Texas Tigers

You might say I owe a lot to the tiger salamander. One of my earliest memories is turning over a board and finding several of these impressive amphibians at a park near my childhood home in the suburbs north of Chicago. My parents let me take a few home and we kept them in an aquarium for a few years. They were quite personable, for amphibians, and I remember feeding them bits of hamburger meat from toothpicks. This experience was one of the catalysts that sparked a lifelong passion for the natural world. There was just something about those tiger salamanders. I would later come to appreciate all salamanders, but those of the genus Ambystoma, and A. tigrinum in particular would always hold a special place in my heart.

When I was 13 we moved to the suburbs of Houston. In southeast Texas I found a herpetological Eden. There was an abundance and diversity of amphibians and reptiles that was unlike anything I’d previously encountered. But none of these new species inspired me to the degree that my pet tiger salamanders had, and I hoped I might find some nearby. After all, most every map depicting the range of the eastern tiger salamander showed it occurring in or at least near the Houston area. Many years later, after research, conversations, and personal observations I would come to realize that if I wanted to see one, I would have to travel much farther afield.

On New Years Day, 2021, Caro and I joined our good friend John Williams to see if we could find something that very few have encountered, let alone photographed: an adult eastern tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) in Texas. Our experience that day would rekindle a passion for this amphibian enigma, and spark a fact finding mission, the early stages of which I will present in this narrative.

We set out early to meet John at a site in the Post Oak Savanna where we had previously found larval and juvenile A. tigrinum. The day was cold, gray, and wet. A cold front had just passed through the region, dropping nearly three inches of rain on New Year’s Eve. The conditions seemed perfect for an Ambystoma migration, but there is little information on A. tigrinum breeding habits in Texas, so we could only hope that our timing was right.

To reach the breeding ponds we would have to hike a mile or so through remnant post oak savanna. At spots we noted sand blowouts nearly void of woody vegetation. Habitat like this is important for a variety of rare, range-restricted plant and animal species, and few high quality examples remain. The ponds themselves occurred in clay-bottomed swales where water from rainfall and percolation from adjacent deep sands collected. These ponds had been artificially enhanced – deepened, presumably to provide water for wildlife on a more permanent basis. They remained fish free, however, and as a result the tiger salamanders and other amphibians have been able to persist here.

It was still in the 40s (Fahrenheit) when we reached the pond. John had the good sense to bring a pair of waders to stay warm and dry in the pond. I wasn’t as prepared, and as we stretched out the sein, I mentally prepared myself to enter the frigid water. And it was cold, at least at first. My numb, tingling legs soon went to the back of my mind, however, as we pulled the sein from the water after our first pass and saw that a huge black and yellow amphibian had come with it.

A male eastern tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) from East Texas. This was the first of four individuals found.

It was a big adult male eastern tiger salamander! And it was one of the most beautiful salamanders I had ever seen. It immediately struck me as an eastern, but with tigers, there is always a hint of doubt in the back of my mind. There is another salamander, the barred tiger salamander (Ambystoma mavortium) that occurs sporadically in the semi-arid regions of the western half of the state. A. mavortium was long considered one of several subspecies of A. tigrinum. At that point, A. tigrinum was the most widespread amphibian in North America, occurring from the east coast to Arizona north to Washington and southern Canada. Within this range they inhabit a wide range of habitats, from forest pools to desert cienegas to subalpine lakes. In portions of their range, like northern Illinois, where I first became acquainted with them, they can even inhabit fishless ponds in urbanized areas, pastures, and agricultural fields.

Within this range they exhibit a broad range of behavioral ecologies and natural histories. In the west populations often contain both terrestrial and neotenic adults. Neoteny is the retention of various juvenile characteristics into adulthood. In this case, some adult salamander remain aquatic, retaining their gills, tail fins, and other characteristics that help them lead a life in the water. Other adults lose those characteristic and morph into gill-less adults that spend the majority of their lives on land in subterranean burrows. Neoteny has only been observed in one population of Michigan eastern tiger salamanders.

Morphologically, however, there is little to no difference between tiger salamanders throughout their range. A mavortium was split from A. tigrinum based primarily on adult coloration, egg mass characteristics, and the occurrence of neoteny. In the resulting split, eastern tiger salamanders remained A. tigrinum with no subspecies, while all other previously recognized subspecies were absorbed into A. mavortium. A. tigrinum is recognized as having more numerous, smaller spots and blotches on the body that range from creamy yellow to copper to olive brown. A. tigrinum also lays eggs in loose gelatinous masses, and only very rarely exhibits neoteny. A. mavortium mavortium (the barred tiger salamander) is recognized as having fewer larger spots, blotches, and bars that range from lemon yellow to olive. Barred tigers generally lay their eggs in lines or strips along vegetation, and neotenic populations are numerous. If you fine explanation for differences in the appearance of adults to be rather vague, you’re not alone. Tiger salamanders are extremely variable, and there are considerable differences in the patterns of individuals between and even within populations. The papers I’ve seen advocating for this split leave a lot to be desired, in my opinion, which begs the question, should they really be considered separate species? I could talk at length about the philosophy of species delineation, which isn’t the intended purpose of this blog, but to keep it short I’ll say that there is considerable disagreement and a wealthy of opinions in the field of taxonomy as to what should constitute a species. The concept of a “species” is far from black and white, and as a result we see a constant flow of changing taxonomies, with species being split, lumped back together, and so on and so forth.

The salamander that we had caught definitely fit the bill for A. tigrinum. Numerous orange-yellow spots scattered about its head, back, sides, and tail. It was easily identifiable as a male by it’s swollen cloaca and flattened, rudder like tail. These are changes that occur in males during the breeding season. The tiger salamander is one of the largest terrestrial salamanders in the world, and seeing one in person is an unforgettable experience.

It was quite clear to me that John and I had seined up an eastern tiger, but the plot thickens. Larval tiger salamanders and neotenic adults have long been used as fishing bait. They are famous for their ability to snag large bass, and can frequently been found in bait shops. These bait salamanders are most often A. mavortium as they are more readily obtained from breeding ponds year round. A. tigrinum and A. mavortium also differ in their breeding ecology, for the most part. A. tigrinum are animals eastern North America, where the winters are typically wet, and seasonal pools fill during the winter and early spring when rainfall is more abundant and water requirements of plants is lower due to winter dormancy. For this reason they breed in the winter and early spring in more northern latitudes and late fall and early winter in the more southerly portions of their range.

Throughout much of their range, A. mavortium occur in habitats that are influenced by summer monsoonal range and experience dry winters. As a result, many of these populations breed in the summer months. Once again, however, there is overlap, and many populations of A. mavortium breed in the winter months similar to A. tigrinum.

But I digress. Salamander larvae used as fish bait have been introduced to many areas where they do not natural occurred, or distributed to new areas within their range, changing the genetics of local populations. This has become a major problem in the western U.S., where non-native barred salamanders have become established in parts of California and Arizona. Here they interbreed with the federally endangered California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense) and Sonoran tiger salamander (Ambystoma mavortium stebbinsi), and threaten native populations here by diluting the gene pool.

This same phenomenon has been purported to occur in East Texas as well, however I am skeptical that it has actually occurred, particularly to a sufficient degree to threaten native populations here. The only evidence that I have been able to find that this could occur is the presence of A. mavortium larvae or neotenic adults at bait shops in the region. I have heard from several individuals that they have found, purchased, and used these as bass bait in popular East Texas fishing spots. I have yet to find evidence, however, that these larvae have been introduced and formed naturalized populations. I think it is unlikely that this is occurring for the following reasons:

  • Tiger salamanders in East Texas are apparently quite rare and declining. With few known populations, it is unlikely that numerous introduced populations have become established.
  • The appearance of animals from East Texas and adjacent western Louisiana is quite similar. If introduced populations were prevalent here, I would expect there to be significant variation in the appearance of animals from the region. Granted, many of these animals do seem to show some similarity to the coloration of barred tiger salamanders, however the same is true of eastern tiger salamanders in other parts of their range. In east Texas, this may also be influenced by the proximity to the contact zone with naturally occurring barred tiger salamander populations.
  • Known populations by and large do not occur near fishing hotspots, despite the presence of suitable habitat. I would expect that populations established from introduced fish bait would be more common in those areas where fishing and bait shops are more prevalent.
  • Tiger salamanders in east Texas exhibit a very specific distributional pattern and habitat preference, which I will describe further below.

The range of the eastern tiger salamander, whether relating to the subspecies or the full subspecies, generally is shown as reaching its southwestern limit in eastern Texas. Being the salamander fanatic that I am, I long wanted to find them, but soon came to realize that it would be no easy task. Through years of research and personal experience, a pattern of habitat preference began to develop. Virtually all of the records I could locate of A. tigrinum in East Texas are from three bands of Eocene sand deposits: The Queen City, Sparta, and Carrizo sands of the Claibourne Formation. Here they primarily breed in clay-bottomed depressions, and in some cases man-made ponds, in sandy uplands that are or were historically post oak savanna.

After a prolonged bout of exciting shouting, high fives, and hugs, John and I made another pass with the sein, which yielded another strikingly patterned male tiger salamander. It too was characterized by numerous small spots. It was shaping up to be one of my most memorable salamander hunting experiences to date.

A male eastern tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) from East Texas. This was the second of four individuals found.

Our next pass yielded a huge gravid female. This individual, with the exception of having slightly brighter colors, was nearly identical to the salamanders I found under that board in northern Illinois all those years ago. She was the last salamander we caught in that first pond, but another pass yielded a large gelatinous egg mass – further supporting our claim that these were eastern tiger salamanders, and not A. mavortium or some mix of the two. It should also be stated that neoteny has not been observed in this population or any other population of A. tigrinum in East Texas.

A gravid female eastern tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) from East Texas. This was the third of four individuals found.

When photographing salamanders, I like to take images from several images. A standard field guide shot of a posed salamander in interesting substrate is always nice, but in recent years I’ve really come to like photographing them from above. Their patterns and colors are most striking on their dorsum, and photographing them this way helps place them in their environment. It also helped to highlight the plumpness of this gravid female.

After photographing our salamander finds, we moved on to another nearby pond. Here we found a single female. Of all of the salamanders we found that day, she bore the closest resemblance to A. mavortium. Her spots and blotches were larger than the others, and some were bleeding into bars. In my opinion, however, she was still well within the realm of A. tigrinum patterning and coloration, and as I’ve noted above there is considerable overlap.

A gravid female eastern tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) from East Texas. This was the fourth of four individuals found.

Satisfied with a highly productive outing, we packed up after four salamanders, dozens of photographs, and a couple of hours in good company. The very first day of 2021 will be a hard one to top! The experience served to enhance and deepen my appreciation for these animals and opened up a wormhole about their genetics, regional relationships, patterns, habitat preference, and much more. I think that finding answers to these questions is important, as by all accounts and appearances, the eastern tiger salamander in Texas is rare and declining, and most certainly worthy of conservation efforts.

2020 Highlights in Biodiversity

2020 was a hard year for so many. Caro and I were extremely fortunate in that we were able to keep our jobs and work from home. We retained our health and the health of our loved ones. For many this was not the case. We also were fortunate that we were able to find refuge and comfort from the pandemic and turmoil in nature.

I only managed to check two new species off my list of biodiversity goals this year:

Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

Texas Red-headed Centipede (Scolopendra heros)

I also provided a more thorough treatment of the White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which I technically photographed last year, but only briefly mentioned the encounter.

Though it may not be reflected in the number of species checked off my list, 2020 was full of biodiversity, and was perhaps my most productive year yet in terms of photography. The following are just a handful of highlights. There are many images taken this year that I have not yet shared on this page, and hope to include many in future posts.

A favorite past time of mine is roaming the woods on a warm day in early spring. On those lucky days where conditions are just right, I just might catch a glimpse of some rare spring ephemeral forb opening its blooms. One of the first to flower this year was the lovely white trout lily (Erythronium albidum).

White Trout Lily

Not far from the trout lilies above I stumbled upon a large patch of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), one of my all time favorite wildflowers.

Bloodroot

While looking for these wildflowers one day in mid February I heard Caro shout “SNAKE! SNAKE!” Looking back, I saw this beautiful young canebrake rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) coiled within 2 feet of where I had just stepped. Their camouflage is absolutely amazing, and their dispositions are so docile. This one obliged our presence for several minutes as we admired and photographed it, without so much as a complaint or even the slightest movement. I figure it was born last year, and it appeared to have a decent meal in its belly.

Neonate Canebrake Rattlesnake

Caro’s sharp eyes also spotted this downy yellow violet (Viola pubescens). Rare in the the state, most populations of this early spring bloomer are known from far northeast Texas. This individual was found close to home in Nacogdoches County in a high quality forested slope.

Downy Yellow Violet

Before the work at home orders were issued, I enjoyed birding around my work campus. During the winter and spring we get a good variety of birds here, and on a whim one day I brought my camera and was able to capture this image of a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) during a brief break.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

One of my most exciting finds of the year was a the second population of false rue-anemone (Enemion biternatum) in Deep East Texas. Caro and I found the first a few years ago in a beautiful patch of woods on some friends’ land.

False Rue Anemone

I put in considerable effort this year to finding and photographing Trillium in East Texas. I plan to share a blog this spring discussing these beautiful spring wildflowers and their status and distribution in Texas.

Texas Trillium (Trillium texanum)
Bloody Butcher (Trillium recurvatum)

Whenever I’m feeling low or overwhelmed, I like to mentally transport myself to the forest in spring. There are few things more peaceful and beautiful to me. Scenes like the one pictured below are just as wonderful to me as some endless mountain vista.

Rich Spring Woods

Another exciting wildflower find was a nice population of Nuttall’s death-camas (Toxicoscordion nuttallii) in San Augustine County. This species is quite common and widespread in central Texas, but is rare and highly localized in the Pineywoods. Here is is primarily associated with open forests and glades over the Weches Formation, where it approaches the surface.

Nuttall’s Death Camas

This year I finally took the trip an hour and a half to the west to photograph the federally endangered large-fruited sand verbena (Abronia macrocarpa). This stunning member of the Four O’clock family (Nyctaginaceae) is endemic to a tiny portion of the Post Oak Savanna in Texas, where it is known from nine populations in three counties.

Large-flowered Sand Verbena

2020 was also the first year I captured images of the granite gooseberry (Ribes curvatum) in bloom. We found many of these lovely, fascinating shrubs in the woods of Nacogdoches, Rusk, and Cherokee Counties.

Granite Gooseberry

In early April, Caro and I took a trip to northeast Texas to visit an incredible rich hardwood forest on private land. The landowner loves his woods and we were privileged to experience this special place. Among the rare plants here we found Trillium viridescens. A gorgeous trillium that can reach heights of nearly two feet!

Trillium viridescens

While walking in one of our favorite local parks one fine April afternoon, I spied some brown wriggly thing moving across the trail in front of us. Instinctively I scooped it up, and much to my delight realized that I was holding a smooth earth snake (Virginia valeriae)! Though it is fairly widespread in Texas, populations seem to be widely scattered and localized, and when compared to snakes with similar life histories, records are scant.

Smooth Earth Snake

I put considerable effort into finding, stalking, and photographing breeding songbirds this spring. It was difficult, often very frustrating, but ultimately rewarding. The Swainson’s Warbler (Limnothlypis swainsonii) below was photographed in the woods at my friend James Childress’s farm.

Swainson’s Warbler

I spotted the Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) below while out photographing birds with my buddy Skip Pudney. The Bobolink is an infrequent passage migrant in East Texas. Here they may stop to refuel on their journey north to their prairie breeding grounds. They are only irregularly encountered in the state, so I was thrilled to see a breeding-plumaged male at a wildlife management area close to home. During our initial approach, the bird dropped down from its perch into a dense field of grass, vetch, and other herbaceous vegetation. I continued to where the bird was and was immediately set upon by a swarm of fire ants. As I began brushing the stinging insects from my legs I heard Skip shout “There it is!” I looked up and the Bobolink had hopped up to a perch about 30 feet away from me. I immediately ignored the pain and fired off several shots, all the while enduring more and more ant bites. The itching from the bites faded after a few days, but I’ll forever have this image to remember this special encounter.

A male Bobolink

In May I saw some interesting images posted by my friend Adam Black of a plant he found and photographed in a forested seep in Jasper County. After some discussion with a number of botanists, a consensus was reached that it was Texas featherbells (Stenanthium texanum), a rare plant with few records from the state.

Texas Featherbells

One glorious day in late May I was able to capture images of two of the loveliest Neotropical migrants breeding close to home. The Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) and Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) below were photographed in close proximity, but in very different habitats.

A male Painted Bunting
A male Northern Parula

A few weeks later I visited the spot where I had photographed the parula and found a beautiful male Kentucky Warbler (Geothlypis formosa) skulking int he understory. I believe he had a nest nearby as he was constantly foraging and returning to the same spot.

A male Kentucky Warbler

Another day chasing birds I got lucky when a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) came down low from his normal haunt high in the canopy.

Red-eyed Vireo

The woods in summer are hot, but beautiful. There is a myriad of subtly different shades of green and plant growth is at its peak. I found a particularly lovely scene while exploring some back roads in Cherokee County.

A rich hardwood forest on the Weches Formation.

While exploring in early spring, Caro spotted a huge population of Carolina lilies (Lilium michauxii) with their basal leaves just beginning to emerge. We returned in July and were dismayed to see that most of the area had been logged since our visit. Fortunately we managed to find small area that had been spared and had many plants in bloom.

Carolina lilies in a rich slope forest.

In September we headed west toward Rocky Mountain National Park. We timed our trip to coincide with the elk rut, and we hoped the peak of aspen color. A huge winter storm blew through shortly before our visit and I feared that the trees might respond by simply dropping their leaves rather than undergoing the gradual process of losing chlorophyll to reveal other bright pigments within the leaf. Fortunately my fears were for naught, and we found a beautiful display of aspens and other deciduous trees. I’m glad we visited when we did. Not long after our trip the East Troublesome Fire engulfed this area and overnight spread from a relatively small blaze to the second largest conflagration in Colorado’s history.

An aspen grove in Rocky Mountain National Park.

En route to Colorado we stopped for a night in northeastern New Mexico. Here I took some time to photograph North America’s fastest land animal, the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana).

A pronghorn buck on the plains.

Within Rocky Mountain National Park I was able to photograph a few birds including the iconic camp robber, the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis). Also commonly referred to as the Gray Jay, the Canada Jay is a familiar site around campgrounds and picnic areas. The nickname “whiskey jack” is a corruption of Wisakedjak, an important figure in Cree mythology. Wisakedjak is described as a benevolent trickster. Perhaps the jay earned its name through its charming nature and sneaky picnic robbing ways.

Canada Jay

I also captured an image of a Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) while in the park. I had watched it foraging in some dense branches when I spotted a lovely old aspen trunk and thought, “wouldn’t it be great if it landed there?”. And in a turn of events that almost NEVER happens, it went and landed exactly where I hoped it might.

A female Hairy Woodpecker

After spending a few days in the park, we headed south to the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. Here we found more beautiful fall color and were lucky enough to see an North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) out and about with enough light to capture a few images.

North American Porcupine

Over the Thanksgiving break we took a trip to South Texas. We did a little bird watching on South Padre Island and found a very tolerant Green Heron (Butorides virescens).

Green Heron

While exploring a South Texas mesquite savanna, we found ourselves in the middle of a large squadron of collared peccaries (Pecari tajacu), or javelina. I was able to capture several images as they moved through the grass and brush, and just as quickly as they arrived, they were gone.

A small group of collared peccaries.

2021 is already off to a great start for me (stay tuned for more about that). I sincerely hope that it is a brighter year for so many that faced a dark 2020, and wish all of my nature loving readers another happy, healthy year filled with natural wonders.

Winter in the Wichitas

A plains bison welcomes a December snow storm.

It’s no secret that the natural landscape of North America has changed since European colonization began in earnest. By the signing of the declaration of independence, elk, wild turkey, and other game were already gone or disappearing fast from the eastern U.S. At that time there was still an incredible abundance of wildlife west of the Mississippi, as evidenced by the journals of Lewis and Clark and other early explorers and settlers that ventured forth in the early 1800s. It didn’t take long, however, for these once seemingly limitless populations to begin to vanish, and in less than a lifetime tens of millions of plains bison, pronghorn, elk, and deer were killed until populations teetered on the brink of extinction. It was a time of unregulated hunting, and most anything that walked, flew, or swam was fair game. Bird populations were decimated for meat and plumes; predators were eliminated for the threat they posed to the livestock brought in to tame the land; and entire sections of river were voided of fish.

Unregulated market hunting was the primary driver for these population declines, at least initially. Shortly after arriving, these colonizers began to break the land and bend it to their will. Native vegetation was cleared, removing a diversity of native forage and nuanced structure that served as important structure for a myriad of species. Fire was suppressed, and keystone species like the plains bison, which impacted their environment on so many levels, were removed, initiating a domino effect that caused many natural communities to fall apart.

Take the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus). Once perhaps the most abundant mammal on the continent, it is believed that some very large colonies may have numbered one hundred million animals or more. Despised as pests that destroyed cropland and competed with cattle for forage, these social rodents were systematically exterminated, and the plow broke the soil to the point that it could no longer be utilized for their subterranean civilizations. In less than 100 years, their population was reduced by more than 95%.

Like the bison, the prairie dog is a keystone of the plains. The black-footed ferret, for example, feeds almost exclusively on prairie dogs and seeks refuge in their burrows. Prairie dogs are also an important food source for American badgers and a variety of raptors. Where their ranges overlap, Burrowing Owls will frequently utilized prairie dog colonies for shelter, as will a variety of snakes, amphibians, and invertebrates. The loss of the bison and the prairie dog threw the great plains deeper into a downward spiral of ecological disaster.

A black-tailed prairie dog surveys the world around its burrow, waiting to give the signal to the others that all is clear.

By the early 1900s it seemed like the prairie dog might go the route of the passenger pigeon, a similarly abundant species that we wiped from existence. But the gregarious ground squirrels found refuge from a boon in protected lands, and eventual reintroduction efforts throughout their historic range. One such introduction effort took place in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, where they have since established several large towns to the benefit of the refuge’s other prairie denizens. Today their range-wide population numbers in the tens of millions, and their future seems secure.

A black-tailed prairie dog leaves its burrow to explore on a cold winter day int he Wichita Mountains.

The Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge was first set aside in 1901 by President McKinley as the “Wichita Mountains Forest Preserve”. A few years later, renowned conservationist President Teddy Roosevelt re-classified the area as the “Wichita Forest and Game Preserve”, and designated its purpose to preserving the wildlife that had become so scarce in his lifetime. It was protected before the land could be scarred by the plow, and today contains excellent example of mixed grass and oak savanna communities.

Many species find refuge in the Wichitas. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are common here, and fueled by good forage and genetics, bucks can reach impressive sizes. It is hard to imagine that a species as familiar and ubiquitous as the whitetail was once scarce, but like most other game species, they too were pushed to the brink of extinction by the late 1800s. Unregulated hunting for burgeoning wild game markets in big cities reduced their numbers to the point that they had disappeared completely from many portions of their range.

Like many other species, the whitetails benefited tremendously from the passage of wildlife regulations like the Lacey Act, which prohibited interstate trade of game, essentially putting an end to the era of market hunting. The establishment of science-based hunting regulations and conservations efforts helped deer populations bounce back, and today they are likely near historic numbers.

A large white-tailed deer buck in the Wichita Mountains. It was nearly night when I photographed this unique buck, which had a double beam in its right antler and several interesting points on its brow tines.
A white-tailed deer doe forages on coralberries in a post oak woodland in Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge.

Even the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallipavo), the bird that Benjamin Franklin thought should replace the Bald Eagle as a national symbol, was once at risk of disappearing from the wilds of North America. Save for a few strongholds, they were heavily hunted for both their meat and their feathers. Like the majestic whitetails, the famous gobblers benefitted from those hunters and conservationists of the early 1900s that laid the groundwork for sound management and gradual recovery. There have been extensive turkey reintroduction efforts around the country, and while they still struggle to get a foothold in some parts of their former range, in other areas, like the Wichita Mountains they have rebounded nicely.

In 1904, U.S. Biological Survey biologist James H. Gaut noted that few turkeys were left in the Wichitas, noting that “Before the country surrounding the mountains was opened to the whites, wild turkeys were extremely abundant but have since been thinned out.” Reintroduction efforts on the refuge began in 1913 and continued into the 1940s when a number of turkeys from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge were brought in. The population in the Wichitas quickly flourished, and from the 1920s to the 50s, turkeys from the refuge were trapped and used to repopulate other portions of their former range, including the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, formerly the Niobrara Game Preserve, in Nebraska and the Rio Grande National Forest in Colorado.

A tom turkey of the Rio Grande subspecies strutting in the understory of a post oak woodland in Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge.

Perhaps no species better exemplifies the plight of North America’s wildlife than the American bison. It’s hard to imagine a time when one could travel across the prairie for days and never have a view devoid of bison. Tens of million bison once roamed the continent, and traveled in such numbers that they left literal scars in the earth. The bison once roamed the vast majority of North America, with occurrences from Alaska to Mexico to the Piedmont of the eastern U.S. By the time Lewis and Clark set out on their fateful journey west, bison were already mostly gone east of the Mississippi. The west, however, still held a bounty of wildlife including vast herds of plains bison that reportedly stretched from horizon to horizon.

Once the riches of the west were reported to a burgeoning new nation, it was not long before the wilderness was conquered, and within a single generation the bison population went from 30 million or more to as low as 500. There were many driving factors fueling this massacre, including markets for meat and hides, efforts to subdue Native cultures, and in some cases, simply for the fun of it. The legendary Tatanka, the largest land mammal of North America, was almost lost forever.

A plains bison bull on the open prairie of Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge.

By the late 1800’s, realizing that if things continued as they were that this important part of our heritage would be lost forever, lawmakers began pushing for protections for the bison. They were initially met with resistance, but eventually many states outlawed the killing of bison. For most this was too little too late, as the shaggy prairie dwellers had already been gone for years. Funds were appropriated to protect the few bison remaining in Yellowstone National Park, and individuals including the famed Texas rancher Charles Goodnight brought animals into captivity.

A bull plains bison against the backdrop of huge granite boulders in Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge

In 1907, six years after a large portion of the Wichita Mountains was set as, fifteen bison were reintroduced. With the protection afforded by the refuge, the bison flourished, and today number between 600 and 700 individuals. Bison in Yellowstone and other protected areas began to recover, and in total today it is estimated there are approximately half a million scattered in private and public herds across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Most of these herds are bound by fences, and even the most wild of these herds are still managed, however to ensure that their populations do not grow too large or spread beyond the boundaries of their intended management units. I doubt that we will ever see the day when bison are allowed to truly roam wild and free, but am happy that places still exist where we can catch even a glimpse into what once was.

I was excited to capture this image, which shows a plains bison in a mixed grass prairie setting with little bluestem and other familiar prairie grasses. Most bison images I see come from shorgrass prairies or sagebrush plains. They were certainly present, however, of the mixed grass and tallgrass prairies further east. I always thought it must have been something to see just that massive hump moving among the tallest of grasses.

The last wapiti in the Wichita Mountains was likely killed sometime in the 1870s or 80s. Like the bison, the wapiti (or American elk) once ranged across much of the North American continent, until their numbers were reduced to dangerously low levels. Shortly after bison were reintroduced to the Wichitas, a handful of elk were brought in. Their numbers quickly grew, and today a healthy herd can be found on the refuge. Conservation efforts to protect habitat and reintroduce elk into their former range have helped the species bounce back from the brink, and today large populations exist in many states and provinces.

A bull elk pauses to eye its photographers. This bull bears several wounds from the rut, which are clearly visible against its long winter coat. I enjoyed seeing elk in the Wichitas. It placed them in a historical context very different from the mountain forests and meadows of the west where they are most often photographed.

Considering that it lies only six and a half short hours from home, it’s a wonder that Caro and I hadn’t yet visited Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. Having read about the place and its reintroduced inhabitants for years, I finally suggested we visit, and we soon found ourselves heading northwest with our good friends James and Erin Childress. We ended up camping at the nearby Great Plains State Park, as tent camping was temporarily unavailable at the refuge campground.

We spent the our first two days exploring the refuge. We visited a large prairie dog town that was easily accessible from the main road. We watched tom turkeys strutting their stuff, white-tailed deer moving warily through the post oaks, and several small groups of bison and elk. On the evening of our second day at the refuge, we drove up to the top of Mount Scott. It was a surprisingly steep, winding ascent and at the top we were rewarded with one of the most spectacular sunsets I can recall, as the clouds that hung heavy throughout the afternoon gave way to a sun that painted them pink.

The view from the top of Mount Scott.

We spent our evenings around the campfire, enjoying good camp food and hot chocolate spiked with whiskey and baileys. We made jokes, told scary stories, and reminisced on the special things we had thusfar encountered on this trip and trips past. Sometime during the night on our second evening in the tent it began to rain. By dawn it had turned to sleet. And by the time we had reached the refuge we were greeted with full fledged snow flurries.

Both James and I were excited about the photo ops that these unique conditions might present. At first we thought that the wildlife must have found sheltered areas to hunker down and weather the storm. But then, just in front of our little caravan a massive bison bull bounded across the road. He was literally frolicking. He ran to join another group of bachelor bulls, and soon began to leap up and down, roll in the snow, and challenge them to play fights. It made me think back to all that time rough-housing in the snow as a kid growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. The snow must have felt downright wonderful to this massive animal with its big shaggy coat. These relics of the ice age are built to withstand the cold and snow, and the freezing precipitation must have been a welcome relief from the heat of the southern plains.

Conditions like this can produce some truly special images, however photographing in them is quite difficult and often unpleasant. Autofocus is all but useless as it tries to lock on to every glob of snowflakes falling through the sky. Relegated to manual focus, my hands, which i kept ungloved to allow better dexterity while operating my camera rig, began to freeze. It was all worth it, however. I was very happy with the few images I was able to capture – not necessarily for their aesthetic qualities, but for the special memory of witnessing these gleeful bovines loving life in the snow.

A plains bison bull feeling spry in the snow.

The Wichita Mountains are world famous for its large mammals, but it is also a bird watchers paradise. Later that snowy day I had one of my most memorable experiences to date watching and photographing birds. We had stopped near a small canyon, and here Caro and I split off from James and Erin for a while. I setup to photograph landscapes, hoping to captures the interesting color and arrangement of the boulders scattered throughout the hills. Caro quickly called me over to show me an interesting bird. A Spotted Towhee!! And I had left my big lens in the truck. I quickly ran back to the truck, grabbed the lens, and returned to the spot. And the towhee was still there! Unfortunately he was gone before I had a chance to capture his likeness. I was, however, able to photograph a handsome Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) on a snowwy oak branch.

A striking Slate-Colored Junco in a snow-covered oak.

Just ahead Caro and I could see a flurry of bird activity. Moving forward we spotted huge groups of Field Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Chipping Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows and more foraging on the ground and low shrubs. As we approached, a male Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) hopped up on an oak twig directly in front of me! And much to my surprise and delight he sad long enough for me to capture a few frames. I had long wanted to photograph this stunning species, and the experience had left me shaking, both from excitement and the considerable chill in the air. But this was just the beginning.

A male Spotted Towhee that was kind enough to pose for me for several seconds.

I was having trouble deciding which sparrow to focus on when a group of chunky songbirds flew into a leafless shrub not twenty feet from me. Harris’s Sparrows (Zonotrichia querula)! It was a species that both James and I were really hoping to have the opportunity to photograph this trip, and they were giving me some incredible photo ops. As my shutter clicked, I found myself wanting to reach out and high five James. But he wasn’t with me, and my heart sank a little knowing how badly he wanted this type of opportunity.

A Harris’s Sparrow in its winter plumage.

I had to keep an alert eye out as more and more birds came filtering through the snowfall. I saw an unusual silhouette atop an interesting perch against the white sky. I trained my camera on the bird and fired a few images without having the chance to identify it. Looking at my images later I realized it was a Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus)! This uncommon species is suffering dramatic population declines. The cause of this precipitous loss in numbers is still somewhat of a mystery, but likely linked to a variety of factors including habitat loss and contamination from pollutants. The Rusty Blackbird is on several conservation watch lists, and has an international team of scientists known as the Rusty Blackbird Working Group trying to identify and resolve reasons for these declines.

A Rusty Blackbird against the white winter sky.

I found myself spending a lot of time following the Harris’s Sparrows around in hopes of trying different compositions and backgrounds. At one point I had found one nicely perched in a small opening of stunted oak. Just as I was ready to take the shot, a Dark-eyed Junco leapt up directly in front of it, catching my autofocus and foiling my attempt. It’s hard to be disappointed, however, when the photobomber is as cute as this.

A Dark-eyed Junco photobombing a Harris’s Sparrow.

I could have stayed with the sparrows all day, but it there were still some other parts of the refuge we were hoping to explore, so I made my way back to the truck. En route, a Bewick’s Wren (Thryomanes bewickii) hopped up in front of me, and sat for a few seconds surrounded by falling snow.

A Bewick’s Wren in a light snow.

When I returned to the parking lot, I could see James and Erin sitting in their car. I walked up, and before I could tell James about my incredible encounter, he turned the back of his camera toward me. There on his LCD screen was an incredible image of a Harris’s Sparrow. It turned out that he had an experience very similar to mine! It made the entire experience all the more special.

The snow fell throughout the day as we continued to explore the refuge. We stopped at the “Holy City” located on the refuge where there was a church and a large marble statue titled Christ of the Wichitas. The road up Mount Scott which we had driven the previous evening was closed due to the unsafe conditions. As we made our way to the refuge exist I wanted to stop and capture a few images of the snowy landscape.

Snow laden oaks in the Wichitas. The south wind plaster snow against the north side of the trees.
The south facing side of the trees stayed relatively dry and free of snow.

Shortly after leaving the refuge the clouds began to break and the sun made its first and only appearance of the day. Just outside the refuge we stopped to admire a pair of horses on a hill against the dramatic light, when I looked to the opposite side of the road to see a large flock of Mountain Bluebirds. James had seen them too, and we both set about photographing them. Unfortunately I was unable to capture anything I was happy with, but James walked away with some lovely images.

That night the mercury dropped quickly. We ate quickly ate our supper lest it freeze and retired to the tent by 7 PM. That night it dipped into the teens, but fortunately we stayed warm wrapped up in our mummy bags. I often struggle to sleep well in a tent, but Caro made our beds so comfortable this trip that I slept like a baby. The plan for the next morning was to wake early and explore the campground a bit, before heading back home by late morning.

Immediately upon stepping from the tent into the brisk morning air I could see and hear dozens of birds. Small flocks moved through the brush and boulders. Most abundant were Field Sparrows (Spizella pusilla). Though I saw many of these in the snow the day prior, I was never presented with a good photo opportunity, so I was happy to get the chance to capture a few frames on our last morning in the area.

A Field Sparrow in the early morning light.
Field Sparrow
Field Sparrow

Then came a noisy group of White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys). They bounced about the boulders and low shrubs, chattering and singing all the while.

A White-crowned Sparrow on an ancient boulder.
A White-crowned Sparrow among the prairie grass.

Then came the grand finale. A group of Harris’s Sparrows came in very close to where I had sat and concealed myself in the grass. In this group were a few particularly strikingly patterned and obliging individuals. It was a good note to end on.

A beautiful Harris’s Sparrow on a lichen-covered boulder.

Unfortunately, shortly after I made these images, I dropped my cell phone somewhere in the prairie. Luckily, with the help of Caro, James, and Erin, we located it after about an hour of searching. Belongings all accounted for, we reluctantly bid farewell to the Wichitas.

Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge provides a rare glimpse into what the prairie once was, with some notable exceptions. The buffalo wolf no longer roams here, nor does the American black bear that once sheltered in the oak woodlands dotting the prairie. Mountain lions are still occasionally found here. Attempts to reintroduce pronghorn to the refuge failed, as did attempts to introduce bighorn sheep, which were not native to the area, at least in recent times. There is also a large free roaming heard of “genetically pure” Texas longhorn on the refuge, which I suppose is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on one’s point of view.

The Wichitas certainly left their mark on me. I look forward to returning one day in the spring to see the lace cactus in bloom and the bright breeding coloration of the Eastern collared lizard. Numerous Neotropical migrant songbirds breed here, including the Black-capped Vireo in one of the few locations outside of Texas it is known to summer. Long live these ancient granite hills, and long may the elk bugle and the buffalo roam.

Brush Country Bucks in Rut

Target Species: White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

A huge white-tailed deer buck with chocolate-colored antlers curls his lip to test the air for pheromones left by a passing doe.

Shortening days and cooling temperatures trigger a change in North America’s most familiar native mammal, the white-tailed deer. Bucks that are normally mild-mannered and tolerant of one another turn violent and aggressive. They stalk the brush fueled by lust and rage, their antlers hardened and sharp, and rising from their skull like a crown of blades. Battle ready, they have come to compete in an ancient breeding ritual – the culmination of a year spent eating, growing, and preparing – the rut. And they will fight, sometimes to the death, to carry on their bloodline.

A handsome buck approaches a doe he hopes to breed.

Shedding of velvet is the first indication that the rut is approaching. The fuzzy tissue that has nourished the growing antlers for the previous 6 to 7 months begins to dry and the underlying bone hardens. The process must cause the bucks to itch something fierce, as they furiously thrash their antlers against any available vegetation to speed up the process. As the velvet is stripped from bone, it hangs from the antlers in a bloody mess until it is completely removed. Adorned in their impressive new armaments, the bucks spar. The matches are friendly, for the moment, and no real effort is made to harm one another. The camaraderie is soon to come to an end, however.

A wary buck looks back to ascertain a potential threat.

In the weeks after their velvet has been shed, bucks who spent the spring and summer lounging and feeding together begin to grow intolerant of one another’s presence, and isolate themselves in the brush. Around the same time, the does are becoming reproductively receptive, and communicate their impending estrus through pheromones in their urine. They advertise their fertility by moving through the brush and leaving their chemical signature on the landscape.

A dominant brush country buck

The white-tailed deer is the widest ranging ungulate in the western hemisphere. They can be found from central Canada to Peru. As one might imagine, having such an expansive range means that there is considerable variation in the species throughout its distribution. Those at the northern extent of their range are the largest bodied. Following Bergmann’s rule, they become gradually smaller moving south. Antler size, however, is highly variable and more closely linked to local genetics and available nutrition than driven by thermoregulatory requirements.

A buck stands tall in a South Texas mesquite savanna.

The deer of the South Texas brush country are world famous for their impressive headgear. The larger than average antlers of a mature buck have been attributed to a number of factors, including the protein rich bounty of prickly pear, mesquite beans, and other foods found here. South Texas is also known for its heavily managed deer ranches, where selective harvest enhances genetics and supplemental feed bolsters nutrition.

A buck looks back toward a nearby group of does.

During our Thanksgiving break this year, Carolina and I opted to visit south Texas in lieu of risking exposing ourselves and my parents to COVID by spending the holiday with family. We were able to enjoy a socially distant vacation on the beach and in the thornscrub. In the heart of the brush country we found an area with wild, free-ranging deer that found refuge in a large nature preserve where there was no hunting pressure and the animals were accustomed to human presence. This allowed us to observe the rut up close, and witness and photograph behaviors that would be nearly impossible to experience otherwise. I spent one evening and one glorious morning here, and walked away with images and memories of a lifetime.

A buck moves silently through the tall grass.

As the rut nears, the necks of mature bucks begin to swell. Fueled by testosterone, they pack on muscle in preparation of the combat soon to come. The bucks also become bolder. As they move about their territories in search of receptive does, they become more active during the day, and are thus easier to observe and less prone to flight. They truly have one thing on their mind.

An alert buck in pursuit of a group of does.

As the bucks move through their home range, they leave an abundance of sign. They will frequently visit antler height branches and take small twigs in their mouth. It may appear as if they’re feeding, but they’re not actually eating the twigs. Instead they lick them, and rub them against special glands on their face known as pre-orbitals that leave pheromones for other deer to detect.

A buck leaves his scent on a licking branch.

Commonly known as “licking branches”, it is believed that they are used to communicate important information in the white-tailed deer community, including the status of a buck among the herd. Bucks visiting the licking branch can quickly ascertain what other bucks are in the area, and therefore evaluate threats to their ability to defend and breed a doe. Does too will use the licking branch, likely to determine which bucks may be nearby, and advertise when they are approaching estrus, that brief window when they are fertile.

A buck sniffs a licking branch to gather information on the deer that have recently passed through.

As the testosterone fuels bucks with lust and rage, they seek outlets for their increasingly violent tendencies, and begin to thrash about vegetation including low hanging branches and tree trunks. Beyond serving as an outlet for their anger, these rubs, like the licking branches, serve an important purpose during the rut. The height of a rub and the destruction it caused can communicate the size and strength of a buck to would be competitors. It is also believed that bucks secrete additional pheromones as they rub, and that the act of seeing a mature buck thrash the hell out of a tree or small shrub serves as an intimidating warning to younger bucks that might witness it. After depositing his scent on a licking tree or creating a rub, a buck will typically dig a “scrape” by hoofing at the dirt and urinating over the metatarsal gland on his hindleg, further leaving his mark across the landscape.

A large buck rubs on a mesquite tree.

As the does near estrus, the bucks really begin to take notice. Chemicals in a doe’s urine contain information as to her current stage in the reproductive cycle. It is the goal of every buck to breed as many does as he can during the rut, so this information becomes important when determining which lovely lady he should pursue. An experienced buck will focus on those does that are very near estrus so that he can minimize the time needed to guard and breed her before he seeks out another partner.

A buck tests the air for female pheromones.

Bucks determine which does are approaching estrus through a process known as lip curling, or flehming. The strange crinkly-nosed face that they make during this process is known as the flehmen response. When a buck detects the scent of a doe’s urine, he will curl his upper lip back and pass the pheromone laden aroma through the vomeronasal organ in the roof of his mouth.

A buck performing the flehmen response.

It is typical for a flehming buck to cock his head back forty-five degrees or so. Perhaps this maximized the efficiency of the organ’s ability to analyze the pheromones. It’s not uncommon to see a buck move his head up and down and from side to side at this time, as if trying to find the sweet spot for extracting doe pheromones from the air above her spoor. The response may last several seconds.

A flehming buck tilts his head to better evaluate the pheromones left by a passing doe.

If all goes well with the Flehmen response, a buck will be able to determine which does are nearly ready to breed. If he detects the pheromones of “the one”, he will seek her out. The plan is to find her and tend her until she comes into estrus, during which time he intends to copulate with her as many times as possible to ensure conception.

A large lip curling buck

A particularly receptive doe may entice a buck by initiating a game of cat and mouse, where she runs seductively to and fro in an attempt to illicit a chase response. More often than not, however, it is the buck that will pursue the doe, advancing toward her with his head lowered communicating his clear intention to mate. Does that are not yet receptive or unimpressed with their suitor will spurn his advances. A buck guarding a doe will make several of these “buck runs” until he receives indication from the doe that she is ready to breed.

An old, one-eyed buck makes a run at a doe.

In a perfect world, there would be plenty of does for all, and every buck would have equal opportunities to pass on their genes. That’s not the way things work, however, and competition for breeding rights is fierce. It is in a doe’s best interest to be choosy when it comes to a suitor so that she may ensure that her offspring have the best genetic blueprint for survival and success in life. It is also in the buck’s nature to try and breed as many does as he can, maximizing the continuation of his bloodline. When the stakes are this high, conflict is bound to arise.

I was incredibly fortunate to witness this firsthand in the South Texas brush. I spotted two bucks squaring off at the edge of a mesquite thicket. A young buck with an impressive set of antlers and an older buck with a smaller rack but noticeably larger body size were standing face to face. Both were posturing with their ears pinned back, communicating that neither intended to back down. I could feel the tension in the air and I readied my camera in preparation for what might ensue. Then, all of a sudden, the young buck rose onto his hind legs, dropped his head forward baring his antlers, and lunged forward at his opponent.

CRACK!! The bucks locked antlers with a clash that echoed through the brush. In an instant, both bucks disappeared into the thicket. I feared that this battle would occur in the dense vegetation, and dismayed that I would not bear witness to it. But then, in an instant, I saw the back of the young buck come flying through a brush pile, sending sticks splintering and flying in every direction, his antlers entwined with the old buck.

The old buck than wrenched his swollen neck muscles earthward, and slammed the young buck to the ground, pinning him there. In that moment I was convinced I was watching the young buck’s life come to an untimely end. The old buck was quite literally trying to gore him to death, thrusting repeatedly at his neck and withers. These contests may be intended to settle disputes of dominance and the right to breed, but for the bucks involved it is a matter of life and death.

But the young buck still had some fight left in him. With an incredible display of strength, he righted himself, sending dust and bits of grass flying through the air as he dug in his hooves and lunged forward once more in hopes of turning the tide of the battle. For a moment the two warriors jockeyed for position.

Strength and experience were on the old buck’s side, and he used his bulk and considerable power to push the young buck back. Eyes wide with fury, the young buck refused to quit and continued to push back against his opponent. It was incredible to witness the toughness and determination of these incredible animals. These were not the docile, familiar creatures that so many see when they look at the whitetail. These were warriors in the truest sense of the word.

Again the old buck wrenched his neck downward, this time bringing the young buck to submission. Knowing his defeat was imminent, the young buck now had to find a way to escape the fray with his life. Carefully and deliberately, the young buck broke free and beat a hasty retreat through the brush. The old buck momentarily gave chase, but satisfied with his victory he soon broke off his pursuit.

The young buck learned a valuable lesson that day, one that he will carry with him through future ruts. He clearly had all the makings for a future champion. One day he will be a true king of the brush country, and his days of losing fights will be behind him. I hope I have the opportunity to see and photograph him again.

The loser of an intense battle in the brush.

It’s not just the big bucks that are driven to breed during the rut. The drive to procreate is strong, and younger and smaller bucks are not spared the lust. Their path to procreation may be more difficult, but the dominant bucks can’t be everywhere at once, and when they are busy guarding a doe or fending off incoming suitors, these “satellite” bucks are often able to sneak in and mate with some of the does in their territory.

A small buck stomps at a potential threat.

Of course, what was presented here is just a small snippet of all that occurs during the rut. It is an event that lasts for a month or more, with a peak activity period of around 10 days, usually in November to the north and December further south. On average, a female is only in estrus for 24 hours or so, providing a limited window where fertilization can occur. Those does that are not bred during the first cycle will come into estrus a few weeks later. This, combined with a few does that come into heat early, prolongs the rut, but anyway you slice it, it is but a small, albeit supremely important portion of a deer’s annual cycle.

A brush country prince

I still have a hard time believing my luck those days among the whitetails of the brush country. To witness a wealth of fascinating behaviors in such a short window of time was truly one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The white-tailed deer is perhaps the most famous, revered, and sought after animal in North America. It is so popular, common, and widespread that it oftentimes fades into the background for naturalists and wildlife photographers. But I can attest that those who put in the time and effort to try and learn their ways and experience their world will be greatly rewarded. From the hardwood forests of the east to the riparian woodlands of the west and the thornscrub of South Texas, may the white-tail deer continue to dig scrapes, lock antlers, continue their bloodlines, and capture the hearts of millions for many years to come.

A dominant brush country buck at sunset

Life Under the Longleaf

Target Species: Texas Red-headed Centipede (Scolopendra heros)

Liatris pycnostachya blooms beneath towering longleaf pines.

Summer is my favorite season to visit the longleaf pine savannahs of East Texas. In years with decent rainfall the open understories explode with an abundance of wildflowers. Bachman’s Sparrows, Indigo Buntings, and other pineland birds fill the air with their songs, and a variety of butterflies and other insects flush from the grass with nearly every step. This year I was fortunate to make several trips to this special ecosystem with Carolina and my good friend James Childress, who has spent the last several years surveying our longleaf pine forests for the critically endangered Louisiana pine snake.

Diversity and abundance of blooming wildflowers typically peaks from May to June, but may be either prolonged or accelerated by prescribed fire. The longleaf pine savannah is a fire-dependent community, and evolved with frequent low intensity fires that inhibit woody vegetation from encroaching in the understory and promote the growth of herbaceous species. Today, lightning ignited fires are less common due to changes in forest cover types and fire suppression activities. Because of this, resource agencies like the U.S. Forest Service perform routine burns to maintain these systems for species diversity and the benefit of protected species like the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

I’ve always enjoyed observing the wildflower bloom here. From year to year the species composition varies slightly. Certain species may flower prolifically some years, but can be very sparse in others. This year was a poor year for Carolina larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum). Fortunately there were still a few prime specimens to be found, however.

Carolina Larkspur

This year was better for woodland poppymallows (Callirhoe papaver). Under the longleaf they vary from light pink to deep purple.

Woodland Poppymallow

There are a number of yellow composites that can be found among the longleaf. One of the most spectacular is the the rough coneflower (Rudbeckia grandiflora) which can reach heights of four feet or more. This was a great year for them and I was presented with many wonderful photo oppportunities.

Rough Coneflower
Rough Coneflower

There are a number of species of sunflower that can be found in the longleaf pine savannah. This summer we were fortunate to find a good showing of both hairy sunflower (Helianthus hirsutus) and the uncommon ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis). H. hirsutus tends to prefer deeper sands while H. mollis occurs in shallower sands and other coarse substrates of a loamy or clayey layer. H. mollis is generally found in high quality habitat and seems particularly susceptible to ground disturbance.

Hairy Sunflower
Hairy Sunflower
Ashy Sunflower

Though superficially similar to sunflowers, yellow crownbeard (Verbesina helianthoides) is a member of a different genus. The specific epithet, helianthoides hints to its resemblance to the sunflower genus Helianthus. V. helianthoides is another uncommon composite in East Texas, and I’ve only found it at a few locations.

Yellow Crownbeard

I was able to tag along with James a few times over the summer as he surveyed a private tract of longleaf that ranks as one of the finest remaining examples of longleaf pine forest in the West Gulf Coastal Plain. The landowner is conservation minded and manages with regular prescribed fire and burns well into the growing season, which closely mimics the summer fires that occurred prior to European settlement. Here we were awestruck by exceptional wildflower displays including a seep loaded with grass pink orchids (Calopogon tuberosus) and entire hillsides blanketed with prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya). Fortunately this special place is protected through a conservation agreement with the Nature Conservancy in Texas.

Grass pink orchids bloom in a hillside seep in a high quality longleaf pine savannah on private conservation land.
Prairie blazing star blooms in profusion in an East Texas longleafe pine savanna.

Several species of Liatris can be found in the longleaf pine savannas of East Texas. One of the more common is the scaly blazing star (Liatris squarrosa). These and other species of Liatris bloom at the height of summer and are relished by a variety of pollinators.

Scaly Blazing Star

Of all the aster species found in the Pineywoods, I find the barrens silky aster (Symphyotrichum pratense) to be the most striking. It can be found growing on the margins of seeps where there is a steady supply of moisture even during the hottest part of the year.

Barrens Silky Aster

One of my favorite of nature’s gifts is a hard summer rain in the Pineywoods. Torrential downpours are often preceded by sweltering temperatures, and the precipitation provides a welcome relief from the blazing sun. The animals, too, welcome the relief and following the rains the savanna comes to life.

Longleaf pine savanna in the rain.

Several species of reptiles and amphibians make the longleaf pine savanna home. The tan racer (Coluber constrictor etheridgei) is endemic to longleaf pine forests of extreme eastern Texas and western Louisiana. Here an old battle scarred racer slithers across the trunk of a fallen longleaf.

Tan Racer

The diversity of flowering plants in a high quality longleaf pine savanna harbor an equally stunning variety of invertebrate life. Some, like the dung beetle Dichotomius carolinus) are seldom seen but play an important roll as a means of waste disposal as they gather, bury, and consume the feces of a variety of animals.

Dichotomius carolinus

I have long endeavored to capture an image of the impressive American bird grasshopper (Schistocerca americana). Though they can be quite common, they are prone to flight long before they’re initially spotted. Once disturbed, they fly high, fast, and far. After this initial flight they are nearly impossible to approach. For whatever reason, this individual was relatively indifferent to my presence, and allowed me to photograph it for several minutes.

American Bird Grasshopper

The most impressive invertebrate of the longleaf pine savanna, however, is the Texas red-headed centipede (Scolopendra heros). These giants seem like the things of nightmares. They are lightning fast, incredibly agile, they have front legs that are modified to act like massive fangs that are capable of inflicting extremely painful bites, and they are huge (occasionally 8 inches or longer). In reality they are non-aggressive, inoffensive, secretive, and seldom seen. They are prone to flight and only attempt to bite when physically restrained. Scolopendra heros is primarily a species of deserts and semi-arid grasslands, however they range as far east as western Louisiana and Arkansas. In East Texas they are relatively common in longleaf pine savannas and other woodlands over deep sandy soils. James and I found a few out and about one cloudy day in May.

Texas Red-headed Centipede

The species presented here are but a small fraction of the incredible biodiversity of longleaf pine savannas. These are among the most diverse communities in the country. Unfortunately, in the past 150 years, these savannas have been reduced to a fraction of their former range. Fortunately management restoration of longleaf pine has become a priority of resource agencies and nonprofit conservation organizations, and the iconic longleaf pine savanna is slowly reclaiming parts of the southeast.

Trial by Fire: Testing a new Camera at the Beach

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 4000, 1/160 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

In September we set out to experience autumn in the Rockies, and spent a week exploring Colorado and New Mexico. Before we left, I decided to rent a 5D Mark IV, one of Canon’s top-end full frame cameras. For years I have been using the Canon 7D and later the 7D Mark II, which utilize crop-frame sensors that magnifies the scene 1.6 times that of a full frame. This means that to I would need to use an 800mm lens to get the same magnification on the 5D Mark IV that my 7D Mark II gets with a 500mm lens.

This was certainly a concern of mine, as approaching wildlife is always a challenge, and more magnification is almost always a plus, particularly with smaller, less approachable animals like birds. I rented the 5D for our trip as I was planning to photograph large mammals like elk in a national park where getting close was not likely to be a limiting factor. I also hoped to take advantage of the broader field of view to capture more sweeping landscapes and hoped that the 5D’s purported superior low light performance would allow me to shoot later into the evening as wildlife became more active.

I anticipated that I would alternate shooting between the 5D and my 7D, however what I found is that shot almost exclusively with the rented 5D. I was blown away by the image quality, dynamic range, and low light capabilities. It was certainly hard sending the camera back after we returned home.

Not long after our trip I was discussing the 5D Mark IV with my photographer and Canon shooter friend Skip Pudney, who informed me that he had been considering a 5D Mark IV for some time, and that he had noticed that Best Buy was running promotional financing that made pulling the trigger on a new camera very tempting. After some (brief) contemplation and discussion with Caro, I decided to place my order, and before I knew it, a brand new Canon 5D Mark IV was on its way.

I love opening the box and pulling out a brand new camera, wrapped in protective cloth. Looking at it, sparkling clean and blemish free, I knew that it wouldn’t stay that way for long – not with the way I shoot. Shortly after receiving it I took a few photos here and there, but I really needed a good outing to put it to the test. So Caro and I decided to take the opportunity to travel to the upper Texas coast last weekend. Photographing shorebirds from the beach would certainly prove a suitable test to the camera’s capabilities and durability.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 4000, 1/320 sec, f/5.6 @ 700 mm

We arrived late Thursday evening and settled in. The next morning we were up at 5 AM, and set out to the beach before the sun rose. I wanted to try out the camera at this pre-dawn hour to put its high ISO abilities to the test. And I was more than pleased with the result. At ISO 2000, noise was barely perceptible to me on well-exposed images. At ISO 4000, noise was certainly present, but not overly distracting and I later found it easy to manage in post processing. Though this is a completely anecdotal observation, I would compare noise levels from ISO 4000 on the 5D Mark IV to 1600 on the 7D Mark II. It was very impressive.

On the 7D, I rarely push the ISO past 2000, and at that level it had to be very nearly perfectly exposed to avoid introducing extra noise in post processing. Based on my experiences with the 5D Mark IV so far, I am comfortable pushing the ISO to 4000, and find that up to ISO 6400, well exposed images are usable for most purposes. That’s gives me an extra 5 stops of light to work with beyond the 7D Mark II!

My first photographic subject of the trip was a white-phase Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) that was foraging in the shallow surf. The deep blue waters reflecting the pre-dawn sky nicely complimented the bird’s striking white plumage. At one point I captured the light of a distant barge in the background. It appeared as a white orb that to me, gave the impression that the bird was glowing in the light of a full moon.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 3200, 1/250 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

As I was focused on the egret, a Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) cruised by over the water. I lowered my shutter speed to capture some motion in the wings.

Brown Pelican. ISO 2000, 1/250 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

After the pelican had passed, I turned my attention back to the Reddish Egret. The sky and, in turn, the water were lightening from deep midnight blue to a lighter pastel blue tinged with pink. Reddish Egrets are famous for their incredible fishing displays, where they seemingly dance across the surface of the water, running leaping erratically and spreading their wings in a wide array of positions in an attempt to frighten, corral, and capture ichthy prey.

Photographing these displays is a real challenge, especially when they’re close. Their movements are unpredictable, which makes tracking them exceedingly difficult. Sometimes, however, one gets lucky and manages to freeze a moment in time of a Reddish Egret on the hunt. Out of hundreds of frames created in an attempt to capture this, I had only a couple that I ended up liking enough to keep.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 2000, 1/250 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

As the sun drew nearer to the horizon, the reflection of the sky did wonderful things to the shallow water and wet sand. A tiny Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri) passed directly in front of me as I was sprawled out on my belly in the sand. I was able to capture an image of it as it foraged for worms and other invertebrates in a shallow sheet of water sitting on top of the saturated beach sand.

Western Sandpiper. ISO 1600, 1/500 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

By the time the Western Sandpiper had moved on, the sun had crested the horizon. It bathed the white Reddish Egret in a most wonderful light, and the egret stretched out as if welcoming the warmth of a new day.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 400, 1/800 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

By now I had been lying, more or less in the same spot and position for 30 minutes or so. I was quite uncomfortable, as I often am while lying prone in the sand, however it was hard to move when there was so much diversity all around me. Soon a group of Semipalmated Plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus) crossed in front of me. Even in their non-breeding plumage, they are striking little shorebirds, and the sun was illuminating them perfectly as I watch them through my viewfinder.

Semimalmated Plover. ISO 400, 1/500 sec, f/5.6 @700mm

Finally I decided it was time to move down the beach. Among the droves of gulls and terns lining the shore, I spotted a Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus) working the shallows where the tide was lapping at the sand. I knew what my next target was, and I dropped to my knees and elbows and began to belly crawl across the beach.

The beach may be flat, but crawling across it in this manner is neither easy nor pleasant. Occasionally I would roll while elevating my camera from the ground. This was generally easier and faster, but also more likely to startle my quarry, and it left me coated in wet sand from head to toe. And though I struggled valiantly to keep my hands clean, they inevitably became coated in grains of sand, which were in turn transferred to my new, not inexpensive camera.

Though I wouldn’t have to get as close with my 7D, I felt it was worth the extra effort to practice my shorebird stalking skills to get that much closer with the 5D. I also thought that forcing me to keep the bird smaller in the frame would push me to create interesting compositions and provide more context on my subjects’ habitat.

Long-billed Curlew. ISO 250, 1/800 sec, f/6.3 @700mm

After spending some time with the curlew, I continued down the beach until I spotted an American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) working the shallows. The sun was rising ever higher into the sky, and little by little that glorious early morning light was growing harsher. Fortunately I’ve found that when shooting over shallow water, I can extend the morning’s session a bit as shallow water and wet sand reflects sunlight back onto the subject, acting like a reflector and softening harsh shadows.

Later in the morning, the water also turns a brilliant deep blue which makes for a beautiful setting for any bird or creature that might be standing in it. I hoped to capture these colors as I again started the agonizing and slow approach, army-crawling through the sticky sand toward the oystercatcher. Soon after I got into position, I watched as it stretched its wings and leapt into the air momentarily.

American Oystercatcher. ISO 200, 1/1000 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

The oystercatcher was wary of me at first, but eventually came to accept me as part of the landscape. It is always exciting watching your subject approach through the viewfinder, knowing that it’s getting closer and closer to providing that frame-filling shot that needs no cropping whatsoever. This is just what the oystercatcher did, snatching up the occasional tasty morsel on its way. This is one of those rare instances in wildlife photography where having less focal distance is better, as the bird would have been too tight in the frame if I was using the same lens configuration on my 7D.

American Oystercatcher. ISO 160, 1/1600 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm
American Oystercatcher. ISO 160, 1/1600 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

Near the oystercatcher I spotted a Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa). This species has long been a nemesis of mine. They’re fairly easy to find along the Texas coast, yet I have always had trouble capturing a godwit image that I was happy with. Fortunately this morning I had a cooperative bird that obliged for a few images.

Marbled Godwit. ISO 200, 1/1000, f/6.3 @ 700mm

By the time I was finished with the oystercatcher and the godwit, my camera was thoroughly coated with sand, and I could see a multitude of tiny grains wedged in the spaced between the body and its various buttons. So much sand had accumulated around the shutter button that it got stuck in the depressed position. I had the same thing happen with my old 7D when shooting on the beach in South Padre a couple of years ago. In that case the shutter got stuck all the way down, and every time I turned on the camera it began firing away. Fortunately, this time it was only stuck halfway down – in focus mode. This allowed me to continue shooting, though I was admittedly growing concerned about having this happen with a brand new camera.

I decided to continue shooting with what little bit of usable morning light remained. I moved away from the beach to an extensive mudflat that was quickly becoming inundated with the incoming tide. Numerous shorebirds were taking advantage of these prime foraging conditions, including another Marbled Godwit.

Shooting in this mudflat presented itself with a whole new set of challenges. Wet sand gave way to deep mud. To approach the birds, I would have to crawl through this mud that sat beneath a foot or two of water. This required very careful balancing of my heavy camera and lens as I remained low enough to approach without spooking my subjects. Fortunately it is a scenario that I have been in before, and I was able to get into position without causing further harm to my camera or myself. The water even helped to watch away the layer of sand that was coating every inch of my clothing and exposed skin.

Marbled Godwit. ISO 160, 1/1250 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

Near the godwit a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) were resting. I quickly turned my attention to the closest individual, and captured an image I quite liked with blue water at its feet and exposed sand, marsh vegetation, and sky in the background. I typically see these birds foraging in shallow water, where it’s hard to get a feel for how long their legs really are. Here it was standing on top of an exposed mudflat, and the entire length of the colorful legs that lend the bird its name were in view.

Greater Yellowlegs. ISO 160, 1/1600 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

Soon the other yellowlegs joined its cohort. They say that in humans, yawning sets off a chain reaction where viewing another yawn will trigger the same reaction in oneself. Apparently the same is true for Greater Yellowlegs when it comes to scratching an itch.

Greater Yellowlegs. ISO 160, 1/1250 sec, f/5.6 @ 700mm

After a half hour or so of lying in the mud, I decided to finish shooting in the morning, due in part to the deteriorating lighting conditions and the level of discomfort and fatigue I had experienced from a morning of crawling through the sand and mud and balancing my heavy camera and lens over the shallow water.

By the time I got back to my truck the excitement of the morning’s photo shoot was beginning to subside, and concern for a very expensive camera coated in grit began to grow. With Caro’s help, I began to clean off the camera, blowing off grains of sand and using a close-pin from my first aid kit and a coffee straw that Caro cut into a thin strip to extract sand from the space between the camera body and various buttons. Slowly but surely we were able to remove all of the sand, and I was able to coax the shutter button back to its normal position, where it remained for the rest of the trip.

After cleaning the camera and changing clothes, we went to grab a bite to eat and spent most of the afternoon enjoying the beach. Though it was early November, the air and water were warm enough that wading out into the surf was quite pleasant.

As the sun dipped lower on the horizon I set out again in pursuit of birds. No photo session for the remainder of the trip would compare with that first morning, however that is the nature of the beast. Some sessions are highly productive, others are painfully slow and fruitless. Most, however, fall somewhere in the middle.

That is not to say that the evening was without its photo ops. I enjoyed watching a Sanderling (Calidris alba) comb the beach. At one point it turned to give me a profile view as beautiful soft evening light washed over it. It lit up against the dreary gray sand.

Sanderling. ISO 1250. 1/500 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

Brown Pelicans were cruising up and down the beach. This species of pelican fishes via incredible, seemingly death-defying dives. From dizzying heights they scan the water below until they spot their prey, and then they turn on a dime and descend like a bullet toward the water’s surface. It’s long been a goal of mine to document these dives, but capturing a photo of these dives made at break-neck speed is easier said than done. That evening, however, I did get an image I liked of a pelican just after it turned into a dive set against the pastel sky of dusk.

Brown Pelican preparing to dive. ISO 1000, 1/800 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

I continued photographing for a while after the sun set but was not satisfied with any of the images captured. Caro and I sat a few minutes on the beach to watch the birds as they prepared to settle in for the evening. We then went back and had dinner in our hotel and relax after a very long, but rewarding day.

The next morning brought another 5 AM wake-up, and we were soon at the same beach where we had seen so many birds the previous day. But the natural world often proves to be unpredictable, and unreliable, and the beach was almost devoid of avian life. The tide was higher and as a result, less of the beach was exposed, reducing the foraging habitat for many species. A few pelicans passed by, and a handful of gulls bathed in the surf, but I didn’t put much effort into photographing them, and instead decided to enjoy a quiet stroll on the beach before the crowds arrived.

As I was returning to the shore I saw another white-phase Reddish Egret foraging in the mudflat, which was now inundated by high tide. The sun was getting a bit harsh for the bird’s white plumage, but I positioned myself so that the bird was in front of a dark background, and tried for some creative shots of the egret as it danced in its trademark hunting fashion.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 200, 1/2500 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

After finishing with the egret and leaving the water I spotted a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) in the dune vegetation. As I mentioned at the onset of this narrative, the main concern I had with using a full frame was the need to get closer to smaller subjects. I soon came to think of this as a benefit rather than a hindrance. It forced me to use all my cunning to creep up on this little shrike, and I found that with patience and stealth I was able to get plenty close. I hoped I would be able to replicate this with breeding forest songbirds in the coming spring.

Loggerhead Shrike. ISO 250, 1/1250 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

With several images of the shrike on my card, I called the morning’s photo session, and we went on to enjoy another day relaxing on the beach. In the evening we were back again, and the birds were once more few and far between. After the sun vanished behind the horizon, another white-phase Reddish Egret (likely the same bird I had been photographing) arrived and began to hunt in the shallow surf. I photographed it against the soft pink dusk sky. One of the “rules” of wildlife photography is that the subject should be facing the camera and the eye should be clearly visible. However I find that the old cliche, “rules are meant to be broken” often applies with art, and to me, photography is art. So I thought this image of an egret, wings spread as it looks to the distance, is a fine parting shot for our journey, and I hope it will be as thought provoking for its viewers as it has been for me.

White-phase Reddish Egret. ISO 2000, 1/640 sec, f/6.3 @ 700mm

The next morning the alarm range at 5 AM, but exhausted from two long days of shooting and exploring, and satisfied with a very productive trip, I turned it off and we slept in our last morning on the coast. I had put the 5D Mark IV to the test, and I was beyond pleased with the results. Though I suspect it will become my main camera, the 7D Mark II won’t be going anywhere. It will still serve as a fine backup camera and There may be some situations, such as photographing small and skittish species when available light is not a limiting factor. It has served me very well, and I continue to sing its praises as a highly versatile camera that produces excellent images.

If you stumbled across this blog looking for a practical comparison between the two cameras mentioned, I hope you found it useful. If not, I hope you enjoyed the images and the stories of how they were made, and wish everyone a prosperous holiday season, with family, photos, and natural places.

Tales of the Elk Rut

Two mature bull elk battle for control of a harem of cows. In the distance another bull, antler tines broken from his own battles tries to sneak in with hopes of breeding a female when the larger bulls are preoccupied.

When the air grows cold and the aspens turn from green to gold, a haunting call echoes through the valley and heralds an ancient ritual of violence and affection that is essential to the continued existence of one of our planet’s most majestic creatures: The North American elk, the Wapiti.

I owe a lot to the wapiti, as I see it. The elk played an important role in shaping my passion for wildlife and the natural world. I first visited elk country before I could walk. My family and I embarked on annual camping trips to the great national parks of the American West, visiting places like Yellowstone and the Tetons, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain National Park. These trips were the highlight of my year as a kid, easily eclipsing birthdays and Christmas. It was there, among the towering peaks, varied life zones, and charismatic megafauna that I felt most at home. During these formative years, the natural wonders of the Rocky Mountains were perhaps the biggest factor contributing to this deep, life long passion.

I had a particular affinity for the wapiti (Cervus canadensis). My parents will attest that I was obsessed with them. It was always the animal I most looked forward to seeing. When I wasn’t out west, I pestered them to visit the small captive herd in Elk Grove, Illinois, not far from where I grew up. I spent all year reading about elk, writing and drawing about elk, and longing to see them again. I proudly stated many times that they were my favorite animal.

Perhaps a part of me envies the elk. I will never know how it feels to possess that degree of pure, natural strength. A dominant bull in rut is the embodiment of power, pride, lust and rage, qualities often experienced, revered, and reviled by man. Yet despite his pomposity, he is also tender, protective, and patient.

A bull elk bugles as he moves to corral a cow back to his harem, which can be seen grazing behind him.

And it’s hard to imagine another animal with an appearance as majestic as an antlered wapiti in his prime. They are stately creatures whose black, ivory-tipped blades of bone curve above their head like a crown. Few realize just how massive they are before seeing one. An exceptional specimen can reach ten feet in length, five and a half feet at the shoulders, and have antlers that tower to nearly nine feet above the ground.

But it is the bugle, at least in my experience, that I most closely associate with the wapiti. This sound that, for me at least, is inextricably linked to wildness of spirit and wilderness of nature. It is a melody, that alongside the howl of the wolf, the call of the loon, the rustling of leaves in the wind, and the roar of a torrent over rocks, creates the symphony of the natural world.

Though Carolina and I saw a small bachelor group in New Mexico last year, it had been over a decade since I really had the opportunity to observe free ranging wapiti. This autumn I was able to be among them once more, and it was extra special. It was the first time that I really experienced the rut. It was a magical thing, watching the spectacle of competition between bull elk in their prime, and observing the subtle nuances of the hierarchy and bull selection within the cows. I felt as if I was truly among the elk, as bulls herded their harems through our campsite at all hours of the frigid night, bugling within a few meters of our tent. The nights were so cold that one evening it rained, and in the morning the tent was fly was frozen solid. Yet these extremes were not enough to deter the elk from their ancient ritual that would ensure a place for the next generation. All the more reason, I thought, to marvel at the incredible toughness and tenacity of these Rocky Mountain monarchs.

Below are the stories of several of the elk that we observed on our trip. There are tales of heartbreak and triumph. We will never know the minds of animals, and the sensations they experience is largely a mystery. It is clear to me, however, that they do experience some form of many of the emotions familiar to us, including those that we admire and abhor. I prefer not to anthropomorphize them, however at their core, it has become clear to me through observation and consideration that many species are not so different from us after all.

Kawuneeche Valley

The Kawuneeche, Arapaho for “coyote valley/creek”, is a narrow valley that skirts the Colorado River near its head source in the adjacent mountains. It is one of the main features on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. As I type this, the East Troublesome Fire is burning through a large portion of the valley and surrounding forests. Fueled by an abundance of beetle-killed lodgepole pine, the blaze grew from a modest fire of 20,000 acres to the second largest fire in Colorado’s history at over 170,000 acres in the span of a single day. The conflagration forced the residents of Grand Lake and surrounding areas to evacuate with only moments’ notice. Though it is an undeniable tragedy in terms of human impacts, I remain hopeful and confident that the natural communities of the areas will be better for it. The quaking aspen, Engelmann spruce, and lodgepole pine will return. Fuel loads will be reduced and the soils will be enriched with a flush of nutrients. The regenerating habitat will provide excellent habitat for elk and mule deer.

Elk are more spread out on the west side of the Park than in the moraines and parks in the Park’s eastern portion. They are still relatively easy to observe, however, and we saw many throughout our stay. The five bulls below were observed here, where one can catch a glimpse of the rut as it has occurred for thousands of generations of wapiti.

Broken Dagger

Broken Dagger after a brief mud bath.

Broken Dagger was the first bull I photographed.  We saw his harem first, wandering through a picnic area of all places.  We counted 8 cows, a spike bull, and a few calves.  “Where is the bull?” I thought.  Then I caught a glimpse of his muddy hindquarters through the spruce and aspen.  It was evident that he had been wallowing in some dark and undoubtedly foul-smelling mud.  Wallowing is a common practice among mature bulls during the rut.  They will seek out an area full of it, and before they roll about and coat themselves in mucky soup, they urinate profusely in the area they intend to “bathe”.  This concoction of mud and spoor is meant to make him more intimidating to his rivals.

A broken tine on his right antler earned him his name.  Broken Dagger was missing his “royal” or “dagger” tine.  This is typically the longest, most prominent tine on a wapiti’s antler.  It is not uncommon for bulls to lose tines during the rut.  Most are likely lost during battles with other bulls, however they can also be lost when bulls thrash the ground, shrubs, and saplings with a testosterone fueled rage.  I wish I knew the story of how Broken Dagger lost his.

I noticed that Broken Dagger was rather quiet, bugling only rarely.  This was in stark contrast with most of the mature bulls we observed during the trip.  I later speculated that he made an effort to avoid drawing attention to himself and his harem for fear of losing it to another bull.  Considering that the next time I saw him, two days later he was In the company of only a single cow that was soon usurped by a large bull named Flattop, it seems this was not a far-fetched conclusion.

Raghorn

Raghorn in the dim light of dusk.

The term “raghorn” refers to a bull elk with a set of antlers that is smaller than would be expected for the number of points they contain.  Mature bulls typically carry six tines on each side, and this particular antler configuration typically set in at 4 to 5 years of age.  There are a number of factors that could contribute to smaller antlers on a bull, however assuming that he is already mature, this bull that I named Raghorn likely simply drew the short end of the genetic stick. 

Antler size is important in elk, however it’s not everything.  I have heard plenty of stories of bulls with smaller antlers overpowering those with massive racks.  These bony armaments certainly play a role, however fights are won with strength, confidence, and tenacity. 

It seemed Raghorn was having some luck with the ladies.  He had a harem of four cows that he snuck past Flattop as he was occupied with fending off Romeo.  Like most people, I enjoy a good underdog story.  Raghorn would have a hard time holding onto a harem, let alone convincing one of those cows to accept him as a mate, but I’d be rooting for him.

Flattop

The dominant bull of the Kawuneeche Valley, Flattop bugles in an effort to attract cows and intimidate potential rival bulls.

Among the bulls of the upper Kawuneeche Valley, there was a clear “herd bull”. I first met this dominant bull on our third day in the park. Early that morning I had spotted Broken Dagger in a distant field courting a solitary cow. As I watched him, I could hear a powerful bugle in the timber behind me, on the opposite side of the road. There seems to be some debate as to whether or not the size of a bull correlates with the volume or deepness of his bugle. This has long been the opinion of elk hunters and outdoorsman, however it seems that empirical evidence to this point is lacking.

It must have been an hour or more that I was watching Broken Dagger and listening to the rival bull bugling. At times he was so close, but I could not see him through the dense spruce and beetle killed lodgepole pine trunks standing like specters in the forest. Every so often I would catch a fleeting glimpse of the bull and his harem, but he would vanish just as soon as I saw him, like a phantom haunting my dreams.

Eventually his harem began to emerge from behind the curtain of conifers. A calf with the group began chirping, a call used to communicate within the herd. In that moment, the cow that had been in Broken Dagger’s company suddenly perked up and very quickly made her way across the meadow to the tree line. She crossed the road within ten yards of me, and moved directly to the calf, which had advanced to within 20 yards or so. When she arrived, the calf immediately began to nurse, and the cow began licking its withers and flanks as mother elk are wont to do.

In that moment, the hidden bull appeared from behind a big spruce. He stepped out into the open, turned, and let out a magnificent bugle. The harem, including the new cow, quickly returned to the forest. And the bull bugled once more, before disappearing from sight behind them. In all he was in the open for around thirty seconds, just enough time to capture a few images.

Flattop shortly after he emerged from the timber.

I named him Flattop for his brow tines, which typically curve upwards. In Flattop, however, they were perfectly straight, with the tips taking an abrupt 90 degree turn. His antlers were heavier than most of the bulls we saw, especially further up the beam. This gave him a unique, intimidating look that seemed to serve him well as none of the other area bulls dared engage him in combat.

Flattop bugles to rally his cows to him and communicate in no uncertain terms to Broken Dagger and the other bulls of the area that he reigns supreme.

There is a softer side to the rut, which we observed on multiple occasions. Flattop had his hands full running off satellite bulls and keeping his harem close. But between his charging and bugling, he took time to tend his cows. A bull will often lick a cow as a means of announcing his intention to mount her, however we watched as Flattop would slowly approach bedded cows and lick and even nudge his face against them. Most of the cows seemed receptive of this, and many responded in like kind. I believe this served as a kind of bond reinforcement within the harem. Perhaps Flattop knew, in some way, that showing his gentler side could lead to more loyalty among the cows, and in turn they would be less likely to risk leaving him to join another harem of a bull that may not be so kind.

Flattop shares a tender moment with one of the cows in his harem.

I was grateful with the time I was able to spend with Flattop. He showed us what it takes to be a successful herd bull, and each time we saw him he had a harem of at least a dozen cows. I am confident that he will be successful this rut, and hopefully for many ruts to come.

Romeo

Romeo looking proud and confident

Judging the age of a bull in the field can be tricky. If I had to guess, however, I would say that Romeo was a young bull. He was long, lean, and lithe – not stocky like Flattop. He also seemed to have an endless supply of energy, and constantly tested Flattop, attempting to overthrow the king and gain control of his harem. Though he was brave, for all his bravado, he never locked horns with the other bull, and Flattop succeeded at driving him away after each attempt.

Among the satellite bulls, however, Romeo was clearly top dog. He ran several other lesser competitors off, and then proudly bugled to celebrate his victory. In my eyes, he had all the makings of a future champion.

Romeo squares off with another Kawuneeche Valley bull. The opposing bull quickly backed down without engaging in combat.

At one point it appeared that Romeo had gained the favor of one of the area cows. We watched one evening as the two enjoyed one another’s company for almost an hour. Perhaps the cow was nearing estrus, and Romeo could sense it. They even seemed affectionate.

But things all changed in an instant, as Flattop suddenly raced across the valley. Frightened by his approach, the cow moved away, and Flattop quickly cut between her and Romeo. He then dropped his antlers toward Romeo as a threat and a warning. Romeo replied in like kind, but quickly admitted defeat. Flattop then ran the cow back to his harem, leaving Romeo alone in the cold rain. Bested and shamed, but not broken, Romeo then let out a mournful bugle as if assuring Flattop that things were far from over.

I hope I will meet Romeo again some day. I look forwarding to seeing the bull he will become, and like to imagine that one day he will give Flattop a run for his money for the ruler of the upper Kawuneeche Valley.

Romeo bugles in the rain

Obsidian

Obsidian advancing through the timber

A wapiti bull in rut is a dangerous thing. It is always intimidating being close to such a powerful, majestic creature. When they begin to go crazy with a testosterone fueled rage it becomes downright scary. None of the elk we encounter made me as uneasy as a beautiful bull that I named Obsidian.

Obsidian looked every part the stereotypical regal stag – the kind that one sees in movies and paintings meant to illustrate their majesty and elegance. Though we saw other bulls that were larger and sported more impressive racks, Obsidian stood out as the most visually striking. He was named for his black mane, with fur longer and more defined than most bulls. This contrasted starkly with the rest of his pelage, which was much lighter. His antlers were dark, high, and tipped with ivory.

Though his good looks were certainly memorable, it was the intimidating air about him that left a lasting impression. We were alone when Caro spotted Obsidian, which is unusual for this time of year. When we got out, I could hear coyotes yipping nearby. Though even a pack of coyotes would stand no chance against a bull in his prime like Obsidian, their presence made the black-necked bull uneasy. As I focused on him, he looked to me and communicated with his gaze and body posture in no uncertain terms that he wanted me gone. I thought better than to challenge him and quickly made my way to the relative safety of my truck, and Obsidian took off running across the valley, frightening off a cow moose and her calf in the process.

We moved across the valley in the general direction that Obsidian was moving, and found a good place to pull in and wait. After a while he arrived with half a dozen cows. He moved into a stand of beetle-killed timber, where he spent the next half hour or so foraging. Bulls in the rut devote little time to feeding, however for the moment there were no other bulls in the area, and his infrequent bugles went unanswered. Eventually he moved close enough for me to capture some images. Though I never got a clean shot of him in the open, I liked the chaos created by the tangle of limbs from downed trees. To me, it reflected his seemingly unpredictable nature.

The intimidating gaze of Obsidian

Elk of the Moraines and Sun Forest

After camping three nights at 9,000 feet at the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, we crossed over Trail Ridge Road and descended to the east side of the park. Here at around 7,500 feet the days and nights were much warmer. It rains less here, and dense forests of Engelmann Spruce, subalpine fir and lodgepole pine are replaced by open savannas dominated by ponderosa pine and massive scars formed by glacial deposition known as moraines.

The dynamics of the elk rut is different here too. Hundreds of wapiti gather in these moraines, and an abundance of large, mature bulls results in a constant cycle of harem upheaval and reclamation. Instead of one bull holding the harem, it seemed that here several bulls, each controlling their own harem, converge. The result of this was spectacular, with frequent conflicts, and a cast of characters, each with a fascinating story to tell.

Scrapper

Scrapper keeps a watchful eye out for threats to his harem

We saw many elk with missing antler tines. Scrapper had lost some portion of four, a testament to his proclivity for battle. It was still relatively early in the rut, but this warrior had already seen many battles, and it was apparent that he knew how to fight. We saw him near the Beaver Meadows entrance station, and was moving his harem through widely spaced ponderosa pines.

Scrapper had the largest harem of any of the bulls that we encountered. We saw at least 18 cows with him, and he ensured that they stayed together. He wasn’t huge, but clearly he knew how to fight. I hoped that his winning streak would continue, but during the rut, things can change in the blink of an eye.

The King

The King bugles to reaffirm his place as ruler of his territory

The undisputed ruler of his domain, the King had the largest antlers of any bull we saw, by far. I didn’t see him until the very end of our last day of the park, when the light was fading and the night soon to come. After I spotted him he became the focus of my lens for the remainder of the evening.

The King bugles as he passes between two dead shrubs as if exiting his castle’s gate to do battle.

When I saw the King, he was away from most of the action, in a small thicket with a cow and a calf. At first I was surprised that he was not out pushing all the other bulls around and gathering a massive harem. But perhaps there was a strategy behind this. As a bull who has clearly survived and dominated many ruts in years’ past, he likely knew that it was still a bit early for most cows to be in estrus. He would also be intimately familiar with just how taxing the rut could be on a bull.

I also suspected that the cow he was tending was coming into estrus. He routinely tested the air with his tongue and approached her, as if sensing she may be ready. For the time being, however, she spurned his advances. Still, he was patient.

The posture displayed here, with his head upright and tongue slightly protruding, indicates the King’s intention to test a cow to determine her readiness to mate.

I didn’t realize just how popular a bull the King was, though I’m not surprised. I later found his image posted all over the internet. Some images were from 2016, and he looked much the same as he does now. He was an old bull that has likely dominated the rut for the better part of a decade. It was hard to imagine another bull that could match him, however sometimes an unlikely contender emerges that threatens to change everything.

The King in profile

Siete

Siete where we first saw him near the top of a hill next to a huge moraine.

Siete, named for the seven tines on his right antler, was my favorite of the bulls we encountered. He did not have the largest antlers on the field, nor was he the most aggressive. It was, however, evident that he was a very confident bull and commanded respect from the other bulls that he encountered.

If I had to guess, I would say that Siete was the largest bull that we saw, in terms of body mass. His neck and shoulders were particularly massive, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to think that would translate to incredible strength. While it has been demonstrated that larger antlers are more intimidating to other bulls and more attractive to cows, it is brute strength that wins actual battles. For this reason, if there was another bull in the Moraine could challenge the King, I believe it would be Siete.

Siete showing off his massive frame.

There are two reasons why Siete stands out as my favorite bull of the park. The first has to do with a special encounter we had one morning. Carolina and I arrived early to look for elk activity. We first saw Siete bugling high on a ridge with a single cow in his presence. There were other bulls nearby, but he paid them little mind, and was instead focused on his cow. I later theorize that she was just coming into estrus, but was not yet ready to mate. Siete bugled several times, and later both he and the cow vanished out of view. Caro and I moved further into the valley and found it empty of elk. On our return, Siete and the cow suddenly emerged from behind the crest of a small knoll, heading directly toward us. Suddenly we found ourselves away from the crowds, alone, with a massive bull elk barreling down. We took refuge behind rocks and I knelt down. In that moment the dense cloud cover that had persisted through the morning began to break up every so slightly, and filter sunlight bathed Siete as he let out a tremendous bugle that nearly forced me to bring my hands to my ears.

Siete bugling on the heels of a cow

Then we witnessed something truly amazing. A bull elk in rut seems a bully. A creature bent on violence and dominance, looking to conquer rival bulls and cows alike. And while it is true that he may be harsh when chasing and corralling his harem, when it comes to mating, a mature, experienced bull is gentle and patient. In fact, it is often said that the mating system of the wapiti revolves around female choice. When a bull thinks of mounting one of the cows of his harem, he announces his intention by changing his posture. He approaches her a certain way and tests the air for her pheromones’. He then begins to copiously lick her, communicating that he intents to mount. If the cow is not ready, she will react by moving away and lowering her head while opening her mouth. An inexperienced, impatient bull may attempt to mount anyway, causing a great deal of stress to the cow who will continue trying to escape him. An experienced bull, however, will break off his pursuit immediately, and quickly let out a bugle. It is believed that the bugle in this scenario is meant as a signal to the cow that he has received her message and understands. The cow, in turn, will associate this sound with a patient bull that will not harass her. I believe that is what I captured here, as we watched this cow give that signal and Siete quickly halted his pursuit and let out a short bugle. The pair then disappeared deeper into the valley and the timber beyond.

Siete communicates to a cow that he received her message and respects her wishes, so to speak.

The second reason that Siete was my favorite bull has to do with information gleaned after our trip. I have been periodically looking through images on social media to see if I could find some of these bulls, and to learn more of their stories. A couple of weeks after we returned I noticed an image of a bull that had lost approximately 90% of his left antler, leaving only a single brow tine and a few inches of cracked beam. His right antler was at least half gone. I noticed a small projection at the base of the brow tine and realized that I was looking at Siete. The shapes of the other remaining tines matched up. At first I was sad that this happened to the bull that I shared a special encounter with, but then I started reading through the commentary, and finding more images and reading more into the story. The accounts indicated that in spite of this wound, Siete had not given up in the rut, and had in fact managed to acquire and retain a large harem. One post even stated that he successfully fought off three large bulls that tried to move in and steal his cows. Siete was a warrior. And a good one at that. I did catch a glimpse of this on our last night in the park, when I saw Siete square off with Hothead. The battle lasted all of 10 seconds before Hothead beat a very hasty retreat, Siete hot on his heels.

Though I’ll never know for certain what happened to Siete, I don’t think I’m taking too many liberties in piecing his story together. I imagine that Siete found himself in close proximity to another large bull, likely the King. Whether Siete wandered too close to the King’s ladies or the other way around is impossible to know and largely irrelevant. Whatever happened, the situation was elevated to combat, and the sound that their antlers made as they crashed together must have echoed across the valley. The combatants then would have pushed against one another with all they had, trying to cause the other to lose balance and penetrate their opponents defenses with one of their sharpened tines. Their weapons would have been entwined, and with his immense strength, Siete may have been gaining the upper hand when he wrenched his massive neck with all his might in an attempt to bring the King down. The King’s antlers, however, were much larger and stronger, and in the fray they held strong while Siete’s snapped all the way through. The fight was lost, and Siete would have had to beat a hasty retreat or risk incurring a fatal injury.

Antlers are made of bone, and a break that close to the base of the antlers must have been painful. There is no time to recover during the rut, however. Everything is on the line, and if Siete hoped to pass on his genes to the next generation, he couldn’t give up. So he would have set about reforming his harem, bugling into the cold, wild air. Over time he had drawn enough cows to him to catch the attention of other bulls. Without his headgear, he would not appear intimidating to rival bulls and was likely challenged often. But those bulls who approached him expecting an easy fight were soon to realize they had made a grave mistake, when this incredibly powerful pull managed to catch their attack with what remained of his antlers and with determination, will, and immense strength banished them from his domain. I wish I could have seen this in person, but was really glad I was able to piece together his story through the accounts of others. I hope that I will see Siete again one day, and that his progeny spread throughout the park and beyond, carrying with them the genes of this wapiti warrior.

Stubhorn

Stubhorn frightens a calf with his intimidating bugle.

An old bull missing part of his left dagger, Stubhorn had succeeded in holding a small harem. We watched as he tested his cows and ran off a number of satellite bulls that had pushed their luck a bit too far. For most of the evening he stayed close to his harem, bugling to reaffirm his position.

Stubhorn tests the cows in his harem to see if they are ready to mate.

At some point in the evening, however, his bugle must have invited an unwelcomed challenger who had apparently claimed Stubhorn’s harem as his own. Later we saw the veteran bull alone, wandering a ridge in the direction of the King. The King would not have this, and quickly broke away from his cow and her calf, and made his way toward Stubhorn, screaming a bugle with bloodlust in his eyes. Stubhorn thought better of escalating the situation, and quickly retreated. The rut was far from over, however, and I imagine that the old bull was plotting his revenge. Harems would change loyalties many times throughout the autumn, and both losses and victories are often short lived.

Stubhorn crosses a ridge, heading into the King’s domain.

Hothead

Hothead holds his head high as he bugles, displaying his prowess to intimidate wood be combatants.

When a wapiti bull reaches a certain age, he will likely begin to “regress”. A regressed bull will display antlers that are smaller than they were in their prime. This is not to say that a regressed bull is weak however. He is still a very dangerous, formidable opponent to younger bulls and carries the benefit of experience.

I believed that Hothead may have been an example of a bull that has regressed. He looked a battle-hardened veteran of the rut, and was essentially fearless. He was the most aggressive of the bulls we saw, and was very quick to scold a wandering cow or challenge a rival bull that came too close.

Hothead showing off his impressive headgear.

Hothead was also prone to fight. I watched him lock horns, albeit briefly, with both Siete and Scarface. Though he lost both battles, it did little to lower his spirits, and he went right back to pursuing cows and preparing to take on any newfound threat.

Like many of the bulls we encountered, Hothead was missing one of his tines. His left brow tine, to be specific, had been broken off. The configuration of his antlers was of particular interest. He bore five tines on his right antler and seven on his left. Perhaps this asymmetry was another sign of his regression. Hopefully Hothead has a few more ruts in him, where he may continue to keep the younger bulls on their toes.

Hothead chases after a cow that has wandered too far from the rest of the harem.

Scarface

Scarface sends a warning to other bulls and photographers alike.

Observing and photographing the elk rut gifted me with a wealth of exciting experiences. The most exhilirating, however, came courtesy of a bull that I named Scarface for a small cut over his left eye. I met Scarface during our final evening in the Park. I found a nice slope at the edge of a broad morainal valley. The Big Thompson River, little more than a trickle here just downstream of its headwaters, separated me from most of the action. I’ve read that dominant bull elk like to use streams like this as natural boundaries to help herd their harems. To my left was an old ponderosa pine with a dense gooseberry bush at its base. These obstructions essentially blocked much of my view to the left.

As I was focusing on Hothead and his harem across the river, I heard a sudden commotion to my left. Suddenly, a group of wapiti cows emerged about ten yards in front of me, their approach blocked by ponderosa, gooseberry, and my position on the slope. Hot on their heels was Scarface. After bursting into view, he quickly turned around, looked to me, and bugled at point blank range – a sound so forceful that it was almost bone jarring.

A bugle at close range is enough to jar one’s bones, literally and figuratively

In all fairness, it was unclear if he was communicating his displeasure with having me at such close range, or if he was simply changing his position project his voice in different directions, ensuring that more potential competitors and mates would hear him. If he was telling me to back-off, the message was received. There was no confusing who was in charge of the situation. I quickly scrambled to get up from the gravelly slope, scraping my knee in the process, and retreated to a safe distance.

Scarface surveys the valley

After bugling again, Scarface returned to herding his harem, and dropped into the stream for a drink and a soak. At some point, Hothead approached from the bank, which was several feet higher than the channel bottom where Scarface stood. The challenging bull lowered his head as if to threaten, and Scarface answered his challenge by surging forward and slamming his antlers against Hothead’s, sending a literal echo rippling across the valley. It can be hard to understand the force that these warriors exert, but the sound that clash of antlers made left no doubt as to the sheer power of a wapiti bull.

Sometimes it’s best to find something to hid behind when a wapiti bull approaches

It was evident that Scarface’s show of force convinced Hothead that this opponent was not to be trifled with, and he beat a hasty retreat. Scarface continued his soak before returning to his harem and ushering them along. I watched them as long as I could, until they vanished behind one of the many rocky ridges of the moraine.

Scarface raises his head, proudly displaying his prowess

There were plenty of other wapiti seen during our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park. The park remains one of the very best places to observe free-ranging elk today, however this was not always the case. By the turn of the twentieth century, elk had been extirpated from the region. When the park was established in 1915, the iconic elk was essentially absent. Only a few individuals likely inhabited the park, resulting from a reintroduction effort a year prior. Following their reintroduction, elk numbers grew quickly, and today they are abundant throughout much of Colorado – a true conservation success story. Today they are so abundant, in fact, that they are having detrimental effects on some of the park’s plant communities.

Still, Rocky Mountain and other National Parks are some of our planet’s best places to observe wildlife. Absence of hunting pressure, and habituation to human presence allows us to observe them and their behaviors much in the same way that early explorers did. They are a tiny piece of a natural splendor that was forever lost with westward expansion. It is of great comfort to me knowing that in the autumn, when the leaves begin to change, and the air grows cold, the wapiti’s bugle will continue to sound throughout these timbers and valleys long after I’m gone.

Rare Plants of Silveus’ Dropseed Prairies

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Castilleja coccinea, Packera tomentosa, and the leaves of Rudbeckia maxima near the top of a mima mound in a Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie.

In the far northeastern corner of the Lonestar State, near where the Post Oak Savannah, Pineywoods, and Blackland Prairie converge, a special type of prairie can be found.  These tallgrass prairie remnants are found nowhere else in the world, and are home to a unique cast of prairie plants.  Many of their plants are at the periphery of their range here, and are found nowhere else in Texas.  Others are globally imperiled.

Silveus’ Dropseed Prairies, as they’re known, are named for a dominant grass species – Sporobolus silveanus, which occurs sporadically in the West Gulf Coastal Plain, where it is endemic.  However, it is more than the presence of this special grass that make these prairies unique.  The defining characteristic of the Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie is the presence of a wide range of microhabitats formed by tiny variations in topography.  Tiny “mima” mounds rise just a few feet above the surrounding landscape and may 5-50 feet in diameter.

Mima mounds contain vegetation that is stratified in unique zones.  The tops generally contain a thin layer of coarse soils and are domed in shape.  This results in high rates of percolation and runoff, and the mima mound peaks are therefore slightly drier than their surroundings.  Water quickly slows down as it moves overland and through the soil column as it meets finer soil particles, creating moist conditions along mima mound slopes.  In winter and spring, when rainfall is plentiful and many plants are dormant, water often seeps from the base of the mounds during the winter and spring.  Between the mounds shallow seasonally wet or saturated depressions occur, and may contain a variety of sedges, rushes, and carnivorous plants like bladderworts and sundews.  Below are a few images of high quality “virgin” Silveus Dropseed Prairies from Bowie County that have never been plowed.

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Coreopsis and Mimosa bloom in Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie in early May.  A mima mound can be seen rising slightly in the background.

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Delphinium carolinianum and Rhus copallinum from the top of a mima mound.  Woody species such as R. copallinum quickly become established at the peaks of mima mounds, and in the absence of regular disturbance can rapidly encroach into the surrounding prairie.

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Marshallia caespitosa blooms alongside developing Liatris pycnostachya plants.

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Distribution of Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie in northeast Texas.  This map is from Jason Singhurst and Matt White’s chapter in Southeastern Grasslands: Biodiversity, Ecology, and Management.

In late March and early April the prairie starts showing signs of life, following months of vegetative dormancy.  A few species may begin to bloom among the brown remain of last season’s grasses as early as late January or early February, however the real show doesn’t begin until after the vernal equinox.  It is in this time that one of the rarest wildflowers in Texas reveals itself, unfurling scarlet red bracts and yellow flowers among the rapidly greening prairie grasses.  Though fairly widespread in the eastern United States, in Texas the scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea) is only known from a handful of Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie remnants in Bowie County, and its presence here was only recently formally documented.

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Scarlet paintbrush in a Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie in Bowie County.

At first glance, it would be easy to mistake scarlet paintbrush for the Texas paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa), which is widespread and common in the state.  The lobed bracts and deeply lobed leaves of C. coccinea most readily differentiate it from C. indivisa.  C. coccinea also possesses basal leaves that persist through anthesis (flowering), while the basal leaves of C. indivisa either absent, or whither prior to anthesis.

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Scarlet paintbrush showing its distinctly lobed bracts.

Castilleja coccinea is the only paintbrush species present in the vast majority of the eastern U.S.  It occurs primarily in prairies, barrens, glades, and open woods.  It is hemiparasitic, meaning that it obtains some portion of its energy and nutrients from the roots of other plants.

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Scarlet paintbrush with the basal leaves of Rudbeckia maxima in the background.

The pale coneflower (Echinacea pallida) is another example of a species that is relatively widespread but rare in Texas.  Here it occurs in a few Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie remnants and meadows in the eastern Cross Timbers north of Dallas.  There are several species of Echinacea in Texas, and identification can be difficult.  E. pallida stands out, however, as it’s pollen is white.  The white pollen can be seen below on the anthers of the disk flowers.

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Echinacea pallida

The range of the Topeka purple coneflower (Echinacea atrorubens) is much more restricted than that of E. pallida.  E. atrorubens is primarily restricted to a narrow band of tallgrass prairie from eastern Kansas south to eastern and central Texas, where it occurs in scattered populations.  E. atrorubens can be identified by its short, bright pink ray flowers.

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Echinacea atrorubens

Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) is a species of the eastern United States that also reaches the southwest extent of its range in extreme northeastern Texas, where it’s rare, confined primarily to Silveus’ Dropseed Prairies and a few other prairie remnants of similar composition.  Wild quinine  has a long history of use as a medicinal plant by native cultures and early settlers to eastern North America. It was used to treat a wide variety of ailments, from burns and sore muscles to dysentery. More recently, it was used during World War I as a substitute for cinchona bark in the anti-malarial drug quinine.

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Parthenium integrifolium in a high quality Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie remnant in Bowie County.

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Parthenium integrifolium has interesting flowers.  From a distance they don’t look like much, but viewed close they are really quite unique and showy in their own right.

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Parthenium integrifolium in a high quality Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie remnant in Bowie County, Texas.

I saved the “best” for last.  Not best in terms of the quality or importance of the plant, but because it is the species that I was most excited to find and photograph this spring during a few sojourns to northeast Texas. The ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera) is an orchid of the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada. It inhabits a variety of habitats across its range, including open woodlands, moist prairies, fens, and herbaceous seeps. In the extensive research that they conducted for “Wild Orchids of Texas”, Joe and Ann Orto Liggio located a single record of P. lacera for Texas, made by Donovan and Helen Correll in an “open woodland” in Bowie County. At the time their book was published, there were no other documented occurrences in the state. It has since been discovered in a high quality Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie remnant in northeast Texas. After hours of searching, I practically jumped for joy when I finally located one in a microtopographical swale within the prairie, growing alongside the basal flowers of Rudbeckia maxima, spent blooms of Calopogon oklahomensis, Sporobolus silveanus, and a variety of sedges.

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Platanthera lacera in a high quality Silveus’ Dropseed Prairie remnant in Lamar County, Texas.

I spent a very long time photographing this orchid, as to my knowledge there are only a handful of individuals that have seen it blooming in Texas.  I tried to capture it from every angle, and in a variety of lighting situations.  Of course, after I had spent two hours one evening and another two hours the next morning before finally locating one, when I returned with Caro to show her, she spotted another in a completely different area on the prairie within minutes of arriving.

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Backlit Platanthera lacera. The prairie can be seen reflected upside down in the largest water droplet.

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Platanthera lacera laden with early morning dew.

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Platanthera lacera with slight side-lighting from a sun softened by a thin veil of clouds.

Silveus’ Dropseed Prairies harbor many other rare plants not mentioned here, including the only record of Penstemon oklahomensis for Texas, swales full of the globally imperiled Schoenolirion wrightii, and the most robust Calopogon oklahomensis populations in the state.  The presence of such rare, diverse plant communities and the rapid destruction and degradation of prairie remnants throughout Texas and the rest of the country highlight the need to protect what little remains of this vulnerable community.  Fortunately, dedicated conservation professionals have been hard at work, and The Native Prairies Association of Texas and The Nature Conservancy in Texas have succeeded in protecting several important remnants of these special prairies.  Please click on the names of these organizations above to find out how you can help protect the prairie that is so important for biodiversity, environmental services, and the natural heritage of Texas.

Among the Reeds, Muck, and Mire

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Ghost of the Saltmarsh – the Clapper Rail

It stank – the mud into which I sank to my knees emitted a lovely odor akin to a fridge full of rotten eggs.  The sun had barely risen early that June morning, and the heat and humidity in that marsh near Sabine Pass in Jefferson County, Texas were already oppressive.  The deerflies too, were wide awake and busily seeking out any patch of skin left exposed to the elements.  Sure, it sounds miserable, but these irritants and inconveniences are just one small part of the story.

I stopped moving a moment to catch my breath.  The marsh is as flat as a pancake, but traversing it is grueling work.  Stepping up and over mud and densely tangled grasses and sedges takes its toll.  The break afforded me the opportunity to really take in my surroundings.  Seaside dragonlets, no longer startled by my movements, landed all around me, coming to rest atop swaying blades of grass swaying in the breeze.  My ears honed in to the distance buzzy songs of Seaside Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Boat-tailed Grackles.  And then I was haunted by the ghost of the marsh.  The loud, unsettling cacophony of “keks” and “grunts” from a pair of Clapper Rails rang out within just a few feet of me.  But try as I might, I was unable to catch even a fleeting glimpse of these highly secretive marsh dwellers.


 

I understand that the saltmarsh isn’t for everyone.  It is a harsh, unforgiving, seemingly inhospitable landscape.  But for those who brave her less appealing attributes will find a wonderful world filled with beauty, biodiversity, and a host of plant and animal species that are found nowhere else on earth.  In Texas, these special places are restricted to a narrow band of tidally influenced wetlands along the coast.  They are declining and under threat from sea level rise, coastal development, and a suite of other pressures.  This is their story.

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Low Marsh along the Upper Texas Coast at Sunset

I have long had an affinity for the saltmarsh.  It is a love affair that began some 15 years ago, when my mom developed a passion for birdwatching and we began visiting sites like Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the upper Texas coast.  After finishing my undergrad I was lucky enough to land a seasonal job conducting bird surveys at Anahuac.  My transects included several areas of expansive saltmarsh deep in the heart of the refuge, in an area rarely accessed by visitors.  One particularly fond memory that sticks out from my time on the refuge is a long trek deep into a Spartina patens high marsh one evening just before dusk.  The refuge biologist invited me along on the annual Whimbrel count, when we tallied thousands of the curve-billed shorebirds as they flew over the marsh from foraging sites in tidal pools and mudflats to some unknown roosting site.  Trudging through the marsh we accidentally flushed a Mottled Duck from her nest, and discussed saltmarsh snakes, diamondback terrapins, and other species that find refuge here among the fetid mud and salty air.

After I finished my Master’s, I had another opportunity to spend a few months in the marsh.  This time in the diverse marshes that filtered the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia.  While there I helped conduct extensive surveys for secretive marsh birds like Seaside Sparrows, Saltmarsh Sparrows, Clapper Rails, and the mythical Black Rail.  The work involved setting out before 4 A.M. and trudging miles through marsh that was like Swiss cheese, with hidden holes that swallow one whole.  It was absolutely miserable, and I look back on my time there with great fondness.

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A Seaside Sparrow in an exposed flat that will flood with the incoming tide.

The coastal marshes of the Texas and the Chesapeake Bay are at the same time similar and different.  They share many of the characteristic plant species like Spartina alterniflora, Spartina patens, Distichlis spicata, Juncus roemerianus, and Iva frutescens.  Even many of the bird species were the same.  Seaside Sparrows (Ammospiza maritima) and Clapper Rails (Rallus crepitans) are present in both, though the subspecies (if such a thing exists) are different.  Other species like the Saltmarsh Sparrow are absent in Texas, and the Diamondback Terrapin, while present in both areas, is much more numerous and readily observed along the Chesapeake Bay on the Delmarva Peninsula.  There were days when I would see hundreds basking and swimming through various bays an inlets, their heads barely peaking above the water’s surface.  In Texas, terrapins remain generally uncommon and highly localized.


 

Back in the marsh in Jefferson County, I heard a Seaside Sparrow singing close.  These remarkable birds are found only in these tidally influenced marshes directly adjacent to the coast.  They range from the southern tip of Texas to Cape Cod and southern New England.  Some eight subspecies are recognized, with one, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow (Ammospiza maritima nigrescens) having become extinct and a number of others that are of conservation concern.  The birds of the upper Texas coast belong to the subspecies (A. m. fisheri), which differs from other subspecies by possessing a combination of buffy coloration on the breast and dark streaking on the back.

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A Seaside Sparrow among the saltgrass on a flat exposed at low tide.

Seaside Sparrows are year round residents in this marsh.  They’re easiest to see in the spring and early summer, when they occasionally poke their heads above the grass in to sing a song of mate acquisition and territory defense.  Mated pairs build their nest in tidal marsh with dense grasses just a few inches above the high tide line, a strategy that helps protect them from predators.  The parents feed the developing chicks a variety of insects and other inveterate prey.

I watched one morning as a pair foraged in a barren sand flat exposed during low tide.  They gleaned flies, grasshoppers, and caterpillars from halophytic (salt-loving) saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) and saltwort (Salicornia bigelovii).  I soon realized that this was a bird as comfortable on the ground as in the air, as I watched them mouse about the sand in a manner more mammalian than avian.  Once they had collected a mouthful of juicy insects, they would fly back into the marsh to feed their growing progeny.  I contemplated trying to find the nest, but feared that by plodding through the dense grass I might destroy it.  I returned to the same spot the following morning, hoping I might spot my friends again, but found the area completely flooded by the incoming tide.

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A Seaside Sparrow peers through the tangle of reeds and rushes that it calls home.

When the June sun gets high in the sky, the Seaside Sparrows and other marsh denizens tend to lay low.  I could hardly blame them, and Caro and I took a page from their book and went to lounge on the beach in Sea Rim State Park.  We had both been feeling the need to get away, and planned a way to do so while remaining socially distant and minimizing our risk of exposure to the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic of 2019-2020.  At Sea Rim we had an entire stretch of beach entirely to ourselves.  As we relaxed in the rolling surf we watched as Least Terns, Royal Terns, and Brown Pelicans fished just offshore.

As the sun drops lower to the horizon, the marsh begins to come to life again.  We returned to the grass jungle, and I found a stretch of marsh that seemed to have a different Seaside Sparrow singing every 100 feet or so.  It was the densest population I had ever observed.  It made me smile, knowing that this fascinating songbird has found a refuge here

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A Seaside Sparrow clings to sedge leaves deep in the marsh

The sparrows literally emerged from the grass as I sat still, watching seaside dragonlets come in to rest at the apices of the marsh grasses.  Seaside dragonlets are tiny dragonflies that are endemic to the saltmarshes of the eastern U.S.  They are one of only a handful of dragonfly species whose aquatic nymphs can survive in saltwater.  I wondered of a sparrow may be quick enough to capture one of these dragonlets, but they seemed preoccupied with much easier prey, like the tiny snails hunkered low in the grass.

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A Seaside Sparrow in a classic pose among the marsh vegetation

As most marsh vegetation is herbaceous and not particularly sturdy, the Seaside Sparrow needs to be creative in how they move about.  I witnessed incredible acrobatic feats as the sparrows hopped among the grass, from blade to blade, and performed the splits numerous times as they sought to stabilize themselves in the breeze.  To me, it seemed such a hard place to live.  But to the Seaside Sparrow it was home, and life was good.

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A Seaside Sparrow demonstrates the acrobat skills necessary to live among the dense and varied vegetation of the marsh

The saltmarsh is generally divided into two sections – low marsh and high marsh.  The low marsh is that area that is flooded daily by the tides.  It is generally only completely exposed during the lowest of tides, and occurs directly adjacent to bays, inlets, and the saline and brackish creeks feed them.  Low marsh is dominated by taller halophytic vegetation, most notably smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora).  As the elevation gradually rises moving inland, the community transitions to high marsh.  High marsh is dominated by species like seameadow cordgrass (Spartina patens) and is inundated infrequently, usually only by the highest of tides.

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The tide rolls in, flooding distant cordgrass low marsh

Some species show a marked preference for one type of marsh over the other.  Clapper Rails (Rallus crepitans), however, may be encountered in both communities, retreating from the incoming tide, and chasing the receding tide in search of crabs and other prey items.  People are often surprised when I tell them that the Clapper Rail is one of my all time favorite birds.  To most they seem drab, awkward, and uninteresting.  Admittedly, part of my fascination for this species is nostalgic, having spent time studying them in the marsh.  But they are also fascinating, enigmatic creatures.  They are at the same time secretive, but not shy, often willing to approach very closely under the cover of marsh grass.  I have also watched them hunt for crabs within mere feet of where I stood watching.

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A Clapper Rail forages in a shallow tidal pool

The marsh explorer will often here, but seldom see the Clapper Rail.  They are highly vocal, communicating internally within family groups, and externally to potential rivals through a series of “keks”, “grunts”, and even “hoots”.  Nicknamed the “ghost of the marsh”, these rails seem to haunt the deep grass with their eerie cacophony, and will often call in the blackness of night.  Spend enough time in the saltmarsh, however, and you will eventually catch a glimpse of one of these cryptic denizens as they dart across a tidal pool or scurry into a mudflat in hot pursuit of a fiddler crab.

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A Clapper Rail provides a rare glimpse in the open, in a small clearing in its otherwise dense saltmarsh home.

There is an interesting relationship between Clapper Rails and King Rails, a very similar closely related species.  The differences between the two are subtle, with King Rails generally having a richer chestnut color on the back and breast and more prominent barring on the flanks, and Clapper Rails having a gray wash to the cheeks.  Individuals seen in the saltmarsh tend to be pure Clapper Rails, while individuals just a few miles inland in the freshwater Marsh tend to be pure King Rails.  There is a broad contact zone, however, in areas where an influx of freshwater dilutes the highly saline sea water forming the brackish marsh.  The rails here, often referred to as “Cling Rails”, are purported to be hybrids, and tend to exhibit characteristics intermediate between the species.

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A Clapper Rail peers from the marsh

Like Seaside Sparrows, Clapper Rails build their nests just above the high tide line.  They are seasonally monogamous, and males and females work together to construct the nest, incubate the eggs, and raise the young.  The young are precocial, meaning they are capable of leaving the nest very quickly after hatching.  Family groups will stay together for some time as the chicks grow and learn to fend for themselves.  I most often see three or four chicks to a group, but in good years with abundant resources they may be capable of raising more.  In leaner years, however, the parents may kill or alienate a part of their brood in order to better provide for the remainder.  I will never forget witnessing this one year, when birding with my parents and a friend we saw a rail pair viciously pecking one of their chicks.  In spite of this, the poor chick kept trying to follow them until finally it was too injured or disheartened to do so, and it was left on its own to die.  This seems so cruel and harsh to us, but in reality it is behavioral adaptation that has evolved in order to ensure that the entire clutch doesn’t die from starvation in a scenario where the parent would be unable to care for them all.

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A Clapper Rail stalks the saltmarsh

As it was for the Seaside Sparrow, the marsh in Jefferson County was literally packed with Clapper Rails, in a density higher than I can recall encountering anywhere prior.  Many don’t realize that Clapper Rails, and other rail species, are actually game birds, and they are legal to hunt.  It was apparently once a popular pursuit in parts of the East Coast, however today interest seems to have waned.  I imagine it is an endeavor seldom pursued due to the difficulty in seeing a rail, let alone getting it to flush to a point that a shot could be made.  Their preference is to run from danger, under deep cover of grass, rather than fly.

Watching a family of Clapper Rails at close range, I came to a realization.  From a human’s vantage point, the marsh seems some exposed environment.  There is little relief from the blazing sun.  However when we see it from the point of view of the animals that live there, it is actually a mysterious world full of shadows that may as well be a forest to them.  Perhaps this is what prompted naturalist William S. Burt to title his book on rails “Shadowbirds”.

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A Clapper Rail calls from the shadows cast by cordgrass.  This haunting sound can often be heard echoing from points unseen, as if it is haunting the marsh

There is much more to the saltmarsh than our feathered friends.  I hoped to capture an image of a diamondback terrapin or saltmarsh snake, however it was not meant to be during my time around Sabine Pass.  The wildflowers, however, proved to be much more obliging subjects.  Mosquito infested saline marshes may not be the first place one would go looking for showy blooms, however there are a number of species endemic to these communities, with others showing a definite preference.

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Borrichia, Distichlis, and Carex in a coastal saltmarsh

Perhaps the most prominent is the sea oxeye daisy (Borrichia frutescens).  This member of the sunflower family (Asteracea) flowers throughout most of the spring and summer.  It ranges along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, and is capable of surviving regular inundation by saltwater.  Like many salt-adapted species it has thick, succulent like leaves.

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Sea Oxeye Daisy

Saltmarsh false foxglove (Agalinis maritima) was also in bloom.  Another salt-loving plants, their distribution is limited to coastal marshes from northeastern Canada into Mexico.  The plants seem dainty, however they are capable of withstanding the nearly constant sea breeze.  The blooms open in the morning and typically close by the early afternoon.

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

Some species, like the seaside gentian (Eustoma exaltatum) are not confined to saltmarsh habitats, but are fully capable of surviving the harsh conditions of the marsh, including highly saline soil, regular influx of tidal waters and extreme temperatures.  The taxonomy of Eustoma is confusing and controversial.  Some consider the species that occurs along the coast to be the same as those occurring further inland in blacklands and other prairie remnants.  Those prairie plants display a markedly different morphology and habitat preference.  The coastal specimens are quite similar, however, to plants in areas with similarly harsh edaphic conditions in parts of West Texas.

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Seaside Gentian

The biologist in me likes to keep up with constantly changing taxonomy of plant and animal species, in part so I can remain relevant in my field.  To the naturalist in me, however, prefers not to get bogged down in the semantics of these taxonomical revisions, and instead focus on the beauty, function, and relevance of the organism in its landscape.

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Seaside Gentian

I have a certain affinity to species endemic to a given community.  There are, however, many other species that are capable of surviving in a variety of habitats.  This highlights the concept of specialists, like the Seaside Sparrow and Clapper Rail, to generalists, like the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus fortificatus).  These handsome flycatchers inhabit a variety of open habitats including marshes, prairie remnants, savannas, fallow fields, forest edges, and areas that were recently cleared or otherwise disturbed.  Generally they choose areas that have some scattered small trees or shrubs nearby, which they select for nest placement.

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Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers leave an impression on those who are fortunate enough to observe them.  Those impressive tail feathers may serve an important function in mate acquisition.  Research on birds with similarly long tails indicates that females are attracted to the males with the longest, gaudiest tails.  As one can imagine, that lengthy caudal plumage can be an encumbrance, and can make a bird more susceptible to predation.  Therefore, males who are able to survive despite this impediment are communicating to females that they are superior quality, and they possess the best genetic material to pass on to the next generation.

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Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Different species exhibit a gradient of habitat tolerance.  Some, like the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) are specialists in a broader sense, showing a preference for wetlands with ample emergent vegetation, but generalists in the sense that they are capable of inhabiting a variety of different wetland types dominated by a variety of different plant species, and are dispersed across a wide range of landscapes.  Perhaps a good term for species that exhibit this type of habitat preference would be “specialist generalist”.

The song of the Red-winged Blackbird is perhaps one of the most familiar sounds of the marsh.  It is at the same time obnoxious and beautiful.  While singing, the males puff out their chests, bow up their wings, and flash those brilliant red and yellow epaulets.

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A male Red-winged Blackbird attempts to impress the fairer sex.

The Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis), too, is a creature of the marsh.  Though they range as far north as the Great Lakes, and are most commonly associated with fresh water marshes, along the coast they can be found in brackish marshes and even low saltmarsh.  The males are identifiable by their forest green crowns and backs.  Seen at close range, they seem so colorful, but when perched among the grasses of the marsh, they become essentially invisible.  

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Least Bittern

This narrative has barely scratched the surface of the biodiversity of the saltmarsh.  It is my hope that my words and images help the reader connect with these special places.  High quality saltmarshes are being lost at an alarming rate.  They are under serious threat from pressures like coastal development and sea level rise.  We must act soon if we are to save these special places, and the diverse plants and animals that call them home.

For my parting shot, I chose this image below of a beautiful Seaside Sparrow among the saltgrass.  Though their overall color scheme is one of browns and greys, there are subtle hints of colors, from the bright yellow of the lore and marginal coverts to the orange mustache.  These good looks combined with their fascinating life history make them one of our great state’s most unique, interesting songbirds.

To the marsh, to the rails and the sparrows, and to the fiddler crabs and the terrapins, I say “farewell, for now.”  But I know it won’t be long before the saltmarsh calls to me again, beckoning me to lose myself among the reeds, muck, and mire.

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Seaside Sparrow

 

 

What Lies Beneath

Target Species: Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

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I’m a little embarrassed that it has taken me all the way into May to check off the first species of 2020 from my list of biodiversity goals, but it was a good one – an ancient leviathan dwelling in the depths of a murky stream meandering through a mature hardwood forest – the old loggerhead – the alligator snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

This story begins in January, with a meeting at my Alma Mater – Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA) in Nacogdoches, Texas.  I met with Dr. Chris Schalk, a herpetologist and ecologist with the Arthur Temple School of Forestry, the department where I obtained my undergrad.  We discussed ways that we may collaborate on topics like road ecology and reducing impacts to wildlife from transportation projects.  I immediately liked Chris, and found him a like-minded individual in many respects.

In the following months we touched base from time to time, and in one of our conversations he mentioned the research being carried out by one of his graduate students, David Rosenbaum.  Chris recounted the start of their field season, during which they captured numerous large alligator snapping turtles.  And much to my delight, he invited me to join them on a future outing.

It may not be surprising to the followers of my blog, but this sort of thing is right up my alley.  One of my most memorable jobs was when I worked a summer as a field tech on an American alligator research project.  Capturing these ancient reptiles was equal parts thrilling, interesting, and rewarding.  The idea to relive that in some small part was an opportunity too good to pass up.

So in late May I met up with David, and field techs Laura and John Michael.  Also along for the day was my good friend and frequent adventure companion, James Childress.  After some brief (socially distant) introductions, we were on our way to the first study site, a tributary to the Angelina River deep in a remote hardwood bottom.

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A creek containing several study sites for David’s research.

Blooming American elderberry lined the banks here, and  the boughs of ancient River Birches and American elms reached out over the water.  From high in the canopy the buzzy trill of a Northern Parula rang out.  A suite of other songbirds also made their presence known, including a Prothonotary Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Summer Tanager, and Acadian Flycatcher.  In the distance we could hear the cackle of a Pileated Woodpecker and the croak of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  It was immediately clear that this site was rich in biodiversity on land and air.  We would soon realized it was equally diverse beneath the water’s surface.

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A Northern Parula sings from a branch overhanging the creek.

For the first year of their study, David and Chris are replicating a survey performed twenty years ago.  When I added the alligator snapping turtle to my list of biodiversity targets, I knew that I would have to think outside the box if I had any hope of photographing one.  This is not a species that one can expect to find by conventional means.  They spend virtually their entire lives at the bottom of streams, rivers, lakes, and deep swamps.  They can stay submerged for nearly an hour, and the only time they can be expected to seen on land are when the females leave the water to lay their eggs, and the rare occasion when an individual disperses to a new water body.  In short, I knew if I wanted to see one, it would have to be trapped.

Fortunately, that was exactly what David, Laura, and John Michael were doing.  They use special partially submerged traps that allow for the turtles to be captured alive and unharmed, and check the traps daily once they’ve been deployed.  I was joining them for the third day of trapping effort at this particular site, which had several traps spaced out along this meandering forest stream.  The first day trapping here they caught six individuals, however the previous day they had caught none, so no one really knew what to expect.

The first trap we checked was empty, save a decent diversity of riverine fishes.  The second did have a turtle.  It was an interesting species, but not the one we were looking for.  Razorback musk turtles occupy similar habitats to alligator snapping turtles, and have been the subject of previous studies by SFA.  I didn’t photograph our first turtle of the day, but was certainly happy to see it.

Soon after the three researchers sank into the chest deep water at the third site, I heard David call out, “We’ve got something big in this one!”  It was a special thing, seeing him reach into the depths and pull out this massive, prehistoric-looking beast.  In that moment I thought of the fascinating ecology of these streams.  Beneath the water exists a diverse world that is unknown and unseen by most.

They pulled the massive turtle to the shore so that they may collect a variety of data, including morphological measurements, images, and blood and tissue samples.  It was determined to be an old female weighing in at nearly forty pounds.  We knew she was old, based on her smooth carapace.  When young, they have three raised ridges with scutes that form triangular peaks.  After years and years of wandering under woody debris lodged in the stream bottom, the shell gradually wears down until, in very old individuals it becomes essentially smooth.

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We knew she was old, but we had no idea how old.  Large turtles can live a very long time.  When collecting those previously mentioned data, David and his team noted that the turtle had a distinctive notch in her shell.  It turned out that she had been captured during the original survey, 20 years ago.  We aren’t sure how large she was at that time, but that information should be available, and I’m very interested to find out!

David’s study will be looking at a variety of aspects related to the ecology of alligator snapping turtles in eastern Texas.  One aspect of his research is very similar to my own master’s thesis – using presence/absence data to determine important variables that can predict for the species’ occurrence.  I really enjoyed chatting with David about his project, and it brought me back to a time when this sort of thing played a much larger role in my life.

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The research being carried out by David and Chris is important.  Alligator snapping turtles populations have declined dramatically, and they are now uncommon or rare throughout much of their range.  Factors influencing this decline include a loss of high quality habitat and over-harvest for its meat, which has long been considered a delicacy.  As a result, they are now protected in many states where they occur, including Texas.  This protected status has not stopped illegal poaching, however, and many animals are still taken this way, or caught on trotlines set callously in their habitat.  Once hooked on these lines, the turtles suffer a slow, agonizing death.

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When initially captured or threatened, the loggerhead generally opens its mouth wide, and will snap at anything that approaches too close to its head.  Believe me when I say, this is a very effective intimidation tactic.  Those jaws slammed shut with bone-crushing force.  Those powerful jaws play a very important role in capturing prey in their murky aquatic habitats.  Alligator snapping turtles have lingual lures – specially adapted tongues shaped like worms that the turtles wriggle about while waiting motionless with their jaws wide open.  When some unsuspecting fish moves into to capture this false worm, the snapper’s mouth slams shut with blinding speed and crushing force.

As impressive as this gaping threat display was, I was really happy to capture images of the gator turtle with her mouth closed, in a more natural looking pose.  We spent a few minutes photographing and admiring this incredible animal.  We then set her near the stream’s edge, and walked as she slowly made her way back into the water and disappeared into the deep.

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Spending time with this modern-day dinosaur was an incredible experience, and I was very grateful for the opportunity to get to know David, Laura, and John Michael and learn more about the important work they’re doing.  It made me nostalgic for my days as a field biologist, but fortunately my current position does provide opportunities to be involved in research, specifically aimed at conservation of wildlife and plant communities related to transportation activities.  I hope to join David and crew again in the field at some point, and very much look forward to what they learn about the ecology and natural history of this keystone species.