Chasing the Monsoon

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Davis Mountains Sunrise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Giant Coralroot

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

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Giant Coralroot

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

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

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Giant Coralroot

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

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Desert Savior

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

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Patterns in Ponderosa

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

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Cliff Fendlerbush

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

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Bract Milkweed

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

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Orange Fameflower

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Orange Fameflower

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

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

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Blue Grosbeak

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

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White-winged Dove

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

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Devil’s Bouquet

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

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Plains Penstemon

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

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Vigilant Pronghorn

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

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

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Pronghorn Doe

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

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Pronghorn Buck

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

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

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Wood’s Jewel Scarab

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

Reflecting on Summer in the Pineywoods

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S-banded Tiger Beetle

With the arrival of our first “real” cold front of the season, and temperatures in the extended forecast barely creeping out of the 60s, I think it’s safe to say that fall has arrived.  The forests are full of fungi and fall-blooming asters.  And just the other day I found several Marbled Salamander, a true harbinger of fall.

But before I set out to bask in the beauty of Autumn, I find myself thinking back to a summer spent in the forests of my home.  This year’s was a particularly hot, dry summer.  After a few years of relatively mild summers, at least in terms of Texas, this one was intense.  Yet even in the midst of heat waves and drought there are natural treasures to be found by those willing to look.

I found one such treasure on a sweltering day in late June.  On the advice of my friend Joe Liggio, author of Wild Orchids of Texas, I went to check on a local population of Crest Coralroot Orchids (Hexalectris spicata).  This is a wide ranging species, occurring from Arizona to Florida to Virginia.  In Texas they occur in scattered populations throughout the state, with the most robust populations being in the White Rock Escarpment of north-central Texas, the Edward’s Plateau, and the mountains of the Trans Pecos.  In the Pineywoods they are only known from a few localized populations.  Here they are generally found singly, or in small, scattered clumps.  This year however, we found a huge clump of over 30 stems.

The Crested Coralroot is a non-photosynthesizing mycoheterotroph, meaning that it lacks chlorophyll and has no real leaves to speak of.  It lives out its days a little more than an underground rhizome and small roots that penetrate the mycorrhizal fungi of tree roots in order to rob them of a portion of their energy and nutrients.  All that alerts the average forest-goer to their presence is the flesh colored flowering stalk and purple-streaked flowers that emerge all to briefly in the early summer.

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Crested Coralroot

Emerging from forest floors rich in decomposing organic material in early June is the Ox Beetle (Strategus aloeus).  These massive coleopterans are among the largest insects in the United States.  The pronotums of males are decorated with three horns that are utilized in combat to win the favor of females.  These massive beetles are familiar visitors to porch and gas station lights on warm, humid, moonless summer nights.

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Male Ox Beetle

Another, much more occasional, visitor to night lights is the assassin bug known as Microtomus purcis.  So named for their tendency to ambush other insects and dispatch them with their long spear-like beak, assassin bugs come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.  Microtomus purcis is one of the largest, and most striking.  When not visiting man-made lights in errors, they spend much of their time hidden beneath the bark of rotting tree trunks.

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Microtomus purcis

We spent much of July away from the Pineywoods, visiting the sky islands of West Texas and the beaches of the Upper Texas Coast.  I could not resist, however, seeking out the brilliant orange Platanthera orchids that light up the bog like tiny torches.  There are four species in Texas, however this year I would only photograph two of them.  Interestingly, I would find them both on the same day.

In late July we traveled to the Big Thicket, where deep in a mosquito infested baygall I spotted the brilliant inflorescence of the Crested Fringed Orchid (Platanthera cristata).  This is perhaps the second rarest of our Platanthera species, only known from a few sites in the central and southern Pineywoods.  In Texas they seem to prefer the shaded, highly acidic conditions of forested seeps, occurring either on their margins or interiors.  I have also found them at acidic seeps along springfed streams.  They are generally in the company of a variety of ferns, and other forest seep specialists like Nodding Nixie (Apteria aphylla).  This seemed a good year for them.  I often wonder what triggers an orchid bloom, as some years none will bloom, other years only a handful, and that rare year where many will bloom.  Rainfall no doubt plays some important roll, but as to when the rain should fall to trigger the bloom and what other factors may contribute, I am at a loss.

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Crested Fringed Orchid

After leaving the baygall we traveled east to a wetland pine savannah where we found the enigmatic Chapman’s Fringed Orchid (Platanthera chapmanii).  P. chapmanii occurs in scattered populations in Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina.  It is believed by many to have arisen from an ancient hybrid of P. cristata and P. cilliaris, seeming to display characteristics of both.  It can be differentiated from the former by its long beard and reflexed lateral sepals.  It differs from the latter by its hooked columns.  In Texas P. chapmanii is known from a few remnant wetland pine savannahs in the Big Thicket.

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Chapman’s Fringed Orchid

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Chapman’s Fringed Orchid in a wetland pine savannah

Growing alongisde the Chapman’s Orchids were a variety of carnivorous plants, including the conspicuous Pale Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia alata).  The leaves of these carnivores, known as pitchers, are hollow and form long tubes with pools of digestive enzymes at their base.  Unsuspecting insects that enter the pitchers may become trapped in the enzyme soup, where they are slowly digested, nourishing the plants.

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Pitcher Plants in Love

In early August Caro and I found ourselves in pursuit of another orange beauty, the Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii).  Uncommon in Texas, the Carolina Lily grows in rich, mature forests, generally on hardwood slopes, though it may occur on rocky slopes dominated by Longleaf Pine.  We actually spotted our first lily of the season growing along a county road in a remnant patch of forest surrounded by pine plantations.

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Carolina Lily

A few days later we went to visit a population that Caro had spotted last year long after antithesis.  This year we found them in full bloom, and even spotted one plant that had three flowers, something I had never seen before.

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Carolina Lily

Carolina maintains our garden, which is full of a variety of native plant species.  A benefit to a diversity of native plants in our yard is that we are able to attract a variety of native pollinators.  And with the pollinators come the predators.  In essence we get to observe the food chain in action every day.  One of my favorite back yard predators is the Widow Skimmer, which stalks the garden and occasionally pauses for a brief photo shoot.

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Widow Skimmer

One of my favorite summer past-times is wandering along the numerous clear, cold, springfed streams that transect portions of the Pineywoods.  There is so much to see beneath the water, along the banks, and in the surrounding forests.  It was on the banks of one such stream that I spotted these striking red fungi.

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Fungi

Late summer brings with it a peak in tiger beetle activity.  Undisturbed beaches along streams and rivers may literally be swarming with a variety of species, voraciously chasing down any prey item unfortunate enough to get in their path.  One species, the S-banded Tiger beetle (Cicindelidia trifasciata) was historically considered a species of the coast, however in recent years it has been found along waterways hundreds of miles inland.  In the Pineywoods it is now quite common in many areas.

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S-banded Tiger Beetle

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S-banded Tiger Beetle

The Bronzed Tiger Beetle (Cicindela repanda) is a wide-ranging, somewhat variable species.  Their elytra may appear dark brown, coppery, or even golden under the right light conditions.  They are commonly encountered on sandy stream banks and sandbars of streams and rivers.

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Perhaps the most commonly encountered Tiger Beetle in the Pineywoods is the Ocellated Tiger Beetle (Cicindelidia ocellata).  Unlike most species of the Pineywoods, which are characteristically eastern and at the western edge of their range, the Ocellated Tiger Beetle is primarily a species of the southwest and reaches the eastern limit of its range here.

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Ocellated Tiger Beetle

A visit to my good friend James Childress‘s farm is always good for turning up a few invertebrates.  The plants and woodpiles along his cabin harbor rich arachnid diversity, and we are always treated to a wealth of spider sightings.  Perhaps the most entertaining of all of the farm’s eight-legged denizens is the Bold Jumping Spider (Phiddipus audax).

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Bold Jumping Spider

Under a chair on James’s patio we found this large female Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans).  Perhaps the most famous/infamous spider in the country, the Black Widow has a reputation of being dangerous and ruthless due to its potent venom and tendency to cannibalize males seeking mating opportunities.  In reality, they are docile, gentle creatures disinclined to bite.

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Black Widow

As August turned to September, my friend Scott Wahlberg spotted something truly remarkable.  Deep in a mature hardwood stream bottom he caught a glimpse of a massive Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) that we estimated to be pushing five feet in length and as thick as my upper arm.  Finding this snake was a reminder that all manner of fantastic creatures are hidden deep in the forest, many of which will never be seen by visitors to their woodland realm. We were fortunate, however, to see one of these elusive forest spirits.  In a time and place when so many seem determined to wipe these beautiful animals out based on unfounded fears and ignorance, it is nothing short of incredible that this snake would live long enough to attain such an impressive size. Spending a moment with this gentle giant truly was a gift from the forest.

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Canebrake Rattlesnake

Back at James’s farm the hummingbirds had arrived in force.  South-bound Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) begin arriving in the Pineywoods in late summer.  Dozens of these tiny aerial acrobats were fighting for position among James’s feeders, eager to refuel and prepare for the continued journey south.

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Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Many shorebirds also pass through the Pineywoods in East Texas as they migrate south.  In early September while laying flat on a river sandbar photographing tiger beetles I caught a blur of motion our of the corner of my eye. Slowly I turned my head to focus on this new distraction, and saw that it was a Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularis) darting back and forth in pursuit of invertebrate prey. Though the bird was only about 25 feet away, it was still too far for my macro to reach. Slowly I crept backwards, and then made my way to my truck to seek out my telephoto lens. I could only hope that the tiny hunter would stick around. As I retreated I watched the shorebird make several mad dashes in the area I had just left, undoubtedly snatching up some of the tiger beetles I had just been observing.

I made it to the truck and equipped my bird lens. I then cautiously made my way back to the sandbar. At first I couldn’t see the sandpiper, but after some time it became visible behind a small rise in the sand, tail a-bobbing. I got into the water and laid flat, trying to conceal as much as my form as possible. I slowly moved toward my quarry, and found it to be surprisingly tolerant. Most shorebirds are in their basic, or non-breeding plumage this time of year. In the Spotted Sandpiper, I find this look to be just as striking as its breeding plumage, particularly the fine details on the wing coverts.

I watched the sandpiper through my lens as it moved up and down the edge of the sandbar, stalking and pouncing on prey, and flipping leaves and other bits of cover to see what tasty morsels might lie beneath. After it had scoured most of the sandbar’s perimeter it took off upriver, flying southward with its characteristic erratic wingbeats. I was left with a few images and a fine memory of an unexpected encounter of the best kind.

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Spotted Sandpiper on the prowl

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Spotted Sandpiper

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Spotted Sandpiper

I can’t say that I’ll miss the summer heat, but I will miss many of the familiar species that vanish for the year as summer turns to autumn.  I can’t be too sad, however, as each season in the Pineywoods has a unique cast of characters, and each year I look forward to seeing familiar faces and those that I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting in these wonderful, diverse forests.

Ouachita Mountain Magic

Target Species:

Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum)

Rich Mountain Salamander (Plethodon ouachitae)

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Rich Mountain Salamander

We could barely see.  Columns of air that cooled as they rose up the mountainside created a fog so dense that trees less than a hundred feet away were completely invisible.  Orthographic lift is a common occurrence here, as evidenced by the dense coats of lichen and moss coating nearly every tree trunk.  I was happy.  To some nature lovers happiness is a wide open mountain vista, or an endless beach breaking brilliant blue waters.  But to me, it is a forest in the fog.  We were high on Rich Mountain, a long mountain ridge in the western Ouachitas, an ancient range that runs from east to west in western Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma.

Most of my blog posts thusfar have focused on the biodiversity of my home state, Texas.  But for this one we take a journey to our neighbors to the north.  I first visited the Ouachitas over 15 years ago on a backpacking trip with a college friend.  We hiked the first leg of the Ouachita Trail, and I was instantly hooked.  I have made many trips since.  Most of these have focused on finding the Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum), an enigmatic, elusive salamander endemic to the Interior Highlands.  As Carolina and I set out from the Pineywoods of East Texas this late September day, I thought back on these trips, and how, despite my considerable efforts, I had still yet to see an adult Ringed Salamander.

We made our camp on Rich Mountain near a sign warning of bear activity in the area.  I have read that American Black Bear populations in the Ouachitas were increasing, but I wondered how often encounters occur.  Later this very trip we would come to find a large pile of scat that we both believed to be from a bear, complete with a long red cord from someone’s garbage.

The north-facing slopes of Rich Mountain harbor lush, rich forests not unlike those further east in the southern Appalachians.  Here a diverse canopy of oaks, maples, hickories, basswood and Cucumber Magnolia towers above an understory of pawpaws, redbuds, and dogwoods.  Familiar Appalachian plants like Jewelweed, False Solomon’s Seal and Rattlesnake Root line the roadsides that wind up the mountainside and a lush carpet of ferns flanks the numerous small streams and springs that run from the rocky hillsides.

 

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Rich Hardwood Forest

These forests are home to a diversity of salamanders, many of which are found nowhere else on earth.  One such Ouachita endemic is the Rich Mountain Salamander (Plethodon ouachitae), of which we found many.  This species has three distinct variations, one on Rich Mountain, one on Winding Stair Mountain, and one on Kiamichi Mountain.  Pictured here is the Rich Mountain variant, which I find to be the most attractive.  We would also find several Winding Stair Mountain variants before the trip was over, but I neglected to photograph them.  Recent rains and orthographic lift events created perfect damp conditions for salamanders, and nearby we also found Southern Redback Salamanders, Western Slimy Salamanders, Many-ribbed Salamanders, and Ouachita Dusky Salamanders.

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Rich Mountain Salamander

There are a number of salamander species endemic to only certain isolated portions of the Ouachita Mountains.  These include, along with the Rich Mountain Salamander, the Fourche Mountain Salamander and the Caddo Mountain Salamander.  I did not have the opportunity to photograph the latter two this trip, though I hope to return to do so in the near future.  This type of isolated endemism is common in older mountain ranges like the Ouachitas and southern Appalachians, where one species may occupy only a single mountaintop.  Millions of years ago, when the mountains were higher and the climate cooler, a wide expanse of habitat created which allowed salamanders to thrive over expansive ranges.  But as time wore on, these mountains weathered and the climate warmed.  Broad dry valleys formed between peaks, in essence creating islands of populations on the portions of higher peaks where suitable habitat remained.  These populations were now unable to access one another and as a result gene flow between populations was interrupted.  As a result what was once a larger population slowly began to evolve into separate, distinct species in isolation.

From the top of Rich Mountain, in the evening after the day’s fog has burned up, it’s possible to see for miles and miles in every direction.  The distant peaks and valleys looked like some turbulent undulating sea.  Caro and I spent our evenings here, basking on warm rocks as the sun dipped low in the distance.  Here we bid farewell to the day before returning to camp to prepare dinner and recover from our wanderings.

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Ouachita Mountains

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Ouachita Sunset

On the highest, most exposed ridges of Rich Mountain, a forest of gnarled, stunted dwarfs occurs.  Here White Oaks, Black Tupelos, and hickories which may tower 100 feet or more in the rich valleys at the base of the mountains, occur in miniature.  These old growth forests contain trees, like those pictured below, that are hundreds of years old but may only reach 10-20 feet in height.  Their growth is stunted due to a variety of factors, including the exposure to relentless winds, winter ice storms, and frequent fogs.  In some areas two-hundred year old White Oaks were only six or seven feet tall, and occurred in extremely dense thickets that seemed reminiscent of blueberry thickets in the Far North.  These peculiar miniature forests we noted by early travelers to the region, including Thomas Nuttall.

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Stunted White Oak Forest

Though still early in the season, fall colors were beginning to show at the higher elevations.  The classic fall-blooming goldenrods were out in force, and Black Tupelo, Sassafrass, and even some hickories had begun to display their fall foliage.

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Fall Palette

The Ouachita Mountians have a lot to offer, and we enjoyed taking in all that we could.  The real reason for the trip, however, was to try and find an adult Ringed Salamander – something I had failed to do during many previous fall trips.  Unlike most members of the family Ambystomatidae, which breed during the first warm rains of late winter and early spring, the Ringed Salamander breeds in the fall, similar to the Marbled Salamander.  However where the Marbled Salamander breeds and deposits its eggs on land, Ringed Salamanders breed and lay eggs in the water – for the most part, at least.  I have observed on a few occasions, Ringed Salamander eggs laid under leaves and logs in dry pool basins.  While previous trips had turned up thousands of larvae and eggs, the adults continued to allude me.

The Ringed Salamander is one of our most enigmatic salamander species, and in my opinion one of our most beautiful. Despite being abundant in some areas within its narrow range in the Interior Highlands, which include the Ozark Plateau and Ouachita Mountains, it is extremely difficult to observe, with very brief periods of surface activity in the fall and spring.  They emerge en masse following heavy fall rains and migrate to their breeding ponds.  It seems like they leave the ponds very quickly after mating, and quickly return below ground.  In some areas there are also breeding events in the spring, though often on a much smaller scale.

When we arrived in Ringed Salamander country there were still puddles on the ground, which I took to be a good sign. We went directly to the first of the breeding ponds, nestled deep in the woods. Wandering to the pond I wondered how these large amphibians survive here. It is not a rich, moist forest like those caudate-rich slopes of the southern Appalachians and elsewhere in the Ouachitas, but rather a rocky, dry woodland of shortleaf pine and various oaks that seemed to send its rainwater to the heart of the mountain just as soon as it hit the ground.

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Ouachita woodland near a Ringed Salamander breeding pond

There were some interesting wildflowers blooming in the area.  Beyond the goldenrods and asters I spotted this lovely Appalachian Blazing Star (Liatris squarrulosa) and watched as dozens of pollinators visited over a few minutes.

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Appalachian Blazing Star

I had high hopes as we set about exploring the first pond.  There were recently laid eggs in the water – a good sign.  Carolina and I split up and scoured the area.  Under a large, flat rock that looked perfect for a salamander, I spotted a large, breathtaking Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix).  These pit vipers are common throughout much of their range, but that does nothing to diminish their beauty, which is hard to beat.  It is hard for me to imagine wanting to kill such a beautiful thing, but unfortunately it is an all too common occurrence.  This snake showed no aggression toward me, but rather spent its time trying to escape.  I placed it for a moment on top of the rock under which it was sheltering, and after a few quick photos guided it back to its entrance and it quickly disappeared once more.

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Copperhead

We continued searching around the pond for what must have been an hour when I heard Caro call out “I got one!!”  I was overwhelmed with excitement and sprinted toward her, nearly tripping over several boulders in the process.  When I arrived, however, she looked disappointed.  She showed me a small male that was at death’s door.  It had lost nearly all color and its eyes had clouded over.  Barely able to move, it was not long for this world.  Seeing my first adult Ringed Salamander in this condition certainly put a damper on the mood.  We left the pond, with the hope that the next might prove more fruitful.

We visited four more ponds, all with the same result.  Many with eggs but not an adult in sight.  My spirits were sinking fast, and a familiar sense of failure that I had experienced in all my previous trips to the region was starting to take hold.  I try to remain positive in these moments, and think on all of the wonderful gifts the trip had already provided.  But our day was not done. We went to one final pond. It did not look as promising as the previous sites, but I did not intend to leave any stone un-turned, so to speak. So I scoured the area to no avail. Before leaving I peered under a long log that stretched from the pond’s surface about 20 feet or so up the slope that graded into the water. I immediately saw a loose cluster of eggs beneath the log at the waters edge.  I then turned my attention up-slope to the opposite end of the log. Nothing. But just as I was preparing to set the log back I noticed a series of bands of yellow and black just beneath the murky water’s surface. It was a tail. I had finally found an adult Ringed Salamander.

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Ringed Salamander

It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful sight.  Though its colors are more similar to Spotted and Tiger Salamanders, the Ringed Salamander is actually more closely related to Smallmouth and Flatwoods Salamanders, as evidenced by its smaller head and mouth.  They can grow quite large, and this female was over seven inches long.  Ringed Salamanders breed in ephemeral depressions and fishless ponds.  I have even read speculation that they once bred in large “buffalo wallows”.  I can’t help but raise an eyebrow at this claim, but considering that some believe that the Ouachitas were named for a Choctaw phrase meaning “country of large buffaloes” in response to the herds of American Bison that roamed the surrounding valleys, perhaps the concept is not so far-fetched after all.

This beautiful female would be the only individual that we would see.  There were more ponds I had hoped to visit but the road soon became impassable.  It was a very special encounter for me. Finding this species takes a concentrated, planned effort, and in this region it seems to be restricted to remote, difficult to access locations. Perhaps these are the factors that contribute to the allure of the Ringed Salamander, or perhaps its the magic of the Ouachitas.  Whatever it may be, finally encountering this species, along with the many other special moments we experienced during the weekend, left me with many fond memories that I will cherish forever.

Birds and Blooms along the Upper Texas Coast

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Reddish Egret

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

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

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American Avocets

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

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Semipalmated Plover

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

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Reddish Egret Hunting

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Reddish Egret Hunting

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

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Ruddy Turnstone

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

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Least Tern

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

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

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Texas Pinkroot

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Texas Pinkroot

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

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Aquatic Milkweed

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

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Purple Gallinule

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

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Willet

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

Wandering through the Cross Timbers and Prairies: Part I

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Remnant Chalk Prairie

I must admit, the Pineywoods have always felt like a priority.  Beneath the towering trees is where I feel most at home.  It makes sense, of course, as it is my backyard.  It is where I spent my youth exploring, learning, developing as a naturalist.  But as more time passed, and I gained the means to do so, I came to realize that I didn’t have to limit myself so close to home.  In other words, what if my backyard were to get a lot bigger?

So I started branching out.  Carolina and I made occasional forays to the Edwards Plateau, to South Texas, to West Texas.  There remained one ecosystem, however, that I had left woefully unexplored – the vast prairies that dominated the northern part of the state.  I don’t mean the fingers of Blackland that reach into the Pineywoods, or the vanishing coastal prairies that I fought hard to protect years ago.  I longed to see seemingly endless expanses of prairie, with grasses and wildflowers stretching as far as the eye could see.  Places with names like “Grand Prairie”, that conjured up images of a land spectacular for its desolation, where trees would not hide the sun on its daily journey from horizon to horizon.  As is the story with so much of the state, such places have become rare.  Rare – but not lost.

So in late April Carolina and I decided to set out to explore this foreign land.  Being obsessed with our states natural history, many of the plants and communities we would encounter were already familiar to me.  We made our acquaintance over countless hours spent pouring over field guides, natural history books, inventories, and scientific papers.  But this would be my first time encountering so many of them in the flesh, so to speak.

We began our journey near the southern reaches of the Cross Timbers and Prairies, near where the Lampasas Cut Plains reach their northern extent.  Here we found remnant chalk prairies, some extensive with bare limestone outcrops and a bizarre flora that I was not accustomed to.  Perhaps the most prominent resident this time of year was the Purple Paintbrush (Castilleja purpurea).

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Purple Paintbrush

The dazzling array of color and diversity of plants on the chalk prairies was awe-inspiring.  Below the stately Prairie Penstemon (Penstemon cobaea) can be seen towering above Purple Paintbrush and Engelmann’s Sage (Salvia engelmannii).  The latter is a Texas endemic.

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Prairie View

We stayed in this special place as dusk took hold over the land and the moon shone in the skies above.

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Moon over the Prairie

We left as darkness enveloped the land and drove north into the heart of the Grand Prairie.  I had hoped that we might catch a glimpse of some crawling or slithering thing in the road in front of us, but the hour-long drive was uneventful.  We found a base of operations in a hotel in Decatur.  The next morning I rose an hour before dawn and as Caro caught some extra sleep I set out to try to capture some images in the early morning light.  Before the sun crested the horizon I captured the image below of Purple Paintbrush and Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia caespitosa) in bud.

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Purple Paintbrush

I had no pre-conceived image that I was out to capture that morning; instead I planned to let my eyes wander, and hoped that the scene might present itself.  I enjoy this sort of photography, and it takes me back to part of what hooked me on photography in the first place.  These days I seem to always have a shot in mind, or some target that I’m seeking.  Sometimes it’s enjoyable to let the image find me for a change.  And so this large group of Missouri Evening Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) called to me, and I photographed them as the sun crested the horizon.  This classic prairie wildflower has huge flowers, and equally impressive fruits, which I unfortunately did not photograph.

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Missouri Evening Primrose – Chasing the Sun

As the sun rose higher into the morning sky I returned to the hotel.  After breakfast, Caro and I set out to explore the Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) National Grassland.  Akin to the National Forests of East Texas, LBJ Grassland set aside parcels for multiple uses by the public.  Much of the area is suffering from the typical array of factors that result in the ecological degradation of prairies – encroachment by woody species due to a lack of cyclical disturbance such as grazing and fire – but we did find some areas where the prairie was still thriving.  It was in one such recently burned area that I caught a flash of pink.  It was a species I was very much hoping to see – the Eastern Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia).

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Eastern Shooting Star

As we explored the LBJ, we noticed several exposed limestone ridges.  It was here, I hoped, that I might find the Grooved Nipple Cactus (Coryphantha sulcata) and Beehive Cactus (Escobaria vivipara) in bloom.  While we were successful in finding both species, their fleeting flowers eluded us.  We were, however, rewarded with a fine consolation prize: several Missouri Foxtail Cacti (Escobaria missouriensis) in bloom.

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

As the sun sank once more toward the horizon, we found ourselves on a high grassy ridge that overlooked a series of eroded canyons.  Here we found a large population of Nuttall’s Death Camas (Toxicoscordion nuttallii).  This species was on my 2017 list, and while I did find and photograph one individual the previous year, I found this prairie to yield a far more satisfying photographic experience.

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Nuttall’s Death Camas

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Nuttall’s Death Camas

Descending from the high ridge, we entered the fertile valley below.  Here we found interesting prairie plants like Buffalo Pea (Pediomelum cuspidatum) and Wright’s Skull Cap (Scutellaria wrightii).

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Buffalo Pea

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Buffalo Pea

As the sun retreated for the day, I returned to the ridge to capture some landscape images of the Nuttall’s Death Camas in the pink light of dusk.  It was a beautiful scene, which we breathed in under the darkening sky.

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Death Comes to the Prairie

The next morning we rose early and pushed north toward the Red River, and deeper into the Grand Prairie.  As we were admiring the gently rolling terrain andorned with a mingling of prairie and woodland, a flash of pink once again caught my eye.  It was another group of Eastern Shooting Stars!  The Eastern Shooting Star is a species of open woodlands, glades, and prairie remnants in the eastern and central U.S. It reaches the southwestern extent of its range in the prairies and woodland openings of central Texas. Elsewhere in its range the blooms may be white, but in the Cross Timbers and Prairies they are deep pink.  In the Lonestar State, the Eastern Shooting Star occurs in remnant prairies and open woodlands in a few counties in the north-central and northeastern portions of the state, with a few isolated populations in similar habitats in the Edward’s Plateau.  It is among the most photogenic flowers I have ever put my lens on.

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Eastern Shooting Star

Growing near the shoting stars were several groups of Prairie Paintbrush (Castilleja citrina).

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Prairie Paintbrush

It wasn’t long before the sun rose high once again, and we had to be setting out on our return journey to the Pineywoods.  We opted to take a series of remote county roads to get back to the main highway.  All around the birds were active.  Lark Sparrows lined the fence rows while several Upland Sandpipers worked the fields on their northward journey to their breeding grounds.  Windows down, I could hear the incessant buzzy call of the Dickcissel.  I have never seen such a dense population of these grassland songbirds spread out over such a large area.  It seemed like every 100 feet or so a male Dickcissel had staked out his territory and was singing from some shrub or dried remnant of the previous year’s vegetation.  Despite the fairly harsh light, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to capture an image of one of these prairie treasures in full song.

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Dickcissel

Standing in some of these remnant prairies, it wasn’t hard to transport myself back in time.  To a time when the Tawakani and Wichita still made their home here, and vast herds of bison and pronghorn dotted the expansive plain.  In these moments it is easy to become frustrated and depressed at what was lost.  As I looked out at the swaying grass and palette of prairie wildflowers, I chose instead to focus on what we still have and ensure that it, too, does not become a story of what once was.  To learn what you can do to help protect native prairies visit texasprairie.org.

Spring in the Pineywoods

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Kentucky Lady’s Slippers – A Gift of Spring

As I sit here typing, we are in the height of August, which has the misfortune of traditionally being our most miserable month – at least climatically speaking.  So as the dried grass crunches beneath my feet and my skin bakes under triple digit temperatures, it’s easy to escape back to a day over four months ago.

It was the last day of March.  There was a definite chill in the air as I set out into the forest.  The gray of dawn was made darker by the the canopy of beech and oak towering one hundred feet above my head.  I worried for a moment that I may not see them – my elusive botanical quarry.  But despite the dim light of the understory, the yellow egg-sized blooms of the Kentucky Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium kentuckiense) caught my eye like a beacon sent out to some wayfaring sailor, and drew me to them with a siren’s song of its enigmatic beauty.

A few days prior my friend Peter Loos had called and told me that the slippers were out early this year, a full two weeks early.  He also told me that one population, which typically has only a plant or two in flower, was displaying six perfect blooms this year.  If it weren’t for his call, I would have likely missed out on a very special experience.

The soil was cold and damp as I sat, saturated from a previous day’s rain.  It was still to early for photography, the forest too dark to properly render the color of the scene.  So I sat and waited in the company of the forest.  I admired the slippers and the ferns that grew around them.  I listen to the familiar songs of Red-eyed Vireos, Summer Tanagers and Hooded Warblers, and the distant trill of a Northern Parula.  After some time I could see hints of dappled sun in the highest leaves in the canopy.  The forest grew brighter, its colors warmed.  In this new light I could see distant azalea blooms lining the creek downslope.

I had to pay close attention to the light.  There would only be a brief moment for me to capture the image I was after.  That time when the ambient light early morning sun illuminated the forest, but before its rays penetrated the canopy, casting sun spots and uneven light on the forest floor.  Finally the moment was right, and I captured the image above.

Though the end of March may have been the height of the season, spring itself had begun nearly two months prior, when the first of the spring ephemerals pushed their way through the leaf litter.  Perhaps my favorite of these is the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), so named for the red sap of its roots that has long been used for a wide range of medicinal purposes.  Bloodroot is now rare in Texas, where it hold on in a few remnant patches of mature hardwood forest.

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Bloodroot – An Ode to Spring

Like the Bloodroot, the White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum) is one of our first harbingers of spring.  White Trout Lily can be found throughout the Pineywoods.  Though it is common nowhere, it is more frequently encountered in the northern and western portions of this forested ecoregion.  Elsewhere in the state it can be found in some Post Oak Savannah and Cross Timber woodlands.

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Trout Lily

It is not just the rich woods that experience a flush in early spring activity.  In mid February the wetland pine savannahs of East Texas appear bleak, their grasses turned brown by the short days and biting cold of winter.  But it is in that time that the Woolly Sunbonnet (Chaptalia tomentosa) emerges, opening its blooms in the midday sun.

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Woolly Sunbonnet

Though the forest floor may be coming to life, early spring still finds the trees leafless and dreary.  I captured the haunting scene below as a fog rolled in over the Angelina River on a cold day in mid February.

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The Angelina River looks to be a dismal place in early spring.

Even in early March the forest still seems gripped in winter.  At least from a distance…

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A rare waterfall in one of the last patches of old growth forest in East Texas.

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A small stream flows, fueled by spring rains

But closer examination shows that by early March the forest has come alive.  The scene below was captured at our friends Susan and Viron’s land.  Under their stewardship, a spectacular patch of rich mesic forest has persisted.  Here nearly all of the plants that have become exceedingly rare elsewhere in the states, still thrive.  Their forest contains colonies of Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium rostratum) that cover acres!

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Yellow Trout Lilies – Ephemeral

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Yellow Trout Lilies

Their land is also home to one of only two known populations of False Rue Anemone (Enemion biternatum) in the state.

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False Rue Anemone

Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) flourish here as well.  They are one of our most common spring ephemeral, but that in no way diminishes their beauty.

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Spring Beauty

One of the more unexpected denizens of early spring is the Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris rugata).  Unlike most tiger beetles, which are most active during the summer, the Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle is active in the early spring, and by late May are almost impossible to find.

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Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle

This jewel-like beetle is restricted to eastern Texas, western Louisiana, and extreme southwestern Arkansas and southeastern Louisiana. Here it occurs in areas with vast expanses of bare sand such as xeric sandhills and sand “blowouts” in the Pineywoods and Post Oak Savannah.

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Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle

By mid-March most of the woodlands in the southern Pineywoods had begun to leaf-out.  The scene below was captured in a vast floodplain adjacent Big Sandy Creek in the Big Thicket.

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Vernal

As the freshly emerging leaves hardwoods begin to turn the slopes and floodplains green, a different explosion of color is occurring in a precious few longleaf pine savannahs in the Big Thicket.  At the few sites where it still occurs, the Federally Endangered Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis) reaches peak bloom in mid-March.

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Texas Trailing Phlox

Around the same time, a very different phlox species blooms in the shade American Beech and other hardwoods of rich forested slopes.  Though common throughout much of its range in eastern North America, Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) is rare in Texas.  The combination of pale blue blooms, feathery fern fronds and a gnarly old hornbeam created a scene that seemed like something more suited for a Tolkien novel than the Pineywoods.

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Mirkwood

While we’re on the topic of phlox, one can’t drive the backroads of the Big Thicket without admiring the recently described Texas endemic Big Thicket Phlox (Phlox pulcherrima), a member of the Phlox pilosa complex.

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Big Thicket Phlox

With March in full swing, color was coming to all of the vegetative communities of the Pineywoods.  Wright’s Lily (Schoenolirion wrightii), a rare species of glades and barrens came into bloom over deposits of Catahoula Sandstone.

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Wright’s Lily

And expansive drifts of Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) turned the forest floor blue in this woodland in the northern Pineywoods.

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Rebirth

One afternoon, as we were exploring the longleaf pine savannahs of the Angelina National Forest, Carolina spotted a splash of yellow in the distance.  It turned out to be a small flatwoods pond decorated with the blooms of thousands of Floating Bladderworts (Utricularia radiata).  These plants are carnivorous, and I couldn’t help but think that below the surface was something akin to a minefield for the unfortunate aquatic invertebrates that dwell within.

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Floating Bladderworts – Minefield

Not all of spring’s palate is painted on the forest floor however, and a multitude of trees and shrubs put on an impressive display as they come into flower.  In the picture below White Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) flowers in the foreground while Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) blooms in the distance.

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White Fringetree – Old Man of the Woods

By late March the Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) have taken over the forest floor.  One of my favorite spring ephemerals, Mayapple is still quite easy to find in certain parts of East Texas, unlike so many other species of rich woods that have become increasingly rare.

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Mayapple – Sea of Green

The large umbrella-shaped leaves of Mayapple are actually toxic.  Only the ripe fruit is edible.  The downy white blooms hang beneath the leaves.  Non-blooming plants always sport a single leaf, while those that bloom have two.

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Mayapples

Along the bluffs lining the Angelina River, Carolina and I found a large colony of Wild Comfrey (Cynoglossum virginianum).  These wildflowers, with their downy basal leaves and tiny sky-blue blooms have become quite uncommon in Texas.  They often occur in the company of the Kentucky Lady’s Slipper, and I couldn’t help but wonder of the enigmatic orchid once called these hills home.

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Wild Comfrey Hills

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Wild Comfrey Blooms

Another uncommon species often found in the presence of the lady’s slipper is the Bigleaf Snowbell (Styrax grandifolia).  It’s easy to see how this species gets its common name, as thousands of small white blooms may dangle from its branches in early April.

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Bigleaf Snowbell

In the vast floodplain of the Neches River I spotted a large colony of Eastern Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana), and I stood in the flood waters to photograph its delicate blooms in the evening light.

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Eastern Bluestar

Every spring I look forward to the emergence of the trilliums.  This year I found this large colony of Sabine River Wakerobin (Trillium gracile) in a rich hardwood forest in Sabine County.

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Sabine River Wakerobin

By mid-April many of the spring ephemerals have already faded, and a new cast of floral characters appears on the scene.  Clasping Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) emerges from deep sands and displays its bizarre blooms for all the pollinating world to see.

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Clasping Milkweed

Deep in the forest a very different milkweed was blooming.  By mid April the White (A.K.A Redring) Milkweed was beginning to come into flower.

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White Milkweed

The Zigzag Iris (Iris brevicaulis) can be found on the margins of wetlands in the Pineywoods.

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Zigzag Iris

Flowering Dogwood is one of the most familiar small trees of East Texas.  Lesser known are the other species of dogwood that occur here.  This spring we found several Roughleaf Dogwoods (Cornus drummondii) in bloom along a small stream in Houston County.

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Roughleaf Dogwood

The Rose Pogonia (A.K.A. Snakemouth Orchid) (Pogonia ophioglossoides) is always a crowd-pleaser.  I found several blooming in late April with my friend James Childress in a remote seep on private land.

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Rose Pogonia

One evening in April I received a call from my friend, and author of The Wild Orchids of Texas, Joe Liggio.  He told me that while returning home from a long day of botanizing, he spotted an uncommon wildflower along a remote road in Liberty County.  It was the Foxglove Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis).  Shortly after photographing the plants at Joe’s site, I found it growing in similar remoteness in Sabine County.  This penstemon has a fairly broad distribution in the eastern third of the state, occurring in scattered populations in rich, open woodlands and their margins. There is some debate as to whether it is native outside northeast Texas, while others question whether or not its native to the state at all.  The plants that Joe and I discovered were, in my opinion, unlikely candidates for escapees from cultivation.  This leads me to believe that is in fact native to East Texas.

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Foxglove Penstemon

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Foxglove Penstemon

Also in April, my friend Scott Wahlberg and I visited a site in the Big Thicket where last year I was able to track down Wild Blue Lupine (Lupinus perennis).  I went into some detail on this species in a blog post last year, so I won’t say much here, save to mention it’s striking beauty.

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Wild Blue Lupine

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Wild Blue Lupine

Another species that I pursued last year was the Green Adder’s Mouth (Malaxis unifolia).  Carolina and I found them again this year, and I photographed them to the sound of the thunder of a rapidly approaching storm.

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En-route to photograph the adder’s mouth, we spotted a striking little purple legume flowering alongside the road.  It was a patch of Sampson’s Snakeroot (Orbexilum pedunculatum), a plant I only occasionally encounter in the Pineywoods.

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Sampson’s Snankeroot

Though it’s pushing the limits of late spring and flirting with early summer, late May still has a lot to offer, botanically speaking.  One warm evening in late May, Caro and I drove out to Walker County to photograph the Bush’s Purple Coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa var. neglecta).  This puzzling population was found growing in a calcareous prairie remnant by my friend Eric Keith.  Echinacea paradoxa is a species of coneflower found in the Ozark Plateau and isolated populations in southern Oklahoma and southeast Texas. While typically yellow, E. paradoxa var. neglecta range from pale purple to deep pink.  The population here in southeast Texas is disjunct from other known populations by hundreds of miles.

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So it was that the Spring of 2018 came to a close and gave way to summer.  It was hard to say goodbye to the cool, gray days of Spring, but as a naturalist I find some joy in each of our seasons.  Soon the sun would be blaring, the cicadas would be trilling, and a whole new cast of plants and animals would make themselves known.

The Jewel of the Weches Formation

Target Species: Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus)

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The bad news is that I’ve fallen way behind in my blogging.  The good news, however is that the last few months have been full of incredible experiences in the natural world that I look forward to sharing.  So as we are sweltering under near record heat waves, I will share a few posts from this spring, and reminisce about cooler times.

This first post addresses the third, and unfortunately last species from my list of biodiversity goals that I have checked off this year.  In early May I photographed the spectacular Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus) in East Texas.  This member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) is very rare in Texas, known from only a few sites over the Weches formation in the eastern part of the state.  Here it occurs in a few scattered populations where the iron-rich formation has been exposed.  I learned of this particular population near the Anderson/Henderson County line from my friend Trey Anderson who had found them a few years ago while performing some work in the area.  They occur on a steep exposed hill with a mix of artificial clearings and stunted forest over gravelly Weches substrate.  This soil is extremely rich in iron and it shows in the color of the hillside.

The Weches Formation is part of a broader collection of geologic formations known as the Claiborne Group.  This group also includes the Yegua, Cook Mountain, Sparta, Queen City, and Reklaw Formations.  These occur along with the Weches Formation as a matrix in a broad area that encompasses a narrow band that stretches from Cass, Marion, Harrison, Rusk, Nacogdoches, San Augustine and Sabine Counties in the east along a curve down to Webb and Zapata Counties in South Texas.  (See a map here).

I have previously written a blog post about Weches Glades, a unique vegetative community that occur at a few sites in Nacogdoches, San Augustine, and Sabine Counties.  Streptanthus maculatus once occurred here as well, and can probably still be found at a few existing sites.  Many populations have been lost, however, to land use conversion and extensive glauconite mining.  Elsewhere in its range S. maculatus occurs over similarly iron-rich deposits in eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas.

I was a bit late in seeking these jewels out this year, as most were already spent or in fruit.  The individual pictured was the only one I found in decent shape.  I’m not complaining though, for it gives me something to look forward to next year, and will afford me another visit to the unique, disappearing communities of the Weches Formation.