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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May Recap

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Gulf Crayfish Snake

May saw four more species crossed of my 2017 list of biodiversity goals, including my first animal.  While I am lagging behind on my list, I was able to capture images of some interesting species not on my list, as well as some beautiful landscapes.  The following are the target species I was able to photograph in May:

Smooth Jewelflower (Streptanthus hyacinthoides)

Centerville Brazos Mint (Brazoria truncata var. pulcherrima)

Purple Bladderwort (Utricularia purpurea)

River Otter (Lontra canadensis)

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I explored a variety of habitats in May, however it was largely dominated by forays into a number of xeric sandhills.  Both the Smooth Jewelflower and Centerville Brazos Mint make their home in these unique communities, and more information can be found in their blog entries linked above.  The following images are of a pair interesting West Gulf Coastal Plain near endemics.

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Prairie Milkvine (Matelea cynanchoides)

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Scarlet Penstemon (Penstemon murrayanus)

Each year in May I look forward to visiting the wetland pine savannahs and hillside seeps of the Big Thicket.  This is the peak bloom time for the spectacular Grass Pink Orchid (Calopogon tuberosus).  In East Texas, they typically grow in the company of the carnivorous Pale Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia alata) which captures insects in its tubular leaves.  Here they are trapped and slowly digested to provide nutrients to the plant so that it may thrive in otherwise nutrient-poor soil.

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Grass Pink Orchids and Pale Pitcher Plants

While I was photographing the orchids, Carolina found this blooming Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) at the margins of a baygall nearby.  The sweet aroma of these large flowers fills the air for much of May.

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Sweetbay Magnolia blooms at the margin of a baygall.

While exploring a wetland near my house I found a large patch of blooming Lizard’s Tail (Saururus cernuus).  Though I didn’t have my camera with me at the time, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to photograph this scene, and returned later.  Lizard’s Tail grows in a variety of shallow wetlands.

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Lizard’s Tail blooms in a forested wetland.

We spent our fair share of time among the Longleaf Pines as well.  My friend James spotted this Slender Glass Lizard (Ophisaurus attenuatus).  The common name glass lizard comes from this genus’s propensity for caudal autonomy.  This is the familiar action of a lizard dropping its tail in response to a predator threat.  In the glass lizard, however, the tail makes up over half of its body, and contains several fracture points.  This can result in an individual seeming to break into pieces when being captured by a potential predator.  Though they may seem fragile, careful, gentle handling helps ensure that they remain in tact.  Though they are typically associated with sandy habitats, they are not proficient burrowers, but rather “swim” through dense grasses.

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Slender Glass Lizard

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Slender Glass Lizard

While on a gem/mineral hunting expedition Carolina and I spotted this Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) nectaring on Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa).

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Spicebush Swallowtail nectaring on Butterfly Weed

The impressive blooms of the Giant Coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) can sit atop stalks that might reach 8 feet tall.  R. maxima is endemic to the West Gulf Coastal Plain.  In East Texas it occurs in scattered populations in open woodlands and prairie pockets.

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Giant Coneflower

Carolina spotted this Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) while we were photographing Giant Coneflowers along the roadside.  To me this is one of our most beautiful larval insects.

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Black Swallowtail Caterpillar

Pointed Phlox (Phlox cuspidata) is primarily a species of Central Texas, however it enters Deep East Texas in the understory of Longleaf Pine Savannahs, where it is much less common.

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Pointed Phlox

Fire is an integral part of maintaining Longleaf Pine Savannahs.  In the image below Butterfly Weed can be seen blooming following a prescribed burn.

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Butterfly Weed blooms following a prescribed burn

I found this flowering Groundnut (Apios americana) in a park near my house.

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Grountnut

Growing near the Groundnut was this Anglepod (Gonolobus superosus).  This member of the milkweed family (Asclepiaceae) forms vines in open woods and forest edges.

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Anglepod

Our close friends James and Erin recently built a cabin on their 200+ acres in Angelina County.  The property contains pasture, fallow fields, mixed pine-hardwood forest, a forested stream, and several ponds.  It makes for excellent herping opportunities.  During our visit we went out to see what we might turn up.

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Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum)

I caught this large, attractive Yellow-bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster) at one of the ponds at night.  For those who have never caught a water snake, they are notoriously foul-tempered and have an extremely offensive musk, which they promptly rub all over their captor.  It makes handling them an unpleasant experience, but I’m glad we hung on to this one for photos the next day.

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Yellow-bellied Water Snake

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Yellow-bellied Water Snake

After catching we continued to walk along the pond.  It wasn’t long before Carolina called out that she had seen another snake.  I rushed to her spot and saw the head of a Gulf Crayfish Snake (Regina rigida sinicola) poking through the aquatic vegetation.  I quickly grabbed it.  We held onto it as well, and the next day we had a photo session with both snakes nearby.  When we were done, we released the snakes where we caught them.

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Gulf Crayfish Snake

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Gulf Crayfish Snake

May provided several excellent opportunities for nature observation and photography.  I look forward to what June will bring.

An Ode to Longleaf

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Longleaf Pine Savannah

Before I post a May recap, I wanted to pay tribute to one of our countries most unique and biodiverse communities, the Longleaf Pine savannah.  Over the past few years I have been slowly working on a manuscript for a book about East Texas.  This post contains an excerpt of that manuscript and some photos that I intend to include in the book.

Perhaps no tree better represents the Pineywoods than the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), both in its historic influence over the landscape and its eventual plight.  It most often made its presence known in extensive savannahs, where widely scattered individuals might have lived to be 500 years old, reaching diameters pushing four feet, and stretching well over a hundred feet toward the sky.  Once ranging across the southeast, from Virginia to East Texas, the king of the southern pines has been reduced to less than 5% of its native range, and has disappeared across the vast majority of its range in Texas.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah with Little Bluestem

Remnants of the fire-loving conifer and the habitats it defines can still be found, however.  In the northern part of its range in Texas, which includes Sabine, San Augustine, Angelina, and northern Jasper and Newton Counties, it primarily occurs in rolling uplands.  In areas that are managed with regular prescribed fires, one catch a glimpse of the great longleaf pine savannahs of the past.  These were perhaps the most biodiverse communities in the southeast; a unique area where prairie and forest mingled.

Occurring on sands of moderate depth, these sprawling forests are kept free of woody understory encroachment by regular fires.  The fire-tolerant longleaf pine thrives in the face of the flames, while most other species die out.  However, on occasion hardwoods such as blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica), Southern red oak (Quercus falcata), Post oak (Quercus stellata), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), farkleberry (Vaccineum arboreum), and sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).  In the absence of fire American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) may become invasive.

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An ancient Post Oak has survived decades of regular fires in this Longleaf Pine Savannah.

The real show, however occurs on the savannah floor, where hundreds of species of grasses and forbs complete these spectacular ecosystems.  Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is an important component in East Texas, and often occurs in the company of other grasses such as Eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides), Pineywoods dropssed (Sprobolus junceus), and wiregrass (Aristida palustris).  Brackenfern (Pteridium aquilinum) often carpets the ground and xeric (drought loving) species like Louisiana yucca (Yucca louisianensis) and Eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) take advantage of the droughty conditions created by pockets of deeper sand.  Forbs typical of this community include goat’s rue (Tephrosia virginiana and Tephrosia onobrynchoides), Carolina false vervain (Verbena carnea), Pickering’s dawnflower (Stylisma pickeringii), Carolina Larkspur (Delphinium caroliniana), Sanguine’s purple coneflower (Echinacea sanguinea), soft green eyes (Berlandiera pumila), racemed milkwort (Polygala polygama), propeller flower (Alophia drummondii), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), clasping milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis), pineland milkweed (Asclepias obovata), birdfoot violet (Viola pedata), and false dragonhead (Physostegia digitalis).  A number of species that are rare and declining in East Texas occur here as well, including leadplant (Amorpha canescens) and incised groovebar.  The range-restricted scarlet catchfly (Silene subciliata) is endemic to the Pineywoods of eastern Texas and western Louisiana.

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Scarlet Catchfly blooming in a Longleaf Pine Savannah

These savannahs also harbor a unique, and declining fauna.  In fact, some species are so closely tied to this community that they are unable to adapt in its absence.  Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis) and Louisiana Pine Snake are in such peril that they have been afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act.  Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) and Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginiana) favor the dense, rich herbaceous layer beneath the longleafs, where bunch grasses provide ideal cover and high species diversity of grasses and forbs results in a bounty of insects.  Both species have become rare in East Texas, however efforts to reintroduce the wild turkey have been met with some success.

Other species such as the Bachman’s Sparrow (Peucaea aestivalis), Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla), Northern Scarlet Snake (Cemophora coccinea), and Southern Coal Skink (Plestiodon anthracinus) are on the decline.  Species such as the Eastern Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum) and Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) remain common, perhaps due to their adaptability.  The Tan Racer (Coluber constrictor etheridgei) is a race of racer that is also confined primarily to this community.  Surprisingly, even amphibians can eek out a living in these sandy environments.  Explosive breeders like the Hurter’s Spadefoot (Scaphiopus hurteri) and Mole Salamander (Ambystoma talpoideum) live the majority of their live deep underground, emerging during significant rains to breed in areas that can hold water long enough for their larvae to develop.

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Northern Scarlet Snake

The downfall of the longleaf pine savannah began with the arrival of European settlers to the region.  Longleaf lumber was of a superior quality.  Rot resistant, and straight as an arrow, it was utilized heavily for the masts of ships.  As it began to rapidly disappear, those tending to the forest’s regeneration noted that due to its unique ecology longleaf took a very long time to grow to a size suitable for harvest.  So instead of replanting them, they opted for species like loblolly (Pinus taeda) and the non-native slash pine (Pinus elliottii), that, though the quality of their wood was inferior, grew much faster and could yield a marketable stand in less time.  At the same time a culture of fire suppression was arising.  The Europeans did not see fire as a useful tool, as did the Native Americans before them, but rather as a threat to their livelihood.  As a result they took steps to eliminate fire from the landscape, and in doing so woody shrubs eventually filled in the open grass-dominated savannahs.

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Sun sets in a Longleaf Pine Savannah

 

The following are a variety of photos of the longleaf pine savannah and its flora and fauna.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah

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Longleaf Pine seedling

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Louisiana Yucca blooms in a Longleaf Pine Savannah.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah

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Slender Glass Lizard (Ophisaurus attenuatus)

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Birdfoot Violet

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Ox Beetle (Strategus antaeus)

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Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea microptera)

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Six-lined Racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineata)

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Southern Coal Skink

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Hurter’s Spadefoot Toad

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Soft Green Eyes

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Eastern Coachwhip

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Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus)

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Clasping Milkweed

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Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris rugata)

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Racemed Milkwort

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Sanguine’s Purple Coneflower

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Carolina Larkspur

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Eastern Gammagrass

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Leadplant

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Prairie Kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster)

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False Dragonhead

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Texas Red-headed Centipede (Scolopendra heros)

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Texas Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia reticulata)

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Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)

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Butterfly Weed and Bracken Fern

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Pineland Milkweed

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Carolina False Vervain

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Texas Brown Tarantula (Aphonopelma hentzi)

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Slowinski’s Corn Snake (Pantherophis slowinski)

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Eastern Fence Lizard

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Netleaf Leather Flower (Clematis reticulata)

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Propeller Flower

 

 

 

 

 

Jewel of the Sandhills

Target Species: Smooth Jewelflower (Streptanthus hyacinthoides)

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Smooth Jewelflower

I have long admired the bizarre blooms of the Smooth Jewelflower, but had not previously sought it out.  Though it may be locally abundant, Streptanthus hyacinthoides is uncommon to rare in Texas.  A species of deep sands, it is most frequently encountered in the northern reaches of the Post Oak Savannah.  Globally it occurs from extreme southern Kansas and central Oklahoma through northeast Texas into northwestern Louisiana.  There are also a couple of disjunct populations in the Pineywoods: in the Big Thicket in Hardin and Newton Counties.

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Smooth Jewelflower

It was here that I sought them out.  In the Pineywoods they occur in xeric sandhills.  In the literature, these unique communities are variably referred to as xeric sandhills, oak-farkleberry sandylands, xeric sandylands, sandhill pine forests, etc.  Here soil conditions inhibit the growth of many species.  The deep, coarse sands here ensure that even in times of high rainfall, the water percolates down through the soil very rapidly.  As a result, xeric sandhills exist with perpetual drought-like conditions, and only drought-adapted species persist.

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Smooth Jewelflower

I was able to locate this population thanks to the help of my botanist friend Eric Keith, and Wendy Ledbetter, the Forest Program Manager of the Nature Conservancy in Texas.  Like so many more of our imperiled species, these rare jewels are protected by the Nature Conservancy.  I found them growing in a series of sandy clearings in a xeric sandhill dominated by Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) and Bluejack Oak (Quercus incana).

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Smooth Jewelflower

I found the strange flowers somewhat difficult to capture.  I found them strikingly beautiful in their uniqueness.  Beyond habitat preference, I could find little on the life history of this species while researching my 2017 list.  It seems that there is still much to learn about this peculiar jewel of the sandhills.

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Smooth Jewelflower

Xeric sandhills are also home to a variety of other unique and beautiful flowering plants.  Cacti and yucca, typically considered genera of the southwestern states, thrive here.  Traditionally the cactus species of this region was considered to be Opuntia humifusa, however recent work by Majure, et. al. is challenging that (More on that in a later blog post).  Using their new dichotomous key I keyed this species to Opuntia mesacantha.

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Opuntia cf. humifusa

The beautiful Carolina Larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) was also blooming in profusion.  I photographed the individual below from different angles, to see how the angle of light changed affected their color.

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Carolina Larkspur

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Carolina Larkspur

We also found the bizarre Large Clammyweed (Polanisia erosa) nearby.  I have heard the blooms described as miniature moose heads.  Large Clammyweed, like many species of xeric sandhills, is endemic to the West Gulf Coastal Plain.

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Large Clammyweed

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) was also blooming in profusion.  This striking milkweed is common in sandy habitats throughout much of the United States.

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Butterfly Weed

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Butterfly Weed

Farkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) is a conspicuous mid and understory component in xeric sandhills.  This blueberries produce edible fruits.  Though they are much smaller and less flavorful than what you might find in your grocery store, they still make for a refreshing treat while wandering across the parched sand.

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Farkleberry

Growing tangled among some of the numerous Farkleberries we found the twining stems of the Netleaf Leather Flower (Clematis reticulatus).

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Netleaf Leather Flower

Xeric sandhills are certainly one of my favorite places to explore.  This post barely scratched the surface of the diverse flora that occurs here, and I didn’t even mention the many rare and interesting animal species that can be found in these deep sands, and I hope to revisit these special places in future blog posts.

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Cacti bloom in a xeric sandhill

 

 

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.

 

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

Beauty in the Barrens

Target Species: Texas Saxifrage (Micranthes texana)

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Texas Saxifrage

Some reading this may wonder why I chose to include this tiny, not particularly showy flower on my 2017 species list.  I have always been fascinated with rare, unique ecological communities and the flora and fauna that reside in them.  The Texas Saxifrage grows in some particularly unique communities.  It tends to prefer places with harsh soil conditions that create an environment where most plants would struggle to survive.  By utilizing these habitats it helps avoid competition from other plant species that would try to monopolize its resources.  In the Pineywoods of East Texas it has been recorded in two particularly interesting communities: Catahoula Barrens and Weches Glades.

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Texas Saxifrage

I set out to find this species alone.  And while I missed Carolina’s company, I treasure alone time in nature.  It is far and away the best way for me to clear my head and put things in perspective.  On a warm, mostly sunny February day I set out to an extensive Catahoula Barren less than an hour from home.  Catahoula Barrens were probably never abundant on the landscape.  They occur on coarse, shallow soils over the Catahoula formation.  These soils are acidic, and often high in aluminum content.  Taken together these conditions are not favorable for tree growth.  That is not to say, however, that trees do not occur here.  Widely scattered Longleaf Pines, and Bluejack and Blackjack Oaks can be found as stunted, gnarled versions of their counterparts elsewhere.  An old growth Longleaf Pine here, for example, may be little more than 10 inches across and thirty feet tall.

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Typical Catahoula Barren.  I captured this image in July, 2016.

Catahoula Barrens are home to a rich, diverse flora that is not observed anywhere else in East Texas.  Many of these species are globally rare, and others are rare in the state.  Typical species include Nuttall’s Rayless Goldenrod (Bigelowia nuttallii), Yellow Hedge-Hyssop (Gratiola flava), Least Daisy (Chaetopappa asteroids), San Saba Pinweed (Lechea san-sabeana), Maryland Milkwort (Polygala mariana), Smooth Phacelia (Phacelia glabra), Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia caespitosa), Sunbright (Phemeranthus parviflorus) and Blazing Star (Liatris mucronata).  Rare species found here include Texas Sunnybells (Schoenolirion wrightii), Navasota Fox Glove (Agalinis navasotensis), Gulf Blazing Star (Liatris tenuis), and Texas Saxifrage.

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Texas Saxifrage

I had visited this Catahoula Boulder many times in the past, but never so early in the year.  I worried that these miniscule plants would be elusive, however it didn’t take me long to find them among the dried grasses and fallen oak leaves.  Though tiny, I find the flowers of Micranthes texana to be quite beautiful.  Their tiny size, however makes photographing them a real challenge.  The slightest breeze makes focusing on the anthers, a standard practice of wildflower photography, almost impossible.

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Texas Saxifrage

After spending some time with this remarkable plant, I set out to see what else might be blooming in the barrens.  As one might expect so early in the year, blooms were sparse, however I was able to locate a few other wildflowers in the area.  I observed several Carolina Anemone (Anemone caroliniana) blooms on the barren’s margins.

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Carolina Anemone

Yellow Hedge-Hyssop is endemic to eastern Texas and extreme western Louisiana.  This tiny plant is scarcely 3 inches tall, and if it weren’t for its propensity to grow on exposed Catahoula boulders, it would be all but invisible.

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Yellow Hedge-Hyssop

After spending the afternoon in the barren I ventured over to the adjacent longleaf pine savannah.  Here I sat and watched a colony of Texas Leafcutter Ants (Atta texana) busily tending to their maze of subterranean tunnels and chambers, and harvesting bits of leaves by the thousands.  They do not actually consume the leaves, but rather store them in an underground chamber to cultivate a fungus that will feed the colony.  I have always been fascinated with these invertebrates, and usually try my luck at photographing them every year.  It is a challenge, but the results can be extremely rewarding.

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Texas Leafcutter Ant

With another 2017 target under my belt, I left the woods to return to civilization, if only to plan and ponder my next opportunity to escape it.