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

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 Freeman 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.

Coralroots of the White Rock Escarpment

Targets Species: Texas Coralroot (Hexalectris warnockii) and Glass Mountain Coralroot (Hexalectris nitida)

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Hexalectris warnockii

Texas boasts more species of the genus Hexalectris than any other state.  Here 5 of the world’s 8 species can be found (these numbers change to 6 and 9, depending on if you believe that Hexalectris spicata var. arizonica deserves species status).  Hexalectris is a genus of myco-heterotrophic orchids that are generally found in areas with abundant shade and thick, rich leaf litter.  In Texas there are three Hexalectris hotspots.  One is the  mountains of far West Texas, another the shaded canyons and oak/juniper woodlands of the Edward’s Plateau, and the last is the White Rock Escarpment of north-central Texas.  The latter is where I sought my targets.

The diversity of Hexalectris in the White Rock Escarpment was only recently discovered, when in the late 1980’s Hexalectris warnockii was discovered at an area nature preserve.  Since that time H. nitida, and H. spicata var. arizonica have also been found.  In 2005, Hexalectris grandiflora was discovered here as well, marking the first documented occurrence in the United States outside of the Davis and Chisos Mountains of West Texas.  It has since been discovered at a few sights in the Edward’s Plateau.

What makes the White Rock Escarpment so attractive to these orchids are the deposits of Austin Chalk.  This limestone-rich formation created topography and harbors species of oak and juniper that are more typical of West and Central Texas.  It is in the leaf litter under the shade of these species that the orchids grow.  The range of these Hexalectris orchids was probably once continuous and more expansive, but climate change over several millennia has pushed them into progressively smaller patches of suitable habitat, where they now exist as relicts of a once broader population.

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Hexalectris warnockii

Hexalectris warnockii is one of Texas’s showiest orchids.  It is named for Dr. Barton Warnock, a pioneer of Texas botany.  He is best known for exploring the flora of the Trans-Pecos, where he discovered many  new species and many other species that had never been documented in the United States.  Interestingly enough, while Warnock did discover the next species to be highlighted, Hexalectris nitida, he did not discover H. warnockii, which was named in his honor.  For more information on this influential figure in Texas natural history, click here.

I had previously observed Hexalectris warnockii growing at the base of some boulders deep in a secluded canyon in the Chisos Mountains.  It was truly fascinating to find the same species growing so far apart in conditions that were at the same time different, yet similar.  Though H. warnockii has been discovered at several locations since it was initially discovered in the mountains of West Texas, it remains rare and elusive in the state.

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Hexalectris warnockii

There is some mystery as to what triggers Hexalectris orchids to bloom.  The plants spend most of their life as little more than a rhizome and set of roots, and each individual may only bloom a couple of times each decade.  While rainfall is often cited as a trigger for blooming in West Texas, this doesn’t necessarily hold true elsewhere.  In the White Rock Escarpment, for example, some years may provide an excellent bloom for one species, and a sparse bloom for others.  While H. warnockii seemed to be having a banner year this year, our guide, Gary Spicer, informed us that H. nitida seemed to be showing low numbers.

Fortunately we did find a few.  Most of the H. nitida in the Edward’s Plateau and White Rock Escarpment are cleistogamous, meaning that the flowers self-pollinate and thus never open.  Gary, who frequents the area, did say that each year he sees a few plants with an open flower or two, but unfortunately we were unable to find any during out visit.

As I mentioned before, H. nitida was discovered by Barton Warnock.  He found it while working on his PhD dissertation on the vegetation of the Glass Mountains.  H. nitida is also commonly known as the Shining Coralroot due to the reflective sheen it gives off when hit by a stray beam of sun penetrating the canopy.

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Hexalectris nitida

Hexalectris has become one of my favorite plant genera.  They are both challenging to find and breathtakingly beautiful, and I look forward to continuing to explore  Hexalectris habitat in all three of our state’s hot spots.

In the Stars

Target Species: Starry Campion (Silene stellata)

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Starry Campion

Sometimes good things happen when you least expect it.  Such was the case when I checked the Starry Campion (Silene stellata) off my 2017 biodiversity list.  The botanist for the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas informed me of a new population of the Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris spicata) in Houston County.  While I had photographed this orchid before, it is so spectacular that I could’t resist checking out this newly discovered population.  I received a vague set of directions to the site, but thought that I had it figured out, so I set out to find it.

It turns out that I had gone to the wrong spot.  I arrived to where I thought the orchids would be and found nothing.  What I did find, however was what I believe is the first vouchered population of Silene stellata in Houston County.  I was not expecting to see it here, and a subsequent search of published range maps and herbaria did not turn up any records for Houston County, so I believe this is the first.

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Starry Campion

Starry Campion occurs in scattered populations throughout most of the eastern United States.  It prefers rich mesic to dry-mesic slopes, where it typically grows in the shade of hardwoods.  In Texas it tends to prefer calcareous sites.  It is primarily pollinated by moths, and it’s large, fluffy-looking blooms open in the evening and remain open throughout the night.  They begin to close the following morning.  I found several plants scattered about the lower reaches of a rich mesic slope.

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Starry Campion

It was hard to be disappointed about not finding the coralroots when the “wrong” path led me to one of my target species – one that I have never seen in bloom.  However, after some clarification on the directions I was able to make it to the Crested Coralroots after all.  These are, in my opinion, one of the most striking orchids in the country.  They occur in scattered populations in wooded areas throughout much of Texas.  It seems that a rich, undisturbed layer of leaf-litter is a prerequisite.  They are mycoheterotrophic, obtaining nutrients and energy from fungus living within the soil.  I spent the evening photographing them, and left feeling content in having found both the expected and unexpected.

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Crested Coralroots

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Crested Coralroot

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Crested Coralroots.  Though they are brightly colored when views up close, they can be very difficult to spot from a distance.

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 Adder in the Understory

Target Species: Green Adder’s Mouth (Malaxis unifolia)

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Green Adder’s Mouth

The Green Adder’s Mouth is a peculiar orchid of the Eastern United States that reaches its southwestern limit in the Pineywoods of East Texas.  I saw and photographed this species a few years ago, however it was when they were first emerging from the leaf litter and were not yet in bloom.  I have since wanted to photograph them in full bloom.

Last year a friend told me about a population less than an hour from my house.  This year I visited the site in hopes of catching them at peak bloom.  The Green Adder’s Mouth tends to be found on gentle moist slopes adjacent to streams, seeps, and wetland margins.  This particular population is adjacent to a wetland swale deep in a pine-hardwood upland.  The site delivered as promised, and we observed hundreds of individuals in bloom scattered along the gentle slope grading into the wet depression.  We even found a few scattered among the adjacent uplands.

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Green Adder’s Mouth

The specific epithet unifolia is in reference to the single leaf that emerges from the leaf litter in later March/Early April.  The leaf emerges with with a developing cluster of flower buds.  As the plant grows the buds begin to spread out and unfurl, revealing the tiny, intricate blooms that lend the plant it’s common name.  Adder’s Mouth is in reference to the pronged lip (lower petal), which is said to appear the fangs of an adder.  The detail of individuals blooms is best appreciated from above, as in the shots that follow.

Though the plants may eventually reach heights of a foot or more, it’s tiny cryptic flowers and generic leaf make it a real challenge to spot.  As Joe Liggio speculates in his book The Wild Orchids of Texas, it may indeed be more common than we currently suspect.

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Green Adder’s Mouth

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Green Adder’s Mouth

There was little blooming near the orchids, with the exception of the beautiful White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata).  This is one of the earliest milkweeds to bloom in East Texas.  The red band below the flowers’ hoods lends it the alternative common name “Redring Milkweed”

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White Milkweed

Milkweed blooms are highly popular with pollinators.  Just about every plant had a myriad of flies, bees, and beetles.

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Trichiotinus lunulatus

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Zebra Longhorn Beetle (Typocerus zebra)

It felt good to finally get the photos I have long wanted of the Green Adder’s Mouth, but just as rewarding was exploring an unfamiliar area of the Pineywoods.  I can only hope that my pursuit of my 2017 biodiversity goals will continue to take me to new, exciting (at least to me!) places.

A Tribute to an Ice Age Relic

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Kentucky Lady’s Slipper

Recently I made the annual trip to see what may be my favorite plant – the Kentucky Lady Slipper (Cypripedium kentuckiense).  This year I was joined by my friends John Williams, Skip Pudney, and Terry Hibbitts, who were anxious for the chance to see and photograph the slippers.

The Kentucky Lady’s Slipper finds refuge deep in the cool, moist ravines of the Pineywoods.  Here the sunlight barely penetrates the canopy, and in April, if the conditions are just right, its curled petals and broad sepals will unfurl, revealing the cream yellow slipper to the world.

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Kentucky Lady’s Slipper

Today this spectacular orchid is rare throughout its range, hanging on as scattered populations from Virginia to East Texas.  It occurs in the dwindling southern hardwood forests that remain as relicts from the last ice age. Here tends to be found adjacent to small, often springfed streams on small benches or the lower terraces of steep slopes.

As the glaciers began their retreat rich hardwood forests with beech, maple, hickory, and oak were likely the dominant cover type in the southern United States. As the glaciers receded and the climate warmed and dried, dominant species like American beech were pushed to these ravines where they remain as relicts – reminders of the forests that once were. They are accompanied by a suite of other species typical of northern and Appalachian hardwood forests.  The Kentucky lady’s slipper is perhaps the most charismatic example of relictual flora in East Texas.

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Kentucky Lady’s Slipper in habitat (shot in 2016)

Cypripedium kentuckiense is huge by orchid standards.  The plants may reach close to a meter tall, and the slipper, which is really a modified petal may be the size of a chicken egg.  This orchid is a bit of a trickster, as it lures bees, fully expecting a sweet nectar reward, into the lip.  The bees find no reward inside though, as the orchid does not produce the sugary substance that the pollinators depend on.  It is unlikely that many bees will make the mistake of returning to a lady slipper bloom after this initial disappointment.  Therefore it is believed that the orchids are pollinated primarily by inexperienced individuals.

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Kentucky Lady’s Slipper in habitat (shot in 2016)

The Kentucky Lady’s Slipper truly is one of the most striking inhabitants of the Pineywoods, and for my money one of the most beautiful plants in the country.  Populations continue to decline, however, as these sensitive species succumb to a myriad of pressures from habitat destruction, climate change, increasing isolation of populations which creates a barrier for gene flow, and more.  Fortunately many of the remaining Cypripedium kentuckiense populations in East Texas are protected, at least for the moment.  So at least for now, these botanical treasures will continue to brighten our rich mesic slopes each spring.

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Kentucky Lady’s Slipper in habitat (shot in 2014)