Two For One at a Sandstone Outcrop

Target Species: Missouri Foxtail Cactus (Escobaria missouriensis) and Nuttall’s Death Camas (Toxicoscordion nuttallii)

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

Grimes County sits in an interesting area of Texas, especially for a naturalist.  Here three ecoregions (as defined by Texas Parks and Wildlife) converge: the Pineywoods, the Post Oak Savannah, and the Blackland Prairies.  As one might expect, it is not an abrupt and sudden change from one ecoregion to the next, so what results are certain areas that display characteristics of all three areas.  It certainly makes for an interesting plant community.

In western Grimes County a series of sandstone outcrops of the Oakville formation reach the surface.  These create a stark contrast to the surrounding landscape, resulting in rocky hillsides that exhibit a unique flora.  It was on these remarkable outcrops that I pursued my quarry.

The Missouri Foxtail Cactus (Escobaria missouriensis) is a widespread cactus occurring primarily in the Great Plains and portions of the Intermountain West.  It is a cold-hardy species, reaching as far north as northern Montana and North Dakota.  In Texas it occurs primarily along the eastern edge of the Edward’s Plateau, and outcrops and barrens in the Post Oak Savannah and Blackland Prairies.  On the sandstone outcrops we found them clinging to exposed rocks, and in areas of sandstone and shallow stand over the underlying bedrock.

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

The stems of E. missouriensis are small, inconspicuous, and difficult to see for most of the year.  They sit barely 2 inches above ground level, and in times of drought, moisture loss may pull them down to be nearly flush with the ground.  The plants remain nearly invisible for most of the year until in the late spring their brilliant blooms betray their presence.

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

The flowers are generally pale yellow and display various tinging of pinks, greens, and tans.  The flowers tend to open in the early afternoon and close at night.  When we arrived at the first outcrop at around 1 pm, the flowers were still tightly closed, but within an hour most were wide open.  The fruits ripen overwinter, and turn bright red in the spring.  Though we did not observe it, I have read that it is common to find flowering plants with fruit still attached.  Under optimal conditions the flowers may last a few days.

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

Escobaria missouriensis was formerly included in the genus Coryphantha.  Subtle differences in the seeds, flowers, and tubercles are used to differentiate the genera.

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

During our visits we saw groupings of various sizes, from single stems to pairs, to clumps of ten or so.  The day provided a wealth of photographic opportunities, and I delighted in moving from cactus to cactus to capture their likeness.

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

While exploring the most extensive outcrop I came across the fruits of another species on my 2017 list.  I actually saw a large population of Nuttall’s Death Camas (Toxicoscordion nuttallii) in March in the Pineywoods about 30 minutes from my house.  Unfortunately it was behind a fence in a pasture.  I tried to find and contact the landowners but had no luck, and was concerned that I might not get the chance to check this one off my list.  My heart admittedly sank a bit when all of the plants on the sandstone outcrop were in fruit, and appeared to have flowered weeks ago.  Then, in the shade of a Post Oak I found a single plant in bloom.

Nuttall’s Death Camas is primarily a plant of the south-central plains, occuring from Kansas to Arkansas to central Texas.  It is named for its poisonous bulb, which is said to be highly toxic to mammals.

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Nuttall’s Death Camas

There was also a wealth of other interesting plant species on the outcrops.  We observed Lesquerella gracilis, Calylophus berlandieri, Linum berlandieri, Chaetopappa asteroides, Marshallia caespitosa, Krameria lanceolata, Echinacea atrorubens, and more in bloom.  Unfortunately heavy winds made photographing them a real challenge.  Fortunately I was able to capture some acceptable images of White Milkwort (Polygala alba), Prairie Penstemon (Penstemon cobaea), and Reverchon’s False Pennyroyal (Hedeoma reverchonii).  The latter is restricted to central Texas and a handful of sites in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

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White Milkwort

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Prairie Penstemon

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Reverchon’s False Pennyroyal

There is something really special about exploring unique habitats like this.  Sites that were probably never common on the landscape.  I look forward to returning to this outcrop in the future to see what other treasures may bloom throughout the year.

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South Texas Part I: Along the Coast

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Coastal Dunes with Beach Morning Glory

When I was developing my 2017 list I added several species that were contingent on a spring break trip to Big Bend.  Unfortunately I did not plan ahead enough, and by the time I tried to make arrangements out west everything was already booked up.  Fortunately there are so many biodiversity hot spots in Texas that it was not hard to find a substitute.  We decided on the varied subtropical habitats of Deep South Texas.  Here one can encounter a suite of endemics and Mexican specialties that are found nowhere else in the country.  It may come as no surprise that immediately after posting my 2017 list I began thinking about my 2018 list, in which I planned to include many of the South Texas specialties.

So Carolina and I began an adventure with my entire family: my brother, Seth, my mom, Jolynn, and my dad, Jack.  We traveled south in two vehicles intent on seeking out plants, birds, herps, and good food.  Our first couple days were allocated for time along the coast, from Port Aransas to South Padre.

The South Texas coast contains several extensive dune fields, primarily along the barrier islands.  Some are ever shifting, and some have been stabilized with vegetation and debris.  One might be surprised to find plants clinging to life in these sandy wastelands, however several species thrive in these shifting sands.  The most conspicuous species during our trip was the Beach Morning Glory (Ipomoea imperati), which is a coastal specialist ranging from the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Florida to the Gulf Coast of Florida to Texas.  We enjoyed the view from the base of the dunes as Sanderlings (Calidris alba), Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres), Willets (Tringa semipalmata), and Black-bellied Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola) chased the receding waterline only to swiftly retreat with each incoming wave.

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Beach Morning Glory

Beyond the dunes lie a variety of habitats including wet and dry prairies and marshes.  Marshes vary from saline to brackish to freshwater, depending on the influence of tidal waters.  We spent time exploring some high quality saltmarshes, one of my favorite communities, where we observed several bird species including Long-billed Curlews (Numenius americanus), Marbled Godwits (Limosa fedoa), Spotted Sandpipers (Actitus maculatus), Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melenaleuca), American Oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus), Clapper Rails (Rallus crepitans (formerly R. longirostris)), American Coots (Fulica americana), Common Moorhens(Gallinula chloropus), Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Redheads (Aythya americana), Northern Pintails (Anas acuta), Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors), Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis), and Mottled Ducks (Anas fulvigula). Mottled Ducks are coastal specialists that range from Florida to central Mexico.  These close relatives of the Mallard have experienced population declines throughout much of their range as coastal habitat has been lost to development and sea level rise.

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Mottled Duck

The marshes were also home to a variety of wading birds including American Bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus), Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja), White Ibis (Eudocimus albus), Green Herons (Butorides virescens), Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias), Great Egrets (Ardea alba), Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula), Reddish Egrets (Egretta rufescens), Yellow-crowned Night-Herons (Nyctanassa violacea), Black-Crowned Night-Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), and some cooperative Tricolored Herons (Egretta tricolor) and Little Blue Herons (Egretta caerulea).

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Tricolored Heron

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Little Blue Heron

A number of songbirds were also present.  We observed several Common Yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) and scores of Red-winged Blackbirds (Agaleius phoeniceus) and Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus).  The Grackles were particular tame, and would perch on the boardwalk support posts mere feet away from us.

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Great-tailed Grackle

Slight variations of topography along the coast result in vastly different vegetative communities.  On small sandy crests and ridges dry prairies and scrublands persist.  These prairies are dominated by a variety of grasses and forbs.  The most visible member of this community is the Spanish Dagger (Yucca treculeana).  These stately yuccas are common in these dry prairies, and in the United States are restricted to southern Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

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Spanish Dagger

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Spanish Dagger Flowers

Along the wetter transition zone between marsh and prairie Carolina spotted a pair of Texas Feathershanks (Schoenocaulon texanum).  These bizarre members of the lily family can be found in south, central, and west Texas and southwest New Mexico.

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Texas Feathershank

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Texas Feathershank

The contact zone between the dunes and coastal prairie also harbor an interesting flora.  Arkansas Lazy Daisy (Aphanostephus skirrhobasis) is a widespread species of the south central states that can be common in this community.

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Arkansas Lazy Daisy

The lazy daisy is popular with pollinators, and coincidentally with their predators like this crab spider (Misumenoides formosipes) that awaits a hungry pollinator to fall into its trap.

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A crab spider awaits an unsuspecting pollinator

American Bluehearts (Buchnera americana) was also fairly common in this community.

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American Bluehearts

I have always been a fan of milkworts.  I was delighted to see several White Milkworts (Polygala alba), which we don’t have in East Texas.

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White Milkwort

Texas Palafox (Palafoxia texana) is primarily restricted to southern Texas.  Its brilliant pink blooms added a splash of color to the primarily brown grasses of the coastal prairie.

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Texas Palafox

I observed this wasp, Campsomeris tolteca (thanks to Seth Patterson for the ID), feeding on the nectar-rich flowers of the Texas Palafox..

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Campsomeris tolteca

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Campsomeris tolteca

Scattered along the coast are a series of woodlots primarily dominated by Live Oak (Quercus virginiana and Quercus fusiformis) and Hackberry (Celtis laevigata).  Here we observed a variety of Neotropical Migrant birds including Yellow-throated Vireos (Vireo flavifrons), Northern Parulas (Setophaga americana), Black-and-white Warblers (Mniotilta varia), and Yellow-throated Warblers (Setophaga dominica).

These woodlots are also home to Drummond’s Hedgenettle (Stachys drummondii).  This member of the mint family is restricted to the Texas Coast and the Rio Grande Valley.

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Drummond’s Hedgenettle

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Drummond’s Hedgenettle

Stachys drummondii

County Level Distribution for Drummond’s Hedgenettle from http://www.bonap.org

The wealth of biodiversity along the coast was not limited to land.  We observed a variety of shells, jellyfish, and dead fish along the shore, as well as a number of dolphin pods on the move offshore.  The most exciting encounter of the trip, however, came in the form of this juvenile sea turtle, which I believe is a Mexican Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas).  Thanks to a tip from my good friend John Williams, we were able to observe several foraging just offshore.  Despite the cool morning, 40 mile per hour winds, and spitting rain, everyone enjoyed watching this rare marine reptiles as they surfaced for a breath before returning to the depths.

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Green Sea Turtle

The South Texas Coast was good to us, however the trip had only begin.  Next we would be venturing into the South Texas Brush Country, famed for its biodiversity and specialty species that can be found nowhere else in the country.