Suffering for Milkweeds

Target Species: Velvetleaf Milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa)

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Velvetleaf Milkweed

Being a naturalist and outdoor enthusiast can be frustrating.  I would go so far as to say at times it can be downright miserable.  Ask any avid hunter, fisher, backpacker, hiker, etc. etc., and I’m sure they could provide a wealth of stories of unpleasant and unwelcome experiences in the natural world.  Whether it be elusive quarry, unfavorable weather conditions, disorientation, illness, or any combination, one has to have a true love for the natural world to return time and time again for this potential abuse.

To me, being a photographer can be even more frustrating.  I have passed the point in my photographic pursuit of just taking a photo.  Don’t get me wrong, I think that can be an enjoyable and worthy pursuit, but at this stage in my evolution as a photographer, I am interested in capturing unique and hopefully striking images.  To achieve this I am at the mercy of the elements, and lighting is key.  For wildflower photography I find overcast skies to produce the best light.  For most species cloudy days offer the best opportunity to capture their flowers’ true colors, and a lack of harsh shadow allows the capture of maximum detail.  While equipment and technology like sun shades and flashes can help, there is no substitute for natural light.

Before I get too far off topic, I’d like to return to my target species.  I’ve been interested in looking for Asclepias tomentosa for some time now.  It is an interesting milkweed that occurs on a variety of woodlands on deep sands.  In eastern Texas it is found primarily in the central and northern portions of the Post Oak Savannah ecoregion, where it occurs in sandy woodlands dominated primarily by scrubby oaks and hickories.  The range of this species is fascinating, exhibiting a “double disjunction” with three main populations that are separated by hundreds of miles.  The reason for this distribution remains a bit of a mystery.  An interesting paper describing this phenomenon can be found here.

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County-level distribution of Asclepias tomentosa from http://www.bonap.org

Many naturalists, myself included, take great interest in the genus Asclepias.  Milkweeds are an interesting, diverse group of plants.  They come in a wide array of shapes, sizes, and colors, and can be found in a variety of habitats.  Some are common, bordering on invasive, while others are rare.  Milkweeds are incredibly important for native pollinators, including bees, wasps, butterflies, beetles, and more.  They are perhaps most famous for being the larval food source of the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus), and are responsible for the insect’s toxicity.

Asclepias tomentosa is quite rare in Texas.  I had a few leads, but was skeptical as to whether or not I would be able to locate it.  Fortunately I found it with relatively little trouble.  The forecast on the day I went looking called for overcast skies with a slight chance of rain.  Perfect photographic conditions, or so I thought.  When I arrived in the central Post Oak Savannah there was nary a cloud in the sky and the mid afternoon sun was beating down on me.  The sun was reflecting off exposed sand.  It was hot.  It was miserable.  I found A. tomentosa growing on a slight slope in sandy soils alongside Tetragonotheca ludoviciana in a matrix of small openings within an extensive svannah dominated by Post Oak (Quercus stellata).

Once I found the plants I set about the task of trying to photograph them.  Holding a 3-foot X 3-foot shade in one hand and my camera in the other, all with the sun beating down on me.  As I sat and knelt in the scorching sand I was immediately impaled by the thorny fruits of Krameria lanceolata and other well-adapted species.  The spines are the plants’ answer to the problem of dispersal, but to me they were literal thorns in my side.  After a short time I thought something along the lines of “forget this”, though significantly less polite.  I decided to explore the area for a while and hope for conditions to improve.

Continuing on I spotted a few particularly robust milkweeds growing in a “blowout”, where an ancient waterway deposited its sediment, resulting in a very deep pocket of pure sand.  Closer examination revealed that they were Sand Milkweeds (Asclepias arenaria).  I was thrilled, as this species was not even on my radar.  Unfortunately, these were even more exposed than the Asclepias tomentosa growing a mile or so away.  I tried to get a few photos, and ended this session on an equally flustered note.  Asclepias arenaria also has an interesting distribution, occurring primarily in the central and western Great Plains.  In Texas it can be found in scattered counties in the western 3/4 of the state, occurring on isolated pockets of deep sand.

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County-level distribution of Asclepias arenaria from http://www.bonap.org

I continued to explore for another half hour or so, finding more Asclepias arenaria, and other interesting species.  As I decided to call it quits and begin my return, I caught sight of some long black thing to my left.  It was an Eastern Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum flagellum), one of our country’s fastest snakes.  I approached to get a better look, fully expecting the wary serpent to bolt at any second.  Only it didn’t bolt.  Closer still I drew and it stayed put.  I decided to make the most of the situation, and despite the harsh light reached for my camera.  As I was watching the snake through my viewfinder and clicking away, i noticed that the light meter started shifting slowly to the left, and that the harsh shadow under the snake’s head was fading away.  I took a moment to survey my surroundings and realized that a large cloud had appeared to momentarily block out the sun.

Hurriedly I finished with the snake and rushed back to the milkweeds to take advantage of this temporary light, all the while worried I would not make it before the cloud passed.  Fortunately I did make it, and was able to capture images of both milkweed species without the harsh sun.  For all my previous frustration, I ended up achieving exactly what I had set out to do.  In the process I captured images of two species that have seldom been photographed in Texas.

To me, these frustrations are an important part of my love for the natural world.  Perhaps they remind me of its raw, unpredictable, unforgiving nature.  Perhaps they make the victories all the sweeter.  Or perhaps they serve to humble me, and allow me to relinquish control of the untamable.  More likely its a combination of these, but whatever it may be, my frustrations and triumphs in the natural world draw me back in time and time again, fueling my life-long passion for wild places.

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Velvetleaf Milkweed

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Velveatleaf Milkweed in the Post Oak Savannah

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Velveatleaf Milkweed

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Velvetleaf Milkweed

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Velvetleaf Milkweed

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Sand Milkweed

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Sand Milkweed

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Eastern Coachwhip as found

Exploring the Upper Texas Coast

Target Species: Saltmarsh False Foxglove (Agalinis maritima)

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

The Upper Texas Coast is a naturalist’s paradise.  It is one of the country’s premier birding sites, and harbors an interesting flora and fauna including many species that are limited to coastlines and their associated habitats.  This region was historically largely a patchwork of coastal prairie, freshwater marsh, brackish marsh, and saltmarsh.  Trees and woody vegetation was primarily limited to larger river drainages.   Today the habitat has been heavily modified, however remnants of historic vegetation still remain.

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

I had previously observed the Saltmarsh False Foxglove while passing through bands of saltmarsh leading to the beach.  For whatever reason I never stopped to photograph it, despite the fact that it was an interesting species restricted to a thin band of habitat directly adjacent to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of North America.  Here it occurs in tidally influenced saltmarsh.

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County-level distribution of Agalinis maritima from http://www.bonap.org

This year I made a point to capture some images.  Last weekend Carolina and I took a trip to the Upper Texas Coast.  The first evening of our trip we passed through saltmarsh where I had seen it in bloom around this time last year.  I was disappointed, as I didn’t see any blooms.  I thought that I had missed my best shot at checking Agalinis maritima off my list.  The next morning, however, while revisiting the beach I saw several in bloom.  I came to the conclusion that the blooms open in the morning, and throughout the day as the relentless coastal winds hammer the marsh the blooms quickly fade and fall from the plant.  The wind made photography a challenge, but I was able to capture a few images of the Saltmarsh False Foxglove’s beautiful, bizarre-looking flower.

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

There were many other showy plants blooming alongside my target.  One of the most striking was the Texas Bluebells (Eustoma exaltatum).  This is a wide-ranging species that seems to thrive in the coastal prairies and drier margins of the saltmarsh, though they can be found well inland in open habitats as far north as Wyoming and North Dakota.

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Texas Bluebells

The large, bright blooms of the Saltmarsh Morning Glory (Ipomoea sagittata) were also prevalent.  The blooms open in the early morning and are mostly closed by early afternoon.

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Saltmarsh Morning Glory

Plentiful rains prior to our visit resulted in an abundance of rainlilies (Cooperia spp.).  I was excited to discover that a few were the uncommon Traub’s Rainlily (Cooperia traubii), which is limited to a few coastal and near coastal counties in Texas and extreme northeastern Mexico.  It can be differentiated from the similar, more widespread Evening Rainlily (Cooperia drummondii) by it’s elongated style, which extends well beyond the anthers.  The style of the Evening Rainlily is either shorter than the anthers, even with the anthers, or barely longer.

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Traub’s Rainlily

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County-level distribution of Cooperia traubii from http://www.bonap.org.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present and rare.

The taxonomy of prickly-pears (Opuntia spp.) is a bit of a mess.  Experts offer differing opinions of how the various species and populations should be classified.  The prickly-pears of the upper Texas Coast follow this pattern.  Two species are especially contentious.  Some experts suggest that these cacti are individuals of the more widespread Opuntia lindheimeri and Opuntia stricta, while others suggest that there are two species endemic to the Upper Texas Coast: Opuntia bentonii and Opuntia anahuacensis.  If Opuntia bentonii is a valid taxon, the image below is of this species.

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Opuntia sp.

Venturing less than a mile from the coast the marsh slowly transitions from salt to brackish to fresh water.  At the margins of a handful of freshwater marshes in the Upper Texas Coast a real gem of a plant can be found: the Fewflower Milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata).  The Fewflower Milkweed is a species of the coastal plain that reaches its western limit in Southeast Texas.  Here it historically occurred in wetland pine savannahs and wet coastal prairies.  Today it exists in only a handful of populations in the Big Thicket and along the Upper Texas Coast.

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Fewflower Milkweed

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Fewflower Milkweed

Blooming in profusion within the freshwater marsh were scores of Swamp Rosemallow (Hibiscus moscheutos).  The spectacular blooms of this species open fully in the early morning, and close by the afternoon.

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Swamp Rosemallow

Every trip to the Upper Texas Coast provides unique, memorable encounters with the natural world.  There are several other species on my list that call this region home, and with any luck I’ll return soon to seek them out.

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Retreating tides and advancing clouds on the Upper Texas Coast

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Retreating tides and advancing clouds on the Upper Texas Coast

 

May Recap

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Gulf Crayfish Snake

May saw four more species crossed of my 2017 list of biodiversity goals, including my first animal.  While I am lagging behind on my list, I was able to capture images of some interesting species not on my list, as well as some beautiful landscapes.  The following are the target species I was able to photograph in May:

Smooth Jewelflower (Streptanthus hyacinthoides)

Centerville Brazos Mint (Brazoria truncata var. pulcherrima)

Purple Bladderwort (Utricularia purpurea)

River Otter (Lontra canadensis)

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I explored a variety of habitats in May, however it was largely dominated by forays into a number of xeric sandhills.  Both the Smooth Jewelflower and Centerville Brazos Mint make their home in these unique communities, and more information can be found in their blog entries linked above.  The following images are of a pair interesting West Gulf Coastal Plain near endemics.

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Prairie Milkvine (Matelea cynanchoides)

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Scarlet Penstemon (Penstemon murrayanus)

Each year in May I look forward to visiting the wetland pine savannahs and hillside seeps of the Big Thicket.  This is the peak bloom time for the spectacular Grass Pink Orchid (Calopogon tuberosus).  In East Texas, they typically grow in the company of the carnivorous Pale Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia alata) which captures insects in its tubular leaves.  Here they are trapped and slowly digested to provide nutrients to the plant so that it may thrive in otherwise nutrient-poor soil.

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Grass Pink Orchids and Pale Pitcher Plants

While I was photographing the orchids, Carolina found this blooming Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) at the margins of a baygall nearby.  The sweet aroma of these large flowers fills the air for much of May.

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Sweetbay Magnolia blooms at the margin of a baygall.

While exploring a wetland near my house I found a large patch of blooming Lizard’s Tail (Saururus cernuus).  Though I didn’t have my camera with me at the time, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to photograph this scene, and returned later.  Lizard’s Tail grows in a variety of shallow wetlands.

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Lizard’s Tail blooms in a forested wetland.

We spent our fair share of time among the Longleaf Pines as well.  My friend James spotted this Slender Glass Lizard (Ophisaurus attenuatus).  The common name glass lizard comes from this genus’s propensity for caudal autonomy.  This is the familiar action of a lizard dropping its tail in response to a predator threat.  In the glass lizard, however, the tail makes up over half of its body, and contains several fracture points.  This can result in an individual seeming to break into pieces when being captured by a potential predator.  Though they may seem fragile, careful, gentle handling helps ensure that they remain in tact.  Though they are typically associated with sandy habitats, they are not proficient burrowers, but rather “swim” through dense grasses.

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Slender Glass Lizard

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Slender Glass Lizard

While on a gem/mineral hunting expedition Carolina and I spotted this Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) nectaring on Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa).

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Spicebush Swallowtail nectaring on Butterfly Weed

The impressive blooms of the Giant Coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) can sit atop stalks that might reach 8 feet tall.  R. maxima is endemic to the West Gulf Coastal Plain.  In East Texas it occurs in scattered populations in open woodlands and prairie pockets.

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Giant Coneflower

Carolina spotted this Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) while we were photographing Giant Coneflowers along the roadside.  To me this is one of our most beautiful larval insects.

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Black Swallowtail Caterpillar

Pointed Phlox (Phlox cuspidata) is primarily a species of Central Texas, however it enters Deep East Texas in the understory of Longleaf Pine Savannahs, where it is much less common.

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Pointed Phlox

Fire is an integral part of maintaining Longleaf Pine Savannahs.  In the image below Butterfly Weed can be seen blooming following a prescribed burn.

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Butterfly Weed blooms following a prescribed burn

I found this flowering Groundnut (Apios americana) in a park near my house.

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Grountnut

Growing near the Groundnut was this Anglepod (Gonolobus superosus).  This member of the milkweed family (Asclepiaceae) forms vines in open woods and forest edges.

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Anglepod

Our close friends James and Erin recently built a cabin on their 200+ acres in Angelina County.  The property contains pasture, fallow fields, mixed pine-hardwood forest, a forested stream, and several ponds.  It makes for excellent herping opportunities.  During our visit we went out to see what we might turn up.

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Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum)

I caught this large, attractive Yellow-bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster) at one of the ponds at night.  For those who have never caught a water snake, they are notoriously foul-tempered and have an extremely offensive musk, which they promptly rub all over their captor.  It makes handling them an unpleasant experience, but I’m glad we hung on to this one for photos the next day.

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Yellow-bellied Water Snake

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Yellow-bellied Water Snake

After catching we continued to walk along the pond.  It wasn’t long before Carolina called out that she had seen another snake.  I rushed to her spot and saw the head of a Gulf Crayfish Snake (Regina rigida sinicola) poking through the aquatic vegetation.  I quickly grabbed it.  We held onto it as well, and the next day we had a photo session with both snakes nearby.  When we were done, we released the snakes where we caught them.

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Gulf Crayfish Snake

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Gulf Crayfish Snake

May provided several excellent opportunities for nature observation and photography.  I look forward to what June will bring.

An Ode to Longleaf

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Longleaf Pine Savannah

Before I post a May recap, I wanted to pay tribute to one of our countries most unique and biodiverse communities, the Longleaf Pine savannah.  Over the past few years I have been slowly working on a manuscript for a book about East Texas.  This post contains an excerpt of that manuscript and some photos that I intend to include in the book.

Perhaps no tree better represents the Pineywoods than the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), both in its historic influence over the landscape and its eventual plight.  It most often made its presence known in extensive savannahs, where widely scattered individuals might have lived to be 500 years old, reaching diameters pushing four feet, and stretching well over a hundred feet toward the sky.  Once ranging across the southeast, from Virginia to East Texas, the king of the southern pines has been reduced to less than 5% of its native range, and has disappeared across the vast majority of its range in Texas.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah with Little Bluestem

Remnants of the fire-loving conifer and the habitats it defines can still be found, however.  In the northern part of its range in Texas, which includes Sabine, San Augustine, Angelina, and northern Jasper and Newton Counties, it primarily occurs in rolling uplands.  In areas that are managed with regular prescribed fires, one catch a glimpse of the great longleaf pine savannahs of the past.  These were perhaps the most biodiverse communities in the southeast; a unique area where prairie and forest mingled.

Occurring on sands of moderate depth, these sprawling forests are kept free of woody understory encroachment by regular fires.  The fire-tolerant longleaf pine thrives in the face of the flames, while most other species die out.  However, on occasion hardwoods such as blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica), Southern red oak (Quercus falcata), Post oak (Quercus stellata), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), farkleberry (Vaccineum arboreum), and sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).  In the absence of fire American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) may become invasive.

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An ancient Post Oak has survived decades of regular fires in this Longleaf Pine Savannah.

The real show, however occurs on the savannah floor, where hundreds of species of grasses and forbs complete these spectacular ecosystems.  Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is an important component in East Texas, and often occurs in the company of other grasses such as Eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides), Pineywoods dropssed (Sprobolus junceus), and wiregrass (Aristida palustris).  Brackenfern (Pteridium aquilinum) often carpets the ground and xeric (drought loving) species like Louisiana yucca (Yucca louisianensis) and Eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) take advantage of the droughty conditions created by pockets of deeper sand.  Forbs typical of this community include goat’s rue (Tephrosia virginiana and Tephrosia onobrynchoides), Carolina false vervain (Verbena carnea), Pickering’s dawnflower (Stylisma pickeringii), Carolina Larkspur (Delphinium caroliniana), Sanguine’s purple coneflower (Echinacea sanguinea), soft green eyes (Berlandiera pumila), racemed milkwort (Polygala polygama), propeller flower (Alophia drummondii), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), clasping milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis), pineland milkweed (Asclepias obovata), birdfoot violet (Viola pedata), and false dragonhead (Physostegia digitalis).  A number of species that are rare and declining in East Texas occur here as well, including leadplant (Amorpha canescens) and incised groovebar.  The range-restricted scarlet catchfly (Silene subciliata) is endemic to the Pineywoods of eastern Texas and western Louisiana.

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Scarlet Catchfly blooming in a Longleaf Pine Savannah

These savannahs also harbor a unique, and declining fauna.  In fact, some species are so closely tied to this community that they are unable to adapt in its absence.  Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis) and Louisiana Pine Snake are in such peril that they have been afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act.  Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) and Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginiana) favor the dense, rich herbaceous layer beneath the longleafs, where bunch grasses provide ideal cover and high species diversity of grasses and forbs results in a bounty of insects.  Both species have become rare in East Texas, however efforts to reintroduce the wild turkey have been met with some success.

Other species such as the Bachman’s Sparrow (Peucaea aestivalis), Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla), Northern Scarlet Snake (Cemophora coccinea), and Southern Coal Skink (Plestiodon anthracinus) are on the decline.  Species such as the Eastern Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum) and Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) remain common, perhaps due to their adaptability.  The Tan Racer (Coluber constrictor etheridgei) is a race of racer that is also confined primarily to this community.  Surprisingly, even amphibians can eek out a living in these sandy environments.  Explosive breeders like the Hurter’s Spadefoot (Scaphiopus hurteri) and Mole Salamander (Ambystoma talpoideum) live the majority of their live deep underground, emerging during significant rains to breed in areas that can hold water long enough for their larvae to develop.

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Northern Scarlet Snake

The downfall of the longleaf pine savannah began with the arrival of European settlers to the region.  Longleaf lumber was of a superior quality.  Rot resistant, and straight as an arrow, it was utilized heavily for the masts of ships.  As it began to rapidly disappear, those tending to the forest’s regeneration noted that due to its unique ecology longleaf took a very long time to grow to a size suitable for harvest.  So instead of replanting them, they opted for species like loblolly (Pinus taeda) and the non-native slash pine (Pinus elliottii), that, though the quality of their wood was inferior, grew much faster and could yield a marketable stand in less time.  At the same time a culture of fire suppression was arising.  The Europeans did not see fire as a useful tool, as did the Native Americans before them, but rather as a threat to their livelihood.  As a result they took steps to eliminate fire from the landscape, and in doing so woody shrubs eventually filled in the open grass-dominated savannahs.

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Sun sets in a Longleaf Pine Savannah

 

The following are a variety of photos of the longleaf pine savannah and its flora and fauna.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah

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Longleaf Pine seedling

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Louisiana Yucca blooms in a Longleaf Pine Savannah.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah

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Slender Glass Lizard (Ophisaurus attenuatus)

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Birdfoot Violet

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Ox Beetle (Strategus antaeus)

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Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea microptera)

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Six-lined Racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineata)

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Southern Coal Skink

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Hurter’s Spadefoot Toad

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Soft Green Eyes

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Eastern Coachwhip

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Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus)

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Clasping Milkweed

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Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris rugata)

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Racemed Milkwort

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Sanguine’s Purple Coneflower

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Carolina Larkspur

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Eastern Gammagrass

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Leadplant

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Prairie Kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster)

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False Dragonhead

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Texas Red-headed Centipede (Scolopendra heros)

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Texas Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia reticulata)

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Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)

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Butterfly Weed and Bracken Fern

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Pineland Milkweed

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Carolina False Vervain

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Texas Brown Tarantula (Aphonopelma hentzi)

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Slowinski’s Corn Snake (Pantherophis slowinski)

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Eastern Fence Lizard

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Netleaf Leather Flower (Clematis reticulata)

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Propeller Flower

 

 

 

 

 

The River Wolf

Target Species: River Otter (Lontra canadensis)

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North American River Otter

Finally I was able to check a non-plant off my 2017 biodiversity list.  Though I seem to focus much more on plants nowadays, it was actually animals that first sparked my interest in the natural world and drew me to science.

I have always had an interest in the weasel family (Mustelidae) to which the River Otter belongs.  Otters are intelligent, curious, entertaining creatures.  I have seen them on many occasions, but have never been able to get a photo of one, except for one blurry shot with a point and shoot over 12 years ago.  Though I have put some effort into finding otters this year, this encounter happened by pure chance, and was completely unexpected.

A few weeks ago my friend James Childress found a bobcat den deep in the National Forest.  Shortly after Carolina decided to set up her trail camera in the area to see if she could capture any photos of the feline family.  Unfortunately the camera didn’t capture any images of the intended quarry, though it did capture some interesting images of a prescribed burn.  This past weekend we decided to hike in and retrieve the camera.  As we were hiking out, where the path (a forest road closed to vehicular traffic) dipped adjacent to a wetland swale dominated by mature Sweetbay Magnolia and Water Tupelo, Carolina began to point excitedly and called out “Otters! Otters!”  There at the water’s edge we saw what we believed to be a female otter and a second year pup feasting on the mangled remains of some aquatic prey.

They soon spotted us (or more probably heard or smelled us, as otters are near-sighted, an adaptation to see prey in murky waters), and began to retreat.  I pursued for a moment, but fully suspected that they were long gone.  Having given up hope I began walking back to the path when I heard a series of high pitched chip‘s.  The pup came back toward me.  I had poor light and a poor angle, but i tried to move to a better position to try and capture a few images.  Unfortunately shortly after it returned I lost sight of it again.  I looked about with no luck for a while, and when I was ready to give up, I heard Carolina calling out for me to come quickly.  I rushed to her and she informed me that it had moved right past where she was sitting on the path’s edge and into a culvert that allowed the wetland swale to drain under the elevated roadway.

We waited a while to see if it would come out of the culvert, but after a few moments and no movement Carolina went to peer into the culvert to see if she could see it.  There it was, sitting not 2 feet from the culvert entrance.  She was able to get a short video before it retreated through the culvert to a small pool on the opposite side.  It stayed in the pool, attempting to camouflage itself among the tree roots and debris along the pool’s edge.  We captured a few images and left so that it could reunite with its mother.

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North American River Otter

The title of this post comes from lobito de río (little river wolf), the Spanish term for otter used where Carolina is from.  Encountering these otters was a special experience that I am glad I was able to share with my wife, who has a passion for carnivores.

Though elusive, River Otters are not uncommon in East Texas.  They occur in a variety of aquatic environments including medium to large streams and rivers, man-made lakes and ponds, swamps, etc.  They are semi-aquatic and supremely adapted to life in the water, with webbed feet, a stream-lined body with strong hind legs and a powerful tail, and a nearly waterproof layer of outer fur.

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North American River Otter

The images I captured that day were not as good as I might have liked, but I’m ok with that.  Photography has become such an integral part of my time in nature that it’s hard for me to remember a time when I ventured into the natural world without the intent of capturing images.  But that time did exist, when my only goal was to observe, experience, and learn.  Sometimes that gets lost to me now, and that is unfortunate.  A great photograph is a wonderful thing, but it is no substitute for an incredible experience.

Purple People Eater

Target Species: Purple Bladderwort (Utricularia purpurea)

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Purple Bladderwort

This is one I have wanted to see for a long time.  Utricularia purpurea is an aquatic, carnivorous plant that inhabits much of the Eastern United States.  It barely enters Texas in the extreme southeast portion of the state, where it is rare.  I suspect that very few people have seen the Purple Bladderwort here, as the few known populations are not particularly easy to access.  Pursuing the photographs seen here was a true adventure, and the highlight of my 2017 quest for biodiversity thus far.

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Purple Bladderwort

The Purple Bladderwort has a peculiar distribution, not unlike that of another species on my 2017 list, the Blue Lupine.  In the case of the bladderwort I suspect that its distribution can somewhat be explained by the presence of appropriate wetlands in the Gulf and Atlantic coastal plains, and in glacially formed depressions in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions.

Utricularia purpurea

County-level distribution of Utricularia purpurea from http://www.bonap.org.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present but rare.

To see this rarity, I once again called on the good people of the Nature Conservancy of Texas.  Wendy Ledbetter, Forest Project Manager, told me that U. purpurea had been reported from a series of flatwood ponds on one of the properties they protect.  It was, in fact, very close to where I photographed Streptanthus hyacinthoides a few weeks ago.  She was kind enough to take time from her busy schedule to meet me one morning and show me the areas where it had been reported.  She brought me to two spectacular flatwoods ponds.  We were unsure if any of the elusive carnivores would be in bloom, but sure enough, after minimal effort I spotted one, then another, then another.

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Purple Bladderwort

After showing me around for a couple of hours in the morning, Wendy had to leave to tend to other engagements.  I thanked her profusely, both for her time and consideration, and for the fine work that she and her colleagues at the Nature Conservancy have done to protect so much our great state’s incredible biodiversity.  After Wendy left I returned to the ponds to try to capture some unique images of this spectacular little plant.  I was trudging through water that was mostly between 1 and 3 feet deep.  To capture some of these images I had to sit, kneel, or completely submerge myself in the water, with just my hands and camera above the surface.

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Purple Bladderwort

As previously mentioned, and eluded to in the title, Utricularia purpurea is a carnivorous plant.  It contains intricate leaves that float just below the water’s surface.  These leaves are loaded with small air-filled bladders that help keep the plant afloat.  Each bladder is equipped with a small, hair-like trigger. As tiny aquatic organisms swim by and brush against the trigger, the bladders instantly open, and as the water rushes in to occupy the vacant airspace, the organisms are sucked in.  The bladder then snaps shut, trapping them inside where they are slowly digested.  In the late spring through the summer the lavender flowers emerge from the depths.  U. purpurea is one of several species of Utricularia in Texas, but it is the only one with purple blooms.  The others are all yellow.

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Purple Bladderwort.  If you look closely you can see some of the round bladders under the water.

The flatwood ponds in which I photographed the Purple Bladderwort that day were the finest I have ever seen.  These unique aquatic communities occur in clay-bottomed depressions where over the millennia water and organic material have accumulated.  Historically they were dominated by a variety of grasses and sedges, kept free from woody encroachment by regular wildfires.  In the modern era of development and fire suppression, however, high quality examples have all but disappeared.  They have persisted on this Nature Conservancy property, however, as a result of their excellent stewardship which includes frequent burns that penetrate into the ponds.  Scattered trees, mostly Swamp Tupelo (Nyssa biflora) exist on the margins, but the centers of the pond are open for acres.

Unfortunately I did not take any photos looking toward the center of the ponds, however I did capture the photo below looking back to the margins.  I found U. purpurea to be most common among the grasses and trees along the ponds’ margins.

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Flatwoods pond margin

I spent what must have been at least 15-20 minutes lying on my belly, almost completely submerged in the water in order to get a low angle on a particularly attractive grouping of Purple Bladderworts.  After finishing I began to retrace my steps out of the pond.  As I did, I noticed something that was not there on my way in.  There was an 8-9 foot alligator laying on the bottom not 20 feet from where I was laying.  I suspect that its sudden presence was a coincidence, and that it hadn’t been slowly stalking me, but none-the-less it gave my heart a good jump.  Fortunately the water was shallow and clear, giving me a clear view of the magnificent creature, otherwise I was likely to have stepped on it.  I slowly made my way around it, and it never moved.  Though somewhat difficult to see, you can make out its head and part of its back in the photo below.

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American Alligator

The Purple Bladderwort shared its ponds with its cousin, the Humped Bladderwort (Utricularia gibba).  Like Utricularia purpurea, it also relies on the bladders of its submerged leaves to obtain nutrients from animal prey.

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Humped Bladderwort

There were several other interesting aquatic species in the flatwoods ponds, but the Floatinghearts (Nymphoides aquatica) really stood out.  It is also commonly known as the Banana Plant for its banana-shaped roots.

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Floatingheart

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Floatingheart

The flatwoods ponds were surrounded by a spectacular series of xeric sandhills occurring on ancient sand deposited by rivers as they changed course over time.  I spent some time exploring these beautiful communities, where I found a number of Eastern Prickly Pears in bloom.

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Eastern Prickly Pear blooms in a xeric sandhill

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Eastern Prickly Pear blooms in a xeric sandhill

I also took a moment to photograph the Pickering’s Dawnflower (Stylisma pickeringii), another species typical of deep sands, as it bloomed among the cacti.

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Pickering’s Dawnflower

As if all of the above wasn’t enough, in the morning Wendy and I observed this Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos) up to its anti-predator high jinks.  It spread the ribs of the anterior portion of its body creating a hood-like effect similar to that of a cobra.  This behavior has earned it the colloquial name of “spreading adder”.  Occasionally it would feign a strike, but never attempted to actually bite me.  Eastern Hognose Snakes feed primarily on toads, and have specially-adapted pointed fangs that can deflate toads that fill themselves with air in an attempt to make themselves larger to avoid being swallowed.  They also contain a mild venom that likely helps subdue their prey, though it is harmless to humans.

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Eastern Hognose Snake

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Eastern Hognose Snake

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Eastern Hognose Snake

Seeing the Purple Bladderwort and exploring these incredible habitats is an experience I will never forget.  I can’t wait to return in the future to spend more time among the carnivores (large and small) of the Big Thicket.

Another Day, Another Sandhill

Target Species: Centerville Brazos Mint (Brazoria truncata var. pulcherrima)

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Centerville Brazos Mint blooms among other rare plants in a high quality xeric sandhill

My pursuit of the Centerville Brazos Mint (Brazoria truncata var. pulcherrima brought me back to the xeric sandhills, the interesting community where I recently photographed the Smooth Jewelflower.  This time, instead of heading southeast to the Big Thicket, I traveled northeast to the transition zone between the Pineywoods and the Post Oak Savannah.  Here I found a community described by Texas Parks and Wildlife as “East-Central Texas Plains Xeric Sandyland.”

The Centerville Brazos Mint is rare.  The entirety of its range is confined to Texas, and it requires very specific conditions – deep sands with an open overstory.  These communities have declined dramatically since the colonization of Texas, and today very few high quality examples remain.  Fortunately I was able to visit some that likely appear as they did before Texas was settled.  Though they may be rare, where they occur, the Centerville Brazos Mint often thrives, forming carpets of pink over the sand.

Brazoria truncata var. pulcherrima is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) that is restricted to a handful of counties in East-Central Texas.  The genus Brazoria is named for the Brazos River, where it was first collected.  There are three species, all of which are endemic to Texas.

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Centerville Brazos Mint

Where the Centerville Brazos Mint grows, other good things are sure to be found.  A suite of rare species occur in these sandhills.  Studies of these communities have found that they contain one of the highest levels of endemism in the Western Gulf Coastal Plain.  The day I visited I found another rare Texas endemic mint blooming in profusion – the Texas Sandmint (Rhododon ciliatus).

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Texas Sandmint

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Texas Sandmint

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Texas Sandmint

I arrived early, and spent most of the day exploring the sandhills.  At around 4:30 pm I began to see flashes of deep pink.  I recognized them as the blooms of the Prairie Fameflower (Phemeranthus rugospermus).  Another rare species, it occurs in the Central U.S. from Minnesota to East-Central Texas.  It has succulent leaves, an adaptation for the drought-like conditions that occur in the deep sands that it prefers.

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Prairie Fameflower

The Prairie Fameflower is so rare that it was once considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.  It remains endangered on many state lists.  Most of the flowers I saw were a brilliant deep pink.

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Prairie Fameflower

There were a few, however, that were a light, faded pink.  The flowers of Phemeranthus rugospermus open in the late afternoon, and only for a single day.

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Prairie Fameflower

Portions of the sandhill were carpeted by the low, creeping forbs Yellow Stonecrop (Sedum nuttallianum) and Drummond’s Nailwort (Paronychia drummondii).  In some areas the two were growing together.

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Yellow Stonecrop

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Drummond’s Nailwort

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Yellow Stonecrop

I also saw several Smooth Jewelflowers (Streptanthus hyacinthoides) in bloom.

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Smooth Jewelflower

Prickly Pears were abundant in the deep sands.  The individuals here key to Opuntia cespitosa per the new treatment of the Opuntia humifusa complex by Majure, et al.

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Prickly Pear

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Prickly Pear

These sandhills occur in isolated pockets within a broader band of Post Oak Savannah uplands.  These savannahs were beautiful and diverse in their own right.  Though I didn’t have time to explore them properly during this visit, it gives me something to look forward to on my next visit.

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Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) blooms in a Post Oak Savannah