seen two others on Gary’s land while looking for orchids, but they were flying high in the canopy.

On our way out of Limpia Canyon we stopped to examine some walnut trees, the main food source for adult Wood’s Jewel Scarabs.  After some time we spotted one flying low enough to capture.  Easier said than done.  I ran about making futile grabs at the air hoping to catch one.  Caro took a different approach.  She waited until it landed in a small oak growing from a crevice in some large boulders.  Cautiously she climbed the boulders and snatched the prize.  I took a few photos of this spectacular insect and we sent it on its way.

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Wood’s Jewel Scarab

It was a long drive home to the Pineywoods, but we had plenty of memories to reflect on during our journey.  We thought in breathtaking landscapes, incredible creatures, fleeting wildflowers, and new friends.  Each trip to the Sky Islands of West Texas brings with it some uniquely profound experience, and leaves me feeling refreshed, inspired, and eager to continue my never ending quest for biodiversity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Return to Sky Island

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

Target Species:

Mountain Adder’s Mouth (Malaxis macrostachya)

Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii)

Mountain Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi)

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

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

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

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

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

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Fringeleaf Lobelia

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

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

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Mountain Adder’s Mouth

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

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Mountain Adder’s Mouth

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

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

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

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

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Wood’s Jewel Scarab

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

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Wood’s Jewel Scarab

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

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Wood’s Jewel Scarab

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

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Glorious Scarab

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

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Torrey’s Crag Lily

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

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Havard’s Stonecrop

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

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Mottled Rock Rattlesnake

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

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

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

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

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Mountain Short-horned Lizards

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

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

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

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

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

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

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

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Giant Coralroot

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

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Mottled Rock Rattlesnake

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

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A distant thunderstorm rages over the desert scrub near Balmorhea.

Sky Island

Target Species:

Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora)

Mexican Catchfly (Silene laciniata)

Canyon Tree Frog (Hyla arenicolor)

Glorious Scarab (Chrysina gloriosa)

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Glorious Scarab

There are those profound moments in life that help shape who we are.  Experiences that put things into perspective, and fill us with a sense of purpose and being.  Moments that bring clarity to an otherwise murky sea of questions, concerns, and uncertainty.  For me most of these moments occur when I’m in the natural world – in places where the advance of civilization and the concrete world is less evident.  These wild places are my “church”, for it is here that I seek the direction and advice that guides me, and puts me on my path.  Make no mistake, I do not hold any misconceptions that Mother Nature reciprocates my feelings toward her, but rather I take comfort in my insignificance in the grand scheme of the natural cycle.  In these moments I know that my life will be fulfilled, for I could never hope to run out of new natural wonders to discover.

One such moment occurred recently in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, when Carolina and I stood high in a narrow canyon overlooking the rain-drenched valley below.  We were soaked from head to toe, yet our spirits were not dampened as we pondered the denizens of the forests and meadows that lay below us.  On the walk up we had passed groves of massive Ponderosa Pines (Pinus ponderosa), one of the many Rocky Mountain relicts that persist in these sky islands.  Among these pines was the largest individual recorded in the state of Texas.

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High Elevation Valley with Ponderosa Pine, Texas Madrone, and a variety of oaks

Rain in West Texas is a beautiful thing.  You can literally see the world come to life as it rains.  You can smell it, hear it, feel it.  It’s a difficult sensation to describe.  Though in these sky islands, rain is not as scarce as one might think.  Sky islands are unique habitats that occur in isolated mountain ranges in the desert southwest.  Here warm air cools as it rises up the slopes and moisture accumulates.  This combines with annual monsoons that typically begin in July and last into September, soaking the mountains with nearly daily afternoon thunderstorms.  The result is annual levels of rainfall that may be 4 times greater or more than the surrounding desert.  Temperatures are significantly cooler as well.  These conditions result in the presence of several species typical of the Rocky Mountains as well as species of the desert southwest.  Couple this with the fact that West Texas and northern Mexico is a a significant center of endemism, and the importance of the Davis Mountains for biodiversity becomes clear.

We were exploring the Davis Mountains Preserve, owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy in Texas.  This 33,000 acre preserve protects the highest and most spectacular portion of the Davis Mountains.  It joins approximately 70,000 acres of additional land protected through acquisition and private landowner conservation partnerships.  The result is the protection of over 100,000 acres of sky island habitat that is critical for a number of rare and declining species and natural communities.  Here we observed an array of fascinating plant and animal species typical of these sky islands.

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A rain-drenched montane woodland with an overstory of large Ponderosa Pines and an understory of oaks and Texas Madrone

Topping out at over 8,000 feet, the Davis Mountains are the tallest, and largest mountain range confined entirely to the Lonestar State.  Though the Guadalupe Mountains are indeed taller and more extensive, we share them with New Mexico.  The Davis Mountains were the last refuge for Mexican Gray Wolves and Grizzly Bears in Texas.  Those these apex predators are gone, the Mountain Lion still roams here, and Black Bears are making a comeback.  Today, the Davis Mountains remain one of the final strongholds in Texas for a variety of plant and animal species.  Perhaps the most spectacular of which is the Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora).

The rain was just beginning to let up when Carolina spotted them.  A clump of pink beacons shining against the wet rocks and grasses.  She had found the Giant Coralroot.  It is hard for me to describe the sense of wonder and excitement that overcomes me while I observe such an elusive treasure.  The clump of orchids had at least 10 stems with dozens of flowers in various stages of development, from bud to senescent blooms.  Over the next two days we would end up observing four clumps and a total of approximately 15 plants.

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Giant Coralroot

Previously the Giant Coralroot was thought to occur in the United States only in the moist pine-oak-juniper canyons of the Davis Mountains.  Though it remains restricted to Texas, it has since been discovered in the Chisos Mountains within Big Bend National Park, the White Rock Escarpment of north-central Texas, and oak-juniper woodlands of the Edward’s Plateau.  They seem to be exceedingly rare in these areas, however, and their real stronghold in the U.S. remains the Davis Mountains, where they are relatively common in high elevation forests dominated by Alligator Juniper, Pinyon and Ponderosa Pines, Texas Madrone and a variety of oaks.

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Giant Coralroot

Giant Coralroots are myco-heterotrophs, obtaining energy and nutrients from the mycorrhizal fungi of tree roots.  Unlike most plants they do not photosynthesize, and therefore do not require chlorophyll-containing leaves.  They spend most of their lives as nothing more than an underground rhizome and roots, but following the onset of the summer rains, they begin to send up stalks that may bare a dozen or more bright pink blooms.  They seem to bloom sporadically from late June to mid September, likely peaking in mid to late July in most years.

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Giant Coralroot

These spectacular orchids are easiest to find growing beneath trees and at the base of rocks where moisture and organic material accumulate, providing ideal conditions for both the plants and the fungi they depend on.  Though there is a lot of respectable competition, the combination of their beautiful blooms, interesting life history, and the spectacular places that they inhabit make this my favorite species of orchid.

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Giant Coralroot

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Giant Coralroot

Growing near the orchids was Mexican Catchfly (Silene laciniata).  This striking wildflower occurs in the mountains of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, barely entering Texas in the mountains of the Trans-Pecos.  It’s name comes from its sticky stem, which can trap insects in order to protect the plant from predation.

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Mexican Catchfly

A number of milkweed species occur in the West Texas sky islands.  We observed Asclepias latifolia and Asclepias brachystephana in the lower elevation grasslands.  Higher up we came across Asclepias texanaAsclepias subverticillata, and Asclepias engelmanniana in bud.  The true star of the high elevation milkweeds was the Nodding Milkweed (Asclepias glaucescens).  We found one robust flowering plant growing alongside a rocky stream in a canyon shaded by Alligator Juniper and Pinyon Pine.

This large, showy milkweed is primarily a species of the mountains of Mexico.  It barely enters the United States in the sky islands of West Texas, and southern Arizona and New Mexico.  In Texas they are restricted to the Davis, Chisos, and Guadalupe Mountains.

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Nodding Milkweed

Like Asclepias glaucescens, the U.S. distribution of Threadleaf Phlox (Phlox mesoleuca) is largely restricted to the sky islands of the southwest.

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Threadleaf Phlox

In addition to species that are primarily Mexican in their distribution, the Davis Mountains provides refuge for a variety of Rocky Mountain relicts.  Purple Geranium (Geranium caespitosum), for example, occurs primarily in Ponderosa Pine savannahs and other coniferous woodlands of the Rockies from Wyoming to northern Mexico.

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Purple Geranium

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Purple Geranium

The Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) has an even broader distribution, occuring in the formerly glaciated northern United States and Canada down through the Rocky Mountains, and into the sky islands of the southwestern United States and Canada.  It is common in the high elevations of the Davis Mountains and puts on a spectacular show during the summer monsoon.

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Harebell

One of the Davis Mountains most spectacular botanical residents is the Desert Savior (Echeveria strictiflora).  This succulent member of the stonecrop family (Crassulaceae) is primarily found on rocky canyon walls and slopes of central and northern Mexico.  In the United States it is known only from Jeff Davis, Brewster, and Presidio Counties in far West Texas.

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Desert Savior

We found several growing from rock crevices and the bases of boulders at elevations above 6000 feet.  Here they were able to take advantage of minute amounts of soil and moisture that collect over time.  In the Davis Mountains they seem to be found primarily in exposed rock outcrops and canyon walls adjacent to rocky streams.

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Desert Savior

The Desert Savior is a truly spectacular plant.  It’s stalk of waxy, fiery flowers reaches up to a foot and a half over it’s thick, grayish green succulent leaves.  Each curled stalk may bare 2 dozen or more flowers that gradually open, unfurling the stalk as they develop and fade.  Hummingbirds are likely an important pollinator of these succulents, as evidenced by their bright red coloration, somewhat tubular flowers, and the fact that their peak blooming seems to coincide with the start of hummingbird migration of late summer.

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Desert Savior

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Desert Savior

The mountains of Trans-Pecos Texas boast more species of Hexalectris orchids than anywhere else in the country.  For some time I had communicated with North Texas botanist Matt White on our shared interests.  As luck would have it, while returning to the Davis Mountains Preserve visitor center, our friend, The Nature Conservancy volunteer, and local landowner Gary was talking to a man that he introduced as Matt White.  This chance encounter led to Matt guiding us to a population of Texas Coralroots (Hexalectris warnockii) that he had stumbled across on a remote rocky ridge a few hundred meters from the preserve’s main road.  He made a comment that caught my attention – that these plants and their ancestors have likely been at this spot for hundreds of years.  And in all likelihood we were the first humans to ever see them, and the last that ever will.  I smiled at the prospect, and hoped it to be true.

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Texas Coralroot

Following a long day of exploring the Davis Mountains Preserve, we decided to spend the evening resting our legs by taking a leisurely drive along the scenic loop that surrounds the range.  I use the term resting loosely, for it seemed like every few hundred feet we were stopping to explore some new biological or geological wonder.  After a while we passed below Sawtooth Mountain.  The mountain is a prominent landmark in the area, its peak reaching nearly 7,700 feet above sea level, and rising nearly 1500 feet above the surrounding slopes.

Like the Davis Mountains Preserve, Sawtooth Mountain and its surrounding habitat is protected by the Nature Conservancy.  However the mechanisms that protect the two are quite different.  While the Davis Mountains Preserve is owned outright by the conservancy, Sawtooth Mountain remains private, and instead is protected through a conservation easement.  Conservation Easements are legally binding documents that place restrictions on land use in order to achieve certain conservation objectives.  Sawtooth is another piece of the puzzle that has led to the protection of over 100,000 acres of these sky islands.

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Grassland grades into pinyon-juniper-oak woodlands on the slopes of Sawtooth Mountain

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Sawtooth Mountain looms over an interest rock outcrop

In addition to their unique flora, the Davis Mountains supports an equally interesting faunal community, melding species of the mountainous west, the desert southwest, and those primarily Mexican in their distribution.  In a single day one can hear the call of the Stellar’s Jay alongside that of the Cactus Wren and Painted Redstart.  Rare vagrant bird species turn up here, and reptiles like the Greater Short-horned Lizard thrive in one of the few areas of suitable habitat in the state.

The monsoon rains bring with them an increase in amphibian activity.  We observed many Red-spotted Toads (Anaxyrus punctatus) during our visit.  These large, handsome amphibians occur in a variety of habitats throughout most of the southwest, down into central Mexico.

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Red-spotted Toad

One of the most memorable experiences of any trip to the Davis Mountains is hunting for Canyon Tree Frogs (Hyla arenicolor) as they sit perfectly camouflaged among boulders adjacent to pools in high elevation canyon drainages.  In Texas the Canyon Tree Frog is restricted to a handful of mountain ranges of the Trans-Pecos.  Though most are brown to gray with dark brown blotches, occasionally a striking green or green-spotted individual turns up.  Carolina spotted one such animal camouflaged among the lichen on a large boulder.

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Canyon Tree Frog

As a child, I remember being captivated with the insect community in West Texas.  My parents indulged me as I ran about the desert with a net in hand, eagerly trying to capture and identify the staggering array of flying and crawling six-legged wonders that call the Trans-Pecos home.  There are few places in the country that provide as wonderful an entomological playground as West Texas.

One of the most conspicuous members of the insect community is the Arizona Sister (Adelpha eulalia), a member of the brush-footed butterfly family (Nymphalidae).  On warm, sunny days that can be seen dancing about the canyon floor and rocky outcrops seeking moisture and areas of mineral deposits.  At some such deposits its not uncommon to see dozens of different species sharing the same space in search of essential nutrients that their nectarivorous diet does not provide.

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Arizona Sister

The Orthopterans (grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets) of the Trans-Pecos range from species of muted camouflage to those with fitting, gaudy names like the Rainbow Grasshopper.  Carolina spotted this blue-winged grasshopper (Trimerotropis sp.) resting among the pebbles in a mountain wash.  Though they initially appear to be adorned in dull, muted tones, when they jump they reveal their translucent blue hind wings and cobalt blue markings on the inside of their hindlegs.

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Blue-winged Grasshopper

It’s always a treat observing tiger beetles.  Ruthless predators, tiger beetles are lightning fast and armed with deadly mandibles.  We observed these Western Red-bellied Tiger Beetles (Cicindelidia sedecimpunctata) scurrying about rocks adjacent to a mountain stream.  This species, like so many others in the area, barely enters the U.S. in extreme western Texas and southern New Mexico and Arizona.

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Western Red-bellied Tiger Beetle

The Western Rhinoceros Beetle (Xyloryctes thestalus) is one of the largest, most abundant beetles of the Davis Mountains.  Following the onset of the monsoon they emerge in droves and seek out ash trees (Fraxinus spp.), their primary food source.

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Western Rhinoceros Beetle

The real gems of the sky islands, however, are the beetles of the genus Chrysina.  There are five species in the United States, two of which occur in Texas.  In what I suspect is a common occurrence among lifelong naturalists, I have certain species that I always admired and dreamed of one day seeing while pouring endlessly through field guides and other nature books as a kid.  One of these species was the Glorious Scarab (Chrysina gloriosa).  It is a species that looks more at home in the tropics, in places well out of reach.

I had looked for this species on many previous trips to the Davis and Chisos Mountains, and had always left having only caught glimpses of elytra discarded by some predator, or some smashed semblance of what once was a Glorious Scarab on busy roads and trails.  But on this trip, much to my delight, a lifelong dream was realized when I saw a live Chrysina gloriosa crawling on the ground on our final evening in the mountains.  I must have made some strange gleeful sound as I reached down to pick it up.  I examined it closely, taking delight in this serendipitous encounter.

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Glorious Scarab

Chrysina gloriosa is highly sought after by collectors, and it is easy to see why.  Fortunately they remain common in sky islands from Arizona to West Texas.  The beetle’s brilliant greens were impossible to capture on “film”, but that didn’t stop me from trying.  The elytra (hardened outer wings) of Chrysina gloriosa are decorated with metallic silver streaks that brilliant reflect the light.  It is believed that the bright coloration and streaked pattern help break out the outline of the Glorious Scarab when it feeds on the juniper leaves that it depends on, helping to camouflage it from would-be predators.  In all we would find five individuals that night and the following morning.  It truly was the perfect ending to a spectacular trip that was rich in biodiversity.

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Glorious Scarab

The Davis Mountains truly are one of Texas’s natural treasures.  We can take comfort knowing that the biodiversity, scenery, and cultural history will be protected for generations to come thanks to the conservation efforts of the Nature Conservancy, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and landowners with a passion for the area.  I hope to return many times in the future, in an endless attempt to document but a mere fraction of the beautiful and interesting plants and animals that call this sky island home.

Purple People Eater

Target Species: Purple Bladderwort (Utricularia purpurea)

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Purple Bladderwort

This is one I have wanted to see for a long time.  Utricularia purpurea is an aquatic, carnivorous plant that inhabits much of the Eastern United States.  It barely enters Texas in the extreme southeast portion of the state, where it is rare.  I suspect that very few people have seen the Purple Bladderwort here, as the few known populations are not particularly easy to access.  Pursuing the photographs seen here was a true adventure, and the highlight of my 2017 quest for biodiversity thus far.

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Purple Bladderwort

The Purple Bladderwort has a peculiar distribution, not unlike that of another species on my 2017 list, the Blue Lupine.  In the case of the bladderwort I suspect that its distribution can somewhat be explained by the presence of appropriate wetlands in the Gulf and Atlantic coastal plains, and in glacially formed depressions in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions.

Utricularia purpurea

County-level distribution of Utricularia purpurea from http://www.bonap.org.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present but rare.

To see this rarity, I once again called on the good people of the Nature Conservancy of Texas.  Wendy Ledbetter, Forest Project Manager, told me that U. purpurea had been reported from a series of flatwood ponds on one of the properties they protect.  It was, in fact, very close to where I photographed Streptanthus hyacinthoides a few weeks ago.  She was kind enough to take time from her busy schedule to meet me one morning and show me the areas where it had been reported.  She brought me to two spectacular flatwoods ponds.  We were unsure if any of the elusive carnivores would be in bloom, but sure enough, after minimal effort I spotted one, then another, then another.

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Purple Bladderwort

After showing me around for a couple of hours in the morning, Wendy had to leave to tend to other engagements.  I thanked her profusely, both for her time and consideration, and for the fine work that she and her colleagues at the Nature Conservancy have done to protect so much our great state’s incredible biodiversity.  After Wendy left I returned to the ponds to try to capture some unique images of this spectacular little plant.  I was trudging through water that was mostly between 1 and 3 feet deep.  To capture some of these images I had to sit, kneel, or completely submerge myself in the water, with just my hands and camera above the surface.

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Purple Bladderwort

As previously mentioned, and eluded to in the title, Utricularia purpurea is a carnivorous plant.  It contains intricate leaves that float just below the water’s surface.  These leaves are loaded with small air-filled bladders that help keep the plant afloat.  Each bladder is equipped with a small, hair-like trigger. As tiny aquatic organisms swim by and brush against the trigger, the bladders instantly open, and as the water rushes in to occupy the vacant airspace, the organisms are sucked in.  The bladder then snaps shut, trapping them inside where they are slowly digested.  In the late spring through the summer the lavender flowers emerge from the depths.  U. purpurea is one of several species of Utricularia in Texas, but it is the only one with purple blooms.  The others are all yellow.

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Purple Bladderwort.  If you look closely you can see some of the round bladders under the water.

The flatwood ponds in which I photographed the Purple Bladderwort that day were the finest I have ever seen.  These unique aquatic communities occur in clay-bottomed depressions where over the millennia water and organic material have accumulated.  Historically they were dominated by a variety of grasses and sedges, kept free from woody encroachment by regular wildfires.  In the modern era of development and fire suppression, however, high quality examples have all but disappeared.  They have persisted on this Nature Conservancy property, however, as a result of their excellent stewardship which includes frequent burns that penetrate into the ponds.  Scattered trees, mostly Swamp Tupelo (Nyssa biflora) exist on the margins, but the centers of the pond are open for acres.

Unfortunately I did not take any photos looking toward the center of the ponds, however I did capture the photo below looking back to the margins.  I found U. purpurea to be most common among the grasses and trees along the ponds’ margins.

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Flatwoods pond margin

I spent what must have been at least 15-20 minutes lying on my belly, almost completely submerged in the water in order to get a low angle on a particularly attractive grouping of Purple Bladderworts.  After finishing I began to retrace my steps out of the pond.  As I did, I noticed something that was not there on my way in.  There was an 8-9 foot alligator laying on the bottom not 20 feet from where I was laying.  I suspect that its sudden presence was a coincidence, and that it hadn’t been slowly stalking me, but none-the-less it gave my heart a good jump.  Fortunately the water was shallow and clear, giving me a clear view of the magnificent creature, otherwise I was likely to have stepped on it.  I slowly made my way around it, and it never moved.  Though somewhat difficult to see, you can make out its head and part of its back in the photo below.

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American Alligator

The Purple Bladderwort shared its ponds with its cousin, the Humped Bladderwort (Utricularia gibba).  Like Utricularia purpurea, it also relies on the bladders of its submerged leaves to obtain nutrients from animal prey.

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Humped Bladderwort

There were several other interesting aquatic species in the flatwoods ponds, but the Floatinghearts (Nymphoides aquatica) really stood out.  It is also commonly known as the Banana Plant for its banana-shaped roots.

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Floatingheart

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Floatingheart

The flatwoods ponds were surrounded by a spectacular series of xeric sandhills occurring on ancient sand deposited by rivers as they changed course over time.  I spent some time exploring these beautiful communities, where I found a number of Eastern Prickly Pears in bloom.

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Eastern Prickly Pear blooms in a xeric sandhill

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Eastern Prickly Pear blooms in a xeric sandhill

I also took a moment to photograph the Pickering’s Dawnflower (Stylisma pickeringii), another species typical of deep sands, as it bloomed among the cacti.

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Pickering’s Dawnflower

As if all of the above wasn’t enough, in the morning Wendy and I observed this Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos) up to its anti-predator high jinks.  It spread the ribs of the anterior portion of its body creating a hood-like effect similar to that of a cobra.  This behavior has earned it the colloquial name of “spreading adder”.  Occasionally it would feign a strike, but never attempted to actually bite me.  Eastern Hognose Snakes feed primarily on toads, and have specially-adapted pointed fangs that can deflate toads that fill themselves with air in an attempt to make themselves larger to avoid being swallowed.  They also contain a mild venom that likely helps subdue their prey, though it is harmless to humans.

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Eastern Hognose Snake

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Eastern Hognose Snake

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Eastern Hognose Snake

Seeing the Purple Bladderwort and exploring these incredible habitats is an experience I will never forget.  I can’t wait to return in the future to spend more time among the carnivores (large and small) of the Big Thicket.

Jewel of the Sandhills

Target Species: Smooth Jewelflower (Streptanthus hyacinthoides)

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Smooth Jewelflower

I have long admired the bizarre blooms of the Smooth Jewelflower, but had not previously sought it out.  Though it may be locally abundant, Streptanthus hyacinthoides is uncommon to rare in Texas.  A species of deep sands, it is most frequently encountered in the northern reaches of the Post Oak Savannah.  Globally it occurs from extreme southern Kansas and central Oklahoma through northeast Texas into northwestern Louisiana.  There are also a couple of disjunct populations in the Pineywoods: in the Big Thicket in Hardin and Newton Counties.

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Smooth Jewelflower

It was here that I sought them out.  In the Pineywoods they occur in xeric sandhills.  In the literature, these unique communities are variably referred to as xeric sandhills, oak-farkleberry sandylands, xeric sandylands, sandhill pine forests, etc.  Here soil conditions inhibit the growth of many species.  The deep, coarse sands here ensure that even in times of high rainfall, the water percolates down through the soil very rapidly.  As a result, xeric sandhills exist with perpetual drought-like conditions, and only drought-adapted species persist.

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Smooth Jewelflower

I was able to locate this population thanks to the help of my botanist friend Eric Keith, and Wendy Ledbetter, the Forest Program Manager of the Nature Conservancy in Texas.  Like so many more of our imperiled species, these rare jewels are protected by the Nature Conservancy.  I found them growing in a series of sandy clearings in a xeric sandhill dominated by Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) and Bluejack Oak (Quercus incana).

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Smooth Jewelflower

I found the strange flowers somewhat difficult to capture.  I found them strikingly beautiful in their uniqueness.  Beyond habitat preference, I could find little on the life history of this species while researching my 2017 list.  It seems that there is still much to learn about this peculiar jewel of the sandhills.

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Smooth Jewelflower

Xeric sandhills are also home to a variety of other unique and beautiful flowering plants.  Cacti and yucca, typically considered genera of the southwestern states, thrive here.  Traditionally the cactus species of this region was considered to be Opuntia humifusa, however recent work by Majure, et. al. is challenging that (More on that in a later blog post).  Using their new dichotomous key I keyed this species to Opuntia mesacantha.

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Opuntia cf. humifusa

The beautiful Carolina Larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) was also blooming in profusion.  I photographed the individual below from different angles, to see how the angle of light changed affected their color.

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Carolina Larkspur

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Carolina Larkspur

We also found the bizarre Large Clammyweed (Polanisia erosa) nearby.  I have heard the blooms described as miniature moose heads.  Large Clammyweed, like many species of xeric sandhills, is endemic to the West Gulf Coastal Plain.

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Large Clammyweed

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) was also blooming in profusion.  This striking milkweed is common in sandy habitats throughout much of the United States.

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Butterfly Weed

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Butterfly Weed

Farkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) is a conspicuous mid and understory component in xeric sandhills.  This blueberries produce edible fruits.  Though they are much smaller and less flavorful than what you might find in your grocery store, they still make for a refreshing treat while wandering across the parched sand.

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Farkleberry

Growing tangled among some of the numerous Farkleberries we found the twining stems of the Netleaf Leather Flower (Clematis reticulatus).

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Netleaf Leather Flower

Xeric sandhills are certainly one of my favorite places to explore.  This post barely scratched the surface of the diverse flora that occurs here, and I didn’t even mention the many rare and interesting animal species that can be found in these deep sands, and I hope to revisit these special places in future blog posts.

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Cacti bloom in a xeric sandhill