Are we in East Texas or Appalachia?

IMG_8081

False Rue Anemone

I’m going to break my own rule again and make a post that is not about a species on my 2017 list of biodiversity goals to tell you about what may be, in my opinion, the nicest patch of forest in all of Texas.  A couple of years ago Carolina and I were fortunate enough to meet Susan and Viron through a mutual friend.  We joined them on a hike through the Sabine National Forest and it became clear that we were meant to be friends.  They shared our love for exploring wild places.  During our hike they talked about the property they owned in East Texas.  They mentioned some plants that they had on their property including bloodroot and trout lily, and naturally my ears perked up.  We parted ways with a promise to explore their land to see what other treasures it might hold.

We got our chance the next spring, and visited them at their home – a log cabin that they built themselves – nestled on a high ridge overlooking a steep, scenic slope.  As we approached the house I could already begin seeing drifts of Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium rostratum) and clumps of Sabine River Wakerobin (Trillium gracile).  After visiting for a while we set out to explore.

IMG_0530

A mesic calcareous slope on private land rich in spring ephemeral forbs that are rare in Texas. Taken in March 2016

They took us down a trail that lead away from the house.  It climbed to the top of a hill covered in Mayapple (Podphyllum peltatum), and as we crested the ridge I was not prepared for the view that lay before me.  I saw a steep slope that was literally carpeted with thousands of spring ephemeral herbs that were flowering in spectacular profusion.  Thousands of Yellow Trout Lilies and Cutleaf Toothworts (Cardamine concactenata) had opened their blooms.  Both species are rare in Texas.  The scene seemed more appropriate for the slopes of the Great Smoky or Blue Ridge Mountains than East Texas.

There was also a species growing among them that I did not immediately recognize.  It turned out to be False Rue Anemone (Enemion biternatum), and I was unsure if it had been previously documented in Texas.  After returning home that evening I sent an e-mail to Jason Singhurst, the state botanist with TPWD and began doing a little research.  It turned out to be the second documented population in the state.  Having found the only other population, Jason was anxious to get out and explore the property to document this population and see what else this wonderful land might harbor.

IMG_8085

False Rue Anemone

He got his chance a couple of days ago on a warm, rainy spring day.  Jason and a group of excellent botanists joined me on the property, and while it rained on and off throughout the day, I could not find it in me to complain about the weather.  To me, days like this are the epitome of spring in the eastern forests.  Like me, Jason and the others could not believe their eyes.  After arriving we soon located the False Rue Anemone which was blooming by the thousands.

The mesic, calcareous slopes turned out to be far more extensive than I originally thought, stretching for acres across the property.  Perhaps the most dominant spring ephemeral forb was the Yellow Trout Lily, which had sent up hundreds of thousands of leaves.  While there were several blooms they remained closed throughout the day, as they only open under warm, bright conditions.  Fortunately I was able to photograph this species at the site the previous year.  Yellow Trout Lily is rare in Texas, known only from a few high quality mesic forests.  It is one of a few yellow-flowered in Eastern North America.  It is easily differentiated by the others by its erect flowers and tepals (combination of petals and sepals) that are not reflexed.

IMG_0611

Yellow Trout Lily. Taken in March 2016

Perhaps even more rare than the Yellow Trout Lily is the Cutleaf Toothwort.  It too was blooming by the thousands here.  This rare member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) is a typical flower of eastern deciduous forests that is only known from a few locations in Texas.  It is one of the hosts for the Falcate Orangetip (Anthocharis midea).  Though we saw many of these beautiful butterflies during our visit, they were impossible to photograph as they refused to pause while bouncing from flower to flower in their quest for nectar.

IMG_0852

Cutleaf Toothwort. Taken in March 2016

Several flowering groups of Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) were also present.  This showy phlox is rare in Texas, where it reaches the southwestern periphery of its range.  However it can be downright abundant in the hardwood forests of the Appalachians and eastern North America.

IMG_8052

Wild Blue Phlox

The rain presented several unique photographic opportunities.  The day must have been just warm enough for the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) to open.  We found several of this quintessential forb of the eastern deciduous forest.  I captured this photogenic plant with fresh raindrops on the petals.  Like so many of the other plants at this site, Bloodroot is rare in Texas.  Probably never particularly common, it has suffered through more than a century of habitat destruction and over-collection for its medicinal properties.

IMG_8150

Bloodroot

Growing among the Bloodroot were several Southern Twayblade Orchids (Listera australis).  It was the only orchid species we located during our visit, but there is certainly potential for more to be out there.

IMG_0789

Southern Twayblade Orchid.  Taken in March 2016

The Sabine River Wakerobin was also up in force.  This attractive trillium is endemic to the Pineywoods of East Texas and western Louisiana.

IMG_2032

Sabine River Wakerobin.  Taken in March 2016

The understory was also full of flowering shrubs and small trees.  Perhaps the most notable were the thickets of Red Buckeye (Aescuslus pavia).  They seemed to have all bloomed in unison, and painted the understory red with their beautiful flowers.

IMG_8191

Red Buckeye

IMG_8218

Red Buckeye

The Flowering Dogwoods (Cornus florida) were also in bloom.  To me, this plant, more than other, represents the essence of spring in East Texas and eastern North America.

IMG_1986

Flowering Dogwood.  Taken in March 2016

We took a break from searching for plants to admire this particularly robust Ravenel’s Stinkhorn (Phallus ravenelii) pushing up from the leaf litter.

IMG_8163

Ravenel’s Stinkhorn

There were many other rare plants that were not yet in flower including Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica), Virginia Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) and one species on my 2017 list: Starry Campion (Silene stellata).  The presence of these botanical treasures provided an added incentive to return, however in truth the only reason we need is the opportunity to spend a day in the woods with our good friends Susan and Viron.  After a long day, botanists and landowners parted ways content in seeing a bit of paradise nestled deep in the Pineywoods.

 

Advertisements

Slow and Steady

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

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

img_2868

Wood Duck Drake

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

img_2925

Wood Duck Drake

img_2919a

Wood Duck Drake

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

img_4151

Regal Jumping Spider

img_4078

Regal Jumping Spider

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

img_2478

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

img_2513

Ravenel’s Stinkhorn (Phallus ravenelii)

img_2495

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

img_2529

Longleaf Pine Savannah

img_2516

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

img_3675

Merlin

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

img_3860ab

American Bittern

img_2985z

Ringneck Duck (Aythya collaris)

img_4201

Spotted Salamanders en route to a vernal pool.

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

img_3917

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

img_4270a

A gravid female Spotted Salamander

img_3977

A gravid female Mole Salamander

img_4245

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

img_4232

An unidentified fungus growing on a fallen tree.

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

img_4471

Florida Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata obscura)

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

stc_0127

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