Spring in the Desert Part 3: The Marathon Basin

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An hour or so north of Big Bend National Park, nestled between the Stockton Plateau and the Eastern Front Ranges of the Trans-Pecos lies a unique geoecological area with floral and faunal associations that seem out of place in the otherwise semi-arid desert scrub that surrounds it.  The Marathon Basin, at is is commonly described, is surrounded by a series northeast trending ridges known as the Marathon Uplift, which contains a unique geology important to a suite of endemic, endangered species.

The Basin’s most dramatic feature just might be a vast remnant patch of short grass prairie that appears like a vast sea of refuge from the surrounding desert scrub.   I always look forward to seeing this prairie and its residents.  This spring we were fortunate to see a group of Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) among the undulating grassy ridges.

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Pronghorn Buck

The star attraction of the Marathon Grasslands, however, is the massive prairie dog town.  Here a thriving colony of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) entertains visitors to their prairie realm with their inquisitive nature, comical antics, and high-pitched alarm calls.

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog

South of the town of Marathon exist a series of ridges with conspicuous exposed layers of multi-colored rock known as Caballos Novaculite.  Primarily composed of chert, this formation is the same as the Novaculite outcrops in the Ouachita Mountains of Oklahoma and Arkansas, located hundreds of miles to the east, and both exposures originated from a collision of the land masses Gondwana and Laurentia in the Late Paleozoic.  The quartz present in the Caballos makes the rocks extremely hard and often sharp.

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Caballos Novaculite Outcrops

The Caballos Novaculite is home to three species of endemic cacti, all of which are entirely confined to this small portion of Brewster County.  Two of these species, Nellie’s Cory Cactus (Escobaria minima) and Davis Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus davisii) are Federally Endangered.  Both species have suffered heavily from over collection and as a result are now entirely confined to private land.

We were fortunate enough to observe several Echinocereus davisii plants in bloom.  This is one of the smallest cactus species in the world, rarely reaching heights greater than an in and a half.  They are almost entirely hidden beneath grasses and other vegetation growing among the Novaculite, rendering them practically invisible.  Only when the small yellow-green flowers emerge in early Spring to they become visible.

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Davis Hedgehog Cactus

The Marathon Basin and Uplift are bordered to the northwest by the Glass Mountains.  The lower slopes of this range are dominated by typical Chihuahuan Desert Scrub, where we observed a number of interesting plants in bloom, including Woolly Locoweed (Astragalus mollissimus), Feathery Dalea (Dalea formosa), and Downy Paintbrush (Castilleja sessiliflora).

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Woolly Locoweed

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Feathery Dalea

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Downy Paintbrush

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Downy Paintbrush

In my humble opinion, no trip to the Big Bend Region is complete without a stop in the Marathon Basin.  It serves as a reminder of the staggering diversity of the Trans-Pecos, and a humbling exposure to the wide open spaces that West Texas is famous for.

Spring in the Desert Part 2: The Super Bloom

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

In the absence of rain, this place may seem some endless sea of stone, only occasionally broken by scattered shrubs, cacti, or other thorny things.  In the hottest and driest of times it is easy to think that life shuns this place.  But such thoughts could not be farther from the truth.  The Chihuahuan Desert in the Big Bend region is one of the most biodiverse arid places on the planet.  Perhaps there is no better time to witness this biodiversity than early spring following a wet fall and winter.  Fueled by life-bringing moisture, countless billions of seeds germinate and send up a staggering array of flowers from the parched soil.  Perennial species, including cactus, also react to the increased moisture by concentrating energy into blooming en masse, painting the desert in a rainbow of colors, and shattering its stereotype as a barren wasteland.

After an incredible day exploring Black Gap, Caro and I set out early to Big Bend National Park in order to avoid the spring break crowds.  We arrived at the Panther Junction visitor center right as it opened so that we could explore the book store and refill some of our water bottles.  Within 30 minutes, the place was overrun with a variety of characters, all from different walks of life, seeking different experiences, yet united in their admiration for this incredible place.

Wanting to avoid the bulk of the crowds, we opted to explore some remote 4X4 roads, which would offer ample opportunities to explore a variety of habitats.  It was a good choice, and aside from a few vehicles before lunch, we had countless acres of wilderness to ourselves.

As the day began, we stopped to admire an explosive bloom of Bicolored Mustered (Nerisyrenia camporum) in the dry bed of Tornillo Creek.  The blooms are strongly fragrant and filled the spring air with their sweet aroma.

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Nerisyrenia camporum Super Bloom

In areas adjacent to the creek we found the mustard blooming alongside some towering Big Bend Bluebonnets (Lupinus havardii) and a variety of other wildflowers, offering a varied sampling of the palette that the desert was soon to provide.

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Spring in the Desert

We had seen our fair share of Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap, but Big Bend provided a whole new perspective to this striking plant.  The sky was overcast all day, providing a soft light that made landscape photography a challenge, but provided excellent opportunities to capture intimate portraits of many of the incredible wildflowers that we encountered.  Some of the bluebonnets we encountered were approaching four feet in height, and sported racemes bearing dozens of flowers.

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Big Bend Bluebonnet

While passing adjacent to a series of gypsic hills, Carolina shouted for me to stop.  This is usually a good thing, and means that she has spotted something interesting.  And indeed she had.  She pointed to bright yellow spot on a hillside hundreds of meters away.  How she spots these things, I’ll never know.  Moving closer to investigate, it soon became evident that it was a healthy Texas Rainbow Cactus (Echinocereus dasyacanthus).  This is a species that I included in my list of biodiversity goals.  I have seen the plant many times, but had never experienced the splendor of its blooms.  I was concerned that we were too early, but I was very wrong.  We would find many plants in full, glorious bloom in the lower elevations of the park.

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

I had always presumed these cacti had a preference for limestone, but we saw them in a variety of substrates throughout the day.  They have some of the most striking blooms of any cactus.  They are generally lemon yellow with green throats, and may approach 4 inches across.

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

Interestingly, their common name is not derived from their stunning flowers, but rather the rusty-colored bands decorating their stems.  Seeing many old, multi-stemmed individuals in such a remote setting was certainly one of the highlights of the trip.

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

A few of the plants contained Cactus Bees (Diadasia sp.) feeding on nectar from deep within the blooms.  The bees’ hairy exoskeleton served as the perfect vessel for trapping pollen, ensuring that the insects would play their part in propagating future generations of Texas Rainbow Cactus.

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Cactus Bee

There were other species of cactus in bloom as well.  Perhaps the most conspicuous were the large colonies of Purple Prickly Pears (Opuntia azurea), which were just coming into flower.  The blooms of most cactus species open in late morning or early afternoon, and close by late afternoon.  It was a wonderful thing to see these prickly pear flowers open to reveal their bright red centers to the world.

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Purple Prickly Pear

While it was easy to get lost in the grandeur of endless expanses of blooming wildflowers, pausing to admire more subtle, intimate scenes proved just as rewarding.  I photographed the Edward’s Hole-in-the-Sand Plant (Nicolletia edwardsii) and Sand Bells (Nama hispidum) just after the latter’s flowers opened for the day.

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Edward’s Hole-in-the-Sand plant and Sand Bells

The combination of wildflowers was endless.  Below Pope’s Phacelia (Phacelia popei) can be seen blooming alongside Bicolored Mustard along an ephemeral drainage.

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Pope’s Phacelia and Bicolored Mustard bloom along an ephemeral drainage.

The kaleidoscope of colors continued in this rocky wash, where I spotted several nice clumps of Havard’s Fiddleleaf (Nama havardii), known in the United States only from the Big Bend region.

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Havard’s Fiddleleaf and Bicolored Mustard bloom in a gravelly wash.

It seemed like around every bend in the road there was some new fusion of color to be discovered.  One of my favorites was the combination of the yellows of Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata) and the purples of Nama hispidum blooming among scattered Ocotillo and Creosote Bush.

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Baileya multiradiata and Nama hispidum bloom in profusion.

Deep in the interior of the park, we explored a series of limestone ridges and shale slopes on hills rising from the Rio Grande.  Here we found many interesting, uncommon species like the Lyreleaf Jewelflower (Streptanthus carinatus).  This denizen of the desert southwest bares purplish blooms in Texas, but they are primarily white and yellow as one moves further west in their range.

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Lyreleaf Jewelflower

We found several Candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphilitica) plants growing in the same general area.  This interesting succulent has a long history of use by human cultures.  As the specific epithet suggests, it was long used to treat sexually-transmitted diseases.  It has also been extensively harvested for a wax produced from its leaves.  This wax has been used for a variety of applications, including use as a food additive for glazing agents, as an ingredient in lip balm, and perhaps most famously as a binder for chewing gum.

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Candelilla

On one of the limestone slopes Caro spotted a beautiful Texas Rainbow Cactus that sported bright orange flowers as opposed to the more typical lemon colored blooms.  We saw a few of this color, and even a few with a pinkish tinge.

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

Caro’s sharp eyes also spotted the diminutive Duncan’s Foxtail Cactus (Escobaria duncanii), a rare cactus is primarily confined to a very narrow range near the Rio Grande in Big Bend and adjacent Mexico, though there is an isolated population in New Mexico.  This cryptic cactus grows from fissures and crevices in the limestone and is one of the first cacti to bloom in spring.  By our visit in early March, many of the blooms were already spent.

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Duncan’s Foxtail Cactus

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Duncan’s Foxtail Cactus

Another cactus I had really hoped to see was Warnock’s Pineapple Cactus (Echinomastus warnockii), named for the famous botanist and pioneer of the flora of the Trans-Pecos, Barton Warnock.  We actually saw several with closed blooms in the early afternoon, however this species opens later than most and we couldn’t wait around.  Fortunately Caro spotted one growing in a clump of dried grass on one of the limestone slopes a couple hours later.  Like many cacti of the region, E. warnockii is known only from West Texas and adjacent Mexico.

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Warnock’s Pineapple Cactus

Those limestone hills were full of a diversity of cactus!  Caro spotted another rare, early-blooming species, the Silver-Lace Cob Cactus (Escobaria albicolumnaria).  Consider by some to be a variety of Escobaria sneedii.  When investigating the cacti of Texas, one notices a pattern: many species are confined only to the Big Bend region.  In fact, this (relatively) small area in West Texas has the highest diversity of Texas in the United States.  E. albicolumnaria is another early bloomer, and sports pink flowers that never open fully.

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Silver-Lace Cob Cactus

Throughout the day we had seen several clumps of Big Bend Prickly Pear (Grusonia aggeria), another species whose U.S. range is confined to far West Texas.  A type of “dog cholla”, this cactus sports very sharp, strong spines that can become the bane of any desert wanderer.  Fortunately the bright yellow blooms make up for their pricklier side.

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Big Bend Prickly Pear

As the day neared its end we found some clumps of Purple Prickly Pear loaded with blooms and developing buds.  Their beauty combined with that of a carpet of composites and Nama, and the Chisos Mountains as a backdrop created a dramatic scene that I felt privileged to witness.

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Desert Abloom

Throughout the day we saw several blister beetles (Cysteodemus wislizeni) scurrying across the desert floor.  These chunky, iridescent beetles are flightless, and their elytra (outer wings) are partially fused.  They were constantly in motion, providing a challenge to photography, but it was a challenge I welcomed as I chased after them, camera in hand, uttering colorful phrases in my frustration.

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Cysteodemus wislizeni

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Cysteodemus wislizeni

While I was busily tending to the beetles, Caro came rushing over to me with her hands cupped one over the other.  What she revealed was a large grasshopper, which I believe to be a female Toad Lubber (Phrynotettix robustus).  I placed it adjacent to a few plants of the diminutive Matted Fiddleleaf (Nama torynophyllum).

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A Glimpse of the Desert Floor

As afternoon turned to evening we once again found ourselves among the overwhelming beauty of vast expanses of Big Bend Bluebonnet.  For the briefest of moments the sun broke through the wall of clouds, and illuminated the bluebonnet laden slopes and distant Chisos Mountains.

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Land of the Blue

As the light began to fade I thought back on one of the most incredible days I had spent in the desert.  Just as I was expecting photography to wind down, I caught a flash of pink in a sandy desert wash.  It was a species that I had very much hoped to find: Havard’s Ipomopsis (Ipomopsis havardii), another generally uncommon species unique to the region.  I quickly went about photographing it, as daylight was fading fast.

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Havard’s Ipomopsis

Though they are small, the colorful blooms are among the most interesting that I have seen.

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Havard’s Ipompsis

As I finished photographing the Havard’s Ipompsis, the light faded fast.  We spent last light driving through an expanse of volcanic tough that looked like some alien landscape.  As darkness set in we still had 10 miles until we would reach pavement.  It was an eerie feeling driving through some of that terrain in total darkness.  The eeriness did not diminish after we returned to pavement.  Shortly after doing so we pulled into a parking area to stretch our legs.  Immediately after leaving the truck we heard a pair of Coyotes sounding off.  Now I have spent many evenings being serenaded by the mournful calls of “God’s Dog”, and they often deceive one into thinking they are much closer than they actually are.  But these were CLOSE.  Caro suggested that I turn on the headlights, and as I did we could see the pair just at the edge of the beam’s reach.  They trotted across the road and continued into the vast desert beyond.

The experience rounded out a most spectacular day.  I leave you with a parting shot, of a splendid Texas Rainbow Cactus in all its glory, thriving in the desert flats below the venerable Chisos Mountains.

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Texas Rainbow Cactus

Spring in the Desert Part 1: The Beauty of Black Gap

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A monolith of rock rises from the desert floor in Maravillas Canyon

My first trip to Big Bend Country was over 20 years ago, in 1997, having spent just a month as a Texan.  We went in August, and it was hot.  Hot, intimidating, and seemingly inhospitable – at least in the surface.  But despite all of this I quickly fell in love with the land.  We watched a curious Gray Fox from the balcony of our room at the Chisos Mountain Lodge.  I chased Tarantula Hawks, velvet ants, and Horse Lubbers; and I found the glittering remains of a departed Glorious Jewel Beetle.  I marveled at the significant respite from the heat that the mountains provided, and the monsoonal rains that seemed so out of place in this arid landscape.

Since that day I have returned many times, and have been rewarded with incredible discoveries and remarkable experiences.  Yet in all these years I had never visited in the spring, one of the most spectacular times to be immersed in the Chihuahuan Desert.  I have long wanted to, but have always been somewhat intimidated by the crowds.  One thing I love about Big Bend is its remoteness, and the feeling of isolation and insignificance that comes with it.  During spring break, which generally coincides with the peak wildflower bloom, the park is flooded with visitors from all around the Lonestar State and beyond.

This year, however, I could not resist.  I began seeing reports that Big Bend was experiencing one of the most spectacular Big Bend Bluebonnet (Lupinus havardii) blooms in recent memory.  After a short conversation, Carolina and I made the decision to make the trek.  I consulted my friend Michael Eason, author of Wildflowers of Texas, and resident of the region.  He recommended that we spend a day in Black Gap Wildlife Management Area.  Black Gap is just northeast of the park, and we would come to find that it sports a diversity of life and quality of scenery on par with that of the park.

Though I highly recommend exploring Black Gap, I will add a word of caution.  At just over 100,000 acres, it is huge and it is very remote.  Access to the interior is via high clearance gravel and rock roads, and there are no services and very few visitors.  Despite being at the peak time for visitation to the region, we only saw one other vehicle all day.  There is no cell phone service, and it would be easy to become stranded, so visitors should come prepared.

Fortunately our visit went smoothly.  We arrived mid afternoon to the Stillwell Store.  Stillwell’s boasts a large camping area with well-spaced sites that offer a truly isolated feel, despite the large number of spring breakers.  They say that they never fill, and will accommodate all campers by opening additional property if necessary.  While the store and showers were packed every evening, from our campsite we could barely hear another soul.  Stillwell’s is directly adjacent to Black Gap and only 8 miles from the north entrance to Big Bend National Park, and provided the perfect base for our adventures.

We quickly made camp, and ventured into Black Gap.  Bicolored Mustard lined the roads and filled the desert air with their sweet aroma.  It wasn’t long until we began seeing our first Big Bend Bluebonnets roadside.  Once in Black Gap we began exploring desert washes painted by the blooms of millions of wildflowers.  The highlights were two species endemic to the Big Bend region of Texas and adjacent Mexico: Phacelia infundibuliformis and Streptanthus cutleri.

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Phacelia infundibuliformis

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Streptanthus cutleri

There were many more blooms to be seen, but it was growing dark.  We returned to the truck and continued on to the river.  I had to drive slow, as Collared Peccaries and Mule Deer crossed the road before us, and our headlights reflected in the eyes of countless Common Poorwills sitting in the roadway.

Tired from a long day, we returned to camp where we took advantage of the Stillwell Store’s showers and I boiled hot dogs for dinner.  As I was cleaning after dinner I heard Caro call out to me.  I knew from the sense of urgency in her tone that she had found something interesting, and she had!  In the light of her flashlight I could see a kangaroo rat casually foraging on the desert floor.  It was not concerned in the least as I approached with my camera.  Unfortunately just after I captured this image it made its way beneath a massive Tasajillo, so close but out of reach of my lens.

I believe it to be a Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys merriami).  This species is very similar to the Ord’s Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys ordii), and both species occur in this region.  Morphologically they are quite similar and are most easily separated by counting toes – Merriam’s have four toes on their hind feet while Ord’s have five.  I did not have the luxury of counting its toes, unfortunately, however it is also reported that the two species have slightly different habitat preferences, with Merriam’s occuring on rocky, gravelly soils and Ord’s occurring in areas of loose sand.

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Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat

Where there are rodents, invariably there are things that eat rodents.  This large Kansas Glossy Snake (Arizona elegans elegans) had extensive scarring on its head and appeared to be blind in one eye.  In spite of all this, it seemed very healthy.  It would be the only live snake we would see this trip, though we found a freshly hit Western Diamondback Rattlesnake and Western Coachwhip nearby.

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Kansas Glossy Snake

That night a few raindrops fell – just enough to draw the smell of earth from the desert and serenade us with a gentle pattering on the rainfly.  We woke early the next morning, and made our way into Black Gap.  We opted to spend the morning exploring along the paved FM road down to La Linda.  There is an old closed bridge across the Rio Grande there, a sign of more prosperous times when it served to transport flourite into the U.S. from mines in Coahuila.  Today the bridge is in ruins and La Linda is a ghost town.

While the evening before we had seen a few Big Bend Bluebonnets lining the roadside, today we saw them sprawling across the hillsides in a carpet of blue.  It was a sight to behold, and though I knew they could never do this view justice, I couldn’t resist taking a few pictures.

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Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap

A short hike from the road provided a spectacular view of the lower canyons of the Rio Grande.  Here we found Yellow Rocknettle (Eucnide bartonioides) clinging to the cliffs above the river.  Below I watched a group of Cinnamon Teal floating lazily downstream.  Taken in by the grandeur of it all, I paused a moment to lose myself in contemplation – a pastime that I find trips to wide open places greatly enhance.

To capture the image below I had to lie precariously on my stomach on a narrow ledge and lower my camera a few feet.  I relied on the LCD screen to compose the shot.  It may not have been the golden hour for photography, but I was not willing to pass up the opportunity to capture such an incredible moment in time.

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Yellow Rocknettle blooms above the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande.

The Yellow Rocknettle was incredible!  We found several large groups blooming on sheer cliff faces.  While most were high on canyon walls, well out of reach, a few were low and safe enough to approach.  The large, showy flowers may appear virtually any time of year when there is sufficient rainfall.

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Yellow Rocknettle

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Yellow Rocknettle

As the sun rose higher in the sky, cactus blooms began to open to the world.  We would end up finding 9 species in flower over the course of the trip.  In Black Gap, however, we only observed one species blooming – the Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha).  Like the Big Bend Bluebonnet and Yellow Rocknettle, this was one of the biodiversity goals on my list when I first started this blog.  Though I was able to photograph this species sans flowers in October 2017, this was my first time seeing the spectacular, albeit miniature, blooms.

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

As late morning turned to early afternoon, a thin veil of clouds began passing in front of the sun, creating one of my favorite qualities of light.  I took the opportunity to photograph more Big Bend Bluebonnets, whose cobalt hues mirrored the sky.

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Big Bend Bluebonnets in Black Gap

Michael had suggested that we drive into the interior of Black Gap to experience Maravillas Canyon, and I’m glad he did.  In my opinion, the scenery here was on par with that in the National Park.  We left the pavement mid afternoon and ventured down the 4X4 road that led into the canyon.  It is 18 miles one way to the river, and though we found the road to be easily passable in my truck, it was rough.  I never put it into four-wheel drive, however high clearance was a must.

The road was lined with botanical wonders that only became more interesting and more numerous as we approached the river.  Here we found more proliferations of Big Bend Bluebonnet blooming among Lechuguilla, Candelilla, and Creosote.

As the sun vanished down behind the distant canyon walls, we made the long trek back to the pavement in the dark.  It was a somewhat eerie feeling being out in the night in the middle of so much nothingness, but I welcomed it.  It may seem counter intuitive, but I never feel more alive than those times when I’m reminded just how fragile and insignificant my life is, in the grand scheme of things.

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and Lechuguilla

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and Candelilla with Maravillas Canyon in the background

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Big Bend Bluebonnets and other desert flora in Maravillas Canyon

Exploring Black Gap was an experience I will never forget, and one I hope to repeat.  It really is the perfect playground for one who loves biodiversity, dramatic landscapes and solitude.  That night we arrived to our campsite late and completely drained, but we took in the moonless night sky where the brilliance of countless stars cast shadows across the desert floor.  It was another in a long list of humbling experience that the day offered.  The next morning we would venture into the park to experience a wildflower bloom, the abundance and diversity of which hardly seemed possible in such an unforgiving landscape.

Spring in the Desert: Prologue

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Lupinus havardii blooms in profusion in the low desert of Big Bend National Park, with the Chisos Mountains looming in the background

Over the next several days I’ll be posting a series of accounts from a spur the moment trip that Carolina and I took to the Big Bend region of Texas.  This year the area is experiencing a phenomenal wildflower bloom thanks to ample rain that fell in the fall and winter.  It is a trip that I have wanted to make for a long time, and the experience was truly incredible.  During our trip I was able to locate and photograph the following biodiversity targets:

Texas Rainbow Cactus (Echinocereus dasyacanthus)

Warnock’s Fishook Cactus (Echinomastus warnockii)

Yellow Rocknettle (Eucnide bartonioides)

Big Bend Bluebonnet (Lupinus havardii)

These species and many others will be presented in three chapters:

The Beauty of Black Gap

The Super Bloom

The Marathon Basin

I look forward to sharing our finds, experiences, and of course my photographs of a very special spring in this important, biodiverse region.

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.

Living Rocks, Golf Balls, and Other Strangely Named Cacti of the Trans-Pecos.

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Living Rock Cactus

Target Species:

Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus ornatus)

Button Cactus (Epithelantha micromeris)

Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha)

Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus)

The landscape of Big Bend is striking for its vastness; famous for its sweeping views that stretch from horizon to horizon, and seemingly beyond.  Stepping into this rugged wilderness, one is immediately hit with the harshness of this land.  Brutal conditions created by lack of rainfall and extreme temperatures.  It is easy to think that this seemingly inhospitable land  would be devoid of life, but despite its harshness it is incredibly diverse, harboring a rich flora and fauna unlike anywhere else on the planet.  And as remarkable as this vastness is, equally astounding is the beauty and variety that can be found in just one small patch of the desert floor.

Big Bend, that large peninsula of Texas that dips down into Mexico as it follow a bend in the Rio Grande, has the greatest cactus diversity in the country.  It was that diversity that brought Carolina and I to the region this October.  Specifically we were hoping to find the Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus) in bloom.

Big Bend is part of the Chihuahuan Desert.  It is the highest, wettest desert in North America, and the most biodiverse in the world.  The Big Bend Region includes a multitude of natural and cultural attractions, including Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Terlingua.  We planned to explore these areas in pursuit of our succulent quarries, and hoped that our pursuit would bring with it other natural wonders.

Cactus hunting is not without its hazards.  Aside from the obvious risk of an errant spine in the skin, there are other denizens of cactus country that pack a punch.  One such inhabitant is the Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus ornatus).  Yet despite this creatures fearsome reputation as a venomous marauder, it is one of the most docile snake species I have had the good fortune to encounter.

As I scoured a rock cut in search of spiny succulents, my eyes caught a familiar outline – a striking (as in attractive) Crotalus ornatus coiled at the mouth of a deep crevice in the limestone.  It was sitting, I presumed, waiting for some unsuspecting rodent to wander within its grasp.  Generally speaking, I think that the threat of rattlesnakes to your average desert-goer is greatly exaggerated, however seeing this beauty hidden away in the perfect hand or foot hold certainly reinforced the old adage “look before you step”.  The photo below depicts the animal as I found it.

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Black-tailed Rattlesnake

After spending a few moments with the black-tail I continued my search for cacti.  After a moment I heard Carolina call out that she had found something.  How she spotted them, I’ll never know, but she had found a population of the diminutive Button Cactus (Epithelantha micromeris).  This diminutive cactus seldom protrudes more than 2 inches above the rocky substrate it calls home.  It occurs primarily in Mexico, but also throughout much of West Texas, southern New Mexico, and extreme southeastern Arizona.

Though they were not in flower, I found these small, rock-like cacti to be quite photogenic.  They flower primarily in late winter and early spring.  Later in the year an elongated red fruit appears.  Caro likened the fruit to a particular part of an excited dog’s anatomy.

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Button Cactus

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Button Cactus

Nestled in a few populations along the Pecos/Brewster County line, one may find a particularly formidable looking cactus.  The Icicle Cholla (Cylindropuntia tunicata) is a wide ranging species, occurring in deserts throughout much of Latin America.  In the United States, however, it is known only from these few places in the Trans-Pecos of Texas.  Admiring the afternoon light filtering through its intimidating spines, it was easy to see how it earned its common name.

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Icicle Cactus

After a long day of travelling and exploring we finally made it to Marathon, but not before stopping at an extensive Black-tailed Prairie Dog town, where we admired their antics as the day began to fade.  We made our camp in Marathon, and I found myself deep in thought as we laid in our sleeping bags looking up at the twinkling wonder of space.  Along with the prerequisite existential questions inspired by such a vista, I pondered on the days to come, and the natural wonders that awaited us.

The next morning I spotted a remarkable creature on the stucco outside the campground’s bathrooms.  It was a male Chihuahuan Agapema (Agapema dyari).  A lovely member of the giant silkmoth family (Saturniidae).  I gently moved it to a nearby tree trunk, where I hoped it would be less obvious to the hoard of House Sparrows that were scouring the area.

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Chihuahuan Agapema

As the sun warmed the desert we broke our condensation-laden camp and set out for Big Bend National Park.  As we crossed into the park we immediately took notice of the diverse cactus community.  The most obvious were the abundant clumps of Strawberry Cactus (Echinocereus stramineus), the heavily armed Eagle’s Claw Cactus (Echinocactus horizonthalonius), and the ubiquitous prickly pears (Opuntia spp.).

Finding the smaller, more cryptic species, took a bit more work.  We found the Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha) to be quite common.  Also known as the Golf Ball Cactus, this tiny succulent is quite similar to the Button Cactus.  Cacti of Texas, A Field Guide by Powell, et. al discusses some of the differences.

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

The real reason for our trip, however, was to try to catch the Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus) in bloom.  This bizarre cactus is, in my opinion, one of the most spectacular plants in the country.  Hardly recognizable as a cactus, it is spineless, and consists of rough tubercles arranged in concentric rings around a center of soft fuzz.

For most of the year the dull green to gray Living Rock blends perfectly with the scattered stones that litter its limestone home, relying on camouflage rather than piercing spines for defense.  For a few short weeks in the fall, however, the limestone hills of the Trans-Pecos explode with color as thousands upon thousands of Living Rocks open their bright pink blooms to the world.

It was just such a scene that I was hoping Carolina and I would encounter in Big Bend.  We were soon to find, however, that finding these jewels of the Chihuahuan Desert in bloom would be far more difficult than we anticipated.  We spent all day scouring limestone ridges, bluffs along the Rio Grande, and flats in the low desert.  We jumped for joy when we found our first plant.  We knew we were were in the right area.  Even without their blooms, the Living Rock is a beautiful, bizarre plant and photographic subject.

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Living Rock Cactus

The desert sun is relentless, even in mid October.  Our spirits refreshed by finding our first Living Rock, we pushed on, scouring the bleached white limestone hills as the temperatures flirted with 100 degrees.  It was truly brutal, but we knew that the payoff of seeing the blooms would be well worth our suffering.  After several hours, and several hundred more Living Rocks sighted, however, the blooms did not come.  We were dismayed.  We had become proficient at spotting the near invisible cacti on the desert floor, but despite finding so many individuals in several different areas, we did not find a single bloom.  I began to think that this would not be the trip that we would see the exquisite flowers of Ariocarpus fissuratus.

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Living Rock Cactus

That night we hoped to camp in the park, but alas, all of the campgrounds were full.  We debated between staying at a primitive campsite along a backcountry road, or driving to the campground in Study Butte.  In the end we opted for the latter, and made the drive from the Rio Grande to Study Butte in the darkness, with nothing but the Common Poorwhills, Black-tailed Jackrabbits, and Western Diamondbacks to keep us company.

When we arrived at the campground, the attendant informed us that there was a party going on that would last well into the night, and recommended that we select a site on the other  side of the property.  We happily agreed.  We made camp, ate dinner, and settled in for the evening.  The “party” turned out to be a music festival that blared across the desert until after 1 am, after which the multitude of bikers attending continued to keep us awake for at least another hour.  Finally, at some point in the wee hours before dawn we drifted off.

We were awoken around 6 am to gale force wind violently shaking our tent.  The temperature had dropped by tens of degrees, and as we stepped out from behind the nylon the air met us with a chill.  I must admit, as I broke camp with powerful wind gusts and stinging dust beating down on me, I was hating life.  “Not every trip can be a success,” I reminded myself, and I tried to take solace in the incredible organisms we had thusfar encountered, and the memories we had created.  In that moment, however, it was hard to do.

We decided to spend the morning and early afternoon exploring the area, before beginning our long journey back to the Pineywoods.  The habitat at our first stop looked promising, but after a lack of blooms the previous day, I took care not to get my hopes up.  We soon saw our first Living Rock, like a star etched into the talus.  I found myself once again admiring their bizarre firm when I heard Carolina shout out in glee.  I knew.  The memory of the brutal previous night faded as I made my way to her, and saw the bright pink bloom seemingly emerging from nothing.  We did it.  It was not long before we found another, and another.

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Living Rock Cactus

The Living Rock is one of three spineless cacti in Texas.  Their lack of spines means that they must rely on camouflage to avoid predation.  They also contain foul-tasting alkaloids which likely deter would be predators.  These alkaloids, however, have made this plant popular with the Tarahumara and other early tribes and settlers.  Though they do not contain mescaline like the similarly spineless Peyote, they contain other mildly hallucinogenic compounds like hordenine, and were reportedly used as a substitute when preferable psychoactive cacti weren’t available.  Hordenine also made the Living Rock useful for a number of medicinal purposes, including a disinfectant for wounds and burns.

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Living Rock Cactus

Ariocarpus fissuratus is  endemic to the Chihuahuan Desert.  They barely enter the U.S. in West Texas.  They are incredibly tough, even for a cactus.  We found that they would grow in the harshest parts of the landscape, often where even other succulents could not survive.  They owe their success to their uncanny capacity to store water, and their ability to shrivel away to virtually nothing in times of extreme drought.  Indeed, they often times seem to be more stone than plant.  Carolina and I admired them for some time, and reluctantly bid them farewell, content with the short moment in time we were fortunate enough to spend among their fleeting blooms.

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Living Rock Cactus

There are some songs that serve to inspire us and remind of of those things in this world that are most important to us.  For me, one such song is Stubborn Love by the Lumineers, and it came up on the playlist just as the Chisos Mountains began to fade in our rearview.  I looked about the desert that stretched beyond the horizons around us, and I was filled with a sense of contentment.  It’s easy to feel sad at the end of a great trip, but I take comfort in the fact that no matter where I am, if nature is near there is some great wonder waiting to be discovered.

August and September Recap

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Sacred Datura

Between August 1 and September 30 I was able to cross 5 more species off my list, 3 of which came from another trip to the Davis Mountains:

Mountain Adder’s Mouth (Malaxis macrostachya)

Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii)

Mountain Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi)

Gulf Blazing Star (Liatris tenuis)

Barbed Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes barbata)

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Although we spent most of our time during our August trip to West Texas in the Davis Mountains, we camped the last night on the shore of Lake Balmorhea.  I found the Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii) pictured above right at daybreak as I explored the area around our tent.  The flowers of the Sacred Datura are primarily pollinated by large sphinx moths.  As a result they open in the late evening and close in the early morning.  Sacred Datura has a long history of significance for the people of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. It is well known for its potentially lethal toxicity. However it has also been used extensively for medicinal purposes. The plant was also used by many native tribes in religious ceremonies, often to induce visions.due to its hallucinogenic properties. Unfortunately, the potency of its toxins resulted in the death of many of its users.

On the drive home we stopped at a few rock outcrops to help break up the drive and stretch our legs.  It was at one of these outcrops that we spotted the Cory’s Dutchman Pipe (Aristolochia coryi).  In the U.S., this bizarre plant can only be found in central and western Texas.

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Cory’s Dutchman Pipe

Back in East Texas, my friend James Childress and I went looking for some late summer wildflowers.  Two of my favorites are the Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) and the Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii).  Both species are uncommon in East Texas.  P. ciliaris occurs in herbaceous seeps, baygall margins, and occasionally wet ditches and prairie remnants.  L. michauxii primarily occurs on the upper slopes of rich mesic ravines, often near the transition zone between slope and upland.

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Yellow Fringed Orchid

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Carolina Lily

While hunting for wildflowers James spotted a most interesting creature.  The Giant Ichneumon (Megarhyssa macrurus) is a large parasitic wasp with extremely long ovipositors.  They use these ovipositors to probe tunnels created by the larvae of horntail wasps.  Horntails bore into the wood of dead and dying trees.  The female ichneumon seeks out these larvae and with her ovipositor and lays her eggs on or in them.  Her own larvae then parasitize the horntail larvae.  The young ichmeumons will feed only on the horntails, killing them in the process.  They will then pupate and emerge as adults from the tunnel that their host created for them.

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Giant Ichneumon

In late August Hurricane Harvey passed through East Texas and dumped unprecedented amounts of rain on the region.  Following the storm, James and I went looking for reptiles and amphibians, hoping that they would be active following the prolonged period of moisture.

We found a number of Southern Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix), the most attractive of which is pictured below.

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Southern Copperhead

Among the amphibians observed was this enormous Gulf Coast Toad (Incilius nebulifer).

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Gulf Coast Toad

The prolonged rainfall brought out scores of Hurter’s Spadefoots (Scaphiopus hurteri).  These interesting frogs can be extremely abundant in certain areas, but require specific habitat conditions.  These conditions typically consist of areas with deep, undisturbed sand where they can burrow and aestivate during the hottest and driest part of the summer.  This species emerges only after heavy rains, where they may breed by the thousands in small ephemeral wetlands that may be little more than a puddle.  The tadpole stage for these spadefoots is among the shortest of any frog, requiring as little as two weeks to go from an egg to a froglet capable of leaving the water.  This short larval stage is an adaptation to allow them to breed in areas were the presence of water is a limiting factor, and allows them to breed in areas that other species are not capable of utilizing, effectively eliminating the competition.

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Hurter’s Spadefoot

September is perhaps the best time to visit Catahoula Barrens.  Wildflowers such as Texas Blazing Star (Liatris mucronata) and Nuttall’s Rayless Goldenrod (Bigelowia nuttallii) bloom in mass.  Downy Lobelia (Lobelia puberula) is fairly common in wetter areas along the margins of the barrens.

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Downy Lobelia

Small-flowered Fameflower (Phemeranthus parviflorus) occurs sporadically in Catahoula Barrens.  The flowers of this interesting succulent open in late afternoon.

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Small-flowered Fameflower

I leave you with this final shot of a Catahoula Barren.  I captured this shot at dusk and tried to highlight the rich diversity of colors that can be found in these incredible landscapes.

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Catahoula Barren