The Land of Enchantment Part One: Flora and Fauna of the High Plains

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Pronghorn Buck

When westward expansion was gripping the nation during the 19th century, the American frontier was not defined by the towering mountains and rugged desert that exemplify the term today, but rather endless expanses of prairie inhabited by millions of American bison, pronghorn, elk, wolves, and grizzly bears.  As countless wagons wore ruts into the prairie’s earth, black-tailed prairie dogs kept a watchful eye for badgers and black-footed ferrets, and a chorus of thriving grassland songbird populations filled the air.

Today, the prairie is a very different place, however standing in an un-plowed stretch of prairie in Union County, New Mexico that reached from horizon to horizon, I could imagine what it may have been like.  I was overwhelmed in a land that seemed so initially sparse.  But here, the diversity is in the details.  A diversity of nondescript grasses and small wildflowers, pollinators, and cryptic prairie denizens.

It had been years since I explored the natural wonders of the aptly named Land of Enchantment.  New Mexico is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, and contains a wide array of habitat from alpine tundra to low desert.  Our ultimate destination in the state was the sagebrush laden foothills around Taos and the high peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  Our journey would first take us through some of the finest expanses of shortgrass prairie in the country.

In the prairie around the base of Capulin Volcano, we found large groups of blooming Silvery Lupine (Lupinus argenteus).  This species also occurs in Texas, but is rare and confined to a few sites in the Panhandle near the border.  These New Mexican prairies, however, were loaded with them.

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Silvery Lupine

There are apparently some 11 varieties of Lupinus argenteus in New Mexico, which can make their identification a bit tricky.  We found at least two varieties growing in close proximity.

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Silvery Lupine

We also found Nebraska Lupine (Lupinus plattensis) blooming here, but its flowers were far past prime.  This species has been recorded in the Texas Panhandle as well, but like the Silvery Lupine, is very scarce.

Growing among the lupines were several other wildflowers, including several Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrushes (Castilleja integra).  I have always been fond of this genus of hemiparasites.

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Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush

James’s Penstemon (Penstemon jamesii) was also common in this area.  This lovely plant is named for Edwin James.  James was one of the first anglo naturalists to explore the American West.  I strongly recommend reading more on this fascinating and influential figure who discovered, collected, and described many western species.

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James’s Penstemon

Near Capulin we found a single Spinystar (Escobaria vivipara) in bloom.  Further west, and at a higher elevation in Colfax County, however, we found several.  I was thrilled to find this tiny prairie cactus, which would have been essentially invisible if not for the bright pink blooms.

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Escobaria vivipara

Growing at 8,000 feet I spotted a sea of blush swaying among the greens and grays of broad meadow.  It was Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum).  This iconic prairie plant is named for its puffy achenes which resemble billowing smoke of a distant fire.  These can be seen developing in the background of the photo below.  Geum triflorum was long used by native cultures as a medicinal plant, and is purported to help a variety of ailments.

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Prairie Smoke

Years ago, during my family’s annual trek west, I always looked forward to spotting Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) in the vast plains of eastern New Mexico.  This year we saw more than I ever remember seeing back then.  It was no doubt due in part to Carolina’s eagle eyes, however I like to think that the species is continuing its nearly century long rebound from near extinction in the early 1900s.

When Europeans first visited the West, there were an estimated 35 million pronghorn roaming the plains.  By the turn of the 20th century, it is estimated there were barely 10,000 left.  That’s a population decline of over 99.999%.  Like the American Bison, the open country that the pronghorn called home made them easy targets for hunters.  Fortunately, in the 1920’s conservation efforts began to protect both the species and its habitat, and today some estimates put the population at nearly a million.

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Pronghorn Buck

The pronghorn is a species that is at the same time, beautiful, bizarre, graceful, and gangly.  They are supremely adapted for life on the prairie, and for speed and endurance.  Adaptations like enlarged lungs, windpipes, and hearts, interlocking grooves in their joints that allow for a unilateral line of travel, and an enhanced circulatory system make them the fastest sustained runners on the planet.

Despite commonly being referred to as antelope, pronghorn are note closely related to true antelope, which are restricted to the Old World.  They are the only surviving member of the family Antilocapridae, which evolved in North America during the Miocene.  They’re extreme speed and endurance is believed to have evolved as a defense against the extinct American cheetah, which would have been a major predator of their habitats.  Today there are no predators that can come close to matching an adult pronghorn’s speed or endurance in open country.  Enlarged eyes with a field of vision of nearly 320 degrees that can spot a potential threat two miles away ensure that a potential predator would rarely get the chance to test this theory.  I can’t help but think that old pronghorn bucks know this, as they rarely seem concerned with my presence, even in areas where they would seldom encounter humans.  When I drop low to the ground, however, their tone changes as can be seen in the intense stare of the huge buck pictured below.

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Pronghorn Buck

I could have easily spent a few days photographing pronghorn for as long as the light would allow.  We saw bachelor groups, solitary dominant bucks, and does with fawns.  This iconic species is as good a poster child for the prairie as any, and I can’t wait to be in the speedgoat’s presence once more.

The prairie saved one of her best surprises for last.  After spending a few days in the vicinity of Taos, we made the return trip through the high plains toward home.  While driving a remote stretch of prairie road I heard Caro call out “FOX!”  I glanced in my rear view in time to see a pair of tawny, house cat sized creatures.  Turning round, we were able to fix our gaze on a pair of Swift Foxes (Vulpes velox) lounging near their burrows.  We watched them for some time, and I captured a few documentation photos.  I had hoped to approach a bit closer for higher quality images, but they were quick to retreat to their burrows.  We waited for some time, but the wind was not with us and we soon concluded it was a futile attempt.  We left content in having captured a glimpse of this elusive prairie denizen.

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Swift Fox

My parting shot for this blog entry is an image of a double rainbow taken after we passed through a late afternoon thunderstorm.  The cool air, smell of wet grass and earth, sound of distant thunder, and broad view of the prairie perfectly sum up the magic I felt here, at the western edge of the Great Plains.

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Double Rainbow

A Bucket List Beetle

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Bumelia Borer

It seems like I’m always writing about something that “I’ve wanted to see since I was a kid”. That’s because, presumably like most of my lifelong naturalist friends, I spent much of my childhood pouring over field guides and natural history books, and dreaming of one day finding the beautiful and fascinating organisms contained within.  In that respect, my bucket list grew very, very long.

Readers of this blog have also likely noticed that I love beetles. My passion for these armored insects began in earnest in 7th grade, when my first life sciences teacher, Mrs. Powell, tasked us with putting together an insect collection. I already had a strong passion for nature and science thanks to my parents, but Mrs. Powell’s assignment opened up the exciting world of insect hunting and collecting to me. I have continued to collect on and off throughout the years, though today I very rarely take specimens, preferring to record encounters with my camera.

After 7th grade, we moved from Chicago to Texas, and it opened up a whole new world of entomological wonders to me. I bought field guides on Texas insects, and immediately started marking the species I wanted to see. With the help of my parents, I targeted some of these. I remember one trip in particular, when my mom took my brother, a friend, and I on a trip toward College Station to find my first Ironclad Beetle, which I did, along with my first Wheel Bug, IO Moth, and a Striped Bark Scorpion.

Over the years my passion for insects waxed and waned, as it competed with other budding interests like birds and plants. Yet I always kept a soft spot for beetles.

One species that I immediately noticed in my Texas Field Guides was the Bumelia Borer (Plinthocoelium suaveolens), a spectacular long-horned beetle that is, in my opinion, a serious contender for the most beautiful beetle in the country.  Though this species would likely be relatively easy to find due to its host specificity and propensity to visit bait traps, I had never made the effort. I had found bits of elytral and exoskeletal remains on a few occasions in central Texas, but had yet to see a live individual.

This all changed last weekend, when I visited the Nature Conservancy’s Nash Prairie Preserve. Here I found an absolute bounty of pollinators visiting the sea of blooming Rattlesnake Master in this exceptionally high quality coastal prairie remnant. I photographed Trigonopeltastes delta, a beautiful flower scarab, and watched Carolina Mantis nymphs as they sat in ambush on the Rattlesnake Master’s flower heads.

Then I saw a massive flying insect, which appeared iridescent bluish black with an orange abdomen, and I initially took to be some manner of spider wasp. When it landed, however, I instantly recognized it as the species I have so long wanted to see.

I followed this spectacular beetle around the prairie for over an hour. It was uninterested in my presence, and allowed for a very close approach as it moved from flower to flower feeding. This species comes in a variety of color morphs, and I was lucky to see one with elements of turquoise and cobalt blue. For me, it’s beauty ranks right up there with the spectacular jewel beetles of the genus Chrysina found in West Texas.

Observing this beetle was one of those magical experiences that happened when I least expected it, and it was made all the more special by the incredible setting of the Nash Prairie – a testament to the importance of this place and the conservation work of the Nature Conservancy and other organizations like it.

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Bumelia Borer

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Bumelia Borer

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Bumelia Borer

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Carolina Mantis Nymph

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Trigonopeltastes delta

The Land of the Endless Sky

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Rolling Prairie in Hartley County near the Canadian River Breaks.

Texas is primarily a prairie state.  From the tallgrass prairies of the Gulf Coast to the Blackland Prairies and Cross Timbers and Prairies; and from the semi-arid grasslands of the Trans-Pecos to the Llano Estacado and the shortgrass prairies of the Panhandle Plains, the Lonestar State is largely defined by these graminoid-dominated communities.  Despite all of this, our native prairies are all but gone, victims of a relentless onslaught of change.  Much of our prairie was outright destroyed, converted to agricultural crops or development.  Others suffered from the removal of important disturbance elements like fire and the most iconic prairie denizen of them all, The American Bison.  At the same time these important components of prairie maintenance vanished, new, exotic species were introduced, forever changing the composition of the land.

Fortunately, there is still some good prairie left, for those who know where to look.  I have been lucky enough to see high quality virgin coastal prairies, some of the finest Blackland Prairie in the state, and the wildflower laden meadows of the Grand Prairie in spring.  Yet despite all of this, I had not spent time in the mid and shortgrass prairies of the panhandle since 2008, when I worked on a project researching Snowy Plovers in the playas and salt lakes around Lubbock.  This year I sought to change that, and Carolina and I spent a few days here on our big summer roadtrip.

Our first stop was the far northeastern corner of the Panhandle, where we went looking for milkweeds in Hemphill and Lipscomb Counties.  After a long drive from our Pineywoods home, we finally arrived to find the Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in full bloom.  This species is common around our home, but it was a different experience altogether seeing them growing in large clumps among the prairie grasses.

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Butterfly Weed in a midgrass prairie of the eastern Panhandle.

The Butterfly Weed was certainly exciting to see, but I had my heart set on a real Panhandle specialty – the Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa).  It is a wide ranging species, occurring from the Great Plains west.  It barely enters Texas, where it can be found at a few sites in the Panhandle.  We were fortunate enough to find it growing among a variety of grasses and sedges in the narrow floodplain of a small stream feeding the Canadian River.

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Showy Milkweeds blooming along a small stream in the Canadian River drainage.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying this may be our most beautiful milkweed.  The plants may reach a meter or more in height and are adorned by huge clusters of bright pink flowers with elongated hoods.  They are very fragrant, and we observed a wide variety of pollinators seeking nourishment from their blooms.

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Asclepias speciosa flower detail

After spending time among the milkweeds, we trekked west across the Panhandle.  We chose to take the lesser-traveled county roads and were rewarded with scenes of blooming wildflowers and rugged topography.

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CoreopsisGaillardia, and Monarda bloom in a Panhandle prairie.

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Carolina Larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) against a background of dried prairie grass.

While traversing the rugged Canadian River breaks, we spotted the unmistakable form of an Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata) in the road.  It’s hard to find a reptile with more personality than a good box turtle, and Carolina affectionately named this one “Manuelita”.  In my experience, there are two types of box turtles, those that seal themselves in with their hinged plastrons, and those that make a break for it. Manuelita was definitely the second type, and as soon as we put her on the ground she took off like a bullet, or at least a turtle’s version of a bullet.  I would not have been able to capture a singe photo of her if it were not for Carolina, who was able to read her body language, and gently calm her down enough that she would sit still for a brief time.  After a brief photo session, we watched as she vanished into the prairie, moving quickly away from the road.

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Ornate Box Turtle

From there we made our way to the Rita Blanca National Grasslands near the borders with Oklahoma and New Mexico. Our first evening camping here brought with it rapidly darkening skies of a blue norther that foreshadowed the violent storm to come. The wind hit first, creating turbulent waves in the sea of prairie grass. When the rain and lightning arrived, we retreated to the tent and huddled in our sleeping bags. The temperature dropped into the lower fifties, and through the rain fly of the tent we could see champagne pink flashes illuminating the darkness, and hear, or rather feel, the bone jarring thunder that followed. The wind was so strong that the tent walls flexed and the ceiling dropped several feet. I wondered if it would hold up, but when the storm passed the old sturdy ‘gal who had seen us through many adventures remained standing.

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Blue Norther approaching the Rita Blanca Grasslands

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Blue Norther approaching the Rita Blanca Grasslands

As the rain calmed to a gentle drizzle we decided to take to the roads to see if we might turn up some amphibians en route to their breeding wetlands. It turned out to be a productive evening, and we found several Bufo cognatus, Bufo woodhousii, and Spea bombifrons. I only photographed a single B. cognatus that appeared to be heavily gravid. It is amazing that organisms that rely so heavily on water can be so abundant in a place where it seems so scarce.

It was a humbling experience to be at the mercy of such a force of nature so powerful and destructive as that blue norther, and to see the vital role it played in ensuring the survival of so many species.

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Great Plains Toad (Bufo cognatus)

The next morning I had ambitions of rising early and photographing the sun rising over the prairie. When my alarm went off at some painful hour, however, I woke to the sound of gentle raindrops bouncing off the tent’s rain fly. It was the perfect sound for sleeping, so I drifted back asleep and woke again some hours later.

We went out into the damp morning to see if the rains may have spurred some animal movement. After a few miles, Caro spotted a nice Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) buck on a yucca-laden hillside. It looked at us for a moment, and took off running to the crest of the hill. A pronghorn in motion is a beautiful thing. Their movements are so fluid-like and effortless. There is nothing on this continent’s land that can match their speed, and their aloof attitude makes one think that they know it.

We moved forward along a curve in the road to try to get a closer look at the buck where the ridge intersected our path. There he stopped for a moment to mark his territory and again took to running. It became evident that he was stopping every hundred yards or so and scent marking. Caro postulated that perhaps he was concerned that the rains had washed his scent from his territory.

We watched him cross the road and find a small gap in the fence. From there he disappeared over the distant horizon. In all we probably spent 10 minutes or more watching him, and I managed an image of him mid-gallop.

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Pronghorn Buck

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Pronghorn Buck

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Pronghorn Buck Running

The wildflowers were looking rejuvenated after the rain.  In fact, the cool, wet spring and the region had experienced resulted in a verdant paradise of grasses and forbs.  I delighted in photographing a single Prairie Snowball (Abronia fragrans) plant.  The specific epithet fragrans is appropriate, as the flowers emit a wonderful aroma into the early morning air.  Like many species of Abronia, it is often pollinated by nocturnal moths, and the flowers open in the evening and generally close by mid-morning.

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Prairie Snowball

The Plains Penstemon (Penstemon ambiguus) was at peak bloom, decorating the prairie with patches of pink and white.

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Plains Penstemon

We also found a few late flowering patches of White Penstemon (Penstemon albidus).  Some had a slight hint of purple to the blooms.

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White Penstemon

With such an abundance of wildflowers, the pollinators were out in force as well.  The most striking were the striped-sweat bees (Agapostemon sp.) that were feeding on the abundant thistles.

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Striped-Sweat Bee

The Rita Blanca National Grassland is a haven for grassland birds. Many of the species that occur here are declining at an alarming rate as the prairie habitat they depend on vanishes or changes to a degree that it can no longer support them.

We drove slowly with the windows down so that we may hear them. Western Meadowlarks, Cassin’s Sparrows, and Horned Larks sang from the fence posts. We saw Burrowing Owls taking advantage of the numerous Black-tailed Prairie Dog towns scattered throughout the plains. We watched Greater Roadrunners dart along the primitive grassland roads as we listened to the distant whistling of Northern Bobwhites.  Small, isolated woodlots provided a haven for birds like Bullock’s Orioles, Western Kingbirds, and Red-headed Woodpeckers. 

At one point we were dive-bombed by aggressive Long-billed Curlew’s, a sure sign that they had a nest nearby. In Texas, these remarkable shorebirds only nest in the extreme northwest corner of the panhandle, which is close to the southern extent of their breeding range. Their nest was on the opposite side of a fence that we didn’t cross. Though the land was still public, I didn’t want to risk damaging the superbly camouflaged eggs which are laid in little more than a depression in the dried grass.

I photographed at Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus) as it foraged in the short grass, and was fortunate enough to photograph an iconic prairie bird, the Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), as it sang its hissing song from atop the fading blooms of a yucca. The birds alone would be worth the trip, but they were only one part in an incredible community of plants and animals that captivated my every moment in this special place.

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Lark Sparrow

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Grasshopper Sparrow

Among the numerous grassland birds is an elite killer, and a “respectable prairie raptor”, as my friend and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Matt Whitbeck would say: The Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsonii).  These open country specialists undertake one of the most impressive migrations of all raptors, breeding in western North America, as far north as Alaska, and wintering in Argentina.  During migration they may form large “kettles”, delighting bird watchers as they pass overhead en masse.  They take a variety of prey on their summer hunting grounds, including prairie dogs, ground squirrels, rabbits, and even Burrowing Owls.

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Swainson’s Hawk

As the rising sun warmed the prairie, we caught sight of a special creature scampering across an open patch of prairie soil.  It was a Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum), our state reptile, and one of the most famous icons of the Texas prairies.

Texas Horned Lizards have declined or disappeared throughout most of the state, however they continue to thrive in parts of the Panhandle and Trans Pecos. We saw several scurrying about in the late afternoon. These tiny dragons feed primarily on ants, and will often sit near a harvester ant mound picking off foragers as they move to and from the colony entrance.

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Texas Horned Lizard

Viewing a Texas Horned Lizard from above reveals its incredible and intricate patterns and textures.

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Texas Horned Lizard

It was a bittersweet feeling when our time at the Rita Blanca National Grassland came to an end.  It meant saying good bye to the prairies of the Panhandle, but it also meant we would be continuing our journey westward into the Land of Enchantment.  My time in the Panhandle Plains left me enamored with the landscapes and specialized flora and fauna of the area.  It is a long drive from the Pineywoods, but one I will gladly make again.  Until then, I will dream of incoming blue northers, running pronghorn, and the dawn chorus of grassland songbirds.

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Rock Outcrop in Potter County

 

 

The Terning of the Tide

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Courting Sandwich Terns

Nature is a magical thing.  The lives of plants and animals are filled with beauty, drama, failures and triumphs, terror, violence, and tenderness.  Capturing these candid interactions on camera is a dream for any nature photographer.  But it is no easy task.  Doing so requires that the subjects accept you into their world, and most species are reluctant to do so.  There are those special times, however, when patience and persistence pays off, and the determined photographer is rewarded with a rare glimpse of the intimate beauty of nature.

I had one such opportunity recently, when a business trip to Galveston corresponded with the tail end of migration along the Texas Coast.  By late May the majority of passage migrants have left the area and continued their northward journey.  Yet this is one of my favorite times to explore the beaches of Galveston Bay, as dozens of species of plovers, sandpipers, gulls, terns, and other Charadriiform birds gather here.  It is during this time that many species are courting and pairing up for the breeding season.

The courtship displays of terns, in particular, are beautiful, elegant things.  I rose before daybreak the day after my workshop, and set out for the the Bay, where I hoped to photograph some courting terns and the array of other species sharing the beach.

Despite my best efforts to avoid condensation, my lens was still hopelessly fogged when I arrived.  I dropped to my knees and worked on resolving this issue when I heard peeping sounds coming from all around me, and caught the blurred movement of small birds scurrying about.  They were Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonia), beach specialists that breed here. Kneeling appeared to have made my silhouette less threatening, and a number of the birds approached relatively closely.  After several minutes I was able to clear the condensation and dropped to my belly.  While I was in this position, the birds approached even closer, and I was able to capture an intimate portrait of a beautiful male.

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Male Wilson’s Plover

This particular location includes a large bird sanctuary where Wilson’s Plovers and Least Terns nest.  Many of the birds here have been banded and are subjects of long-term studies.  Individual birds may have a combination of colored bands that correspond to sex, age, and other pertinent data, as well as an aluminum band that identifies the individual.

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Banded Wilson’s Plover

I was thrilled for the opportunity to photograph some American Oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus).  These striking shorebirds have specially adapted bills that help them pry open bivalve shells.  I photographed one as it scoured the Sargassum wrack in search of a meal.

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American Oystercacher

An American Oystercatcher in its prime is a beautiful thing, with clean black, white, and brown lines, bright yellow eyes encircled by orange eye rings, and a long bill that grades from orange to pink to yellow at the tip.

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American Oystercatcher

The dunes adjacent to the Bay were rich in halophytic flora including the lovely Sand Rose Gentian (Sabatia arenicola), which began to open as the morning wore on and the beach warmed.  This species is generally uncommon, and under threat from beach recreation and development.

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Sand Rose Gentian

Before moving onto the main event of courting terns, I took a moment to photograph a Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger).  These wonderfully weird birds have a highly specialized method of foraging that involves flying low and “skimming” the water with their elongated lower jaw.  Once the jaw feels a potential prey item it snaps shut, bringing a meal with it.

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Black Skimmer

Looking down the beach, I could spot a large congregation of Sandwich Terns (Thalasseus sandvicensis) and Royal Terns (Thalasseus maximus).  I knew that many of these birds would be courting, so I devised a plan to approach without spooking them.  I entered the water, which was fortunately relatively calm, and dropped to my belly.  I inched forward for 150 yards or so by slowly dragging myself with my elbows while holding my heavy camera and lens above water.  It was surprisingly physically taxing, and my muscles were screaming by the time I found myself within range.  I rolled over a few times and came to rest in a prime position for capturing the action.  The birds were wary of me at first, but came accustomed to my presence after a half our or so and resumed their normal activities.  Several other birds joined the group, with some landing closer than my minimum focusing distance.

At some point a group of Black Terns (Chlidonias niger) landed within range.  These are spectacular, Gothic looking birds that are just passing through on their journey to breeding grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada.  I was happy to photograph them, despite the difficulties in properly exposing them.

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Black Tern

The Sandwich and Royal Terns were in large groups, so isolating any individual was tricky.  I was happy to capture the Sandwich Tern Below as it stood at the edge of the group, in shallow water that seemed to blend with the distant gray skies.

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Sandwich Tern

The complex courtship displays of Sandwich Terns are fascinating.  They usually begin with aerial displays performed by the males, who will then capture a fish and descend to deliver it to a female.  After the female has accepted, both sexes enter into an elegant, dance-like “strut”.

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Strutting Sandwich Tern

The couple prances down the beach side by side with crests raised.  To initiate mating, the female will move her tail to expose her cloaca, and the male will spread his wings in preparation to mount (see the first image in this blog).  The male then leaps upon her back and after he gains his balance, copulation occurs.

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Courting Sandwich Terns.

After finishing with the Sandwich Terns, I turned my attention to the Royal Terns, which were more numerous.  I captured the image below of an individual that was seemingly left out from the courtship activities.

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Royal Tern

The courting process for Royal Terns is similar to that of the Sandwich Tern.  They begin with aerial displays, followed by the male capturing a fish.

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Royal Tern

One a potential mate has been chosen, the male and female strut in circles around one another.

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Courting Royal Terns

They step in unison…

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Courting Royal Terns

And finally the male presents the fish to the female.

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Courting Royal Terns

One she has accepted, the female moves her tail to expose her cloaca and the male mounts her and the pair copulates.

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Royal Terns preparing to copulate

Sometimes things turn into a bit of a frenzy.  The fish in the image below lost its head when a number of females that were not preferred by the male tried to pilfer the fish from him.  Fortunately he was able to keep the majority of it to present to his intended mate.

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Courting Royal Terns

I find terns to be such elegant animals, and photographing their elaborate courtship allowed me a glimpse inside their complex life history.  And the terns were just the tip of the ice berg that morning!  There are few experiences I cherish more than spending a morning with my belly in the sand, my eye on the viewfinder, and my lens pointed at some feathered thing.  That morning life was good and the beach was beautiful.  Scenes like this, however, are disappearing at an alarming rate, as beach front habitat is rapidly vanishing to commercial and residential development, and the beaches that remain become more crowded with visitors and vehicles.  Coastal habitats, like so many other natural communities, need our help if we want future generations to experience a morning like mine.  Fortunately there are conservation groups actively working to protect this fragile ecosystem.  If these areas and experiences are important to you, please consider donating or volunteering to The Galveston Bay Foundation, Baykeepers, Audubon Texas, and other organizations like them.

Wintering Waterfowl in North-Central Texas

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A Hooded Merganser swims through water reflecting remnant fall color in Post Oaks lining a wetland in North-Central Texas.

“Why am I doing this?” I couldn’t help but ask myself as I lay flat on my side in the muck, piles of duck feces inches from my face.  I was cold and wet, and tired – so very tired.  We woke up at 3:30 that morning and were on the road by 4, just so that we could arrive at our destination at first light.  I had come all this way and endured all this suffering for the chance to take pictures of ducks.  To many, ducks are those familiar, pesky waterbirds that harass them during a day at the park or a picnic near a pond.  To me, however, they are a diverse, fascinating group of some of the most beautiful birds on the planet with incredible life histories full of harrowing journeys, dramatic performances and tales of incredible hardship.  Yes, the world of ducks extends beyond the familiar Mallard and its domesticated descendants.  In this blog I will explore a slice of the diversity of ducks that spend the winter in North-Central Texas.

In Texas, the northern portion of the Blackland Prairies and Cross Timbers serves as an important wintering ground for a variety of waterfowl.  Wetland complexes adjacent to the Red and Trinity Rivers provide excellent habitat within a matrix of woodlands and prairies.  It is also located near the boundary of the Central and Mississippi flyways.  These factors help make the region a haven to ducks and geese that have traveled from as far as the Arctic Circle.

So this winter, I took three trips to the region in hopes of observing and photographing some of these beautiful birds.  I researched the region extensively, looking for promising locations.  We took our first trip on a grey, bitterly cold day in late December.  We would end up seeing many ducks at a few different locations, but the light was not with us.

Disappointing light aside, I did leave with a few image of one of my favorite ducks, and a species I had long wanted to photograph – the Canvasback (Aythya valiseneria).  With it’s long, broad black bill, characteristically sloping forehead, rusty head and bright white wings and flanks, the drake Canvasback is one of our most elegant ducks.  A black bib and tail help complete its dapper plumage.

There are four basic tribes of ducks: dabbling (Anatini), diving (Aythyini), sea (Mergini), and stiff-tailed (Oxyurini) ducks.  Canvasbacks are diving ducks.  Members of this tribe have legs set farther back on their bodies to aid in diving.  They feed by diving and foraging from the bottom of waterbodies.  Canvasbacks feed heavily on underwater tubers as well as snails, mollusks, and other aquatic invertebrates.  Most Canvasbacks winter in and around the Chesapeake Bay, and are generally uncommon elsewhere along the coast and inland.

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Drake Canvasback

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Drake Canvasback

On our next trip in early January, Caro and I were up and out hours before the sun came up.  My main target for this trip was the Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), my favorite duck and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful birds in the country.  We arrived at our first location, a forested pond in the Cross Timbers, for the day just as the sun was cresting the horizon.  Sure enough, there we spotted a pair of mergansers along the distant shoreline.

I made my way to the water’s edge and lied in wait.  Unfortunately, the drake never warmed up to my presence, and stayed well away.  The image below is the only time he ever raised his crest, and after just a few minutes he took off and never returned.

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Drake Hooded Merganser

The hen remained, however, and eventually she and the other ducks in the pond became accustomed to my presence.  She swam in close and provided several nice looks at her understated plumage.

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Hen Hooded Merganser

As I was admiring the merganser, a group of American Wigeon (Anas americana) flew in.  I had recently photographed these stunning ducks near Austin on Christmas Day.  Not one to pass up a good photo op, I captured the drake below mid-preen, as he showed off his wing coverts, scapulars, tertials, and just a hint of that iridescent speculum.

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Drake American Wigeon

The sky was cloudless that day, and soon the sun was too high and the light too harsh for photography.  So we grabbed lunch and traveled east, to a series of prairie ponds.  Here we found a variety of ducks, including both of our Scaup species.

Scaups can be tricky to differentiate, but there are a few good characteristics to look for.  Despite bearing the descriptors “Lesser” and “Greater”, size is generally not a reliable method to differentiate species, unless they are seen together.

In general, the Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) is smaller, however it is more readily identified by head shape and plumage detail.  Lessers generally have a more raised forehead, often having a crest-like appearance with the point near the back of the head.  The barring on Lesser Scaup’s feathers also extend all the way down its flanks.  Other, less reliable characteristics for identification include the iridescent sheen on the head, which is generally purple in Lesser Scaups, and the black at the tip of the bill, which is generally less extensive in Lessers.

Lesser Scaups are a common winter resident on waterbodies throughout the Lonestar State.  I photographed the drake below as it swam through waters reflecting the brilliant blue skies, with the muted browns of prairie grass in the background.

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Lesser Scaup

Much less common a winter visitor is the Greater Scaup (Aythya marila).  In Texas, they can be found sporadically along the coast in winter.  Inland, they are only observed with any regularity in a small area in north-central and northeast Texas.  They have journeyed here from the far north, where they breed in small ponds on the tundra and in the boreal forest.

True to their name, they are larger than Lesser Scaup, though this is only a useful diagnostic when both species are observed together.  They are more reliably differentiated by their more rounded heads, pure white flanks, broader bill with more prominent black marking at the tip, and greenish sheen to the feathers on their heads.

After spending some time among the scaups, and fruitlessly stalking a Bufflehead pair, we returned home, tired but satisfied from a long day in the field.

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Greater Scaup

An alternate name for this blog post could have been “My Quest for a Hooded Merganser”.  Since I was a child I have been enamored with this peculiar yet spectacular sea duck.  They lack the brilliant colors and iridescence of other species, but their bold black, white, and chestnut patterns along with that remarkable crest that is raised during courtship rituals sets them ahead of the pack.  It also doesn’t hurt that they are one of just a few duck species to breed in forested wetlands and nest in tree cavities.

I don’t see Hooded Mergansers very often, and most sightings consist of them rapidly disappearing on the wing after having spotted me at a great distance.  Though I had captured a few images on my previous visit, I wasn’t successful in getting the image I wanted – a drake with his crest raise, displaying the full glory of his breeding plumage.  So despite already having made the 6-hour round trip just twice in as many weeks, I rose again before 4 AM, and hit the road to the Cross Timbers.  This time I was joined by my good friend and photo buddy James Childress.

We arrived before first light, to a shallow pond nestled within a Post Oak – Cedar Elm woodland.  We donned our camo and settled in, laying flat in the mud at the water’s edge.  It wasn’t long before the ducks started coming in.  And sure enough, we spotted a lone drake Hooded Merganser.  Unfortunately he was sitting at rest, eyes barely open and crest laid flat.  Much to our disappointment, he would spent most of the morning in this state.

But he was not alone.  And there were plenty of other gorgeous ducks to occupy our time.  One of the most striking was the Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata).  A few drakes passed by fairly closely in waters reflecting the browns of dried leaves and greens of evergreen vines lining the shore.

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Northern Shoveler

I also took this opportunity to photograph a species I had long avoided, the ever present Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos).  It’s not a lack of beauty that kept me from photographing them, as they are undeniably striking birds.  Instead, it was the prevalence of domestic ducks, descendants of Mallards bred in captivity that have since escaped, or been released, and are now naturalized throughout much of the country.  I simply have no interest in photographing feral domestic descendants, and many are virtually indistinguishable from the wild type.  There are still plenty of wild Mallards in the country, however, though there are concerns that the gene pool is being diluted by these free ranging domestics.  The birds we saw that day seemed to fit into the wild phenotype, and I was fairly confident and hopeful that the animals I photographed were from wild, naturally migrating populations, but there is really no way to be sure.

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Mallards

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Mallards

The real star of the morning however, was the American Wigeon.  Some of the beautiful drakes passed close providing us with a variety of settings in which to photograph them, each better than the last.  Wigeons are known for their bully-like behavior, and despite being much smaller than the Mallards, they chased them out of the best feeding grounds.  In some cases they act like pirates, stealing hard-earned meals from diving ducks who, unlike the wigeons, are equipped to swim to the bottom of the pond to choose the most succulent, nutrient rich aquatic plants like Wild Celery (Vallisineria americana) We enjoyed their antics and the constantly whistle like call of the drakes.

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American Wigeon

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American Wigeon

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American Wigeon

The sun was getting high, pushing the envelope of what I consider good light and I was beginning to worry that I would again be heading home without a decent Hooded Merganser shot.  But just as we were starting to give up hope a second drake flew in.  This caught the attention of our first male, and both became active, diving in search of prey, and actively preening.  In the same moment a wispy veil of clouds crossed the sun, creating one of my favorite qualities of light.  I captured them in some truly bizarre, yet interesting poses.

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Hooded Merganser

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Hooded Merganser

I captured one of the drakes as he yawned, showing of the narrow, serrated bill specially adapted for capturing fish, crustaceans, and small aquatic animals.  I was certainly capturing some memorable images, but I still had failed to capture a pose with the crest raised.  I missed out on two opportunities as my camera’s auto-focus failed to lock onto the subject.

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Hooded Merganser

And then it happened.  After a short preening session, one of the drakes raised its crest and began to really show of its spectacular plumage.  It continued to preen and raise up to flap its wings and dry off its feathers.  I was thrilled to check off a subject that has been on my photographic bucket list for years.

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Hooded Merganser

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Hooded Merganser

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Hooded Merganser

While one drake was putting on a show in the distance, the other passed by close, and I was able to capture the image below in still, flat water – perhaps my favorite of the trip.

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Hooded Merganser

“That’s why I’m doing this!” I thought to myself with a smile.  It’s easy to lose sight of the prize while suffering in the cold and wet, and while every muscle in your body is screaming from the awkward contorted position you’ve taken up to get the perfect angle on one of the ducks.  But all of the misery seems to fade away while these beautiful animals appear within range of the lens, and the suffering seems a small price to play for these images that we may enjoy and reflect on for a lifetime.  I dare say, that these moments of unpleasantness only serve to enhance the experience, and I don’t think I would be rid of them, even if I could.