Coralroots of the White Rock Escarpment

Targets Species: Texas Coralroot (Hexalectris warnockii) and Glass Mountain Coralroot (Hexalectris nitida)

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Hexalectris warnockii

Texas boasts more species of the genus Hexalectris than any other state.  Here 5 of the world’s 8 species can be found (these numbers change to 6 and 9, depending on if you believe that Hexalectris spicata var. arizonica deserves species status).  Hexalectris is a genus of myco-heterotrophic orchids that are generally found in areas with abundant shade and thick, rich leaf litter.  In Texas there are three Hexalectris hotspots.  One is the  mountains of far West Texas, another the shaded canyons and oak/juniper woodlands of the Edward’s Plateau, and the last is the White Rock Escarpment of north-central Texas.  The latter is where I sought my targets.

The diversity of Hexalectris in the White Rock Escarpment was only recently discovered, when in the late 1980’s Hexalectris warnockii was discovered at an area nature preserve.  Since that time H. nitida, and H. spicata var. arizonica have also been found.  In 2005, Hexalectris grandiflora was discovered here as well, marking the first documented occurrence in the United States outside of the Davis and Chisos Mountains of West Texas.  It has since been discovered at a few sights in the Edward’s Plateau.

What makes the White Rock Escarpment so attractive to these orchids are the deposits of Austin Chalk.  This limestone-rich formation created topography and harbors species of oak and juniper that are more typical of West and Central Texas.  It is in the leaf litter under the shade of these species that the orchids grow.  The range of these Hexalectris orchids was probably once continuous and more expansive, but climate change over several millennia has pushed them into progressively smaller patches of suitable habitat, where they now exist as relicts of a once broader population.

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Hexalectris warnockii

Hexalectris warnockii is one of Texas’s showiest orchids.  It is named for Dr. Barton Warnock, a pioneer of Texas botany.  He is best known for exploring the flora of the Trans-Pecos, where he discovered many  new species and many other species that had never been documented in the United States.  Interestingly enough, while Warnock did discover the next species to be highlighted, Hexalectris nitida, he did not discover H. warnockii, which was named in his honor.  For more information on this influential figure in Texas natural history, click here.

I had previously observed Hexalectris warnockii growing at the base of some boulders deep in a secluded canyon in the Chisos Mountains.  It was truly fascinating to find the same species growing so far apart in conditions that were at the same time different, yet similar.  Though H. warnockii has been discovered at several locations since it was initially discovered in the mountains of West Texas, it remains rare and elusive in the state.

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Hexalectris warnockii

There is some mystery as to what triggers Hexalectris orchids to bloom.  The plants spend most of their life as little more than a rhizome and set of roots, and each individual may only bloom a couple of times each decade.  While rainfall is often cited as a trigger for blooming in West Texas, this doesn’t necessarily hold true elsewhere.  In the White Rock Escarpment, for example, some years may provide an excellent bloom for one species, and a sparse bloom for others.  While H. warnockii seemed to be having a banner year this year, our guide, Gary Spicer, informed us that H. nitida seemed to be showing low numbers.

Fortunately we did find a few.  Most of the H. nitida in the Edward’s Plateau and White Rock Escarpment are cleistogamous, meaning that the flowers self-pollinate and thus never open.  Gary, who frequents the area, did say that each year he sees a few plants with an open flower or two, but unfortunately we were unable to find any during out visit.

As I mentioned before, H. nitida was discovered by Barton Warnock.  He found it while working on his PhD dissertation on the vegetation of the Glass Mountains.  H. nitida is also commonly known as the Shining Coralroot due to the reflective sheen it gives off when hit by a stray beam of sun penetrating the canopy.

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Hexalectris nitida

Hexalectris has become one of my favorite plant genera.  They are both challenging to find and breathtakingly beautiful, and I look forward to continuing to explore  Hexalectris habitat in all three of our state’s hot spots.

Among Spiders

Target Species: Spider Lily (Hymenocallis occidentalis)

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Hymenocallis occidentalis

Spider Lily is an appropriate common name for members of the genus Hymenocallis.  Hymenocallis diversity is greatest in the southeast, specifically Florida.  In Texas there are only 2 species.  The familiar Hymenocallis liriosme blooms in the spring in wet ditches, wet pastures, wet prairies, marsh edges, and similar wetland habitats.  The less familiar Hymenocallis occidentalis is typically a species of open woodlands and mature forests.

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Hymenocallis occidentalis

Hymenocallis occidentalis blooms in the heat of summer.  However, it can easily be located in the spring when it puts up its thick, fleshy leaves.  It seems to be uncommon in Texas, occurring in a handful of scattered counties in the state’s eastern third.  Texas plants are assigned to the variety eulae.  In H. occidentalis var. eulae the leaves typically wither prior to flowering.  There has been some debate as to whether or not this variety merits being elevated to the species level.

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Hymenocallis occidentalis

I have seen both the leaves and blooms of H. occidentalis on numerous occasions, but have never succeeded in getting a photograph I was satisfied with.  I hoped to change that by adding it to my 2017 biodiversity list.  I have been to a few remote locations where I have seen hundreds of leaves carpeting the forest floor in the spring.  Unfortunately I didn’t have time to make it out there this summer, and instead settled for photographing this roadside population I discovered last year just 30 minutes from my house.  Some of the species on my list are a real challenge to find and photograph.  Fortunately, Hymenocallis occidentalis wasn’t one of them!

June Recap

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Eastern Featherbells (Stenanthium gramineum) bloom in a mature pine-hardwood forest.

June got off to a slow start, but I finished strong, checking four more species off my list:

Saltmarsh False Foxglove (Agalinis maritima)

Velvetleaf Milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa)

Correll’s False Dragonhead (Physostegia correllii)

Starry Campion (Silene stellata)

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In early June I photographed this pair of ox beetles (Strategus antaeus) with my good friend James Childress.  We have two species of ox beetles in East Texas.  Strategus antaeus is smaller, with proportionately longer, pointed horns.  Strategus antaeus is much larger, with blunt tipped horns.  S. antaeus is primarily a species of the coastal plain, with East Texas marking the southwestern limit of its range.  It occurs in open, sandy woodlands, savannahs, and prairie openings.  The large horns of the male are used in combat to with other males to win the favor of a female.

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Strategus antaeus

In mid June I visited one of my favorite vegetative communities: the herbaceous hillside seep.  This particular site is on private land that is managed by a combination of fire and mechanical clearing.  Historically these communities would have been kept free from woody vegetation through a combination of frequent lightning-ignited fires and poor, saturated soils.  These communities are home to a variety of rare and interesting species including carnivorous plants and a variety of orchids.  Pictured below are Pale Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia alata) and blooming Pinewoods Rose Gentians (Sabatia gentianoides).  I hope to highlight this community more in a future blog entry.

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Herbaceous Hillside Seep

One of the herbaceous seep’s most striking summer displays comes from the Bog Coneflower (Rudbeckia scabrifolia).  This rare plant is confined to extreme eastern Texas and western Louisiana.  Here it’s habitat has all but disappeared over the past century and a half.

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Bog Coneflowers bloom in a herbaceous hillside seep.

Similar to the herbaceous hillside seep, but occurring in areas where fire historically did not penetrate is the forested seep.  These areas are locally known as “baygalls” in reference to two typically dominant species: Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) and Tall Gallberry Holly (Ilex coriaceae).  Like the herbaceous seep, baygalls are home to many rare species.  Pictured here are the blooms of the toxic Virginia Bunchflower (Veratrum virginicum).  These handsome plants may reach a height of 7 feet.

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Virginia Bunchflower blooms in an East Texas baygall

Another impressive summer bloomer is Physostegia digitalis, one of the false dragonheads.  They can reach heights of six feet or more and bear dozens of pale pink flowers.  Like the Bog Coneflowers, they are a species endemic to the West Gulf Coastal Plain, and are limited to East Texas, western Louisiana, and extreme southwestern Arkansas.  They are quite common in East Texas, existing in open sandy woodlands and highway right-of-ways.

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Physostegia digitalis

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Physostegia digitalis

Ongoing survey efforts for the extremely rare Louisiana Pine Snake (Pituophis ruthveni) on private land produced this Northern Scarlet Snake (Cemorphora coccinea copei).  Though they may be locally common in appropriate habitat, their preferred habitat, which includes sandy longleaf pine savannahs, xeric sandhills, and similar habitats has all but disappeared.  Scarlet snakes are specially adapted for burrowing, and they spend most of their time below ground. In East Texas their greatest periods of surface activity seem to coincide with the peak season for reptile nesting. During this time they seek out their favorite prey: reptile eggs.

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Northern Scarlet Snake

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Northern Scarlet Snake

I photographed this jewel beetle (Acmaeodera sp.) as it went about unwittingly pollinating Woodland Poppymallow (Callirhoe papaver).

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Acmeodera sp.

This has been a good year for Eastern Featherbells (Stenanthium gramineum).  I prefer landscape shots that showcase their whispy blooms over detailed shots of individual flowers.  Eastern Featherbells is one of a suite of species typical of the eastern United States that reaches it southwestern limit in the Pineywoods of East Texas.  It seems to be uncommon to rare throughout most of its range.

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Eastern Featherbells in a dry-mesic forest.

A number of milkweed species bloom in the height of summer.  One of the more easily overlooked species is the Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), whose tiny flower clusters hardly look like blooms from a distance.

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Whorled Milkweed

The Federally Threatened Neches River Rosemallow (Hibiscus dasycalyx) occurs in just a few East Texas Counties.  It can be differentiated from the similar Halberd-leaved Hibiscus (Hibiscus laevis) by the dense hairs on its calyces.

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Neches River Rosemallow

As the Texas summer wears on, spending time outside becomes more and more unpleasant, however some of our most interesting species are most active and easiest to see in these sweltering months.  I look forward to seeing what July has in store.

The Chicken Turtle

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Before I post a recap of June’s discoveries, I wanted to highlight a special encounter of a seldom seen denizen of eastern Texas.  For some, the Western Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticularia miaria) is the holy grail of Texas Turtles.  It is a rarely encountered species of the coastal plain in the southeastern United States. Here they primarily inhabit ephemeral wetlands, from oxbows in floodplain forests, to seasonal marshes and potholes in coastal prairies.

They appear to be uncommon and declining throughout most of their range, and Texas is no exception. Here they are rarely seen and poorly understood, though recent studies are shedding some light onto their range and habitat preference in the state.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of this species is its extremely long neck. When I spotted this species individual in the road its neck was fully extended. It was the last thing I was expecting to see while exploring the prairies and marshes of the upper Texas coast, but I was beyond thrilled to encounter it. I moved it to a safer location where I captured this image.

In the Stars

Target Species: Starry Campion (Silene stellata)

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Starry Campion

Sometimes good things happen when you least expect it.  Such was the case when I checked the Starry Campion (Silene stellata) off my 2017 biodiversity list.  The botanist for the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas informed me of a new population of the Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris spicata) in Houston County.  While I had photographed this orchid before, it is so spectacular that I could’t resist checking out this newly discovered population.  I received a vague set of directions to the site, but thought that I had it figured out, so I set out to find it.

It turns out that I had gone to the wrong spot.  I arrived to where I thought the orchids would be and found nothing.  What I did find, however was what I believe is the first vouchered population of Silene stellata in Houston County.  I was not expecting to see it here, and a subsequent search of published range maps and herbaria did not turn up any records for Houston County, so I believe this is the first.

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Starry Campion

Starry Campion occurs in scattered populations throughout most of the eastern United States.  It prefers rich mesic to dry-mesic slopes, where it typically grows in the shade of hardwoods.  In Texas it tends to prefer calcareous sites.  It is primarily pollinated by moths, and it’s large, fluffy-looking blooms open in the evening and remain open throughout the night.  They begin to close the following morning.  I found several plants scattered about the lower reaches of a rich mesic slope.

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Starry Campion

It was hard to be disappointed about not finding the coralroots when the “wrong” path led me to one of my target species – one that I have never seen in bloom.  However, after some clarification on the directions I was able to make it to the Crested Coralroots after all.  These are, in my opinion, one of the most striking orchids in the country.  They occur in scattered populations in wooded areas throughout much of Texas.  It seems that a rich, undisturbed layer of leaf-litter is a prerequisite.  They are mycoheterotrophic, obtaining nutrients and energy from fungus living within the soil.  I spent the evening photographing them, and left feeling content in having found both the expected and unexpected.

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Crested Coralroots

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Crested Coralroot

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Crested Coralroots.  Though they are brightly colored when views up close, they can be very difficult to spot from a distance.

Chasing the Dragon

Target Species: Correll’s False Dragonhead (Physostegia correllii)

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To many I’m sure that my relentless, often obsessive pursuit of the natural world seems like an addiction.  I can understand why.  I truly crave spending time in the natural world, and when I go very long without setting foot in some wild place, I begin to have withdrawals, which affect my mood and well-being.  But to me it’s not an addiction, but rather a part of me.  It has been with me since I can remember, the itch to explore nature gnawing at me and pulling me to the wilderness.

Last weekend Carolina and I traveled to Kyle to help my brother move.  We arrived a day early so we would have some time to explore.  First we took the tour at “A Cave Without a Name”.  This cave system really is a hidden gem.  It is not as well known as many of the other cave tours in central Texas, but it was spectacular and the tour guide was very knowledgeable and the tour informative.  Following the cave tour we spent some time swimming in the Guadalupe River nearby.  Here we delighted in the various species of damselflies that would land on our heads.  We soon realized that we could get them to land on our fingertips if we stuck them above the water like a makeshift perch.  Carolina’s sharp eyes also spotted a young Guadalupe Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera guadalupensis) among the rocks in the shallows.

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After a couple of hours we ventured to another river system: the Colorado.  The Colorado River and a handful of tributaries are one of the last strongholds for a rare and seemingly vanishing plant, the Correll’s False Dragonhead.  After several failed searches of stream banks that I thought might harbor this rarity, I finally found it along the mucky banks of the Colorado itself.

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Physostegia correllii is an impressive plant.  Some of the individuals I observed were taller than I was.  This species is a bit of an oddity, as it occurs in a variety of different habitats.  The only common denominator seems to be the presence of some kind of channel.  They grow along rivers and streams like the Rio Grande in South Texas and northern Mexico to drainage ditches along roadways in Louisiana.  It seems strange, then that it has become so rare.  Sometimes we might consider a plant to be rare, when in reality it is only easily overlooked.  This is not the case with the Correll’s False Dragonhead, however.  This plant sticks out like a sore thumb and would immediately capture the attention of anyone passing by it.  That begs the question: why is it so rare.  I don’t believe it has to do with it’s reproductive biology or proclivity to germinate, as it is easily propagated in captivity.  I have been unable to find a good answer to this question, but that certainly doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist.

Physostegia correllii

Physostegia correllii is named for botanist Donovan Stewart Correll.  Correll was an influential figure in Texas botany.  He was instrumental in developing monumental works like Orchids of North America, North of MexicoAquatic and Wetland Plants of the Southwestern United States; and the Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas which is the most comprehensive treatment of our flora.

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Finding Correll’s False Dragonhead was particularly special for me, as it was the last species of the genus Physostegia in Texas that I had yet to see.  Texas, particularly southeast Texas, is the center of diversity for Physostegia, with 7 of the 12 recognized species occurring here.  There are records of P. correllii from Harris, Montgomery, Galveston, and Chambers Counties, but to my knowledge they have not been recently observed here.

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I always found members of the genus Physostegia to be extremely photogenic.  They have interesting shapes and most have rich colors and intricate patterns on the blooms.  I enjoyed photographing several individuals in the group I encountered in the fading evening light.

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Growing alongside the dragonheads were several American Water-willows (Justicia americana).  A wetland species, J. americana ranges over much of the eastern United States, reaching the southwestern extent of its range in southwestern Texas and northern Mexico.  To me, the attractive little blooms are reminiscent of orchids.

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With the light quickly fading we traveled further along the Colorado to the Congress Avenue Bridge where we watched in excess of one million Mexican Free-tailed Bats spill out from their daytime roosts into the night sky.  It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

 

 

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.

Asclepias tomentosa

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.

Asclepias arenaria

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