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.

Queen of the Summer Night

It’s hard to imagine a more wonder-inspiring  group of animals than the giant silkworm moths of the family Saturniidae.  Anyone lucky enough to encounter one is left awestruck with a memory of the natural world that will last a lifetime.  They are among the largest insects in the U.S., some with wingspans topping six inches, and are decorated with brightly colored, velvety scales of a myriad of colors, from lime green to bright pink.

Among the most impressive of these iconic denizens of the night is Citheronia regalis, known variably as the Regal Moth or Royal Walnut Moth.  This species is, by mass, the largest moth north of Mexico.  They can be found throughout much of the eastern U.S., where they occur in mature forests with a large hardwood component.  They are generally uncommon throughout there range, and appear to be declining in many areas, likely due to a number of factors including habitat loss, pesticide use, and increased urbanization which creates “light traps”, where moths are attracted to artificial lights and perish prior to laying eggs.

I was lucky enough to find the relatively fresh individual pictured below resting below the lights in town.  I brought her to a more remote area where I hoped she might mate, or if she had already mated, find a suitable location to lay her eggs.

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Regal Moth

The life of an adult silkworm moth is both romantic and tragic.  After emerging from their pupae, the clock is ticking to find a mate.  Most species only have vestigial mouth parts, and are unable to feed.  Others do have weakly functioning mouth parts, but still generally do not take food.  Shortly after emerging, females begin filling the air with pheromones, which spread out like chemical tendrils in the night air.  Males may pick up these cues from great distances, and will follow them to the females so that they may mate.  The females then find a suitable host, and lay their eggs.  Within a week of emerging, they are dead.

Regal Moths will utilize a variety of hardwoods, but display a real affinity for hickories (Carya spp.).  The larvae are among the fastest growing organisms on the planet, and will increase in mass by thousands of times from hatching to the point they are ready to pupate.  As they grow, the caterpillars spring barbed spines and take on an appearance so formidable that it has earned them the name “hickory horned devils”.  These spines are purely for show, and they do not sting and contain no toxins.  When threatened, however, the caterpillar may rapidly swing its head from side to side in an attempt to strike a would-be predators.

The caterpillars start off brown and gradually turn green with each molt.  Finally, when they are ready to pupate they take on a bright turquoise hue.  At this point they may be as much as six inches long!  Unfortunately I have never encountered one of this size and color with camera in hand, but I do have an image of one in the brown stage from a few years ago.

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Hickory Horned Devil

Encountering any silkworm moth is a special experience, but spending time with the beautiful Regal Moth is one I will forever cherish.  Like all other organisms great and small, our lives are richer because they exist.

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!

Spring in the Desert Part 3: The Marathon Basin

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

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

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Pronghorn Buck

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

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog

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

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Caballos Novaculite Outcrops

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

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

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Davis Hedgehog Cactus

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

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Woolly Locoweed

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Feathery Dalea

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Downy Paintbrush

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Downy Paintbrush

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

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