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.

 

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South Texas Part III: The Lady and the Pencil

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Lady Finger Alicoche

Though the Trans Pecos is the center of cacti diversity for Texas, the cactus community of the Tamaulipan thornscrub is no less spectacular.  It includes a number of Mexican species that just barely enter the states in extreme South Texas.  Two species in particular, have been on my bucket list for years now: the Lady Finger Alicoche (Echinocereus pentalophus) and the Pencil Cactus (Echinocereus poselgeri).  I would have included them on my 2017 biodiversity list, however I didn’t anticipate taking a trip to South Texas this year.  So when a march trip to Big Bend fell through, I delighted in the opportunity to finally observe these species in their natural setting.

This is the part of the story where the patience of Carolina, my parents, and my brother really come into play.  They waited patiently while I sought out and photographed these species, and even helped me in my endeavor.  Carolina has a real interest in cacti as well, and she enjoyed seeing so many species in bloom.

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Lady-Finger Alicoche

The Alicoche is a cactus of the Tamaulipan thornscrub of northeastern Mexico and South Texas.  It can form large mats under the shade of nurse plants, however its stems are relatively nondescript, and the plant itself is difficult to see when not in bloom.  When it blooms, however, its gives its presence away in spectacular fashion.  The huge pink blooms seem to explore from the thornscrub.  It is easily one of the most spectacular plants I have ever had the good fortune to observe.

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

I found the Lady Finger to be an extremely photogenic plant, lending itself both to portraits of the blooms and landscape shots featuring the plant as a foreground element.  We were fortunate to observe many individuals in many different settings throughout the trip.  Spending time with this species was a truly memorable experience that I look forward to repeating some day in the future.

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Lady Finger Alicoche

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Remnant Tamaulipan thornscrub forest with Lady Finger Alicoche in bloom.

Fortunately the Alicoche was fairly easy to find.  That was not the case with the Pencil Cactus.  If the Lady Finger is hard to see when not flowering, the Pencil Cactus is virtually impossible.  Also known as the Sacasil or Dahlia Hedgehog Cactus, the Pencil Cactus has an extremely narrow stem that does not look much different than a stick.  Couple that with their tendency to grow among dense tangles beneath thornscrub shrubs, and you could imagine how hard it would be to pick them out.  When they bloom, however, the light up the thornscrub.

I spent a large part of the trip looking for this species in vain.  I went to sites where others had seen them, and scoured seemingly suitable habitat.  I did not see one until late afternoon on our last day in the valley.  After trudging through the dense thornscrub, cut, tired, and full of spines from allthorn, mesquite, and prickly pears I was ready to give up.  Then, as we were preparing to leave, driving through an undeveloped area adjacent to a small subdivision Carolina shouted “STOP!  The Pencil Cactus!”.  I looked up and saw it.  It’s flower had been nipped off.  Disappointed, I looked around hoping that there might be another in the area, and then I saw it up a steep slope.  I grabbed my camera and scrambled up the slope.  As my shutter clicked I felt a real sense of contentment, both in having found the Pencil Cactus, and that I have such a wonderful family that indulges my passion and obsession for the natural world.

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Pencil Cactus

The range of the Pencil Cactus is virtually the same as that of the Lady Finger.  It seems to be found in slightly denser clumps of brush where its slender, fragile stem can lean on the limbs of nurse plants for support.

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County-level distribution for Echinocereus poselgeri from http://www.bonap.org.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present and rare.

We were lucky enough to observe two other species of Echinocereus in bloom in our pursuit of the Lady and the Pencil.  The Strawberry Pitaya (Echinocereus enneacanthus) was abundant throughout much of the thornscrub.  We were a bit early in the season to see many flowers, but I was lucky enough to spot a few in bloom.  E. enneacanthus is a fairly widespread species throughout much of Mexico and southern and western Texas and New Mexico.  The variety in South Texas is Echinocereus enneacanthus var. brevispinus, identifiable by its short spines.

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Strawberry Pitaya

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Strawberry Pitaya

Much less common was the Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus fitchii).  E. fitchii was initially, and still is considered by some to be a variety of Echinocereus reichenbachii, the Lace Cactus.  There are significant differences between the two, however, including root structure and spine and flower characteristics.  Most cactus flowers are at their best midday on sunny days.  This makes photographing them a challenge, as shading them often takes away some of the brilliance of their blooms.

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Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus

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Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus

Most of the cacti we observed during our trip were on Nature Conservancy property.  I can’t say enough good things about the Nature Conservancy in Texas.  I will discuss the Nature Conservancy and their contributions to conservation in my next blog post, but wanted to mention them here, as one afternoon Seth and I took a hike at one of their South Texas preserves.  We saw more cacti on this hike than the rest of the trip combined.  Echinocereus pentalophus and E. enneacanthus were abundant, as were Texas Prickly Pear (Opuntia lindheimeri) and Dog Cholla (Grusonia schotii).  We also observed Christmas Cholla (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis) and Lower Rio Grande Valley Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus hamatacanthus var. sinuatus), though none were in bloom.  We were, however, fortunate enough to see three other species in bloom: Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus (Mammillaria heyderi), Hair-Covered Cactus (Mammillaria prolifera),  and Twisted-Rib Cactus (Hamatocactus bicolor).

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus

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Hair-Covered Cactus

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Twisted-Rub Cactus

We also observed several other interesting plants in the thornscrub.  Some of these have been covered in previous blog posts.  Others I didn’t photograph for various reasons.  One of the most interesting was the terrestrial bromeliad Gaupilla (Hechtia glomerata).  We also observed a number of birds typical of the desert southwest, including Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatis), Black-throated Sparrows (Amphispiza bilineata) and Cactus Wrens (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus).  At one point I flipped over a dried cow patty and found a little Western Narrowmouth Toad (Gastrophryne olivacea) sheltering in some remnant moisture beneath it.

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Western Narrowmouth Toad

Stay tuned for more cactus-seeking adventures in my next blog entry.

 

South Texas Part II: Into the Thornscrub

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Common Pauraque

Beyond the South Texas coastal dunes, marshes, and prairies lies a unique, biodiverse community dominated by a variety of shrubs and small trees.  Variably referred to as South Texas brush country, mezquital, and Tamaulipan thornscrub, this semi-arid, subtropical community occurs in South Texas and the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and Coahuila.  It is home to plants and animals found nowhere else on earth, and in South Texas, marks the northern extent of several Latin American species that just barely enter the United States.

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Tamaulipan Thornscrub with blooming Lady Finger Alicoche alongside Strawberry Pitaya.

The Tamaulipan thornscrub in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas is one of the United State’s premier birding locations.  My parents and I have made a number of birding trips here in the past, drawn in by the promise of catching a glimpse of one of these South Texas specialties.  During this trip the birding was fairly slow, but we did see many of the typical Rio Grande Valley species including Plain Chachalacas (Ortalis vetula), White-tipped Doves (Leptotila verreauxi), Green Jays (Cyanocorax yncas), Long-billed Thrashers (Toxostoma longirostre), Altamira Orioles (Icterus gularis), and Olive Sparrows (Arremonops rufivirgatus).  Unfortunately these species did not present me with any good photo ops.  I did luck out, however, when we found another Valley specialist, the Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis) roosting alongside a trail.  These members of the nightjar family are nocturnal and rely on their camouflage to roost on the ground during the day.  It was nearly invisible among the dried leaves and sticks littering the earth.  I utilized the dense natural debris to create the window effect seen on the photo at the start of this blog entry.

Many mammal species also reach the northern extent of their range in deep South Texas.  Unfortunately many of them are now gone.  The last Jaguar (Panthera onca) in Texas was killed in the Tamaulipan thornscrub in the 1940’s.  There are some that still hold onto hope that there may be a few Jaguarundi left in the Rio Grande Valley.  Though there have been no verified sightings in many years, there have been unverified reports.  Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) are still hanging on in the brush country, though they are now rare, and protected under the Endangered Species Act.  In our explorations of the thornscrub we observed a number of mammals including White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and Collared Peccaries a.k.a. Javelinas (Tayassu tajacu).  The only mammal I was able to photograph was the little Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) pictured below.

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Eastern Cottontail

There are many reptile and amphibians whose United States distribution is also limited to the Rio Grande Valley.  Being an amphibian enthusiast, I was disappointed that we missed the heavy rains that brought out such rarities as the Mexican Burrowing Toad (Rhinophrynus dorsalis) and White-lipped Frog (Leptodactylus fragilis) by just a couple of days.  These species are explosive breeders that emerge to breed after heavy rains.  I did spend some time looking for the beautiful Speckled Racer (Drymobius margaritiferus), a primarily Latin American species that is known from only a couple of sites in South Texas.  I struck out on the snakes, but was able to photograph a couple of the areas conspicuous lizards: the Texas Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus) and the Rose-bellied Lizard (Sceloporus variabilis).

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Texas Spiny Lizard

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Rose-bellied Lizard

The Rio Grande Valley is also world famous for its butterflies.  While we observed many species, the only one I obtained a decent photo of was the Common Mestra (Mestra amymone).

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Common Mestra

The Tamaulipan thornscrub is named for the typically thorny shrubs and small trees that dominate the community.  Typical species of this community include Mesquite (Prosopis gladulosa), Chaparro (Ziziphus obtusifolia),  Whitebrush (Aloysia gratissima), Texas Paloverde (Parkinsonia texana), Texas goatbush (Castela erecta), Saffron Plum (Sideroxylon celastrinum), Blackbrush Acacia (Vachellia rigidula), Corona de Cristo (Koeberlina spinosa), Guayacan (Guaiacum angustifolium), and Ebano (Ebenopsis ebano).  These shrubs form often impenetrable thickets.  On some sites, particularly as one moves further west in the Rio Grand Valley the shrubs may become more scattered, forming dense clumps with areas of exposed gravel and caliche.  It was in areas such as this where we observed the rare Baretta (Helietta parvifolia).

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Texas Paloverde

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Texas Paloverde

Occasionally growing in the crooks of mature Ebano, a real botanical treasure can be found.  The epiphytic bromeliad Tillandsia baileyi, commonly known as Bailey’s Ball Moss barely enters the United States in South Texas, where it is rare.  It is much more striking than other members of its genus, which includes the familiar Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides).

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Bailey’s Ball Moss

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Bailey’s Ball Moss

A conspicuous component of the South Texas brush country is the Anacahuita or Mexican Olive (Cordia boissieri).  Its bright blooms illuminate the native brushlands, and it is a popular native ornamental in South Texas.  The tree was reportedly utilized by native cultures and Spanish settlers to make jellies and dyes.  The leaves can be brewed in a tea that may help with rheumatism and various ailments of the lungs.

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Anacahuita

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Anacahuita

Many invertebrates can be found utilizing Anacahuita leaves and flowers.  The Wild Olive Tortoise Beetle (Physonota alutacea) is found exclusively on these small trees.

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Wild Olive Tortoise Beetle

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Wild Olive Tortoise Beetle

Many pollinators also frequent the blooms.  They due so at their own risk, however, because predators lurk beneath these flowers.  We observed this crab spider (Mecaphesa sp.) awaiting an unsuspecting victim.

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Crab Spider

South Texas is also home to a variety of native lantana species.  Brushland lantana (Lantana achyranthifolia) could occasionally be found scattered about the thornscrub.

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Brushland Lantana

We also observed a couple of species of heliotrope, including the widespread Seaside Heliotrope (Heliotropium curassivicum), and the more range restricted Scorpion Tail (Heliotropium angiospermum) which occurs in South Texas and southern Florida.

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Seaside Heliotrope

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Scorpion Tail

Fiddleleaf Tobacco (Nicotiana repanda), a species of central and southern Texas, was also fairly common.

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Fiddleleaf Tobacco

Shrubby Blue Sage (Salvia ballotiflora) occurs in the U.S. only in southern and western Texas.

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Shrubby Blue Sage

Over the millennia, the meanders of the Rio Grande has slowly changed course, leaving in their wake old depressional oxbow scars.  The scars eventually filled with rainwater and runoff and developed a unique flora.  Known as Resacas these unique wetlands provide habitat for a host of rare plant and animal species.  We observed many Least Grebes (Tachybaptus domincus), another bird species whose U.S. distribution is restricted to South Texas in them.  We also observed the rare Runyon’s Water-Willow (Justicia pacifica) here.

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Runyon’s Water Willow

As one moves further west along the valley, one begins to notice more and more of a desert influence.  I observed many familiar species that I have photographed in West Texas including Snapdragon Vine (Maurandella antirrhiniflora) and Cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens).  The latter blooms in response to rainfall and humidity.

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Snapdragon Vine

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Cenizo

I observed Purple Groundcherry (Quincula lobata) here.  These showy groundcover primarily occur in the southwestern United States.

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Purple Groundcherry

I also observed Bearded Prairie-Clover (Dalea pogonathera) here.  This member of the pea family is primarily a species of the Chihuahuan Desert.

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Bearded Dalea

South Texas is also home to a few woodsorrel species that do not have the typical “lucky clover” leaf.  Pictured here is Peonyleaf Woodsorrel (Oxalis dichondrifolia).

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Peonyleaf Woodsorrel

The open caliche hills were home to the beautiful Berlandier’s Nettlespurge (Jatropha cathartica), which is restricted to South Texas and adjacent Mexico.

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Berlandier’s Nettlespurge

The most spectacular element of the Tamaulipan thornscrub, however, were the cacti.  These famed succulents were my main target in South Texas, and I was fortunate to observe many species.  Though my next two blog posts will be dedicated to the incredible diversity of South Texas cacti, I have decided to provide a preview of things to come below.

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Lady Finger Alicoche (Echinocereus pentalophus)

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Glory of Texas (Thelocactus bicolor)

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus (Mammillaria heyderi)