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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Fun in the Sun

Target Species: Woolly Sunbonnets (Chaptalia tomentosa)

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Woolly Sunbonnets in a Wetland Pine Savannah

Spring came early this year, with many wildflowers blooming as much as three weeks earlier than in an average year.  It has made planning botanical outings to find species on my 2017 target list a challenge.  Fortunately I had some help with Chaptalia tomentosa, the first species that I would check off the list.  Someone on a Facebook group I moderate (Texas Flora) posted an image of one looking for help identifying it.

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County Level Distribution of Chaptalia tomentosa from http://www.bonap.org

Woolly sunbonnets is a species of the coastal plain, ranging from North Carolina to extreme eastern Texas.  It occurs in herbaceous seeps and wetland savannahs where highly acidic soil remains perpetually saturated.  These communities are typically associated with longleaf pine uplands.  In East Texas longleaf pine typically occurs on sands of moderate depth.  Rainfall quickly percolates through the coarse sand, however if, on its journey through the soil, it encounters a dense clay layer, it will sit or gently flow, as clays are much more difficult to pass through.  Where these clay layers meet the surface, the water may pool or seep out forming a unique vegetative community.  The movement of water through these areas leaches essential nutrients and organic material tends to accumulate over time.  These harsh, damp habitats are home to interesting species including a variety of carnivorous plants and orchids.

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Woolly Sunbonnet

I have spent considerable time exploring wetland pine savannahs and forested seeps in East Texas, but never in the early spring.  Spurred by the image posted on Facebook my wife, Carolina, and I visited some locations of specimen records and other areas that I knew had suitable habitat.  I am lucky to have such a great adventuring companion.  Carolina not only makes for great company, she also has excellent eyes and spots my targets more frequently than I do.

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Woolly Sunbonnets

Also known as the Pineland Daisy, Chaptalia tomentosa is a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae).  The white blooms open midday under warm, bright conditions.  This is an adaptation shared by many plants in order to maximize exposure to potential pollinators.  At night and on cool days when most pollinators are not active, the flowers close in order to protect the pollen and the plants’ sexual structures.  We were lucky to find many open flowers on our outing, and mostly cloudy skies made for ideal photographic conditions.

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Woolly Sunbonnets

Chaptalia tomentosa was not the only species active in the bog.  Fresh spring pitchers of the Pale Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia alata) were beginning to emerge and the unmistakable red rosettes of sundews (Drosera spp.) covered the ground.  One particularly quirky plant, the Small Butterwort (Pinguicula pumila) was blooming alongside the sunbonnets.  This tiny carnivorous plant has concave leaves lined with hairs coated in sticky enzymes.  When an unsuspecting ant or other small invertebrate comes into contact with the enzymes they find themselves stuck as the leaf envelopes them like a hot dog bun.

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Small Butterwort

White Bog Violets (Viola lanceolata) were also blooming.  This attractive little flowers are common in areas with saturated soil.

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White Bog Violet

While walking through one of the wetland pine savannahs Carolina called out that she had spotted a frog.  Sure enough, at least 50 feet away was a Green Tree Frog (Hyla cinerea).  Resting on the bleak winter vegetation, it stuck out like a sore thumb.

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Green Tree Frog

After an eventful day photographing vernal bog flora Carolina and I ventured to the adjacent longleaf pine uplands to enjoy the sun’s final rays and the day’s retreat into night.  There is something about a high quality longleaf pine forest and its associated seepage communities that provide me with a feeling of wonder and excitement that is sought after yet elusive for so many.  As the light faded away we returned home, content in a day spent in some of our state’s most biodiverse habitats.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah