Spring in the Desert: Prologue

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

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

Texas Rainbow Cactus (Echinocereus dasyacanthus)

Warnock’s Fishook Cactus (Echinomastus warnockii)

Yellow Rocknettle (Eucnide bartonioides)

Big Bend Bluebonnet (Lupinus havardii)

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

The Beauty of Black Gap

The Super Bloom

The Marathon Basin

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

An Encounter with a Vanishing Prairie Icon

Target Species: Crawfish Frog (Rana areolata)

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Crawfish Frog

When General Manuel de Mier y Teran crossed the Pineywoods, East Texas was a patchwork of habitats.  Pine-dominated forests were largely restricted to upland ridges, while gentle slopes and stream floodplains were dominated by hardwoods.  And situated within this matrix of woodlands, where soil conditions and disturbance regimes were just right, existed prairie patches that supported plants and animals typical of the great tallgrass prairies that extended from the Texas coasts into southern Canada.

Less than hundred years after Teran’s famous expedition, the Pineywoods would be forever changed – scarred by the saw, and later the steam engine and the dozer.  Virtually all of the magnificent virgin forests were cut.  Pockets of prairie were converted to pasture and agriculture, or developed for human habitation.  As their habitat disappeared, so did many of the prairie obligate species that depended on them.

The conversion of prairie habitat is not unique to East Texas.  It has occurred, and continues to occur throughout the country, and many species continue to experience precipitous declines as a result.  Some grassland dependent songbirds, for example, appear to have declined by over 90% in a matter of decades.  It has become evident that if drastic measures are not taken, some of these species may be lost forever.

There is a ray of hope in this story of doom and gloom, however.  Within the past few years, a prairie amphibian that had not been recorded from the heart of East Texas for decades was relocated by Toby Hibbitts and other herpetologists in a concentrated survey effort across its historic range in Texas.  The characteristic “snore” of the Crawfish Frog (Rana areolata) was once again heard in the Pineywoods.

Like the grassland songbirds, the Crawfish Frog has been experiencing sharp declines in the past several decades and is considered a species of conservation concern in most states where it occurs.  Its strongholds in Texas are in the western reaches of the coastal prairies and marshes and portions of the Post Oak Savannah and Blackland Prairies.  Hibbitts, et. al. discovered that they were still hanging on in isolated populations in the Pineywoods.

I never thought I would see one of these enigmatic prairie dwellers in the Pineywoods.  I imagined it had gone the way of the Jaguar and the Black Bear – something lost to my generation.  So when suitable conditions presented themselves this spring Carolina and I set out one misty evening with our good friends James and Erin to see if we might find one.

In all honesty my hopes weren’t all that high.  It has been a weird spring this year, with a lot of moisture and wildly fluctuating temperatures.  But within 30 miles of our house, we spotted a mottled form on the pavement in front of us.  I rushed from the car and found before me a mangled mix of frog skin and guts.  It was a roadkill Crawfish Frog.  It was a bittersweet feeling for sure.  I had seen a Pineywoods areolata, but it was dead.  Freshly dead at that, as its rear legs were still twitching.  I was at the same time disappointed and encouraged.

As I took the frog in my hands and soaked in the tranquility of the evening, I could feel my ears perk as they drew in a distant sound.  In that moment Erin turned off the engine and the night came to life.  The ratcheting call of Cajun Chorus Frogs reached me first, followed by the cackling song of Southern Leopard Frogs.  Then I heard it, fainter and more distant than the rest – the nasal snore of the Crawfish Frog.

We bagged the dead frog in order to send to Toby for his research.  I then wandered down the road, flashlight in hand.  After a while I noticed a turn for a side road heading in the direction of one of the frog choruses.  The night was very dark and a thin veil of mist hang suspended in the air.  With my light I could only see where the road began.  I turned down this road, and soon found myself walking a two track gravel pathway pushing out into what looked like a pasture.  I could not see any “No Tresspassing” signs or purple paint, and there were no lights anywhere on the horizon.  Convinced that it was not private property, I continued.  The chorus grew louder.  I scanned my flashlight in all directions.  There was a fence to my left, and to my right there were several granite pillars emerging from the fog.  It became clear that I was wandering through a graveyard.

Despite the eeriness of the situation, I felt comfortable, and continued on joined by the rest of the party.  We soon realized that the frogs were calling in a pasture beyond the fence, in a place we could not reach.  So we decided to continue down the road, but first made our way through the cemetery toward its exit.  I swept the beam of my flashlight across the ground, and to my surprise caught glimpse of a reticulated, spotted thing resting among emerging shoots of grass and prairie forbs.  It was a Crawfish Frog.  I couldn’t help but smile.  We found one.

It was a beautiful animal, and a female of decent size.  Immediately after seeing us she arched her back and inflated her mid section in order to appear larger, more threatening.  This defensive posture also presents potential predators with a more difficult-to-swallow prey item.

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Crawfish Frog in defensive posture

Crawfish Frogs are dependent on prairie communities, where they spend most of their lives in or around crayfish burrows.  In this part of the state they may utilize burrows of the Texas Prairie Crayfish (Fallicambarus devastator), a species endemic to a handful of counties in East Texas.  We would see many that night.  Research has shown that the frogs utilize both primary and secondary burrows.  They spend most of the year at primary burrows, while they utilize secondary burrows while migrating to and from breeding sites, and perhaps to a lesser degree while foraging during prolonged periods of rain outside the breeding season.  Crawfish Frogs breed in ephemeral wetlands formed in prairie depressions and in fishless manmade ponds located within suitable habitats.  They have a prolonged breeding period in Texas, but generally breed en masse following warm rains in early spring.

Interestingly, these frogs are able to persist in heavily grazed areas.  Presumably, it is because they are heavily dependent on the condition of the soil rather than the structure of vegetation.  It is important that the soil column and crayfish burrows remain in tact.  In areas where the soil is tilled or otherwise disturbed, the frogs quickly disappear.

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Crawfish Frog

She would be the only Crawfish Frog we would see that night, though we did hear a few more choruses.  It was an incredible experience.  While encountering a seemingly thriving population in the Pineywoods certainly gives me hope, it does not change the fact that this species is on the decline and highly susceptible to the loss of our prairies.  We need to “want” to have this species around, and make a serious effort to conserve its habitat, or the story of its status in the Pineywoods fifty years from now may be a very different one.  Fortunately there seems to be a genuine interest in research and conservation of the Crawfish Frog in the Lonestar State, and I remain hopeful that when the conditions are just right on warm, rainy spring nights, future generations of East Texans will continue to hear the peculiar snore of this special prairie denizen.

Hidden Denizens of the Columbia Bottomlands

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Copperhead

Austin’s Woods were vibrant.  On that gray spring day in late February, the forest came to life.  Recent rains had vitalized the Resurrection Ferns and mosses that coated the trunks and arching limbs of ancient oaks.  The Roughleaf Dogwood was beginning to bloom and fresh leaves were emerging from the swamp privet and Possumhaw in the understory.  In the distance a Gray Tree Frog called half-heartedly.  The day was warm enough to encourage snakes and lizards from their refugia, and cool and cloudy enough that the cardinals, chickadees, and other resident birds remained active throughout the day.  Beetles scoured the forest floors, yet a recent cold snap kept the mosquitoes at bay.

I put myself in the boots of Stephen F. Austin, and other early anglo explorers to the region.  Unlike most of the forested regions of Texas, much of the remaining Columbia Bottomlands is old growth, and still looks much as it did two-hundred years ago – despite the absence of Jaguars, Pumas, Red Wolves, Black Bears, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, Carolina Parakeets, and other species that have long-since been banished by our hand.  These forests were largely spared the saw due to the poor growth form and low timber value of trees in the region combined with the difficulty of accessing many areas with logging equipment.  That is not to say that these forests are safe, however, as huge tracts are lost every year to urban sprawl and the increasing pressure for development in the greater Houston area.  Fortunately, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, and other local conservation organizations have been successful at protecting thousands of acres of habitat in the region.

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Columbia Bottomland Forest in the Nature Conservancy’s San Bernard Woods Preserve

The Columbia Bottomlands is so named because Stephen F. Austin established his first colony here, which would become the first “capitol” of Texas.  It was known as East Columbia.  This influential figure in Texas history also lends the region another name: Austin’s Woods.  Prior to anglo settlement these woods were home to the Karankawa and Tonkawa Peoples.

These unique forests occur in the broad interconnected floodplains of the Brazos, San Bernard, and Colorado Rivers and their many tributaries in southeast Texas.  They approach within a few miles of the coast in many areas, and are one of the few forested communities within the broader Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes ecoregion.  Indeed, the region encompassing the Columbia Bottomlands was historically a patchwork of forested bottoms and prairie uplands.

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Map of the Columbia Bottomlands.  Source: Texas Parks and Wildlife

The forest here supports a diversity of oaks, which are the primary overstory species in most areas.  Perhaps the most iconic characteristic species is the Coastal Live Oak, which can reach truly massive proportions here.  They occur alongside Water Oak, Willow Oak, Shumard Oak, and Nuttall Oak.  Burr Oak occurs sporadically.  These oaks share the overstory with Cedar Elm, American Elm, Sugarberry, and Green Ash.  In some areas stands of large Eastern Redcedar can be found, growing in areas much wetter than their typical preferred habitat.  The understory is typically open, influenced by the presence of standing water and saturated soils through much of the year.  In some areas dense layers of dwarf palmetto form nearly impenetrable thickets, and there are curious trunked palms present in isolated patches.  Historic accounts indicate that vast “canebrakes” or Giant Cane thickets were once present.  These conditions combine to create a primeval forest that appears out of place among the surrounding prairies.

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Columbia Bottomland Forest in the Nature Conservancy’s San Bernard Woods Preserve

It was my good fortune to spend a wonderful spring day in those woods with my good friend John Williams.  We spent the day exploring various units of the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, and the Nature Conservancy’s San Bernard Woods Preserve, which was accessed with permission.  That day we were fortunate, and observed many of the forest’s seldom seen inhabitants, including twenty snakes.

A mere few minutes into our adventure we encountered three Southern Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix).  These would prove to be the most commonly encountered species of the trip, and we found nine before the day was over.  The animals here are variable, and seem to show some influence from the Broad-banded Copperhead (Agkistrodon controtrix laticinctus), which occurs further south and west.

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Southern Copperhead

While wandering through chest-high palmettos, John spotted a Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor) clinging to one of the fronds.  It was perhaps the prettiest individual of this species that I had ever seen.  Subtle variation in the shades of gray and lichen green combined with hints of lime green to produce a truly beautiful animal.

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Southern Copperhead

At one particularly productive spot we found a Texas Coral Snake (Micrurus tener).  Though its skin was dulled by an impending shed, I could not resist the opportunity to photograph this beautiful Elapid.  Though they are highly venemous, these snakes are inoffensive and extremely reluctant to bite, and envenomation from them is exceedingly rare.  They have an entertaining defense mechanism, where they slightly curl and raise their tail in order to confuse predators into thinking it is the snake’s head.  They sway it back and forth and then jerk their body from side to side, seemingly flopping about.

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Texas Coral Snake

In close proximity to the coral snake we found four more copperheads, four Texas Brown (Dekay’s) Snakes (Storeria dekayi texana), and four Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis proximus).  One of the ribbon snakes was so large that we momentarily mistook it for an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis), a snake that is quite uncommon in Texas and generally restricted to the forests and prairies of this region.

A bit deeper into the woods we encountered a most spectacular organism, and the highlight of the day.  I heard John say “Holy $#!+!”, and looked to see a large Timber (Canebrake) Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).  This iconic pit viper approaches the southwestern extent of their range in the Columbia Bottomlands.  The snake looked to have recently shed, and was quite literally glowing.  It was a large snake, probably around three and a half feet, and though it did rattle its displeasure at us, it was docile and non-aggressive throughout our encounter.  Spending time with these woodland snakes is truly one of the most enjoyable experience that a forest dweller like myself can experience.

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Timber Rattlesnake

Snakes were certainly the topic of the day.  We did, however, encounter some of the forest’s smaller, more easily overlooked denizens.  Coming in a close second to the Timber Rattlesnake for the day’s highlight was Dicaelus purpuratus, a ground beetle adorned with a brilliant iridescent blue and purple exoskeleton.  Though this species has a broad range across the eastern United States, it is my experience that they are generally infrequently encountered.  In the Columbia Bottomlands, however, they are quite common and we found several that day.  D. purpuratus has large, powerful mandibles that are specially adapted for crushing the shells of small snails, their primary prey.

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Dicaelus purpuratus

We ended the day in the San Bernard Woods Preserve.  This preserve protects crucial bottomland hardwood and riparian forests and serves as an important component to provide connectivity to other protected areas in the Columbia Bottomlands.  It is another of the many examples of the fine work that the Nature Conservancy in Texas does to protect our states wild places, and biodiversity.

The Columbia Bottomlands are unlike any other forested community that I’ve been to.  They provide an important link to the natural and cultural history of Texas, and will forever hold a special place in my heart.  I look forward to visiting Austin’s Woods again soon, and experience the little wonders that contained within this primeval forest.

Wintering Waterfowl in North-Central Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Drake Canvasback

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Drake Canvasback

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

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

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Drake Hooded Merganser

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

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Hen Hooded Merganser

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

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Drake American Wigeon

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

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

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

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

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Lesser Scaup

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

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

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

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Greater Scaup

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

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

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

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

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Northern Shoveler

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

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Mallards

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Mallards

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

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American Wigeon

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American Wigeon

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American Wigeon

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

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Hooded Merganser

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Hooded Merganser

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

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Hooded Merganser

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

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Hooded Merganser

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Hooded Merganser

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Hooded Merganser

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

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Hooded Merganser

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

Looking Back: 2018 Highlights in Biodiversity

This year I did not focus on my biodiversity list with the same gusto that I did in 2017.  That is not to say, however that I gave up on my quest for biodiversity!  Lists aside, 2018 was one of my best years yet as a biologist, naturalist, and photographer.

I did, however manage to check a few species off my list including:

Tapertip Trillium (Trillium viridescens)

Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens)

Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus)

Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle (Habroscelimorpha dorsalis)

Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum)

Rich Mountain Salamander (Plethodon ouachitae)

These addition of these species puts me at over half of my list complete (45 of 80 species).

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Beyond the list, this year I was able to photograph nearly 100 species that I had not previously photographed before, at least not to my current photographic standards.  In doing so I made many incredible observations, had good times in the field with family and friends, and found innovative new ways to photograph many familiar species.  It was hard to whittle down such a productive year, but I did my best to select a few highlights:

Perhaps the most exciting venture of 2018 was getting back into bird photography, thanks in part to my friend James Childress.  In January, James, his wife Erin and I found ourselves pursuing birds along the Upper Texas Coast.

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Blue-winged Teal

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American Bittern

We also spent some time chasing after local birds.

In early February, as winter began to slowly turn to spring, my friend Scott and I found this beautiful Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum).

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Spotted Salamander

Many of my favorite spring ephemeral wildflowers begin to appear by mid February.  Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) may be my favorite of these fleeting beauties, and each year I try to find different ways to photograph them.

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Bloodroot

In March, Caro and I traveled to the Lower Rio Grande Valley with James and Erin.  During our trip James and I were able to photograph many South Texas specialties, as well as other more widespread species.

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Altramira Oriole

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Cactus Wren

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Reddish Egret

During this trip I was also able to finally see the Federally Endangered Star Cactus (Astrophytum asterias) in bloom.

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Star Cactus

We also had the opportunity to photograph a beautiful old Texas Tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri).

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Texas Tortoise

Back in East Texas, Carolina and I spent many a spring day exploring the Pineywoods.

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Mirkwood

We were rewarded for our efforts on many occasions, such as this group of Kentucky Lady Slippers (Cypripedium kentuckiense).

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Kentucky Lady Slippers

In 2018 I made a concentrated effort to visit several of our great state’s ecoregions.  For the first time we explored the Cross Timbers and Prairies.  We found many beautiful landscapes in the Grand Prairie and Lampasas Cut Plain.

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Light Paints the Prairie

This region is home to some of the most spectacular displays of wildflowers in the country.  A highlight was finding several populations of Eastern Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia).

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We also found several large colonies of Nuttall’s Death Camas (Toxicoscordion nuttallii) on limestone ridges.

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Death Comes to the Prairie

And on a later visit we found fields of Narrow-leaved Purple Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), a species characteristic of the Great Plains.

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Narrow-leaved Purple Coneflower

As the weather warmed, we found ourselves taking several trips to the Upper Texas Coast, where I spent time on my belly photographing the local bird life.

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American Avocets

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Purple Gallinule

I have been fascinated with beetles since childhood, and few are more impressive than the Ox Beetle.  The animal below is Strategus aloeus, one of two local species of Ox Beetle.

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Ox Beetle

In July we met long time Flickr friends Jim Fowler and Walter to help them check a couple orchid species of their bucket list.  The species were the Texas Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris warnockii), also known as the Texas Purple Spike…

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Texas Crested Coralroot

…and the Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora), which we found deep in the Davis Mountains of West Texas.

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Giant Coralroot

In the semiarid grasslands at the base of the Davis Mountains I was able to photograph several Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana).

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Vigilant

Back in East Texas we sought out orchids, like the Crested Fringed Orchid (Platanthera cristata) pictured below.

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Crested Fringed Orchid

In early September I had a chance encounter on a river sandbar with a Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) in basic plumage.

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At the end of September, after many failed attempts over several years, I was finally able to find and photograph an adult Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum).

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Ringed Salamander

When I forgot my camera on a visit to James and Erin’s farm, James was kind enough to lend me his when we found this Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) hunting Common Eastern Bumblebees (Bombus impatiens)

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Seconds from Disaster

In December I was lucky enough to photograph a Northern Raccoon (Procyon lotor) on a trip to the Upper Texas Coast with Caro, James, and Erin.

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During that trip we also encountered several cooperative Seaside Sparrows (Ammodramus maritimus).

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My year reached its pinnacle on Christmas Day, when I shared a pond with some American Wigeons (Anas americana).

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American Wigeon

2018 will be a hard year to top, but I intend to give it my all in 2019.  I wish all of you the best in this new year.

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!”

Christmas with the Quacks

Sometimes the best Christmas gifts are not items, but rather experiences.  And sometimes they come from no giver in particular, but happenstance.  This year I received some of these intangible gifts, on a level I had not experienced before.  That’s not to say that I didn’t also receive many wonderful gifts from my family.  This year I was lucky enough to get a fantastic new camera backpack and some other accessories, a few excellent books, a blow gun, and another year’s supply of socks.  But the unique nature of some photo opportunities this Christmas, and their relevance to the nature of my blog has prompted this special holiday post.

For Christmas Eve, Carolina and I stayed in Lufkin.  We made a hearty breakfast, took a pleasant walk in the morning, and enjoyed each other’s company throughout the day.  In the late afternoon, Caro suggested that we visit some local ponds to look for ducks.  This in and of itself was a Christmas in my eyes!  So we went to a local pond where a large group of Gadwall (Anas strepera) has been spending the winter.  The birds were skittish at first, taking flight at our initial response.  But they regrouped at the opposite end of the pond, and I was able to take advantage of some old willows lining the pond’s edge to creep closer.  I found a break in the trees where I could lay flat and capture a few images of a spectacular drake.  The Gadwall is perhaps our most underrated species of duck.  It lacks the bold colors of many species, but the subtle intricacies of its plumage and varying tones of brown and gray make it a beautiful thing to behold.  That evening Caro prepared a delicious meal, and we toasted the season and built a fire in the yard.

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Gadwall

The next morning we woke early and set out for Austin, where we would be celebrating Christmas Day at my brother Seth’s girlfriend’s house.  After arriving, visiting, and enjoying some snacks that she had prepared, his girlfriend, Jen, informed us that there was a detention pond in the back of her neighborhood that often had ducks on it.  Naturally, I couldn’t resist the opportunity, so we took a family walk to see what was there. Sure enough, upon arriving I spied a large group of American Wigeon (Anas americana), a few Gadwall, and a lone Ringneck Duck. I tried to circle wide and creep up on some of the wigeon.  I have long wished for an opportunity to capture good images of this spectacular duck, but they had thus far eluded my lens.  Unfortunately the birds proved initially skittish, and due to the steep banks grading into the pond I was unable to get a shot from a suitable angle. I tried a few different methods of approaching until they finally flew off for good. Or so we thought… After a few minutes of wandering around we decided it was time to head back.  It was in that precise moment that the wigeons returned to the opposite end of the pond. So my brother and I opted to remain.  We formulated a plan of attack.  I skirted wide, using the pond’s berm to hide my approach, while my brother approached from the opposite side, obscured by dense vegetation.  I then belly-crawled to the edge of the detention pond where I was at least partially hidden by cattails and dried stalks of Powdery Alligator Flag. I was at a good angle, but unfortunately I was unable to get a clear shot through wetland vegetation.  So I decided to start crab-walking into the pond itself, as one does, until i was submerged to my waist. To my surprise, I found the ducks to be much more tolerant of my presence when I was actually in the water. Instead of flushing, they only swam to the other side of the pond, just out of photo’s reach.

Enter Seth. He crept up behind the vegetation on that side and started shaking some of the plants and making some bizarre noises that I could only describe as a mix of a wounded duck and disturbed house cat. It did the trick, however, and the wigeons came toward me, at times approaching too close for me to focus, and I was finally able to capture some fine images of this beautiful species.  I couldn’t believe it.  There are those times as a photographer where everything just seems to fall into place.  It is a rare thing, made all the more special for me that I was able to share the experience with my brother on Christmas Day.

I don’t think my family was surprised when I returned soaking wet and covered from head to toe in mud and bits of wetland vegetation, as they have become desensitized to my antics over the years.  I cleaned up and we enjoyed a delicious Christmas dinner.  It was certainly not your most traditional Christmas experience, but a fitting one, and one that I will never forget.

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American Wigeon

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American Wigeon

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American Wigeons