July Recap

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Cow Killer

July has been my most productive month yet.  Due in large part to a trip to the Davis Mountains I was able to check 7 species off my list:

Spider Lily (Hymenocallis occidentalis)

Texas Coralroot (Hexalectris warnockii)

Glass Mountain Coralroot (Hexalectris nitida)

Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora)

Mexican Catchfly (Silene laciniata)

Glorious Scarab (Chrysina gloriosa)

Canyon Tree Frog (Hyla arenicolor)

2017GoalsJuly

One of the most interesting photographic experiences of July came toward the end of the month, when a female Red Velvet Ant a.k.a. Cow Killer (Dasymutilla occidentalis) came wandering through our yard.  These large wasps have always fascinated me, and I’ve long wanted to get a good photo of one. I’ve tried a few times in the past but found them nearly impossible to photograph. They are surprisingly fast and never stop moving.  The females are flightless, while the males are winged.

Despite their ominous name, which eludes to their supposedly highly painful sting, my wife offered to help. I captured it in a cup and then led it onto a 3-foot long stick. My wife held the stick, switching hands as it paced rapidly from one end to the other. Occasionally it would stop at the edge for the briefest of moments. I ended up taking over 100 shots. I got some that were very sharp, but she was in an awkward position, and others where she was in the perfect position, but the focus wasn’t right. This one ended up being my favorite. When we finished I let her continue on its way.

Cow killers are parasites of parasites, and when we encountered her I assume she was on the hunt for a suitable host for her offspring. They seek out the larvae of Cicada Killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus), and lay their own eggs into the larvae of the Cicada Killers, which have been laid on a live, paralyzed cicada. They will also parasitize a number of other ground nesting wasps and bumblebees.

In early July I went to visit a population of Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris spicata) in the Davy Crockett National Forest.  Despite significant damage from feral hogs to the dense leaf litter at the site, I found several blooming plants.  Though most were past their prime, i found a few fresh, interesting blooms.  It’s hard to imagine a flower having a personality, but the flowers of Hexalectris spicata certainly look like they could.

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Crested Coralroot

En route to the Crested Coralroot spot I stopped along a forest road to relieve myself.  As I was doing so I spotted several Little Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes tuberosa) blooming alongside the road.  These diminutive orchids bloom in the summer in open woodlands.

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Little Ladies’ Tresses

I photographed this Bog Coneflower (Rudbeckia scabrifolia) in a herbaceous seep on private land.

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Bog Coneflower

I have been wanting to photograph Climbing Milkweed (Matelea decipiens) for a while.  I found a plant with a single cluster of blooms along a springfed stream.

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Climbing Milkweed

The striking Blue Waterleaf (Hydrolea ovata) is common in herbaceous wetlands in the eastern third of the state.

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Blue Waterleaf

Hydrolea ovata can often be found growing with Looseflower Water-Willow (Justicia lanceolata).

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Looseflower Water-Willow

Toward the end of the month I visited a high quality longleaf pine savannah on private land with my friend James.  During our visit we were fortunate to catch the rare Scarlet Catchfly (Silene subciliata) in bloom.

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Scarlet Catchfly

I’ll end my July recap with a photo of a Slimleaf Milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla) that we saw on our way back from Dallas, where we photographed Hexalectris warnockii and H. nitida in early July.  This is one of the rarer milkweeds of Texas. It is primarily a species of the Great Plains, occurring on dry, sandy prairies that have not experienced significant soil disturbance. In Texas it occurs in scattered populations from the Rolling Plains to the Blackland Prairies, where it appears to be rare and declining.

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Slimleaf Milkweed

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Sky Island

Target Species:

Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora)

Mexican Catchfly (Silene laciniata)

Canyon Tree Frog (Hyla arenicolor)

Glorious Scarab (Chrysina gloriosa)

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Glorious Scarab

There are those profound moments in life that help shape who we are.  Experiences that put things into perspective, and fill us with a sense of purpose and being.  Moments that bring clarity to an otherwise murky sea of questions, concerns, and uncertainty.  For me most of these moments occur when I’m in the natural world – in places where the advance of civilization and the concrete world is less evident.  These wild places are my “church”, for it is here that I seek the direction and advice that guides me, and puts me on my path.  Make no mistake, I do not hold any misconceptions that Mother Nature reciprocates my feelings toward her, but rather I take comfort in my insignificance in the grand scheme of the natural cycle.  In these moments I know that my life will be fulfilled, for I could never hope to run out of new natural wonders to discover.

One such moment occurred recently in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, when Carolina and I stood high in a narrow canyon overlooking the rain-drenched valley below.  We were soaked from head to toe, yet our spirits were not dampened as we pondered the denizens of the forests and meadows that lay below us.  On the walk up we had passed groves of massive Ponderosa Pines (Pinus ponderosa), one of the many Rocky Mountain relicts that persist in these sky islands.  Among these pines was the largest individual recorded in the state of Texas.

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High Elevation Valley with Ponderosa Pine, Texas Madrone, and a variety of oaks

Rain in West Texas is a beautiful thing.  You can literally see the world come to life as it rains.  You can smell it, hear it, feel it.  It’s a difficult sensation to describe.  Though in these sky islands, rain is not as scarce as one might think.  Sky islands are unique habitats that occur in isolated mountain ranges in the desert southwest.  Here warm air cools as it rises up the slopes and moisture accumulates.  This combines with annual monsoons that typically begin in July and last into September, soaking the mountains with nearly daily afternoon thunderstorms.  The result is annual levels of rainfall that may be 4 times greater or more than the surrounding desert.  Temperatures are significantly cooler as well.  These conditions result in the presence of several species typical of the Rocky Mountains as well as species of the desert southwest.  Couple this with the fact that West Texas and northern Mexico is a a significant center of endemism, and the importance of the Davis Mountains for biodiversity becomes clear.

We were exploring the Davis Mountains Preserve, owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy in Texas.  This 33,000 acre preserve protects the highest and most spectacular portion of the Davis Mountains.  It joins approximately 70,000 acres of additional land protected through acquisition and private landowner conservation partnerships.  The result is the protection of over 100,000 acres of sky island habitat that is critical for a number of rare and declining species and natural communities.  Here we observed an array of fascinating plant and animal species typical of these sky islands.

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A rain-drenched montane woodland with an overstory of large Ponderosa Pines and an understory of oaks and Texas Madrone

Topping out at over 8,000 feet, the Davis Mountains are the tallest, and largest mountain range confined entirely to the Lonestar State.  Though the Guadalupe Mountains are indeed taller and more extensive, we share them with New Mexico.  The Davis Mountains were the last refuge for Mexican Gray Wolves and Grizzly Bears in Texas.  Those these apex predators are gone, the Mountain Lion still roams here, and Black Bears are making a comeback.  Today, the Davis Mountains remain one of the final strongholds in Texas for a variety of plant and animal species.  Perhaps the most spectacular of which is the Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora).

The rain was just beginning to let up when Carolina spotted them.  A clump of pink beacons shining against the wet rocks and grasses.  She had found the Giant Coralroot.  It is hard for me to describe the sense of wonder and excitement that overcomes me while I observe such an elusive treasure.  The clump of orchids had at least 10 stems with dozens of flowers in various stages of development, from bud to senescent blooms.  Over the next two days we would end up observing four clumps and a total of approximately 15 plants.

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Giant Coralroot

Previously the Giant Coralroot was thought to occur in the United States only in the moist pine-oak-juniper canyons of the Davis Mountains.  Though it remains restricted to Texas, it has since been discovered in the Chisos Mountains within Big Bend National Park, the White Rock Escarpment of north-central Texas, and oak-juniper woodlands of the Edward’s Plateau.  They seem to be exceedingly rare in these areas, however, and their real stronghold in the U.S. remains the Davis Mountains, where they are relatively common in high elevation forests dominated by Alligator Juniper, Pinyon and Ponderosa Pines, Texas Madrone and a variety of oaks.

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Giant Coralroot

Giant Coralroots are myco-heterotrophs, obtaining energy and nutrients from the mycorrhizal fungi of tree roots.  Unlike most plants they do not photosynthesize, and therefore do not require chlorophyll-containing leaves.  They spend most of their lives as nothing more than an underground rhizome and roots, but following the onset of the summer rains, they begin to send up stalks that may bare a dozen or more bright pink blooms.  They seem to bloom sporadically from late June to mid September, likely peaking in mid to late July in most years.

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Giant Coralroot

These spectacular orchids are easiest to find growing beneath trees and at the base of rocks where moisture and organic material accumulate, providing ideal conditions for both the plants and the fungi they depend on.  Though there is a lot of respectable competition, the combination of their beautiful blooms, interesting life history, and the spectacular places that they inhabit make this my favorite species of orchid.

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Giant Coralroot

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Giant Coralroot

Growing near the orchids was Mexican Catchfly (Silene laciniata).  This striking wildflower occurs in the mountains of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, barely entering Texas in the mountains of the Trans-Pecos.  It’s name comes from its sticky stem, which can trap insects in order to protect the plant from predation.

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Mexican Catchfly

A number of milkweed species occur in the West Texas sky islands.  We observed Asclepias latifolia and Asclepias brachystephana in the lower elevation grasslands.  Higher up we came across Asclepias texanaAsclepias subverticillata, and Asclepias engelmanniana in bud.  The true star of the high elevation milkweeds was the Nodding Milkweed (Asclepias glaucescens).  We found one robust flowering plant growing alongside a rocky stream in a canyon shaded by Alligator Juniper and Pinyon Pine.

This large, showy milkweed is primarily a species of the mountains of Mexico.  It barely enters the United States in the sky islands of West Texas, and southern Arizona and New Mexico.  In Texas they are restricted to the Davis, Chisos, and Guadalupe Mountains.

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Nodding Milkweed

Like Asclepias glaucescens, the U.S. distribution of Threadleaf Phlox (Phlox mesoleuca) is largely restricted to the sky islands of the southwest.

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Threadleaf Phlox

In addition to species that are primarily Mexican in their distribution, the Davis Mountains provides refuge for a variety of Rocky Mountain relicts.  Purple Geranium (Geranium caespitosum), for example, occurs primarily in Ponderosa Pine savannahs and other coniferous woodlands of the Rockies from Wyoming to northern Mexico.

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Purple Geranium

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Purple Geranium

The Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) has an even broader distribution, occuring in the formerly glaciated northern United States and Canada down through the Rocky Mountains, and into the sky islands of the southwestern United States and Canada.  It is common in the high elevations of the Davis Mountains and puts on a spectacular show during the summer monsoon.

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Harebell

One of the Davis Mountains most spectacular botanical residents is the Desert Savior (Echeveria strictiflora).  This succulent member of the stonecrop family (Crassulaceae) is primarily found on rocky canyon walls and slopes of central and northern Mexico.  In the United States it is known only from Jeff Davis, Brewster, and Presidio Counties in far West Texas.

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Desert Savior

We found several growing from rock crevices and the bases of boulders at elevations above 6000 feet.  Here they were able to take advantage of minute amounts of soil and moisture that collect over time.  In the Davis Mountains they seem to be found primarily in exposed rock outcrops and canyon walls adjacent to rocky streams.

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Desert Savior

The Desert Savior is a truly spectacular plant.  It’s stalk of waxy, fiery flowers reaches up to a foot and a half over it’s thick, grayish green succulent leaves.  Each curled stalk may bare 2 dozen or more flowers that gradually open, unfurling the stalk as they develop and fade.  Hummingbirds are likely an important pollinator of these succulents, as evidenced by their bright red coloration, somewhat tubular flowers, and the fact that their peak blooming seems to coincide with the start of hummingbird migration of late summer.

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Desert Savior

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Desert Savior

The mountains of Trans-Pecos Texas boast more species of Hexalectris orchids than anywhere else in the country.  For some time I had communicated with North Texas botanist Matt White on our shared interests.  As luck would have it, while returning to the Davis Mountains Preserve visitor center, our friend, The Nature Conservancy volunteer, and local landowner Gary was talking to a man that he introduced as Matt White.  This chance encounter led to Matt guiding us to a population of Texas Coralroots (Hexalectris warnockii) that he had stumbled across on a remote rocky ridge a few hundred meters from the preserve’s main road.  He made a comment that caught my attention – that these plants and their ancestors have likely been at this spot for hundreds of years.  And in all likelihood we were the first humans to ever see them, and the last that ever will.  I smiled at the prospect, and hoped it to be true.

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Texas Coralroot

Following a long day of exploring the Davis Mountains Preserve, we decided to spend the evening resting our legs by taking a leisurely drive along the scenic loop that surrounds the range.  I use the term resting loosely, for it seemed like every few hundred feet we were stopping to explore some new biological or geological wonder.  After a while we passed below Sawtooth Mountain.  The mountain is a prominent landmark in the area, its peak reaching nearly 7,700 feet above sea level, and rising nearly 1500 feet above the surrounding slopes.

Like the Davis Mountains Preserve, Sawtooth Mountain and its surrounding habitat is protected by the Nature Conservancy.  However the mechanisms that protect the two are quite different.  While the Davis Mountains Preserve is owned outright by the conservancy, Sawtooth Mountain remains private, and instead is protected through a conservation easement.  Conservation Easements are legally binding documents that place restrictions on land use in order to achieve certain conservation objectives.  Sawtooth is another piece of the puzzle that has led to the protection of over 100,000 acres of these sky islands.

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Grassland grades into pinyon-juniper-oak woodlands on the slopes of Sawtooth Mountain

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Sawtooth Mountain looms over an interest rock outcrop

In addition to their unique flora, the Davis Mountains supports an equally interesting faunal community, melding species of the mountainous west, the desert southwest, and those primarily Mexican in their distribution.  In a single day one can hear the call of the Stellar’s Jay alongside that of the Cactus Wren and Painted Redstart.  Rare vagrant bird species turn up here, and reptiles like the Greater Short-horned Lizard thrive in one of the few areas of suitable habitat in the state.

The monsoon rains bring with them an increase in amphibian activity.  We observed many Red-spotted Toads (Anaxyrus punctatus) during our visit.  These large, handsome amphibians occur in a variety of habitats throughout most of the southwest, down into central Mexico.

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Red-spotted Toad

One of the most memorable experiences of any trip to the Davis Mountains is hunting for Canyon Tree Frogs (Hyla arenicolor) as they sit perfectly camouflaged among boulders adjacent to pools in high elevation canyon drainages.  In Texas the Canyon Tree Frog is restricted to a handful of mountain ranges of the Trans-Pecos.  Though most are brown to gray with dark brown blotches, occasionally a striking green or green-spotted individual turns up.  Carolina spotted one such animal camouflaged among the lichen on a large boulder.

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Canyon Tree Frog

As a child, I remember being captivated with the insect community in West Texas.  My parents indulged me as I ran about the desert with a net in hand, eagerly trying to capture and identify the staggering array of flying and crawling six-legged wonders that call the Trans-Pecos home.  There are few places in the country that provide as wonderful an entomological playground as West Texas.

One of the most conspicuous members of the insect community is the Arizona Sister (Adelpha eulalia), a member of the brush-footed butterfly family (Nymphalidae).  On warm, sunny days that can be seen dancing about the canyon floor and rocky outcrops seeking moisture and areas of mineral deposits.  At some such deposits its not uncommon to see dozens of different species sharing the same space in search of essential nutrients that their nectarivorous diet does not provide.

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Arizona Sister

The Orthopterans (grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets) of the Trans-Pecos range from species of muted camouflage to those with fitting, gaudy names like the Rainbow Grasshopper.  Carolina spotted this blue-winged grasshopper (Trimerotropis sp.) resting among the pebbles in a mountain wash.  Though they initially appear to be adorned in dull, muted tones, when they jump they reveal their translucent blue hind wings and cobalt blue markings on the inside of their hindlegs.

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Blue-winged Grasshopper

It’s always a treat observing tiger beetles.  Ruthless predators, tiger beetles are lightning fast and armed with deadly mandibles.  We observed these Western Red-bellied Tiger Beetles (Cicindelidia sedecimpunctata) scurrying about rocks adjacent to a mountain stream.  This species, like so many others in the area, barely enters the U.S. in extreme western Texas and southern New Mexico and Arizona.

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Western Red-bellied Tiger Beetle

The Western Rhinoceros Beetle (Xyloryctes thestalus) is one of the largest, most abundant beetles of the Davis Mountains.  Following the onset of the monsoon they emerge in droves and seek out ash trees (Fraxinus spp.), their primary food source.

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Western Rhinoceros Beetle

The real gems of the sky islands, however, are the beetles of the genus Chrysina.  There are five species in the United States, two of which occur in Texas.  In what I suspect is a common occurrence among lifelong naturalists, I have certain species that I always admired and dreamed of one day seeing while pouring endlessly through field guides and other nature books as a kid.  One of these species was the Glorious Scarab (Chrysina gloriosa).  It is a species that looks more at home in the tropics, in places well out of reach.

I had looked for this species on many previous trips to the Davis and Chisos Mountains, and had always left having only caught glimpses of elytra discarded by some predator, or some smashed semblance of what once was a Glorious Scarab on busy roads and trails.  But on this trip, much to my delight, a lifelong dream was realized when I saw a live Chrysina gloriosa crawling on the ground on our final evening in the mountains.  I must have made some strange gleeful sound as I reached down to pick it up.  I examined it closely, taking delight in this serendipitous encounter.

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Glorious Scarab

Chrysina gloriosa is highly sought after by collectors, and it is easy to see why.  Fortunately they remain common in sky islands from Arizona to West Texas.  The beetle’s brilliant greens were impossible to capture on “film”, but that didn’t stop me from trying.  The elytra (hardened outer wings) of Chrysina gloriosa are decorated with metallic silver streaks that brilliant reflect the light.  It is believed that the bright coloration and streaked pattern help break out the outline of the Glorious Scarab when it feeds on the juniper leaves that it depends on, helping to camouflage it from would-be predators.  In all we would find five individuals that night and the following morning.  It truly was the perfect ending to a spectacular trip that was rich in biodiversity.

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Glorious Scarab

The Davis Mountains truly are one of Texas’s natural treasures.  We can take comfort knowing that the biodiversity, scenery, and cultural history will be protected for generations to come thanks to the conservation efforts of the Nature Conservancy, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and landowners with a passion for the area.  I hope to return many times in the future, in an endless attempt to document but a mere fraction of the beautiful and interesting plants and animals that call this sky island home.

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.

Suffering for Milkweeds

Target Species: Velvetleaf Milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa)

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Velvetleaf Milkweed

Being a naturalist and outdoor enthusiast can be frustrating.  I would go so far as to say at times it can be downright miserable.  Ask any avid hunter, fisher, backpacker, hiker, etc. etc., and I’m sure they could provide a wealth of stories of unpleasant and unwelcome experiences in the natural world.  Whether it be elusive quarry, unfavorable weather conditions, disorientation, illness, or any combination, one has to have a true love for the natural world to return time and time again for this potential abuse.

To me, being a photographer can be even more frustrating.  I have passed the point in my photographic pursuit of just taking a photo.  Don’t get me wrong, I think that can be an enjoyable and worthy pursuit, but at this stage in my evolution as a photographer, I am interested in capturing unique and hopefully striking images.  To achieve this I am at the mercy of the elements, and lighting is key.  For wildflower photography I find overcast skies to produce the best light.  For most species cloudy days offer the best opportunity to capture their flowers’ true colors, and a lack of harsh shadow allows the capture of maximum detail.  While equipment and technology like sun shades and flashes can help, there is no substitute for natural light.

Before I get too far off topic, I’d like to return to my target species.  I’ve been interested in looking for Asclepias tomentosa for some time now.  It is an interesting milkweed that occurs on a variety of woodlands on deep sands.  In eastern Texas it is found primarily in the central and northern portions of the Post Oak Savannah ecoregion, where it occurs in sandy woodlands dominated primarily by scrubby oaks and hickories.  The range of this species is fascinating, exhibiting a “double disjunction” with three main populations that are separated by hundreds of miles.  The reason for this distribution remains a bit of a mystery.  An interesting paper describing this phenomenon can be found here.

Asclepias tomentosa

County-level distribution of Asclepias tomentosa from http://www.bonap.org

Many naturalists, myself included, take great interest in the genus Asclepias.  Milkweeds are an interesting, diverse group of plants.  They come in a wide array of shapes, sizes, and colors, and can be found in a variety of habitats.  Some are common, bordering on invasive, while others are rare.  Milkweeds are incredibly important for native pollinators, including bees, wasps, butterflies, beetles, and more.  They are perhaps most famous for being the larval food source of the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus), and are responsible for the insect’s toxicity.

Asclepias tomentosa is quite rare in Texas.  I had a few leads, but was skeptical as to whether or not I would be able to locate it.  Fortunately I found it with relatively little trouble.  The forecast on the day I went looking called for overcast skies with a slight chance of rain.  Perfect photographic conditions, or so I thought.  When I arrived in the central Post Oak Savannah there was nary a cloud in the sky and the mid afternoon sun was beating down on me.  The sun was reflecting off exposed sand.  It was hot.  It was miserable.  I found A. tomentosa growing on a slight slope in sandy soils alongside Tetragonotheca ludoviciana in a matrix of small openings within an extensive svannah dominated by Post Oak (Quercus stellata).

Once I found the plants I set about the task of trying to photograph them.  Holding a 3-foot X 3-foot shade in one hand and my camera in the other, all with the sun beating down on me.  As I sat and knelt in the scorching sand I was immediately impaled by the thorny fruits of Krameria lanceolata and other well-adapted species.  The spines are the plants’ answer to the problem of dispersal, but to me they were literal thorns in my side.  After a short time I thought something along the lines of “forget this”, though significantly less polite.  I decided to explore the area for a while and hope for conditions to improve.

Continuing on I spotted a few particularly robust milkweeds growing in a “blowout”, where an ancient waterway deposited its sediment, resulting in a very deep pocket of pure sand.  Closer examination revealed that they were Sand Milkweeds (Asclepias arenaria).  I was thrilled, as this species was not even on my radar.  Unfortunately, these were even more exposed than the Asclepias tomentosa growing a mile or so away.  I tried to get a few photos, and ended this session on an equally flustered note.  Asclepias arenaria also has an interesting distribution, occurring primarily in the central and western Great Plains.  In Texas it can be found in scattered counties in the western 3/4 of the state, occurring on isolated pockets of deep sand.

Asclepias arenaria

County-level distribution of Asclepias arenaria from http://www.bonap.org

I continued to explore for another half hour or so, finding more Asclepias arenaria, and other interesting species.  As I decided to call it quits and begin my return, I caught sight of some long black thing to my left.  It was an Eastern Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum flagellum), one of our country’s fastest snakes.  I approached to get a better look, fully expecting the wary serpent to bolt at any second.  Only it didn’t bolt.  Closer still I drew and it stayed put.  I decided to make the most of the situation, and despite the harsh light reached for my camera.  As I was watching the snake through my viewfinder and clicking away, i noticed that the light meter started shifting slowly to the left, and that the harsh shadow under the snake’s head was fading away.  I took a moment to survey my surroundings and realized that a large cloud had appeared to momentarily block out the sun.

Hurriedly I finished with the snake and rushed back to the milkweeds to take advantage of this temporary light, all the while worried I would not make it before the cloud passed.  Fortunately I did make it, and was able to capture images of both milkweed species without the harsh sun.  For all my previous frustration, I ended up achieving exactly what I had set out to do.  In the process I captured images of two species that have seldom been photographed in Texas.

To me, these frustrations are an important part of my love for the natural world.  Perhaps they remind me of its raw, unpredictable, unforgiving nature.  Perhaps they make the victories all the sweeter.  Or perhaps they serve to humble me, and allow me to relinquish control of the untamable.  More likely its a combination of these, but whatever it may be, my frustrations and triumphs in the natural world draw me back in time and time again, fueling my life-long passion for wild places.

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Velvetleaf Milkweed

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Velveatleaf Milkweed in the Post Oak Savannah

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Velveatleaf Milkweed

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Velvetleaf Milkweed

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Velvetleaf Milkweed

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Sand Milkweed

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Sand Milkweed

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Eastern Coachwhip as found

Exploring the Upper Texas Coast

Target Species: Saltmarsh False Foxglove (Agalinis maritima)

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

The Upper Texas Coast is a naturalist’s paradise.  It is one of the country’s premier birding sites, and harbors an interesting flora and fauna including many species that are limited to coastlines and their associated habitats.  This region was historically largely a patchwork of coastal prairie, freshwater marsh, brackish marsh, and saltmarsh.  Trees and woody vegetation was primarily limited to larger river drainages.   Today the habitat has been heavily modified, however remnants of historic vegetation still remain.

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

I had previously observed the Saltmarsh False Foxglove while passing through bands of saltmarsh leading to the beach.  For whatever reason I never stopped to photograph it, despite the fact that it was an interesting species restricted to a thin band of habitat directly adjacent to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of North America.  Here it occurs in tidally influenced saltmarsh.

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County-level distribution of Agalinis maritima from http://www.bonap.org

This year I made a point to capture some images.  Last weekend Carolina and I took a trip to the Upper Texas Coast.  The first evening of our trip we passed through saltmarsh where I had seen it in bloom around this time last year.  I was disappointed, as I didn’t see any blooms.  I thought that I had missed my best shot at checking Agalinis maritima off my list.  The next morning, however, while revisiting the beach I saw several in bloom.  I came to the conclusion that the blooms open in the morning, and throughout the day as the relentless coastal winds hammer the marsh the blooms quickly fade and fall from the plant.  The wind made photography a challenge, but I was able to capture a few images of the Saltmarsh False Foxglove’s beautiful, bizarre-looking flower.

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

There were many other showy plants blooming alongside my target.  One of the most striking was the Texas Bluebells (Eustoma exaltatum).  This is a wide-ranging species that seems to thrive in the coastal prairies and drier margins of the saltmarsh, though they can be found well inland in open habitats as far north as Wyoming and North Dakota.

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Texas Bluebells

The large, bright blooms of the Saltmarsh Morning Glory (Ipomoea sagittata) were also prevalent.  The blooms open in the early morning and are mostly closed by early afternoon.

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Saltmarsh Morning Glory

Plentiful rains prior to our visit resulted in an abundance of rainlilies (Cooperia spp.).  I was excited to discover that a few were the uncommon Traub’s Rainlily (Cooperia traubii), which is limited to a few coastal and near coastal counties in Texas and extreme northeastern Mexico.  It can be differentiated from the similar, more widespread Evening Rainlily (Cooperia drummondii) by it’s elongated style, which extends well beyond the anthers.  The style of the Evening Rainlily is either shorter than the anthers, even with the anthers, or barely longer.

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Traub’s Rainlily

Cooperia traubii

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

The taxonomy of prickly-pears (Opuntia spp.) is a bit of a mess.  Experts offer differing opinions of how the various species and populations should be classified.  The prickly-pears of the upper Texas Coast follow this pattern.  Two species are especially contentious.  Some experts suggest that these cacti are individuals of the more widespread Opuntia lindheimeri and Opuntia stricta, while others suggest that there are two species endemic to the Upper Texas Coast: Opuntia bentonii and Opuntia anahuacensis.  If Opuntia bentonii is a valid taxon, the image below is of this species.

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Opuntia sp.

Venturing less than a mile from the coast the marsh slowly transitions from salt to brackish to fresh water.  At the margins of a handful of freshwater marshes in the Upper Texas Coast a real gem of a plant can be found: the Fewflower Milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata).  The Fewflower Milkweed is a species of the coastal plain that reaches its western limit in Southeast Texas.  Here it historically occurred in wetland pine savannahs and wet coastal prairies.  Today it exists in only a handful of populations in the Big Thicket and along the Upper Texas Coast.

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Fewflower Milkweed

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Fewflower Milkweed

Blooming in profusion within the freshwater marsh were scores of Swamp Rosemallow (Hibiscus moscheutos).  The spectacular blooms of this species open fully in the early morning, and close by the afternoon.

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Swamp Rosemallow

Every trip to the Upper Texas Coast provides unique, memorable encounters with the natural world.  There are several other species on my list that call this region home, and with any luck I’ll return soon to seek them out.

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Retreating tides and advancing clouds on the Upper Texas Coast

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Retreating tides and advancing clouds on the Upper Texas Coast

 

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