Keep Rolling

Target Species: Rainbow Scarab (Phanaeus vindex)

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Male Rainbow Scarab

Since I was a child I have had a fascination with beetles.  They are the most diverse group of animals on the planet, and come in an extraordinary array of shapes, sizes, and colors.  Some have iridescent, metallic carapaces, some have impressive weaponry like horns and toothed mandibles.  And some, like the Rainbow Scarab, have both.

The Rainbow Scarab is a dung beetle.  They feed on the refuse of mammals, and in doing so help to prevent an unsafe build up of animal feces.  Feces can be a vector for diseases, and by removing it from the earth’s surface, the Rainbow Scarab and other dung feeding beetles help to prevent the spread of feces-borne illnesses, some of which can be fatal.

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Male Rainbow Scarab

The benefits of dung beetles do not end there.  Rainbow Scarabs dig burrows below dung piles.  They then roll bits of the dung into balls and drag it below the surface.  The female then lays her eggs on the fecal matter, which will serve as nourishment for the developing larvae.  By spreading and depositing feces within the soil, the Rainbow Scarab is in effect fertilizing the landscape.

Rainbow Scarabs are broadly distributed east of the Rocky Mountains.  In East Texas they seem to prefer sandy soils, however elsewhere they have been documented in a variety of soil types.  The individuals pictured are from a longleaf pine savannah.

The strikingly beautiful Phanaeus vindex has been a favorite of mine since childhood.  I have observed and had the opportunity to photograph them on numerous occasions, however I have never been happy with the resulting images.  This year i hoped to capture some images that really showed off their brilliant iridescence.  Try as I might, I found that the age-old adage that “pictures can’t do them justice” really does apply with the Rainbow Scarab.  Their color seems to change depending on the angle of the light, and I found it impossible to capture their true brilliance, though I sure had fun trying.

For more on these fascinating creatures and the benefits they provide I strongly recommend this link:

http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/BENEFICIAL/BEETLES/Phanaeus_vindex.htm

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August and September Recap

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Sacred Datura

Between August 1 and September 30 I was able to cross 5 more species off my list, 3 of which came from another trip to the Davis Mountains:

Mountain Adder’s Mouth (Malaxis macrostachya)

Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii)

Mountain Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi)

Gulf Blazing Star (Liatris tenuis)

Barbed Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes barbata)

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Although we spent most of our time during our August trip to West Texas in the Davis Mountains, we camped the last night on the shore of Lake Balmorhea.  I found the Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii) pictured above right at daybreak as I explored the area around our tent.  The flowers of the Sacred Datura are primarily pollinated by large sphinx moths.  As a result they open in the late evening and close in the early morning.  Sacred Datura has a long history of significance for the people of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. It is well known for its potentially lethal toxicity. However it has also been used extensively for medicinal purposes. The plant was also used by many native tribes in religious ceremonies, often to induce visions.due to its hallucinogenic properties. Unfortunately, the potency of its toxins resulted in the death of many of its users.

On the drive home we stopped at a few rock outcrops to help break up the drive and stretch our legs.  It was at one of these outcrops that we spotted the Cory’s Dutchman Pipe (Aristolochia coryi).  In the U.S., this bizarre plant can only be found in central and western Texas.

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Cory’s Dutchman Pipe

Back in East Texas, my friend James Childress and I went looking for some late summer wildflowers.  Two of my favorites are the Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) and the Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii).  Both species are uncommon in East Texas.  P. ciliaris occurs in herbaceous seeps, baygall margins, and occasionally wet ditches and prairie remnants.  L. michauxii primarily occurs on the upper slopes of rich mesic ravines, often near the transition zone between slope and upland.

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Yellow Fringed Orchid

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Carolina Lily

While hunting for wildflowers James spotted a most interesting creature.  The Giant Ichneumon (Megarhyssa macrurus) is a large parasitic wasp with extremely long ovipositors.  They use these ovipositors to probe tunnels created by the larvae of horntail wasps.  Horntails bore into the wood of dead and dying trees.  The female ichneumon seeks out these larvae and with her ovipositor and lays her eggs on or in them.  Her own larvae then parasitize the horntail larvae.  The young ichmeumons will feed only on the horntails, killing them in the process.  They will then pupate and emerge as adults from the tunnel that their host created for them.

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Giant Ichneumon

In late August Hurricane Harvey passed through East Texas and dumped unprecedented amounts of rain on the region.  Following the storm, James and I went looking for reptiles and amphibians, hoping that they would be active following the prolonged period of moisture.

We found a number of Southern Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix), the most attractive of which is pictured below.

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Southern Copperhead

Among the amphibians observed was this enormous Gulf Coast Toad (Incilius nebulifer).

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Gulf Coast Toad

The prolonged rainfall brought out scores of Hurter’s Spadefoots (Scaphiopus hurteri).  These interesting frogs can be extremely abundant in certain areas, but require specific habitat conditions.  These conditions typically consist of areas with deep, undisturbed sand where they can burrow and aestivate during the hottest and driest part of the summer.  This species emerges only after heavy rains, where they may breed by the thousands in small ephemeral wetlands that may be little more than a puddle.  The tadpole stage for these spadefoots is among the shortest of any frog, requiring as little as two weeks to go from an egg to a froglet capable of leaving the water.  This short larval stage is an adaptation to allow them to breed in areas were the presence of water is a limiting factor, and allows them to breed in areas that other species are not capable of utilizing, effectively eliminating the competition.

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Hurter’s Spadefoot

September is perhaps the best time to visit Catahoula Barrens.  Wildflowers such as Texas Blazing Star (Liatris mucronata) and Nuttall’s Rayless Goldenrod (Bigelowia nuttallii) bloom in mass.  Downy Lobelia (Lobelia puberula) is fairly common in wetter areas along the margins of the barrens.

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Downy Lobelia

Small-flowered Fameflower (Phemeranthus parviflorus) occurs sporadically in Catahoula Barrens.  The flowers of this interesting succulent open in late afternoon.

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Small-flowered Fameflower

I leave you with this final shot of a Catahoula Barren.  I captured this shot at dusk and tried to highlight the rich diversity of colors that can be found in these incredible landscapes.

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Catahoula Barren

A Fall Rarity

Target Species: Barbed Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes barbata)

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Barbed Rattlesnake Root

In late summer and early fall the nodding blooms of the Barbed Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes barbata) unfurl.  It is a member Asteraceae, commonly referred to as the composite or sunflower family.  The genus Prenanthes earned the common name rattlesnake roots from their early use as a treatment for venomous snake bites.  This treatment involved consuming the plants’ milky white sap, a bitter substance produced by the plants to deter predators, and applying a poulstice of the plants’ leaves directly to the wound.  Rattlesnake root has served other medicinal purposes for native tribes and early settlers, including use a treatment for dysentery and diarrhea.  Perhaps most interestingly, some believed that smearing the juice of rattlesnake roots on one’s hands would make them invulnerable to venomous snakes.  I found this quote from William Byrd of early colonial Virginia about a closely related member of the genus Prenanthes:

…the rattlesnake has an utter antipathy to this plant, in-so-much that if you smear your hand with the juice of it, you may handle the viper safely. Thus much can I say of my own experience, that once in July, when these snakes are in their greatest vigor, I besmear’ed a dog’s nose with the powder of this root and made him trample on a large snake several times, which however, was so far from biting him that it perfectly sicken’d at the dog’s approach and turn’d its head from him with the utmost aversion.”

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Barbed Rattlesnake Root

In East Texas Barbed Rattlesnake Root occurs in rich mesic forested slopes and moist flatwoods.  Elsewhere in its range it may occur in dry mesic sandy uplands, prairie remnants, and the margins of barrens and glades.  In general it is found on calcareous soils (those which are rich in calcium carbonate).  It is rare throughout its range, and in Texas it seems to have declined dramatically in recent decades as a result of habitat loss and land use conversion.  In Texas it is often found with other rare and declining species like Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and the Kentucky Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium kentuckiense).

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County level distribution of Prenanthes barbata.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present and rare.

Prenanthes barbata is a striking plant.  It may reach heights of 5 to 6 feet and a single plant may contain dozens of flowers.  We found them at a few locations in East Texas growing on steep slopes grading into small to mid-sized streams.

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Barbed Rattlesnake Root

Prenanths barbata is one of East Texas’s many interesting fall-blooming plants.  Over the coming weeks I hope to document more of these species before winter all but halts flowering activities until spring comes again, to revive the botanical world.

Blaze of Glory

Target Species: Gulf Blazing Star (Liatris tenuis)

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One of the Gulf Coastal Plain’s major centers of endemism occurs in the Pineywoods of East Texas and western Louisiana, and to a lesser extent southeast Oklahoma and southwest Arkansas.  Many of these species are concentrated in the xeric sandhills and longleaf pine savannahs of the region.  The Gulf Blazing Star (Liatris tenuis) is one such species.  It primarily occurs in longleaf pine savannahs, sandhills, and sandstone barrens.

Members of the genus Liatris can be difficult to differentiate.  Two similar species, Liatris squarrosa and Liatris squarrulosa can occur in similar areas.  L. tenuis is best identified by its narrow leaves, few florets per head, and short involucre.

Liatris tenuis

One possible explanation for the high levels of endemism in the longleaf pine and xeric sandhill communities is a break in the range of longleaf pine and bands of geological formations with deep sand deposits created by the Mississippi River Delta.  This has created barriers to gene flow for species with very specific habitat requirements.  This isolation has led to the evolution of different lineages, resulting in speciation over time.

Another endemic of the West Gulf Coastal Plain that can often be found growing in close proximity to Liatris tenuis is the Scarlet Catchfly (Silene subciliata).  This aptly named catchfly blooms from mid summer through most of the fall.

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Note the similarity of range between Silene subciliata and Liatris tenuis.  As mentioned before, this same pattern is shared by many of the Pineywoods’ plant species.  Silene subciliata occurs on deep sands in longleaf pine savannahs and xeric sandhills.

Silene subciliata

Both L. tenuis and S. subciliata are species of conservation concern in both Texas and Louisiana, where they are formally listed on the state’s rare plant lists.  Like so many species of the longleaf pine savannahs, their numbers of been reduced dramatically by loss of habitat and land use conversion.  Today they remain in only a handful of scattered populations.  Fortunately some of these have been protected by entities like the U.S. Forest Service, Big Thicket National Preserve, and the Nature Conservancy of Texas.

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July Recap

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Cow Killer

July has been my most productive month yet.  Due in large part to a trip to the Davis Mountains I was able to check 7 species off my list:

Spider Lily (Hymenocallis occidentalis)

Texas Coralroot (Hexalectris warnockii)

Glass Mountain Coralroot (Hexalectris nitida)

Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora)

Mexican Catchfly (Silene laciniata)

Glorious Scarab (Chrysina gloriosa)

Canyon Tree Frog (Hyla arenicolor)

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One of the most interesting photographic experiences of July came toward the end of the month, when a female Red Velvet Ant a.k.a. Cow Killer (Dasymutilla occidentalis) came wandering through our yard.  These large wasps have always fascinated me, and I’ve long wanted to get a good photo of one. I’ve tried a few times in the past but found them nearly impossible to photograph. They are surprisingly fast and never stop moving.  The females are flightless, while the males are winged.

Despite their ominous name, which eludes to their supposedly highly painful sting, my wife offered to help. I captured it in a cup and then led it onto a 3-foot long stick. My wife held the stick, switching hands as it paced rapidly from one end to the other. Occasionally it would stop at the edge for the briefest of moments. I ended up taking over 100 shots. I got some that were very sharp, but she was in an awkward position, and others where she was in the perfect position, but the focus wasn’t right. This one ended up being my favorite. When we finished I let her continue on its way.

Cow killers are parasites of parasites, and when we encountered her I assume she was on the hunt for a suitable host for her offspring. They seek out the larvae of Cicada Killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus), and lay their own eggs into the larvae of the Cicada Killers, which have been laid on a live, paralyzed cicada. They will also parasitize a number of other ground nesting wasps and bumblebees.

In early July I went to visit a population of Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris spicata) in the Davy Crockett National Forest.  Despite significant damage from feral hogs to the dense leaf litter at the site, I found several blooming plants.  Though most were past their prime, i found a few fresh, interesting blooms.  It’s hard to imagine a flower having a personality, but the flowers of Hexalectris spicata certainly look like they could.

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Crested Coralroot

En route to the Crested Coralroot spot I stopped along a forest road to relieve myself.  As I was doing so I spotted several Little Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes tuberosa) blooming alongside the road.  These diminutive orchids bloom in the summer in open woodlands.

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Little Ladies’ Tresses

I photographed this Bog Coneflower (Rudbeckia scabrifolia) in a herbaceous seep on private land.

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Bog Coneflower

I have been wanting to photograph Climbing Milkweed (Matelea decipiens) for a while.  I found a plant with a single cluster of blooms along a springfed stream.

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Climbing Milkweed

The striking Blue Waterleaf (Hydrolea ovata) is common in herbaceous wetlands in the eastern third of the state.

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Blue Waterleaf

Hydrolea ovata can often be found growing with Looseflower Water-Willow (Justicia lanceolata).

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Looseflower Water-Willow

Toward the end of the month I visited a high quality longleaf pine savannah on private land with my friend James.  During our visit we were fortunate to catch the rare Scarlet Catchfly (Silene subciliata) in bloom.

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Scarlet Catchfly

I’ll end my July recap with a photo of a Slimleaf Milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla) that we saw on our way back from Dallas, where we photographed Hexalectris warnockii and H. nitida in early July.  This is one of the rarer milkweeds of Texas. It is primarily a species of the Great Plains, occurring on dry, sandy prairies that have not experienced significant soil disturbance. In Texas it occurs in scattered populations from the Rolling Plains to the Blackland Prairies, where it appears to be rare and declining.

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Slimleaf Milkweed

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.