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.

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The Flora of Weches Glades

Target Species: Widow’s Cross (Sedum pulchellum)

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Widow’s Cross

Weches Glades are unique communities in the Pineywoods that occur where the underlying Weches Formation reaches the surface.  Here lie exposed iron rocks and soil that are rich in glauconite, a greenish mineral composed primarily of iron and potassium.  Weches Glades occur in a narrow band stretching across Nacogdoches, San Augustine, and Sabine counties and are home to a unique flora, including species that are found nowhere else on the planet.

The coarse soil of the Weches Glades are often saturated in the spring and summer, occasionally forming shallow pools in small depressions in bare rock.  The heat and sweltering sun of summer quickly evaporates these pools, and leaves the soil dry and brittle.  In the spring the boulders at some of the few remnant glades turn light pink, awash with the blooms of the Widow’s Cross (Sedum pulchellum).

Widow’s Cross is a species of the South-Central states, from extreme Northeast Georgia, Tennesse, and Kentucky in the east to Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas in the west.  It is generally limited to glades and outcrops, communities where little else can grow.  It thrives under shallow, harsh soil conditions.  As these communities are often limited across the landscape, Sedum pulchellum is generally uncommon to rare throughout its range.  In Texas it occurs in just a handful of counties in the northern and central portions of the state.  In the Pineywoods it is limited to Sabine and San Augustine Counties.

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Widow’s Cross

Widow’s Cross owes much of its success in these environments to its succulent leaves, which can quickly absorb and store water from fall and winter rains in order to put on a spectacular spring show.  It’s easy to see how the plant gets its name.  It’s actually named for the cross like shape of the four-petaled flowers, however the inflorescence also often forms in the shape of a cross.

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Widow’s Cross

Though Weches Glades were likely always infrequent and highly localized, a great deal have been lost to glauconite mining.  This mineral which seems critical for some species has long been used for soil enhancement and road filler.  As result small scale surface mining operations have destroyed many of these unique communities.  The vast majority of those that remain are on private land and site unprotected to this day.

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Widow’s Cross

While I had previously photographed this species, I captured it on the tail end of its blooming cycle and the plants were past their prime.  This year I aimed to capture them at their peak.  While they generally bear 3 or 4-pronged racemes, I found some with 5 prongs.

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Widow’s Cross

Weches Glades are also home to 2 endemic, Federally Endangered plants: The Texas Golden Gladecress (Leavenworthia texana) and the White Bladderpod (Lesquerella pallida).  Leavenworthia texana is endemic to Sabine and San Augustine Counties.  Here it occurs almost entirely on private land.  These diminutive plants bloom in early spring, ad by the time Widow’s Cross blooms they have already dispersed their seeds.  I photographed the individuals below in mid-February.  In the second photo the developing stems of Sedum pulchellum can be seen.

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Texas Golden Gladecress

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Texas Golden Gladecress

The White Bladderpod is restricted to a handful of Weches Glades in San Augustine County.  It is named for its spherical seed pods, which can be seen adjacent to the blooms on the photo below.  It was in full bloom at the same time as the Widow’s Cross.  Curiously, the bladderpod and gladecress generally don’t occur at the same outcrops.

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White Bladderpod

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White Bladderpot

While photographing the flora of the Weches Glades, one will immediately note the strong smell of mint that fills the air.  This is a result of dense populations of the Limestone Calamint (Clinopodium arkansanum).

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Limestone Calamint

There are many other interesting species that can be found blooming in Weches Glades.  I leave you with a few of them.

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Comanche Daisy (Astranthium ciliatum)

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Drummond’s Stitchwort (Minuartia drummondii)

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Pitcher’s Stitchwort (Minuartia patula)

 

March Recap

Due to a combination of changed plans and other factors, March was not as productive in terms of 2017 biodiversity goal species as I was expecting.  I was able to check off three species:

Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima)

Blue Curls (Phacelia congesta)

Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus coccineus)

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I spent most of the month of March exploring outside my home turf of the Pineywoods.  From the South Texas Plains to the Edward’s Plateau, I observed an incredible diversity of habitats and species, which are highlighted in previous blog posts.  I did however get to spend some time in the field around here.  To follow are some of March’s highlights from East Texas.

This year has been good for Luna Moths (Actias luna).  I observed several freshly emerged males.  Males utilize their feathery antennae to pick up subtle pheromone cues from females and may fly miles to find a mate.  Adult Luna Moths lack feeding mouth parts, and live on average about a week.  As adults they really are driven by a singular purpose: to breed.

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Luna Moth

March is a great time to enjoy flowering trees and shrubs in East Texas.  This year most species put on a decent show.  The Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) seemed to peak in late February, however several were still in flower in early March.

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Eastern Redbud

Among my favorite spring displays is that of the Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida).  This small tree ranges throughout much of the eastern United States.  To me it is one of the emblematic spring blooms of East Texas.  Christian accounts claim that Jesus was crucified on the wood of a dogwood tree.  Story goes that they were once tall, stately trees that Jesus, following his crucifixion, morphed to their current gnarled form – presumably so no others could ever again be crucified upon their wood. Their “flowers” now appear as crosses each spring around Easter.

In reality the white “flowers” are modified leaves called bracts. The flowers are the yellow structures at the bracts’ centers.  In the late summer the tree will bear red fruits that are cherished by wild turkeys.  I also think that their growth form only lends beauty to this already stunning species.

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Flowering Dogwood

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Flowering Dogwood

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Flowering Dogwood in the understory of a longleaf pine savannah

The Fringetrees (Chionanthus virginicus) seem to hit their peak as the dogwoods are beginning to fade.  Their wispy, whitish green blooms light up the forest edge and the understory in open woods.

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Fringetree

Dangling like little snowdrops are the blooms of the Two-winged Silverbell (Halesia diptera).  These attractive little trees are often found along streams and in moist stream bottoms.

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Two-winged Silverbell

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Two-winged Silverbell

Azaleas are a favorite of gardeners and nature lovers alike.  In East Texas the Hoary Azalea (Rhododendron canescens) reaches the southwestern extent of its range.

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Hoary Azalea

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Hoary Azalea

I couldn’t resist photographing a particularly large Sabine River Wakerobin (Trillium gracile).  This lovely trillium is endemic to rich forests in the Pineywoods of East Texas and western Louisiana.

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Sabine River Wakerobin

Another springtime favorite of mine is the Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum).  This characteristic spring ephemeral of eastern forests can form large colonies in East Texas, often carpeting the forest floor.  The fluffy white blooms hang below the large umbrella like leaves.  Occasionally, as pictured below, the flowers may have a pink tinge to them.

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Mayapple

Though I photographed a few in February, I couldn’t resist stopping to photograph some roadside populations of Birdfoot Violets (Viola pedata) in early March.

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Birdfoot Violets

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Birdfoot Violet

Also common along roadways and dry, open woods is the Plains Wild Indigo (Baptisia bracteata).

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Plains Wild Indigo

I photographed this Yellow Star-Grass (Hypoxis hirsuta) with fresh morning dew still clinging to the bloom.

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Yellow Star-Grass

Another characteristically eastern forb that reaches its southwestern extent in East Texas is the Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis).  Most of the flowers in Texas are yellow, however I have occasionally observed them with hints of maroon.  Lousewort is reported to provide a plethora of medical uses.  It’s roots have long been used to brew a tea that helps treat digestive and stomach problems and ulcers.  Its leaves can also reportedly be ground into a poultice that helps alleviate swelling, muscle pain, and several skin conditions.  Drinking its leaves in a tea is said to sooth sore throats, coughs, and headaches.  It is also said to act as a powerful aphrodisiac.

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Lousewort

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Lousewort

The beautiful Big Thicket Phlox (Phlox pulcherrima) is endemic to the forests of East Texas.  Like so many other species in this area of significant habitat modification by man, it is now most common along roadsides.

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Big Thicket Phlox

The Nodding Penstemon (Penstemon laxiflorus) is also common along roadsides.  It is so common that I never gave it much thought as a photographic subject, however this native has truly unique, beautiful flowers when viewed up close.

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Nodding Penstemon

During March I also made a few visits to the Big Thicket to check on a species that I checked off my list in February: The Federally Endangered Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis).  The plants were looking healthy and were still blooming mid-March.

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Texas Trailing Phlox

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Texas Trailing Phlox

Growing near the phlox I saw several Dollarleafs (Rhynchosia reniformis), a species of the coastal plain of the southeastern United States.

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I’ll close out this March recap with a beautiful scene from a longleaf pine savannah near one of the few known locations of Texas Trailing Phlox.  Here Rose Mock Vervain (Glandularia canadensis) thrives following a fire.  These showy blooms are a testament to fire’s ability to maintain and vitalize certain vegetative communities.

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With March of 2017 behind us, it’s time to move into April, where I hope to really start get going on my 2017 list of biodiversity goals.

 

South Texas Part IV: Star Hunting

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Star Cactus

The Star Cactus (Astrophytum asterias) may be the rarest, most unique cactus in the country.  It is known from only a handful of sites in the Tamaulipan thornscrub of extreme southern Texas and northeastern Mexico.  It is so imperiled that it has been listed as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  It is severely threatened by land use conversion and habitat loss.  Fortunately The Nature Conservancy in Texas acquired the property that may have the largest remaining Star Cactus population in the country.  Here they undertake conservation measures and reintroduction efforts to ensure that this iconic cactus remains for generations to come.

I have donated a number of photographs to The Nature Conservancy in the past.  When we decided on traveling to South Texas I reached out to them to see if I could arrange a visit to see and photograph these imperiled cacti.  They graciously approved my request, and we met with volunteer Paul Bryant, who gave us an excellent tour of the property.  Having previously worked for a non-profit land trust similar to the Nature Conservancy, I know how heavily we relied on our volunteers.  I also learned to recognize the good ones, and I had no doubt that Paul was a valuable asset to the Nature Conservancy.

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Star Cactus

Though many were growing in the open, the star cactus was extremely difficult to spot.  When its not flowering, it is inconspicuous, blending in with the scattered rocks covering the gentle slopes where it grows.  Also known as the Sea Urchin Cactus, Sand Dollar Cactus, and False Peyote, it is a spineless cactus that lies relatively flat against the surface in times of drought.  Following rains, however it swells with water and can appear quite plump.  I had hoped to photograph the bright yellow blooms, but it was not to be.  We saw a number of plants that had recently blooms, and others that were preparing to, but we weren’t fortunate to catch any in the act.  That was ok though, it was a wonderful experience just to get to see them in their element.  The plant itself is beautiful, and made for some interesting photographs even without its bloom.

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Star Cactus

There were several other cacti growing in the vicinity of the Stars.  The most conspicuous was the aptly named Glory of Texas (Thelocactus bicolor).  In Texas this species only occurs in the extreme western and extreme southern portions of the state.  Though the populations are disjunct in Texas, they are more or less connected through Mexico.  We saw many of their bright pink blooms, both in the open and at the base of nurse plants.

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Glory of Texas

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Glory of Texas

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Glory of Texas

We also saw a few of the formidable Horse Cripplers (Echinocactus texensis) in bloom.  Looking at these beasts, its not hard to see how they got their name.

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Horse Crippler

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Horse Crippler

I only saw one Runyon’s Pincushion Cactus (Coryphantha pottsiana) in bloom.  Though not as scarce as the Star Cactus, this species is also rare in Texas, where it is known from only three counties along the Rio Grande.

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Horse Crippler

And then there were more Lady Fingers (Echinocereus pentalophus).  Though these proved to be fairly common during the trip I never tired of seeing them, and could not resist every opportunity to photograph them.

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Lady Finger Alicoche

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Lady Finger Alicoche

I found one particularly robust flowering specimen growing among a clump of Varilla (Varilla texana).  I came to learn that where Varilla grows, there are usually other interesting things to be found.

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Lady Finger Alicoche

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Lady Finger Alicoche

We also observed several Strawberries Pitayas (Echinocereus enneacanthus), Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus fitchii), Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus (Mammillaria heyderi), and a few Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) on the property, however these weren’t in bloom.  I had hoped to photograph Peyote this trip, but a suitable opportunity did not present itself.

There were plenty of other flowering plants to admire, however.  Perhaps the most striking was the Berlandier’s Nettlespurge (Jatropha cathartica).  It seemed to prefer the same gravelly slopes as the cacti.

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Berlandier’s Nettlespurge

While on my knees looking for Peyote I spotted a group of tiny yet striking blooms.  The Glandular Milkwort (Polygala glandulosa) occurs in only a handful of South Texas Counties.

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Glandular Milkwort

It was hard not to stop and admire the Guayacan (Guaiacum angustifolium), which was blooming throughout the thornscrub.

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Guayacan

After arriving at the property, we split up to scour the area.  Seth soon came to find me.  He had an excited grin and told me that he had something to show me.  He led me to a large Texas Tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri) that had crawled halfway down its burrow.  I wanted so badly to photograph it, but despite waiting for some time, it refused to show its face, and we had to continue our hunt for the Star Cactus.  I was luck enough to photograph another South Texas Treasure, the orb-weaver Argiope blanda.  A. blanda occurs in the United States only in extreme southern Texas.

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Argiope blanda

Though I did not get to photograph the Star Cactus in bloom, it was a day full of natural wonder spent in good company, and I left with a real sense of contentment, both in the things I had seen and photographed, and in the knowledge that organizations like the Nature Conservancy exist to protect our planet’s great biodiversity.

 

Gem of the Pinewoods

Target Species: Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis)

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The Federally Endangered Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis)

The day broke to a bleak, gray scene.  Dense clouds blotted the sun and a gentle spring rain had begun to fall.  It was not exactly the scene I was hoping to wake to, as I was planning to stop to look for one of my 2017 targets on the way down to visit my parents in Houston.  But it was hard to be disappointed.  Despite the problems they pose to photography, these are my favorite kind of spring days.  Warm and gray, they gift a cool, nourishing rain to the earth – one that the plants will no doubt make good use of in the days to come.  Despite the dreary conditions, we were not deterred.  Carolina and I packed up and began heading south.  The further south we traveled the lighter the sky became until slivers of sun began to filter through the gray.

phlox-nivalis

To me, including this beautiful little phlox in my 2017 biodiversity goals was a no brainer.  Though I had seen the plant before, I had never seen it in bloom.  Phlox nivalis is primarily a species of the Eastern Gulf Coastal Plain, where it can be relatively common in some areas.  The disjunct population in Texas, however is anything but.  Recognized as a subspecies of the broader ranging Phlox nivalis, Texas Trailing Phlox occurs in only three counties, where it is known from only a couple of sites.  Here it can be found on deep sands in longleaf pine savannahs and certain open longleaf pine-hardwood forests.  It is evergreen and fire-dependent.  Though the above ground portion of the plant may be scorched by a passing fire, the plants thrive from the flames’ affect on opening the understory and providing rich nutrients to the soil.  This plant is so rare and its habitat in such peril that it has been listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Texas Trailing Phlox Flower Detail

We stopped first at one of the very few remaining extant natural populations.  I did not know what to expect in terms of phenology for this species, other than accounts that I read claiming they bloom primarily in March and April.  With everything being so early this year, I was 50/50 as to whether or not there might be a few blooms. We had reached the population, which is located within the Big Thicket National Preserve.  Though the leaves are distinctive, when not in bloom the plants themselves can be very difficult to detect.  We spent several minutes scouring the area to no avail, until I finally caught sight of a few bright pink blooms.  After regaining my composure I excitedly began photographing them, a task made difficult by the fluctuating light conditions and sporadic wind gusts.  In all I counted 6 plants in the area, only 2 of which were in bloom.  Another was in early bud.

After admiring the natural population, we set out to explore an area within the National Preserve where the phlox had been reintroduced.  By now it had began to rain again, and the air was filled with the fresh, rejuvenating scent of the woods on a wet spring day.  The reintroduction site was large.  It consisted of at least a couple of acres, where we counted hundreds of plants.  Though only a few were in flower, I left feeling very satisfied that the efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and other conservation groups was paying off, helping to save this Endangered Species from the brink.

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Texas Trailing Phlox.  Note the needle-like evergreen leaves.

Texas Trailing Phlox is only a small part of these interesting communities.  We observed many other natural wonders during our afternoon in the Big Thicket, including Texas Woodsorrel (Oxalis texana) which occurs in sandy woodlands primarily in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, with a rare, disjunct populations in Alabama and Florida.  The bright yellow flowers of Oxalis texana are very large compared to other woodsorrels, and are decorated with red lines near the center of the corolla.

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Texas Woodsorrel

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Texas Woodsorrel

A habit I am trying to break myself of is my tendency to pass over the most common botanical subjects.  Take Rose Mock Vervain (Glandularia canadensis) for example.  In the spring it is one of the most abundant wildflowers along forest roadways in East Texas.  I suppose that for this reason I take it for granted and never really took the opportunity to photograph it.  However this day I could not ignore the many clumps scattered about recently burned patches within the longleaf pine savannahs.  Here they literally seems to be rising from the ashes.

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Rose Mock Vervain

While exploring an open spot within the forest that I thought might harbor some interesting flora, I heard my wife excitedly call out for me to come to her, quick.  As usual her keen eyes found an incredible sight.  A mating pair of Pipevine Swallowtails (Battus philenor) in one of the patches of Glandularia.  Rightfully thinking that this find would be hard to top, we decided to call it a day and continue our trip south to spend some time with family.  Yet I must confess, that as soon as the longleaf pines disappeared in my rearview mirror, I was already contemplating the next species on my list.

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Copulating Pipevine Swallowtails