The River Wolf

Target Species: River Otter (Lontra canadensis)

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North American River Otter

Finally I was able to check a non-plant off my 2017 biodiversity list.  Though I seem to focus much more on plants nowadays, it was actually animals that first sparked my interest in the natural world and drew me to science.

I have always had an interest in the weasel family (Mustelidae) to which the River Otter belongs.  Otters are intelligent, curious, entertaining creatures.  I have seen them on many occasions, but have never been able to get a photo of one, except for one blurry shot with a point and shoot over 12 years ago.  Though I have put some effort into finding otters this year, this encounter happened by pure chance, and was completely unexpected.

A few weeks ago my friend James Childress found a bobcat den deep in the National Forest.  Shortly after Carolina decided to set up her trail camera in the area to see if she could capture any photos of the feline family.  Unfortunately the camera didn’t capture any images of the intended quarry, though it did capture some interesting images of a prescribed burn.  This past weekend we decided to hike in and retrieve the camera.  As we were hiking out, where the path (a forest road closed to vehicular traffic) dipped adjacent to a wetland swale dominated by mature Sweetbay Magnolia and Water Tupelo, Carolina began to point excitedly and called out “Otters! Otters!”  There at the water’s edge we saw what we believed to be a female otter and a second year pup feasting on the mangled remains of some aquatic prey.

They soon spotted us (or more probably heard or smelled us, as otters are near-sighted, an adaptation to see prey in murky waters), and began to retreat.  I pursued for a moment, but fully suspected that they were long gone.  Having given up hope I began walking back to the path when I heard a series of high pitched chip‘s.  The pup came back toward me.  I had poor light and a poor angle, but i tried to move to a better position to try and capture a few images.  Unfortunately shortly after it returned I lost sight of it again.  I looked about with no luck for a while, and when I was ready to give up, I heard Carolina calling out for me to come quickly.  I rushed to her and she informed me that it had moved right past where she was sitting on the path’s edge and into a culvert that allowed the wetland swale to drain under the elevated roadway.

We waited a while to see if it would come out of the culvert, but after a few moments and no movement Carolina went to peer into the culvert to see if she could see it.  There it was, sitting not 2 feet from the culvert entrance.  She was able to get a short video before it retreated through the culvert to a small pool on the opposite side.  It stayed in the pool, attempting to camouflage itself among the tree roots and debris along the pool’s edge.  We captured a few images and left so that it could reunite with its mother.

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North American River Otter

The title of this post comes from lobito de río (little river wolf), the Spanish term for otter used where Carolina is from.  Encountering these otters was a special experience that I am glad I was able to share with my wife, who has a passion for carnivores.

Though elusive, River Otters are not uncommon in East Texas.  They occur in a variety of aquatic environments including medium to large streams and rivers, man-made lakes and ponds, swamps, etc.  They are semi-aquatic and supremely adapted to life in the water, with webbed feet, a stream-lined body with strong hind legs and a powerful tail, and a nearly waterproof layer of outer fur.

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North American River Otter

The images I captured that day were not as good as I might have liked, but I’m ok with that.  Photography has become such an integral part of my time in nature that it’s hard for me to remember a time when I ventured into the natural world without the intent of capturing images.  But that time did exist, when my only goal was to observe, experience, and learn.  Sometimes that gets lost to me now, and that is unfortunate.  A great photograph is a wonderful thing, but it is no substitute for an incredible experience.

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February – Chronicles of an Early Spring

Thanks in part to an exceptionally early spring this year, I have been able to get a good start of my list, knocking off four species in February.  These species include:

Woolly Sunbonnets (Chaptalia tomentosa)

Texas Saxifrage (Micranthes texana)

Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis)

Spring Coralroot (Corallorhiza wisteriana)

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I’m slowly making progress on my 2017 Species List

Though tracking down the species on my list has become a priority in my explorations of the natural world, I could never neglect the special places and familiar species that I have come to love over the years.  I look forward to seeing them each year, and regardless of how many photos of a given species I might have, I can never resist the urge to try and capture new details, compositions, and natural history aspects.

I spent much of early February exploring the woods with my good pal James Childress.  On one such outing we were lucky enough to find a gravid Smallmouth Salamander (Ambystoma texanum) under a log in a false bottomland.

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Smallmouth Salamander

A few days later I received a text message from James that included a photo of a seldom seen sight: an East Texas tarantula.  Tarantulas are typically associated with deserts, however the Texas Brown Tarantula (Aphonopelma hentzi) ranges as far east as East Texas and western Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.  It is an unexpected thing to see one in the forests of the West Gulf Coastal Plain, but here they persist, though their populations seem to be declining.  I have spoken to lifelong residents of the area who remember seeing many as children, and few to none in the past 20 years.  James found this female, identifiable as such by its large abdomen, crawling in his driveway one evening.  He was kind enough to hold onto it so that I may photograph it.  It’s only the fourth tarantula I have seen in the Pineywoods, and the only female.

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Texas Brown Tarantula

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Texas Brown Tarantula Portrait

When I met James for our tarantula photo session he brought another surprise with him – a Banded Tiger Moth (Apantensis vittata) that had been attracted to his garage lights.  This boldly patterned moth is equipped with bright hindwings that it will flash in an attempt to intimidate a potential predator.

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Banded Tiger Moth

After admiring these invertebrates we went on to visit a rich mesic stream bottom that supports a variety of spring ephemeral herbs.  Representing what is essentially the southwestern limit of the range of eastern deciduous forests, East Texas is on the periphery of the range of a suite of spring ephemerals.  Spring ephemerals as a group are adapted to deciduous, hardwood forests, where they can carry out the majority of their life cycle in the early spring, when an abundance of sunlight reaches the forest floor prior to leafout of the canopy.  Species are generally less common on the periphery of their range.  As a result of this coupled with habitat loss over the past century and a half, several of these species have become rare in East Texas.  These eastern forest elements are perhaps my favorite part of the Pineywoods.

The White Trout Lily (Erytrhonium albidum) is one such spring ephemeral.  It’s leaves begin to emerge by early February and are mostly gone by late April.  Members of the genus Erythronium are known as trout lilies in the eastern U.S. due to the resemblance of their leaves to the skin of the brook trout.  In the western U.S. they are often known as fawn lilies, as the leaves look like the spotted pelage of young fawns.  In Europe, they are usually referred to as dogtooth violets, a reference to the shape of the underground bulb.  Erythronium albidum is rare in the Pineywoods, with larger populations in the Post Oak Savannah and Dallas region.

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White Trout Lily

One of my all-time favorite flowers is the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).  Another characteristic spring ephemeral of the eastern deciduous forests, it too is rare in Texas.  In a typical year I can expect to see Bloodroot blooming at this site around February 20.  This year many were already in fruit on February 10.  Bloodroot is named for the thick red sap that oozes from it’s root when injured.  This sap has a myriad of health benefits, and its abrasive nature makes it a good ingredient in toothpaste.  These desirable properties have likely led to over collection of this species, adding to its rarity in the state.

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Bloodroot

One of the more difficult to spot spring ephemerals is the Southern Twayblade Orchid (Listera australis).  It’s tiny brown stems and flowers are practically invisible against the leaf litter.  They are only betrayed by two green leaves near the base of the stem.

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Southern Twayblade Orchid

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) is an abundant spring ephemeral throughout much of East Texas.  Though it is easiest to find on lawns and other cleared areas, I prefer to photograph the individuals deep in the forest, where they are less commonly seen.

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Spring Beauty

Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is a common woody vine of the southeastern U.S.  It slowly works its way from the ground to the canopy, and in early spring it paints the forest yellow with its large, tubular flowers.

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Carolina Jessamine

It is interesting just how many species have Carolina in their common name, or some variation of it in their specific epithet.  The reason is because many species native to the eastern U.S. were initially described in the far east, including the Carolinas.  Virginia also frequently occurs in taxonomic vernacular.  I take it as a good sign that my wife lends her name to so many pretty things.

Last Sunday Carolina and I had a very productive outing chasing after spring ephemerals in Deep East Texas.  We covered a lot of ground and saw a lot of species.  One of the most striking was the Birdfoot Violet (Viola pedata), named for its leaves which bear a superficial resemblance to bird’s feet.  These are our largest violets, easily twice the size of the more common species.  It occurs in scattered populations in East Texas, where it favors open dry mesic mixed pine-hardwood forests.

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Birdfoot Violet

The Wood Violet (Viola palmata) prefers slightly moister sites with a greater hardwood element.  With a few exceptions (Birdfoot Violet being one of them) the flowers of East Texas’s violets are difficult to differentiate.  Wood violet is identified by its deeply lobed leaves.

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Wood Violet

Violet Woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea) was also blooming.  This native is often mistaken for the much more common Pink Woodsorrel (Oxalis debilis), a native of South America.

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Violet Woodsorrel

The occurrence of the Louisiana Wakerobin (Trillium ludovicianum) in Texas was only recently discovered, as botanists closely examined a group of unusual-looking sessile-flowered Trillium.  They had long been masquerading as the Sabine River Wakerobin (Trillium gracile).  Differentiating the two species is a painstaking task that requires close examination of the flowers.

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Louisiana Wakerobins

Trilliums are classic spring ephemeral flowers that occur in rich woods across much of the country.  Their center of diversity, however, is in the eastern deciduous forests.  Trillium ludovicianum occurs on rich mesic slopes dominated by American Beech and other hardwoods.  Since its discovery in Texas, the Louisiana Wakerobin has only been found at a handful of sites.

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Louisiana Wakerobin

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Louisiana Wakerobin

While exploring the rich woods I stumbled upon this scene, and could not resist.  The perfect clump of trillium with the similarily rare Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) in the background represents to me, what is most magical about spring – exploring rich forests in search of ephemeral forbs and other interesting things that are awakening following a long period of dormancy.  To me, the forest feels most alive in the springtime, and so do I.  This shot ended up being one of my favorites from 2017 thusfar.

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Rich mesic forest with Trillium ludovicianum and Phlox divaricata

This site is also one of the few areas where Wild Blue Phlox can be found in Texas.  It too is a typical denizen of the rich eastern deciduous forests that reaches the southwestern extent of its range in East Texas.  And like so many of the previously mentioned species it is rare here.

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Though one might not think it so if they were to visit this particular spot, where it blooms in spectacular profusion on the banks of a clear East Texas stream.

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Flowering trees are at their peak this time of year, and many species are beginning to decorate the understory with splashes of white and pink.  Pictured below is one of the hawthorns (Crataegus sp.).  Though habitat gives some clue, identification to species is difficult without the leaves present.

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Hawthorn in Bloom

Near the hawthorn, Carolina and I stopped a moment to admire this beautiful redbud along a small ephemeral stream.  Though it was getting late and the day was growing dim, the pink blossoms of the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) brightened the woods around us.

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Eastern Redbud

I spent February busily pursuing plants, but I have not neglected the other taxa of my list.  Carolina and I continue to visit the local otter population on a weekly basis.  Though we have not yet seen them, Carolina’s remote camera captured some incredible video of a male scent marking.  Unfortunately I’m unable to upload it here, but I will leave you with the following image, otter tracks along a stream near the Trillium ludovicianum and Phlox divaricata site.  Though I have yet to capture one on camera, the elusive river wolf continues to make its presence known.

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American River Otter Tracks

 

Slow and Steady

The first month of 2017 has passed by and I have yet to cross any species off my list.  Most of the species I put on the list are seasonal, so I spent January focusing on the few resident species that I included, namely the North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis).

Recently my good friend James Childress found a population close to home.  My wife Carolina and i began visiting the site on the weekends, sometimes 2-3 times per day to no avail.  However the waterway and adjacent wetlands and pine-oak uplands are rich with wildlife, and I found many photographic subjects in the otters’ absence

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Wood Duck Drake

.One group that is noticeably missing from my list are birds.  I didn’t include them because though I love bird photography, it is a difficult endeavor, and results are often unpredictable.  If I were to have made a list, however, I would have incorporated the Wood Duck (Aix sponsa).  These denizens of creeks, backwater sloughs, flooded oxbows, and ephemeral ponds can be abundant in parts of The Pineywoods.  Unfortunately they are wary and secretive, and typically all I have to show from encountering one is a memory of splashing, their whistle like vocalization as they retreat, and if I’m lucky a distant glimpse of them flying through the trees.  While pursuing the otters, however, I found a less wary subject and with a bit of patience and luck I was able to finally capture some images of what many consider to be North America’s most beautiful duck.

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Wood Duck Drake

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Wood Duck Drake

One afternoon, as I was trekking with my photographic gear to a spot where we expected the otters might show themselves, I heard my wife call out frantically.  Not in fear, but rather a sense of urgency that I might miss the treasure she had stumbled upon.  She had found a large Regal Jumping Spider (Phidippus regius).  I had tried numerous times to photographic this species, but found them too wary and difficult to approach.  But on this warm January day I found a bold, curious specimen that made for a perfect photographic subject.

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Regal Jumping Spider

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Regal Jumping Spider

I have been photographing the Pineywoods of East Texas for many years now.  While this species list project is a way to add a little spice to my photographic pursuits, I still love wandering the woods with a camera in hand, and no particular goal in mind.  On New Year’s Day Carolina and I went to one of our favorite spots.  We wandered the longleaf pine forest, admiring the fungi taking advantage of the moisture and humidity that remained after some recent rains.  As is typical in our forest wanderings, Carolina had the best find of the day – A pair of Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora) pushing skyward from the dense carpet of longleaf pine needles.  I was surprised to see it blooming so late in the season.  The habitat also seemed unusual to me, as I was accustomed to seeing it in the rich loams of moist slopes and stream bottoms.  Pleased with the days observations, we sat among the longleaf pines as the day faded, and contemplated the adventures to come.

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The Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is showy, highly toxic mushroom that appears in pine-dominated forests following late fall and winter rains.

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Ravenel’s Stinkhorn (Phallus ravenelii)

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Unlike most plants, which obtain energy through photosynthesis, Indian Pipe is a mycoheterotroph.  It obtains its energy and nutrients from the mycorrhizal fungi of tree roots.  I have read that it is named for an old Cherokee legend that states that these plants grow where old chiefs are buried so they may have something to smoke in the afterlife.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah

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An old, gnarled post oak growing among longleaf pines in an upland savannah.

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Merlin

Opting for a change of scenery, we decided to take  our pursuit of the North American River Otter to the coast.  I used to see them regularly in the wetlands around Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge when I worked there, and had heard of some recent sightings.  Hoping that we might get lucky Carolina, my mom and I spent a day exploring the Upper Texas Coast.  Though our mammalian quarry eluded us, we did see a number of birds including a variety of wintering waterfowl and wading birds.  The highlight of the day was toss up between a cooperative male Merlin ((Falco columbarius) that perched on a rustic fence post in perfect light, and an American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) that foraged in a ditch next to the road.  Relying on its camouflage it allowed us to approach to within feet of it, as it slowly stalked the reeds.

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American Bittern

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Ringneck Duck (Aythya collaris)

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Spotted Salamanders en route to a vernal pool.

Back in the Pineywoods I checked the weather daily, awaiting the conditions that would bring about one of nature’s great events – the Spotted Salamander migration.  Among the world’s most spectacular amphibians, the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) makes its home in the forests of the eastern United States.  Spotted Salamanders spend the majority of the year underground, hidden from the world in small burrows that have been excavated by rodents or other species.  In response to warm rains in later winter/early spring they emerge en masse and migrate to their breeding ponds, where they form large breeding congresses in order to propagate the next generation.  Finally we had a night with the perfect conditions and Carolina and I visited some breeding sites with our friends James and Erin Childress, where we observed hundreds of Spotted Salamanders and a handful of Mole Salamanders (Ambystoma talpoideum) swimming about the vernal pools.

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A Spotted Salamander male awaits the females’ arrival to his breeding pool.

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A gravid female Spotted Salamander

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A gravid female Mole Salamander

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A false bottomland in the East Texas Pineywoods.  False bottomlands are unique communities that occur in clay-bottomed dpressions located within upland communities.  They typically flood during the winter and spring, and become dry during the summer.  Though not associated with waterways, the community is somewhat similar to bottomland hardwood forests.  Dominant species include willow oak, overcup oak, and mayhaw.  The ephemeral nature of flooding in these communities makes for excellent amphibian habitat.

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An unidentified fungus growing on a fallen tree.

The salamanders were a nice distraction, but it was soon time to return to my pursuit of the river otter.  For Christmas my wife got a remote game camera.  Following the news that James had seen otters, she began setting the camera in areas where we observed ample otter sign.  For a couple weeks she came up empty handed.  One day, while en route to set up the cameras I caught a glimpse of something moving across the leaf litter.  It turned out to be a Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occupitomaculata), a small snake of the eastern U.S. that reaches the southwestern extent of its range in East Texas.  Though common throughout most of its range, the Red-bellied Snake is quite rare in Texas, and I took our encounter to be a good sign for things to come.

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Florida Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata obscura)

Carolina chose a place to set the camera adjacent to some logs that were covered in otter scat and hoped for the best.  Sure enough, the next time we checked the camera’s accumulated images, among the hundreds of photos of branches blowing in the wind, songbirds, and rats, we caught sight of our objective – a North American River Otter.

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With renewed energy I will continue to pursue the aquatic mammal in hopes of capturing its photograph, because slow and steady wins the race.