A Big Bowl of Lonestar Biodiversity

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A Pine Warbler perches on the bare twigs of a winged elm in the understory of a mature pine/oak/hickory upland.

The last month or so here in East Texas has been plagued by a barrage of heat waves that have made spending time in the woods unpleasant at best, to downright miserable at worst.  Because of the oppressive heat, and a variety of events in my personal life beyond my control, I have found myself lacking in motivation to pick up the camera and get out and explore.  I think that slumps like this are only natural, and I have certainly experienced them in the past.  Fortunately, I have always overcome them, and returned to this passion that has helped to shape the purpose that I feel in this thing we call life.

Thinking that a trip down memory lane might help rekindle the flame of my passion for the natural world, I recently went back through the many images I have taken this year.  In doing so, I realized that there were a great many images that I have captured during short day and weekend trips that I had not yet posted.

So I decided to start writing, and in reliving these memories I found my spirits instantly lifted.  Instead of breaking these images out into smaller posts I decided to make one giant post covering the last several months.  So I invite my reader to settle in and enjoy this brief tour of some of the incredible biodiversity that can be found in the Lonestar State.

Though this post was meant to cover the first half of this year, my first post actually comes from December of last year, when Caro and I went out on a salamander hunting excursion with our friends Scott and Ashley Wahlberg.  We struggled most of the day, until Ashley spotted this handsome male Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) under debris at the bottom of a dry vernal pool.  I titled the shot “Ancient Ritual”, and staged it to look like the salamander was just emerging to undertake his annual migration to the breeding pool of his birth, an event that his ancestors have undertaken for millennia.

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A Spotted Salamander emerges following a warm winter rain and begins his migration to his ancestral breeding pond.

A few days into the new year, Caro and I took a trip to Galveston.  On the way back, I spotted several Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) foraging in a tidal marsh in golden evening light. I could not resist the opportunity to try to capture some images of these beautiful, bizarre birds, so I pulled off and trudged into the mud flats. A local fisherman kept warning me of where all of the hidden holes were. Carefully I cradled my camera as I struggled to keep my balance in the muck. Finally as I drew closer I dropped down to my knees, then to my belly, and began to army crawl toward my quarry. The fisherman was kind enough to check on me frequently by shouting “are you ok”?  I responded with a simple thumbs up.

I crawled forward through the mud and shallow water until I found myself in the perfect position for a low angle shot in that beautiful light. The spoonbill is such a curious subject that seems so majestic yet awkward at the same time. When I returned to my truck I was literally coated in mud from head to toe. Fortunately I had a change of clothes, and was able to clean up a bit and return home, smiling from the perfect ending to a wonderful day.

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A Roseate Spoonbill forages in shallow tidal flats adjacent to Galveston Bay.

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A Roseate Spoonbill forages in shallow tidal flats adjacent to Galveston Bay.

During the height of January, when little else was active, I turned my lens toward wintering songbirds.  I spent several days at James Childress’s farm, where his land management activities have produced excellent habitat for a variety of species, a few of which are highlighted below.

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An American Goldfinch perches on the fruit-bearing twigs of a deciduous holly.

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A Pine Warbler forages in the limbs of a mature loblolly pine.

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A Dark-eyed Junco pauses for a moment on a branch of an old post oak.

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A White-crowned Sparrow on its wintering grounds in Angelina County.

By early February in the Pineywoods, winter begins releasing its grip, and a few brave floral souls emerge to reveal their blossoms to the world.  One of the earliest, and one of my all time favorite wildflowers, the bloodroot, blooms in the deep woods.  Likely never common in the Pineywoods, it has become exceedingly scarce over the last century due to a combination of habitat loss and over-harvest for its medicinal qualities.

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Bloodroot grows from the crook of an old tree root.

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A Bloodroot flower emerges from the dense leaf litter.

James and I also spent a few days photographing birds at the Pineywoods Native Plant Center on the Stephen F. Austin State University Campus.  It includes a remnant patch of near old growth forest, and provides excellent opportunities for wildlife observation.  The following images were all made at this special place.

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A Female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) perches in a dense tangle of dried vegetation.

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A White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) blends in to the winter browns of a prairie remnant.

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A Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus) forages on a branch of a blooming Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).

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A Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) pauses among dense winter vegetation.

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A handsome White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) out and about on a chilly early spring morning.

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A Mourning Dove (Zenaida macrura) forages on the forest floor.

As February gave way to March, spring was in full swing in the Pineywoods.  Caro and I spent an afternoon hiking in the Sam Houston National Forest.  Pollinators like the Falcate Orangetip (Anthocharis midea) were out in droves, and the violets were putting on a show on the forest floor.

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A female Falcate Orangetip nectars on the blooms of springcress (Cardamine bulbosa), on of its host plants.

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An Early Blue Violet (Viola palmata) blooms on the forest floor.

I spent one March day exploring the Columbia Bottomlands, a unique forested community in southeast Texas, where I observed a number of interesting wildflowers in bloom, including the Purple Rocket (Iodanthus pinnatifidus), which has a peculiar distribution.  This member of the mustard family (Brassicacea) can be found in many central and eastern states, including much of Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, however in Texas it is only known from a few southeastern and south-central counties.

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Purple Rocket blooms in profusion in a coastal upland forest.

I also found numerous Zigzag Irises (Iris brevicaulis) and a proliferation of Butterweed (Packera glabella) in bloom among the sedges and other wetland plants in these unique hardwood bottoms.

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Zigzag Iris blooms in the understory of the Columbia Bottomlands.

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Butterweed and Raven’s-foot Sedge (Carex crus-corvi) bloom in a forested wetland in the Columbia Bottomlands.

Back in the Pineywoods, I set out to explore a high quality forested seep where I found the imperiled Texas Trillium (Trillium texanum) coming into bloom.

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The rare Texas Trillium blooms in an old growth forested seep.

In early March, I visited our good friends Susan and Viron’s property for our annual botanical bonanza looking for rare spring ephemeral wildflowers.  As usual, we were not disappointed.  The following three images are from the outing.

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The tiny Southern Twayblade (Listera australis) is one of the earliest orchids to bloom in the Pineywoods.

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The delicate blooms of a Wood Rush (Luzula sp.) are best observed up close.

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Leaves of Cutleaf Toothwort (Cardamine concactenata) and Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium rostratum) decorate the forest floor.  I find the leaves of these species just as interesting as the blooms.

Texas is known for its roadsides brimming with bluebonnets, however wild, native populations of these dainty lupines can be hard to find, particularly in the Pineywoods.  I was happy to find and photograph what I believe to be truly wild populations of the Sandyland Bluebonnet (Lupinus subcarnosus) in Houston and Rusk Counties this spring.

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A Sandylands Bluebonnet blooms in a sandhill forest in the Pineywoods.

While taking a pit stop on our way to visit my family in Houston, I spotted a brilliant creamy-looking pink and yellow Rosy Maple Moth (Dryocampa rubicunda) clinging to a building wall, having been drawn in the night before by artificial lights.  These members of the silkworm moth family (Saturniidae) are wide-ranging in the eastern U.S., however I only occasionally encounter them in Texas.  I gently moved it from the building to a nearby patch of woods in hopes to increase its chances for survival and reproduction.

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The Rosy Maple Moth is one of our most colorful moths.

Last year my friend Jared Barnes told me about a population of Prairie Celestials (Nemastylis geminiflora) that he discovered last year deep in the Pineywoods.  This spring calciphile is common throughout much of central Texas, where calcareous soils are more prevalent, however it is quite rare in East Texas and western Louisiana, so I was thrilled at the chance to see and photograph it on my home turf.  I got the chance in late March, when I visited the site that Jared told me about and found it in full bloom.

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Prairie Celestials bloom in a remnant prairie in Nacogdoches County.

On March 30, 2014, I married the love of my life.  Five years later we spent our anniversary in San Antonio, in a quaint hotel just next to the Alamo.  We enjoyed spending time in the historic city and shopping and dining on the River Walk, however I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get a few hours of nature time in.  We visited Cascade Caverns and saw the diminutive endemic Cascade Caverns Salamander (Eurycea latitans), and spent some times along the scenic cypress lined creeks and rivers of the region.

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The clear waters of Bandera Creek flow over boulders and cypress roots.

I also stopped to explore a small chalk prairie where Lindheimer’s Paintbrush (Castilleja lindheimeri) was blooming in such numbers that it appeared the prairie was aflame.

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Lindheimer’s Paintbrush blooms in a chalk prairie in the Texas Hill Country.

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The curious blooms of a Lindheimer’s Paintbrush.

The following week, back at home, Scott and I set out in hopes of finding the rare Whorled Pogonia (Isotria verticillata) in bloom, after receiving a tip that they were flowering along the margins of a baygall about 30 minutes from my home.  Not far from the site I spotted the quick movement of some manner of skink scurrying through the leaf litter.  Fortunately I was quick enough to capture the nimble reptile, and we were excited to see that it was a Southern Coal Skink (Plestiodon anthracinus), a species that is seldom encountered in the state.

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A male Southern Coal Skink, a seldom seen denizen of the Pineywoods.

After some searching, we found the pogonias as well!  These exotic looking orchids are extremely difficult to spot, but close examination reveals a beautiful, bizarre bloom.  The Whorled Pogonia is imperiled in Texas, and has seemingly disappeared from a number of historic locations.

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The exotic looking flower of the Whorled Pogonia.

The pogonias were growing near the transition from mesic pine-hardwood forest to a highly acidic forested seep.  Nearby we found a crystal clear springfed stream flowing over pure sand.

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A creek cuts through mesic pine-hardwood forest.

That same day I would discover my own population of Nemastylis geminifolia in the Pineywoods, this time occurring in a rich calcareous woodland not far from the Louisiana border.

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Prairie Celestials bloom in an open, calcareous forest in Sabine County.

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A Zebra Longhorn (Typocerus zebra) feeds on the blooms of a Prairie Celestial.

Scott and I also enjoyed observing several other wildflowers in bloom that day, including a personal favorite, Wood Betony or Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis).

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Wood Betony blooms in the forest understory.

Mid-April Caro and I took a weekend trip to the Blackland Prairies and Cross Timbers of North-Central Texas, a region that has fast become one of my favorites in the state.  On the way, we stopped at an extensive outcrop of the iron-rich Weches Formation where I had previously seen the rare Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus) in bloom.  I was at the site too late for peak bloom last year, and only observed a few individuals in flower.  This year I timed it just right, and caught thousands upon thousands in bloom in the glades and stunted woodlands growing on this unique geologic substrate.

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The rare Clasping Jewelflower blooms in a remnant Weches Woodland.

Streptanthus maculatus was one of the species on my list of biodiversity goals for which this blog was established.  Though I technically checked it off my list last year, and posted a blog about it, I’m taking this opportunity to showcase a few more images of this striking plant.

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The rare Clasping Jewelflower blooms in a remnant Weches Woodland.

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A closeup of the fascinating blooms of the Clasping Jewelflower.

There were a number of other interesting things blooming over the Weches Formation, including Heartleaf Four-O’clock (Mirabilis nyctaginea) and Louisiana Vetch (Vicia ludoviciana).

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Heartleaf Four-O’clock blooms in a forest clearing on the Weches Formation.

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The tiny blooms of Louisiana Vetch

When we arrived in the Blackland Prairies, I was able to track down a stunning plant that I had long hoped to photograph – the Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis), a species of the east that barely enters Texas in the eastern panhandle and north-central portion of the state.

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Blue Wild Indigo blooms in a Blackland Prairie remnant.

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Blue Wild Indigo blooms in a Blackland Prairie remnant.

We were fortunate to visit a site that my friend David Bezanson of the nature conservancy describes as “the finest Blackland Prairie remnant in Texas”.  I had hoped for better light, but I was in awe in the overwhelming beauty and diversity of the place.

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A Blackland Prairie remnant in Collin County.

In a rich woodland of Bois d’arc and elm near the Oklahoma border, I found a striking Texas rarity, the Violet Blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia violacea).  We were at the tail end of their blooming season, and I hope to visit again next spring.

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Violet Blue-eyed Mary blooms in a Bois d’arc/elm woodland in Grayson County.

Driving along a rural county road in Cooke County, I spotted hints of light blue and purple along the roadside.  I could tell immediately that it was a species of hyacinth (Camassia).  I initially suspected that they were the fairly common Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), however in this part of Texas there is another possibility.  These turned out to be the much less common Prairie Hyacinth (Camassia angusta), identifiable by the large number of persistent sterile bracts.

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Prairie Camas blooms in a rich prairie remnant in Cooke County.

After exploring some area back roads, we stopped at one of my favorite prairie remnants in the state, a small (~4.5-acre) patch of Grand Prairie that harbors incredible plant species diversity.

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Prairie Paintbrush (Castilleja citrina) and Hairy Cornsalad (Valerianella amarella) bloom in the Grand Prairie.

In a good year, thousands upon thousands of Eastern Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) bloom here.  In Texas, this species is restricted to the northern Grand and Blackland Prairies, with a few remnant populations in the Edward’s Plateau.

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Eastern Shooting Star blooms in the Grand Prairie.

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The blooms of the Eastern Shooting Star are among our most photogenic native wildflowers.

The weekend after our trip to North-Central Texas, we found ourselves back on the upper coast.  Galveston Bay is lined with a number of high quality saltmarshes that provide a brief glimpse of what the Upper Texas Coast looked like before coastline development and industry took their toll.  Today, these remnant marshes are reduced in size, and generally surrounded by subdivisions or refineries.  In the image below, a luxury beach-front community can be seen in the distance.  Even if the development does not directly impact the marsh itself, it eliminates important buffer zones and reduces biodiversity in the process.  The combination of this development and accelerating rates of sea level rise make these special places one of our most imperiled communities.

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A high quality saltmarsh holds on in the face of rampant coastal development.

While on the coast we met up with my parents and James and Erin, and spent some time searching for Neotropical Migrants making their way toward northern breeding grounds.  Conditions were generally poor during that trip, but we did manage to see a few interesting things, including a male Blue Grosbeak in the process of molting into its adult plumage.

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This young male Blue Grosbeak has just begun to attain his adult plumage.

At the famous rookery at the Houston Audubon Society’s Smith Oaks Preserve we saw a number of waterbirds tending to newly hatched chicks.

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Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus) chicks beg for a meal.

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Two generations of Great Egrets (Ardea alba).

The next morning James and I rose early and made our way to the beach in hopes of capturing some images of Least Terns (Sternula antillarum) in the early morning light.  We were fortunate enough to see a number of courting pairs.

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Courting Least Terns

We watched as males would capture small fish and present them to the females while vocalizing and performing a ritualized dance.

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Courting Least Terns

Near the terns we spotted a number of Wilson’s Plovers (Charadrius wilsonii).  These boisterous shorebirds were defending their nests by feigning injury in an attempt to lure would-be predators away from the nests.

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A Wilson’s Plover hides among the dune vegetation.

A number of Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) were also seen on the dunes that morning.

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A Horned Lark among the foredunes.

As spring gradually began to give way to summer, I spent some time photographing some local residents, including a number of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) that regularly visit the feeders in James’s grandmother’s yard.

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A fluffed up Northern Cardinal on the branch of an old elm.

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A male Northern Cardinal among the leaves of a Southern Red Oak.

While wandering James’s property in search of birds, we spotted an old female Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) in a small puddle formed by recent rains.

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An old Three-toed Box Turtle takes advantage of a puddle formed by recent rains.

One of my favorite activities is driving remote, rural roads in Deep East Texas.  Such outings usually lead to interesting discoveries.  One May evening, while driving through a recent clearcut in Newton County, I heard the unmistakable buzzy trill of a Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor).  Though clearcuts are certainly unsightly and conjure up thoughts of environmental destruction, during their first few years of regeneration they provide habitat for a variety of birds including Prairie Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chats, Indigo Buntings, Northern Bobwhite and more.  When done on a proper scale and rotation, clearcuts can simulate natural disturbances and can enhance the overall health and biodiversity of a forested region.

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A Prairie Warbler sings from atop a growing pine sapling.

Mid May is my favorite time to explore the sandhills of the Post Oak Savanna.  These interesting habitats are home to a number of endemic species and in May the wildflowers are on full display.  Pictured below are Eastern Prickly Pears (Opuntia cespitosa), and the rare endemic mints Brazoria truncata var. pulcherrima and Rhododon ciliatus.

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The brilliant colors of a Post Oak Savanna sand “blowout” in spring.

One morning, while I was preparing breakfast, Caro rushed in from the backyard and told me to come quick.  There was a brightly colored Three-toed Box Turtle at the edge of our little vegetable garden.  Caro named her Frederick, and we watched as she moved about the yard, picking off slugs and other tasty morsels.  Eventually we lost sight of her in a dense tangle of vines at the back corner of the yard.

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A Three-toed Box Turtle that Caro found in our yard and lovingly named “Frederick”.

The next day, Caro ran in again, calling for me to “come and see”.  This time she had found a female stag beetle (Lucanus placidus) in her shoe!

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A female stag beetle (Lucanus placidus) that Caro found in her shoe.

As I was photographing the beetle Caro called my attention to a striking Eight-spotted Forester Moth (Alypia octomaculata) that was nectaring on the Coreopsis blooms in our garden.

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An Eight-spotted Forester Moth nectars on Coreopsis blooms.

A few days later, Caro found another interesting beetle in the yard, a colorful Line Buprestis (Buprestis lineatus).

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A Lined Buprestis Beetle

My eagle-eyed wife also spotted this little jumping spider (Colonus sylvanus) in our garden.

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A jumping spider on a Purple Coneflower bloom in our Garden.

Target Species: White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

When I added White-tailed Deer to my list of 2017 biodiversity goals, I had a very specific image in mind.  Though the image below is not exactly what I had hoped for, I was happy enough with it to cross the species off my list.  Caro and I spotted this young buck in a mature Longleaf Pine Savanna one evening, and I managed a few shots before it disappeared among the rolling terrain.

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A young White-tailed Deer Buck in a longleaf pine savanna.

Back in our yard, we came across a Fiery Searcher (Calosoma scrutator).  Also known as the Caterpillar Hunter, this large predatory beetle is, in my opinion, among the most beautiful insects in the country.

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A Fiery Searcher on the hunt in our backyard.

In early June, I found a nice male Eastern Hercules Beetle (Dynastes tityus) near our house.  One of North America’s largest and most impressive insects, these beetles inhabit mature forests with abundant hardwoods.

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A fine male Eastern Hercules Beetle

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A fine male Eastern Hercules beetle.

In late July, our old friend Frederick the Three-toed Box Turtle appeared again in our backyard.  Caro spotted her eating cantaloupe rinds from fruit that we set out to try and attract beetles and other insects to our yard.

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Frederick returns for a visit

I’ll end this post with an image from early August, the last time I set out into the woods with the intention of making images.  I spotted this Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans) feeding on predatory robber fly.  The spider had taken an ambush position among the blooms of a Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera).

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A Green Lynx Spider in ambush mode on the blooms of a Rough Blazing Star.

I am very much looking forward to fall, and hope to set out to capture new landscapes and biodiversity with a renewed passion and sense of purpose.

The Land of Enchantment Part Two: Biodiversity in the Sangre de Cristos

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From the high plains we continued west, deeper into the Land of Enchantment.  As we gradually climbed in elevation, our surroundings changed from shortgrass prairie to sagebrush flats to Rocky Mountain foothills dominated by pinyon and juniper.  It was in the latter community that I saw something slink across the road ahead of us, which I took to be a coyote.  We pulled up to where I saw the animal and got out, but after scanning the area a few minutes found nothing. We returned to the truck and moved forward no more than a hundred yards or so when Caro shouted, “There it is!”. The rest was a bit of a blur of excitement, however what I do remember is seeing that something didn’t look right for a coyote. Quickly grabbing the binoculars I focused on what turned out to be two animals about 50 yards away.  In that moment I heard Caro shout “Son Pumas!”, and it became clear, as I focused on two young pumas staring at us. Quickly I pulled off the road and fumbled for my camera gear, but they took off immediately. I had managed a few distant shots of their tails, when something burst out from the brush about 30 yards away and went after them. We assume this larger, more strikingly colored individual was their mother. Again I only managed a shot of her back as she ran off, but this encounter with a trio of Mountain Lions was more about the experience than the photos. This is a species I had always dreamed of seeing during the western explorations of my childhood, but despite being in the right habitat so many times, I never did. Instead, I would finally come face to face with them in a chance encounter when I least expected it.  That evening we continued into Taos, and looked longingly to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains towering around us, eager to immerse ourselves in their beauty.

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Young Pumas retreating.

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Adult Puma retreating

The next morning we set out into the semi-arid foothills around Taos in search of garnet and staurolite, two interesting minerals known to occur in the vicinity of the Rio Grande.  Our search took us through rugged 4×4 roads which I enjoyed navigating.  Along the way we stopped to admire a cast of unfamiliar wildflowers.  Of particular interest were several species of Penstemon.  I later learned that there are some 40+ species of Penstemon in New Mexico!  While we saw only a fraction of this diversity, we were quite taken with the species we did observe.  Growing among pinyon and ponderosa pines we found Penstemon virgatus.  This species is apparently quite variable, and its flowers may be blue, purple, pink, or white.

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Penstemon virgatus

Growing nearby we found Penstemon inflatus, a New Mexico endemic.

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Penstemon inflatus

Slightly higher in elevation we spotted the five-foot tall Penstemon palmeri.  It may have been the most impressive penstemon I’ve seen, with a spike of huge, tightly packed pink blooms.  In general, penstemons are not particularly fragrant.  This species, however, filled the air around it with a strong, sweet aroma.

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Penstemon palmeri

Higher still we found several clusters of Penstemon strictus, a unique, beautiful addition to the flora of the region.  Many species of penstemon are popular in the world of horticulture, and make excellent additions to a native garden.

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Penstemon strictus

Growing among the Penstemon virgatus and P. inflatus we found several Sego Lilies (Calochortus nuttallii).  These beautiful, dainty blooms grew in clearings in the pine-dominated foothills.

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Sego Lily

Along crystal clear streams swollen from rapidly melting snow in the high country, we found abundant thickets of Woods’s Rose (Rosa woodsii).  This native rose decorates the countryside with its pink blooms and fills the summer air with its sweet aroma.

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Woods’s Rose

After searching for the better part of a day, we finally found several pieces of schist bearing the minerals we were after.  It was these minerals that prompted Caro to suggest a trip to the area, and the excitement we shared after finding them was one of the highlights of the trip.  The discovery came after a long hot morning of searching, right as an early afternoon thunderstorm bore down on us.  Hail and lightning caused us to retreat to the truck, where we waited out the weather and resumed our search with renewed intensity.  The rocks of interest were much easier to spot as they glistened, wet with rainwater.

With our thirst for rockhounding satisfied, we opted to spend the rest of the day in the high country, and made our way into the lush montane forests of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  The Sangre de Cristos run from southern colorado into northern New Mexico.  In their northern reaches they contain a number of “fourteeners”, that is mountain peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation.  They are a bit shorter here, but Wheeler Peak (the highest point in New Mexico) still climbs to over 13,000 feet and is a short distance from Taos.

As we climbed in elevation we began to notice a wealth of mountain wildflowers.  We were still too early for the incredible display of wildflowers that bloom in the summer in subalpine meadows of the Rockies – truly one of the most spectacular wildflower shows on the planet – but there were still plenty of floral diversity to admire.

Large colonies of Rocky Mountain Iris (Iris missouriensis), for example, painted clearings above 8,000 feet.  Most of these delicate blooms were damaged by recent rain and hail, yet I managed to find a few fresh individuals to photograph.

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Rocky Mountain Iris

Along wet seepage slopes and seep-fed streams we found the lovely White Marsh Marigold (Caltha leptosepala) in bloom.

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White Marsh Marigold

The most impressive wildflower displays were to be found in the shade of forests dominated by Engelmann Spruce, Subalpine Fir, and Douglas-Fir.  Here we found several species growing in close proximity, including Rock Clematis (Clematis columbiana), Western Red Columbine (Aquilegia elegantula), and Franciscan Bluebells (Mertensia franciscana).

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Rock Columbine

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Western Red Columbine

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Franciscan Bluebells

The most exciting discoveries, however, were the orchids.  I have long been fascinated by this family of peculiar plants, and was happy to finally see a number of species I have long wanted to photograph.  In one patch of forest we found three species of the myco-heterotrophic genus Corallorhiza.  I have written about one of these species, C. wisteriana in one of my first blog posts.  Myco-heterotrophy refers to the process of obtaining nutrients and energy by parasitizing the mycorhizzal fungi of tree roots.  Orchids of this genus are completely dependent on these fungi for survival, and have even lost the ability to photosynthesize.  The lack of leaves and the green pigment chlorophyll makes spotting them a real challenge.  This difficulty made finding them all the more rewarding.

I did not photograph the C. wisteriana that we observed, but I couldn’t resist photographing the beautiful blooms of the Striped Coralroot (Corallorhiza striata).  This species has been recorded in the Guadalupe and Chinati Mountains of Texas, but is by all accounts very rare.  We found only a single plant growing on a rocky wooded slope.

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Striped Coralroot

I think I probably jumped for joy when Caro called out that she had found a Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata).  This species has also been recorded in Texas, in the Davis and Chisos Mountains, and like the Striped Coralroot is believed to be very rare.  It turned out to be the most common orchid of the trip, and we found dozens in various stages from newly emerging flowering stems to individuals in full, splendid bloom like the one pictured below.

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Spotted Coralroot

The absolute floral highlight of the trip however, and perhaps second only to the pumas in terms of overall trip highlights, was finally encountering a species that I had dreamed of seeing since I was a little kid pouring through field guides and coffee table nature books – The Fairy Slipper Orchid (Calypso bulbosa).  This orchid always seemed so exotic to me.  As a kid, I probably hiked past many not knowing where or how to look. On this trip, however, Caro and I spotted many on the mossy floor of a spruce/fir forest at 10,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristos. I photographed them as I breathed in the chilly mountain air and listened to the rushing waters of a creek swollen with snow melt.

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Fairy Slipper Orchid

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Fairy Slipper Orchid

Soon our time in the Land of Enchantment came to an end.  We were sad to say goodbye to the Sange de Cristos, but grateful for the enrichment they provided us.  The Rocky Mountains hold a very special place in my heart, as it is where I fell in love with nature as a young boy, and I was glad to introduce Caro to them, and see on her face the same sense of awe and wonder that I feel for these very special places.

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

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Pronghorn Buck

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

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

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

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

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Silvery Lupine

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

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Silvery Lupine

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

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

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Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush

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

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James’s Penstemon

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

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Escobaria vivipara

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

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Prairie Smoke

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

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

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Pronghorn Buck

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

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

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Pronghorn Buck

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

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

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Swift Fox

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

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Double Rainbow

The Land of the Endless Sky

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Rolling Prairie in Hartley County near the Canadian River Breaks.

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

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

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

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Butterfly Weed in a midgrass prairie of the eastern Panhandle.

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

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

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

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Asclepias speciosa flower detail

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

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CoreopsisGaillardia, and Monarda bloom in a Panhandle prairie.

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

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

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Ornate Box Turtle

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

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Blue Norther approaching the Rita Blanca Grasslands

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Blue Norther approaching the Rita Blanca Grasslands

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

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

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Great Plains Toad (Bufo cognatus)

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

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

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

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

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Pronghorn Buck

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Pronghorn Buck

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Pronghorn Buck Running

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

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Prairie Snowball

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

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Plains Penstemon

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

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White Penstemon

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

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Striped-Sweat Bee

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

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

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

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

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Lark Sparrow

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Grasshopper Sparrow

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

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Swainson’s Hawk

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

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

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Texas Horned Lizard

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

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Texas Horned Lizard

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

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Rock Outcrop in Potter County

 

 

The Terning of the Tide

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Courting Sandwich Terns

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

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

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

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

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Male Wilson’s Plover

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

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Banded Wilson’s Plover

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

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American Oystercacher

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

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American Oystercatcher

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

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Sand Rose Gentian

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

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Black Skimmer

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

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

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Black Tern

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

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Sandwich Tern

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

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Strutting Sandwich Tern

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

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Courting Sandwich Terns.

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

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Royal Tern

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

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Royal Tern

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

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Courting Royal Terns

They step in unison…

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Courting Royal Terns

And finally the male presents the fish to the female.

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Courting Royal Terns

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

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Royal Terns preparing to copulate

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

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Courting Royal Terns

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

Unraveling the Mystery of the Creeping Bluestar

Target Species: Creeping Bluestar (Amsonia repens)

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Amsonia repens in a remnant coastal prairie

Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Amsonia repens when I put it on my 2017 list of biodiversity goals.  I knew that it was an showy wildflower that was endemic to the West Gulf Coastal Plain.  This alone piqued my interest and prompted me to make it a target species.

What I found, however, was a general lack of information on the species.  I struggled to find a good reference with information on how to differentiate it from the very similar A. tabernaemontana.  I was able to track down some historic locations, however not feeling comfortable in my ability to identify it, I failed to pursue it with much enthusiasm.  I stopped at a couple of sites in 2017 where a friend had reported some a few years prior but found nothing.  After that, the species went on the back burner while I pursued other more easily researched species on the list.

What drew me to the Creeping Bluestar was its range, which is almost entirely confined to the eastern third of Texas.  I have always had a strong interest in species endemic to the West Gulf Coastal Plain, which includes East Texas, western Louisiana, and extreme southeastern Oklahoma and southwestern Arkansas.  There are a number of species that are restricted in range to this area, and this distributional pattern has long fascinated me.

County level distribution for Amsonia repens

My interest in pursuing Amsonia repens was renewed after I photographed some Amsonia plants in bloom in remnant prairie and marsh patches in Fort Bend and Brazos County this spring.  I tried once again to do some research and came across a paper that was published in March of 2019: Taxonomy of the Amsonia tabernaemontana complex (Apocynaceae:Rauvolfioidae) by J K Williams from Sam Houston State.  Though this paper proposes that A. repens be considered a variety of A. tabernaemontana, it provides the best treatment I have seen on differentiating A. repens from other similarly structured congeners.

In a nutshell, A. repens (or A. tabernaemontana var. repens) is best differentiated from A. tabenaemontana by having tomentose (hairy) calyces, a feature which can be seen in the image below.

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Amsonia repens

Interestingly, after reading this paper and reviewing other taxonomic keys, I went back to examine some photos of Amsonia that I took in Montgomery County a few years ago and found that they too were A. repens.  It had been hiding under my nose this whole time!

One Perfect Spring Day

One perfect spring day, Carolina came to me and said that she wanted to go looking for dogwoods.  She had a spot in mind, near the western edge of the Pineywoods.  My response, unsurprisingly, was an eager “let’s go!”.  So we set out into the woods, and what we found was a beautiful spring paradise beyond anything I could have expected.  Seeing Flowering Dogwood, with its blossom laden branches painting the forest understory in white, is reward enough for a day’s wanderings.  But the dogwoods were just a precursor to the botanical, entomological, and mycological treasures to be discovered.

Deep in the forest we came across a gentle slope in the mesic floodplain of a small stream.  My attention was immediately captured by a sea of Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) leaves.  Scattered Golden Groundsel (Packera obovata) blooms rose from beneath the surface, adding a splash of yellow to the forest floor.  It was a beautiful scene for certain.

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Vernal Forest

But the true treasures of this forest were revealed on closer examination.  Carolina spotted the leaves of White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum), and Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum), scattered low to the ground.  Both species are quite rare in Texas.  Moving further upslope, I began noticing more interesting blooms, including scattered colonies of Ozark Milkvetch (Astragalus distortus), Violet Woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea), and Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis), also known as Wood Betony.

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Ozark Milkvetch

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Violet Woodsorrel

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Lousewort

On the slopes drier upper reaches I encountered a couple of species that are much more common further west, where chalky, calcium rich soils are more common.  There were several Prairie Celestials (Nemastylis geminimflora) blooming alongside Nuttall’s Death Camas, which was still in tight bud.

Though it superficially resemble a lily, and is often called the “Celestial Lily”, Nemastylis geminiflora is, in fact, a member of the Iris family.  They thrive on calcium rich soils, and as the soils of the Pineywoods are generally acidic, they are seldom encountered here.  Finding them alongside the calciphilic Toxicoscordion nuttallii, communicated to me that we were dealing with a calcareous forest, and that other interesting things were likely near.

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Prairie Celestial

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Prairie Celestial

While I was admiring some blooming thing, Caro called out that she had found what is, in my opinion, a serious contender for the most beautiful animal in the country: the Luna Moth (Actias luna).  Seeing one of these massive silkworm moths in the wild is an experience not easily forgotten, and each encounter leaves me awestruck.  This striking male had clearly just emerged from its pupa, where it overwintered hidden among the leaf litter at the base of a large shortleaf pine.

It was a male, as evidenced by its large, feathery antennae.  It was no doubt awaiting nightfall, when it would take to the air in search of a female’s pheromone trail.  The females advertise their location using these chemical cues, and males will fly all night to find them.  It seems a tragic tale, as both sexes are born without feeding mouth parts, and live only for a week or so.  Their only purpose is to find a mate so that they may parent the next generation of Luna Moths.

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Luna Moth

When I had my lens trained on a different flower, Carolina called out that she had found an interesting fungus.  And she had.  I had heard that the elusive holy grail of fungi could be found in East Texas, but in nearly two decades of wandering I had never seen one.  That all changed this day.  Caro had found a Pineywoods morel.  More specifically, a Yellow Morel (Morchella esculenta).

Morels may be THE most sought after wild edible in the country.  Though common in some areas, they seem quite scarce in East Texas.  I had long dreamed of finding and photographing one, but the possibility hadn’t crossed my mind as we set out that morning.  These mushrooms are renowned for their rich flavor, and there is no way of knowing how many thousands of pounds are harvested each year.  It is said that this harvest is not harmful to the plant, as only the above ground reproductive structure of the organism is removed.  This is true in a sense, however removing them prior to the release of spores can still impact local populations.  Due to their unique beauty and scarcity in the region, I could not bring myself to pick any, and after capturing their likeness , I left them to the forest.

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Yellow Morel

After returning from an incredible day, Caro drafted a narrative of the mushrooms’ discovery which sums up a common interaction in such situations.  I share it here, as a tribute to one perfect spring day.

Loving the idea of helping him because it means he needs me I always keep my eyes wide open to any opportunity. I have good sight, but those were hard to recognize because they look similar to the leaves on the ground. Suddenly, I could recognize them; they were those fungi that he loves. I start to talk to him, well, interrupting him from the shooting. Like any other husband in this world, he starts to sound interrupted and makes noises right before the question: what is it?! After, breaking the special connection man-plant I could explain myself, but still wife-annoyed and mumbling secret words to the universe he knelt and asked again: what is it? But this time with a resigning attitude and makes an effort to not rise the voice, so I couldn’t detect the obvious and by using husband-diplomacy; he said “what?”. It took me a moment to make him understand what I was talking about and even longer to show the respective subjects. Then, he jumped and started to claim this species was something he always wanted to see and take photos, so the mystic connection moment restarted again.
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Yellow Morels

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.

Autumn in the Pineywoods

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East Texas Waterfall

As I write this, on a cold and rainy day at the end of December, all but a handful of brave trees have cast their leaves in preparation for the darkness and cold that winter brings.  Days like this it’s easy to long for the milder days and brilliant colors of fall.  This year was a particularly beautiful autumn in the Pineywoods, with many species putting on displays of color that I had not seen for some time.  To fight off the gloom of this winter’s day, I decided to live vicariously through my memories as I chronicle my autumn explorations here.

We’ll start on my birthday.  At the start of October, the days have become shorter and the temperatures begin to cool.  October has always been one of my favorite months here in Texas.  The colors begin to turn, and the climate is mild.  Cool enough that it is pleasant to be outside, yet warm enough that many winter-adverse species such as reptiles and insects are still active.  A number of interesting fall-blooming plants are also on display in this month of the Hunter’s Moon.

On my birthday we set out to find a few such plants.  The first that we came across was the Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), also known as the Ghost or Corpse Plant.  This interesting fungus-eating plant is a member of the blueberry family, of all things.  It does not produce chlorophyll like most traditional plants, but rather obtains its energy and nutrients from the mycorhizzal fungi of tree roots.  In Texas they may begin to bloom in late August or early September, and I have seen them as late at January (late in the sense that it is at the end of the blooming season for this species).  The flowers’ superficial resemblance to a pipe as inspired stories in Native American folklore, including the idea that these plants mark the graves of old chiefs, and provide them a vessel with which to smoke from the afterlife.

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Indian Pipes

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Indian Pipes

Growing near the Indian Pipes, in the shade of American Beech was a rare treat, Tall Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes altissima).  Though it may line the roadsides further east, it is known from only a few isolated locations in extreme eastern Texas.  Here it grows on steep hillside springheads and the banks of springfed streams in mature hardwood forests.

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Tall Rattlesnake Root

Ample rains in September fueled a profusion of fungi, whose fibrous filaments draw moisture from the earth and feed on the ample detritus beneath the leaf litter.  Fungi are fascinating, beautiful organisms.  They lead most of their lives hidden below ground, but grace us with a spectacular display when their fruiting bodies form.  Perhaps my favorites are the many varieties of coral fungus.  Each is unique, and contain an intricate maze of protrusions that seem crafted by some avant-garde architect.

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Coral Fungus

Many species of fungus are quite toxic to humans, but there are some that are said to be delicious.  I personally have never been brave enough to try wild mushrooms.  It seems like for every edible species there is a lethal, or at least debilitating look-alike.  One species that is favored by foragers is the Indigo Milk Cap (Lactarius indigo) which an be found in hardwood bottoms in late summer and early fall.

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Indigo Milk Cap

Fungi come in a staggering array of shapes and colors.  They are also fun to photograph, and lead the mind to find interesting angles and compositions with which to present them.

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Fungi (I believe these are chanterelles)

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Fungi

Autumn also signals the beginning of the salamander breeding season in East Texas.  In mid-October conditions were right for Marbled Salamanders (Ambystoma opacum) to make their annual breeding migrations.  Unlike most members of the family Ambystomatidae, which breed in the water during late winter and early spring, the Marbled Salamander breeds on dry land, and the females lay their eggs under woody debris within dry vernal pool basins.  They will then guard the eggs as they wait for winter rains to fill the pools and disperse and hatch their offspring.  By doing this they get a leg up on the competition, so to speak, which comes in the form of other amphibian larvae that won’t begin to develop for another couple of months.

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Marbled Salamander Male

Marbled Salamanders are one of relatively few amphibian species that are sexually dimorphic.  The males (pictured above) have bright silvery white dorsal patterns while the females (pictured below) have duller silver to coppery markings.  The males also display a swollen cloaca at the base of their tail during the breeding season.

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Marbled Salamander

In late October Caro and I spent a damp autumn day in the woods with our friends James and Erin.  It provided a chance to capture more images of interesting fungi, like these Earthstars, which look like little puff balls wearing tutus.

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Earthstars

We also observed a number of insects like these seemingly affectionate Six-spotted Flower Longhorn Beetles (Strangalia sexnotata).

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Six-spotted Flower Longhorn Beetles

We also found a few Rainbow Scarabs (Phanaeus vindex), a spectacular beetle that I highlighted in a previous blog post.

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Rainbow Scarab

And then there were the Indian Pipes.  We found hundreds in a remnant Longleaf Pine savannah, pushing up through the dense carpet of needles and cones.  It became somewhat of a game seeing who could spot the most.  Per usual, Caro won by a landslide.

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Indian Pipes

One October day I received a call from my wife that she had found a recently hit Gray Fox next to the road. Being eccentric biologist types, we decided that we wanted to try to get its skeleton for study and admiration. So we called James and Erin, who own a large tract of land, and asked if we could set it out there to decompose. Being a couple of biologists themselves, they gladly agreed and we loaded the fox carcass in the bed of my truck and set out on the half-hour or so journey to their farm.

Just after we arrived, I heard my wife call out, “Look at this!” No surprise really, as she has an uncanny talent for spotting creatures, plants, and any other thing that remains invisible to most. She had found a large adult female Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina), hiding among the goldenrod blooms near the Childress cabin.

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Carolina Mantis

Of course, in our haste to make our morbid delivery I had forgotten my camera.  Fortunately James was kind enough to lend me his. We approached the scene and I tried to formulate a plan on how to best photograph this spectacular insect. As we drew near we noticed the carcasses of Common Eastern Bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) scattered about the ground, dismembered and drained of their juices. Oblivious to the danger, there were several more bees nectaring on the goldenrod just inches from the mantis. So I found a good angle and waited to see if I might capture some action. I set the lens on a bee that was slowly creeping closer and closer to this devourer of pollinators. The bee brushed against the mantis’s leg, yet still the predator remained still. Its head slowly cocked and it’s antennae twitched ever so slightly. Deliberately and methodically it crept toward the ravenous bumble bee. Its movements were almost imperceptible. I captured the image below as it zeroed in on the bee and prepared its strike.

Seconds after I captured this image the mantis did strike, though I only managed to record a blur of green. It missed, and the bee flew to a distant part of the same plant to continue feeding. Later we would see the mantis in the middle of devouring another unfortunate Bombus impatiens, though we missed the strike. In all it would seem that this ruthless hunter his doing quite well on the goldenrod she has staked claim to.  She remained on that withering goldenrod well into December.

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Seconds from Disaster

A few days before Halloween, Caro and I set out to look for signs of fall along backroads and deep in the forest. Colors were beginning to change, with vines like Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy putting on a brilliant display. Elms, hickories, and even some red maples were beginning to lose their chlorophyll while baldcypress was nearing peak color.  Monarchs are passing through en masse, and were joined at fall blooming plants by Gulf Fritillaries, Buckeyes, and American Ladies.

In the late afternoon we came across a stunning Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) taking in the Sun’s fading warmth. It was one of the lightest snakes I’ve seen, with narrow bands of almost pure white along its chevrons. I would put it at a bit under three feet in length, a decent size. And like most of its kind that I’ve encountered it rattled only briefly, and was incredible docile and non-aggressive throughout our interaction.

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Canebrake Rattlesnake

After spending some time with this spectacular denizen of the deep woods, we were able to turn up a couple of Marbled Salamanders and Southern Leopard Frogs adjacent to a series of ephemeral wetlands. I then noticed a large fallen tree, its branches arching above the forest floor. While admiring the verdance of the mosses and Resurrection Fern coating the bark, I glimpsed an unusual creature swaying back and forth. It was a huge Megarhyssa atrata (a type of giant ichneumon) busy probing the chambers of horntail wasp larvae with her ovipositor. She lays her eggs in the soft flesh of these larvae, where they will hatch and consume their host as they develop. This downed tree was literally swarming with Megarhyssa atrata and M. macrurus. Though they may be “creepy” looking, these large insects are harmless and fascinating.

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Megarhyssa atrata

In early November we set out to look for Long-lipped Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes longilabris) a rare orchid of fire-maintained Longleaf Pine Savannahs.  A species of the coastal plain, they reach the western extent of their range in East Texas.  Uncommon to rare throughout their range, in Texas they are known from only a handful of sites in the Big Thicket.

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Long-lipped Ladies’ Tresses

Another East Texas rarity is the Kidney-leaved Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia asarifolia).  To my knowledge, they only persist along a single drainage in the Pineywoods.

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Kidney-leaved Grass-of-Parnassus

A favorite past time of Carolina and me is wandering around Ellen Trout Park here in Lufkin.  There are usually a variety of interesting things to be seen, including several resident Great Egrets (Ardea alba).

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Great Egret

The star attraction of the park, however, is a pair of Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) that nest there each year.  It wasn’t so long ago that Bald Eagles were nearing extinction, but a variety of factors including the banning of DDT and Federal regulations like the Endangered Species Act and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act brought them back from the brink.

While most of East Texas’s species suffered greatly from the construction of large reservoirs, this is one of a few species that has actually benefited. The damming of the major rivers of the region created tens of thousands of acres of suitable habitat for the large raptors.  In East Texas, Bald Eagles prefer to nest near the top of large pine trees adjacent to large water bodies. I composed the image below to capture the essence of this habitat.

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Bald Eagle

By late November, fall color had begun arriving in earnest.  One one of our frequent evening drives, I spotted the stereotypical Pineywoods scene below along the backroads.

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Florida Maple (Acer floridanum) generally displays a brilliant golden yellow during autumn.  This year they put on quite a show on slopes and along riverbanks.

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Florida Maples

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Florida Maples

In some areas Florida Maples can be found growing alongside Red Maples (Acer rubrum).  In the fall, Red Maple comes in a variety of colors, including yellow, orange, and red.  In the image below it held up to its namesake, and provided an excellent contrast to the bright yellows of the Florida Maple next door.

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A Meeting of Maples

The Pineywoods of East Texas are known for their towering forests. While breathtaking in their own right, the abundance of trees blocks the horizon, and there are not many places in East Texas that offer broad views of the landscape. There are a few exceptions on high ridges, however, like this spot east of Nacogdoches. Here the crowns of pines and a diversity of hardwoods creates a beautiful fall palette of greens, oranges, and yellows.

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Bird’s Eye View

Many species of butterfly remain active well into the fall.  One of the most common is the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae).  We often see them nectaring alongside other species on fall blooming wildflowers like these asters.

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Gulf Fritillary

In late November, Carolina and I made our way north to explore the forests of Cherokee and Smith Counties.  Here we found countless beautiful scenes, of which I attempted to capture just a small fraction of their brilliance with the images below.

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Dressed in Gold

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Autumn Exposure

During this day trip, we visited Tyler State Park for the first time.  The State Park system of Texas protects a multitude of important and interesting natural and cultural features.  The park was beautiful, with ample fall color among mature mixed pine-hardwood forests and infrastructure created by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

I generally avoid including man-made elements in my images, however the road through the state park seemed to be asking to be photographed.  I captured the image to remind me of one of my favorite past times – driving quiet back roads in fall…

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The Road to Autumn

…and hiking in the autumnal forest.  If you look closely in the image below you can see a hiker’s footbridge beneath Flowering Dogwoods with foliage aflame.

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Tyler State Park Trail

The color of the day was definitely orange, a deviation from the standard yellows and occasional reds typical further south.  The Red Maples in particular were glowing.  We enjoyed our time in the park, and will likely be making a repeat visit soon!

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Autumn’s Orange

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Maples in the Midstory

Some autumn scenes display a more subtle beauty.  I captured the scene below in the floodplain of the Neches River.  The Inland Sea Oats blanketing the ground had turned brown.  The bark of Sugarberries added contrast while the fall foliage of distant elms added a splash of color.

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All that Remains

Perhaps the most spectacular fall scene would not reveal itself until December, when I went to visit a waterfall recently discovered by my friend Scott.  This waterfall is hidden deep forest in an area where steep ravines funnel water, whose power carves shallow canyons into the erodible mudstone of the Wilcox Formation. The slopes that grade down to this stream are decorated with the golden autumn foliage of American Beech and likely harbor a vernal flora rich in peripheral species of the great Eastern deciduous forests.

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There are few things that bring me more joy than a walk in the autumn woods, and though the season has turned, it’s hard to fret too much.  Winter resident birds have arrived and salamanders have begun to breed.  Though winter may seem the bleakest of seasons, there is lots of life for those willing to look.  So for now, I will look forward to the winter and spring, and say, “until next time, autumn!”