Chasing the Dragon

Target Species: Correll’s False Dragonhead (Physostegia correllii)

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To many I’m sure that my relentless, often obsessive pursuit of the natural world seems like an addiction.  I can understand why.  I truly crave spending time in the natural world, and when I go very long without setting foot in some wild place, I begin to have withdrawals, which affect my mood and well-being.  But to me it’s not an addiction, but rather a part of me.  It has been with me since I can remember, the itch to explore nature gnawing at me and pulling me to the wilderness.

Last weekend Carolina and I traveled to Kyle to help my brother move.  We arrived a day early so we would have some time to explore.  First we took the tour at “A Cave Without a Name”.  This cave system really is a hidden gem.  It is not as well known as many of the other cave tours in central Texas, but it was spectacular and the tour guide was very knowledgeable and the tour informative.  Following the cave tour we spent some time swimming in the Guadalupe River nearby.  Here we delighted in the various species of damselflies that would land on our heads.  We soon realized that we could get them to land on our fingertips if we stuck them above the water like a makeshift perch.  Carolina’s sharp eyes also spotted a young Guadalupe Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera guadalupensis) among the rocks in the shallows.

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After a couple of hours we ventured to another river system: the Colorado.  The Colorado River and a handful of tributaries are one of the last strongholds for a rare and seemingly vanishing plant, the Correll’s False Dragonhead.  After several failed searches of stream banks that I thought might harbor this rarity, I finally found it along the mucky banks of the Colorado itself.

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Physostegia correllii is an impressive plant.  Some of the individuals I observed were taller than I was.  This species is a bit of an oddity, as it occurs in a variety of different habitats.  The only common denominator seems to be the presence of some kind of channel.  They grow along rivers and streams like the Rio Grande in South Texas and northern Mexico to drainage ditches along roadways in Louisiana.  It seems strange, then that it has become so rare.  Sometimes we might consider a plant to be rare, when in reality it is only easily overlooked.  This is not the case with the Correll’s False Dragonhead, however.  This plant sticks out like a sore thumb and would immediately capture the attention of anyone passing by it.  That begs the question: why is it so rare.  I don’t believe it has to do with it’s reproductive biology or proclivity to germinate, as it is easily propagated in captivity.  I have been unable to find a good answer to this question, but that certainly doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist.

Physostegia correllii

Physostegia correllii is named for botanist Donovan Stewart Correll.  Correll was an influential figure in Texas botany.  He was instrumental in developing monumental works like Orchids of North America, North of MexicoAquatic and Wetland Plants of the Southwestern United States; and the Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas which is the most comprehensive treatment of our flora.

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Finding Correll’s False Dragonhead was particularly special for me, as it was the last species of the genus Physostegia in Texas that I had yet to see.  Texas, particularly southeast Texas, is the center of diversity for Physostegia, with 7 of the 12 recognized species occurring here.  There are records of P. correllii from Harris, Montgomery, Galveston, and Chambers Counties, but to my knowledge they have not been recently observed here.

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I always found members of the genus Physostegia to be extremely photogenic.  They have interesting shapes and most have rich colors and intricate patterns on the blooms.  I enjoyed photographing several individuals in the group I encountered in the fading evening light.

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Growing alongside the dragonheads were several American Water-willows (Justicia americana).  A wetland species, J. americana ranges over much of the eastern United States, reaching the southwestern extent of its range in southwestern Texas and northern Mexico.  To me, the attractive little blooms are reminiscent of orchids.

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With the light quickly fading we traveled further along the Colorado to the Congress Avenue Bridge where we watched in excess of one million Mexican Free-tailed Bats spill out from their daytime roosts into the night sky.  It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Purple People Eater

Target Species: Purple Bladderwort (Utricularia purpurea)

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Purple Bladderwort

This is one I have wanted to see for a long time.  Utricularia purpurea is an aquatic, carnivorous plant that inhabits much of the Eastern United States.  It barely enters Texas in the extreme southeast portion of the state, where it is rare.  I suspect that very few people have seen the Purple Bladderwort here, as the few known populations are not particularly easy to access.  Pursuing the photographs seen here was a true adventure, and the highlight of my 2017 quest for biodiversity thus far.

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Purple Bladderwort

The Purple Bladderwort has a peculiar distribution, not unlike that of another species on my 2017 list, the Blue Lupine.  In the case of the bladderwort I suspect that its distribution can somewhat be explained by the presence of appropriate wetlands in the Gulf and Atlantic coastal plains, and in glacially formed depressions in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions.

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County-level distribution of Utricularia purpurea from http://www.bonap.org.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present but rare.

To see this rarity, I once again called on the good people of the Nature Conservancy of Texas.  Wendy Ledbetter, Forest Project Manager, told me that U. purpurea had been reported from a series of flatwood ponds on one of the properties they protect.  It was, in fact, very close to where I photographed Streptanthus hyacinthoides a few weeks ago.  She was kind enough to take time from her busy schedule to meet me one morning and show me the areas where it had been reported.  She brought me to two spectacular flatwoods ponds.  We were unsure if any of the elusive carnivores would be in bloom, but sure enough, after minimal effort I spotted one, then another, then another.

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Purple Bladderwort

After showing me around for a couple of hours in the morning, Wendy had to leave to tend to other engagements.  I thanked her profusely, both for her time and consideration, and for the fine work that she and her colleagues at the Nature Conservancy have done to protect so much our great state’s incredible biodiversity.  After Wendy left I returned to the ponds to try to capture some unique images of this spectacular little plant.  I was trudging through water that was mostly between 1 and 3 feet deep.  To capture some of these images I had to sit, kneel, or completely submerge myself in the water, with just my hands and camera above the surface.

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Purple Bladderwort

As previously mentioned, and eluded to in the title, Utricularia purpurea is a carnivorous plant.  It contains intricate leaves that float just below the water’s surface.  These leaves are loaded with small air-filled bladders that help keep the plant afloat.  Each bladder is equipped with a small, hair-like trigger. As tiny aquatic organisms swim by and brush against the trigger, the bladders instantly open, and as the water rushes in to occupy the vacant airspace, the organisms are sucked in.  The bladder then snaps shut, trapping them inside where they are slowly digested.  In the late spring through the summer the lavender flowers emerge from the depths.  U. purpurea is one of several species of Utricularia in Texas, but it is the only one with purple blooms.  The others are all yellow.

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Purple Bladderwort.  If you look closely you can see some of the round bladders under the water.

The flatwood ponds in which I photographed the Purple Bladderwort that day were the finest I have ever seen.  These unique aquatic communities occur in clay-bottomed depressions where over the millennia water and organic material have accumulated.  Historically they were dominated by a variety of grasses and sedges, kept free from woody encroachment by regular wildfires.  In the modern era of development and fire suppression, however, high quality examples have all but disappeared.  They have persisted on this Nature Conservancy property, however, as a result of their excellent stewardship which includes frequent burns that penetrate into the ponds.  Scattered trees, mostly Swamp Tupelo (Nyssa biflora) exist on the margins, but the centers of the pond are open for acres.

Unfortunately I did not take any photos looking toward the center of the ponds, however I did capture the photo below looking back to the margins.  I found U. purpurea to be most common among the grasses and trees along the ponds’ margins.

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Flatwoods pond margin

I spent what must have been at least 15-20 minutes lying on my belly, almost completely submerged in the water in order to get a low angle on a particularly attractive grouping of Purple Bladderworts.  After finishing I began to retrace my steps out of the pond.  As I did, I noticed something that was not there on my way in.  There was an 8-9 foot alligator laying on the bottom not 20 feet from where I was laying.  I suspect that its sudden presence was a coincidence, and that it hadn’t been slowly stalking me, but none-the-less it gave my heart a good jump.  Fortunately the water was shallow and clear, giving me a clear view of the magnificent creature, otherwise I was likely to have stepped on it.  I slowly made my way around it, and it never moved.  Though somewhat difficult to see, you can make out its head and part of its back in the photo below.

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American Alligator

The Purple Bladderwort shared its ponds with its cousin, the Humped Bladderwort (Utricularia gibba).  Like Utricularia purpurea, it also relies on the bladders of its submerged leaves to obtain nutrients from animal prey.

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Humped Bladderwort

There were several other interesting aquatic species in the flatwoods ponds, but the Floatinghearts (Nymphoides aquatica) really stood out.  It is also commonly known as the Banana Plant for its banana-shaped roots.

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Floatingheart

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Floatingheart

The flatwoods ponds were surrounded by a spectacular series of xeric sandhills occurring on ancient sand deposited by rivers as they changed course over time.  I spent some time exploring these beautiful communities, where I found a number of Eastern Prickly Pears in bloom.

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Eastern Prickly Pear blooms in a xeric sandhill

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Eastern Prickly Pear blooms in a xeric sandhill

I also took a moment to photograph the Pickering’s Dawnflower (Stylisma pickeringii), another species typical of deep sands, as it bloomed among the cacti.

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Pickering’s Dawnflower

As if all of the above wasn’t enough, in the morning Wendy and I observed this Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos) up to its anti-predator high jinks.  It spread the ribs of the anterior portion of its body creating a hood-like effect similar to that of a cobra.  This behavior has earned it the colloquial name of “spreading adder”.  Occasionally it would feign a strike, but never attempted to actually bite me.  Eastern Hognose Snakes feed primarily on toads, and have specially-adapted pointed fangs that can deflate toads that fill themselves with air in an attempt to make themselves larger to avoid being swallowed.  They also contain a mild venom that likely helps subdue their prey, though it is harmless to humans.

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Eastern Hognose Snake

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Eastern Hognose Snake

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Eastern Hognose Snake

Seeing the Purple Bladderwort and exploring these incredible habitats is an experience I will never forget.  I can’t wait to return in the future to spend more time among the carnivores (large and small) of the Big Thicket.

April Recap

April was off to a good start.  I managed to check off five species early on, and had high hopes for the rest of the month.  Unfortunately I couldn’t keep up the momentum and was unable to find any of my targets in April’s second half.  I tried to locate Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus), Creeping Bluestar (Amsonia repens) and Texas Lady’s Tresses (Spiranthes brevilabris) at some historic sites with no luck.  I hoped to check some locations in northeast Texas for Tapertip Trillium (Trillium viridescens), Fire Pink (Silene virginica), and Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens), but was unable to make it that way.  I doubt that I’ll get a chance to see these species this year…maybe next year!  The following are the species on my 2017 biodiversity list I was able to find and photograph in April:

Missouri Foxtail Cactus (Escobaria missouriensis)

Nuttall’s Death Camas (Toxicoscordion nuttallii)

Widow’s Cross (Sedum pulchellum)

Blue Lupine (Lupinus perennis)

Green Adder’s Mouth Orchid (Malaxis unifolia)

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The following are some interesting observations I made in April:

I’ll start this post like March’s recap, with a giant Saturniid moth.  For me, seeing this Promethea Moth (Callosamia promethea) was one of the most exciting of the year thus far.  The Promethea Moth is a species typical of the rich deciduous forests of the Eastern U.S. Though range maps show it entering extreme eastern Texas, I am aware of few records of its occurrence in the state. I certainly have never seen one.  Pictured is a female. Promethea Moths are sexually dimorphic, with males being much darker. I spent some time photographic her in all of her brilliance, and left her to continue pumping pheromones into the evening air, leaving chemical trails for males to seek her out and propagate future generations.

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Promethea Moth

In April I also found a few new populations of the uncommon Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica) on the rich deciduous slopes of the Pineywoods.

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Indian Pink

While looking for the Kentucky Lady’s Slipper we came across this attractive Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis).  Most box turtles immediately withdraw into their shells when approached.  This individual was fairly bold and allowed us to approach for some portraits.

Box Turtles have an interesting relationship with Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), a spring ephemeral of rich eastern forests.  These terrestrial turtles are the primary dispersal mechanism for Mayapple seeds.  Most parts of the plant are toxic, however the ripe fruits are edible.  While other animals will consume, process, and deposit the seeds; studies have shown that those that have passed through the digestive system of the box turtle have the highest rate of germination.  Indeed, the drooping fruits seem to rest at a perfect height for a hungry box turtle.

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Three-toed Box Turtle

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Mayapple taken in March 2014

While exploring the Big Thicket we came across the uncommon Piedmont Staggerbush (Lyonia mariana).  A member of the heath family (Ericaceae).

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Piedmont Staggerbush

Carolina spotted this White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus) dutifully incubating its eggs.

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White-eyed Vireo

The Carolina Larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) is Carolina’s favorite Texas native flower.  Every year we seek them out.  This year we found a large population in a xeric sandhill north of San Augustine.  We also observed several Prairie Milkvines (Matelea cynanchoides), another species typical of these woodlands on deep sands.

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Carolina Larkspur

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Prairie Milkvine

We also spent an afternoon in a Fleming Prairie Remnant, where I photographed the Reflexed or Topeka Coneflower (Echinacea atrorubens), and Prairie Penstemon (Penstemon cobaea), two species that are rare in the Pineywoods.

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Reflexed Coneflower

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Prairie Penstemon

I hope to focus on the unique flora and fauna of xeric sandhills and prairie remnants in future blog posts.  As the temperatures warm in May I hope that I will finally be able to check the first animal species off my list, though there are still plenty of plants to seek out, and special places to explore.

 

 

South Texas Part II: Into the Thornscrub

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Common Pauraque

Beyond the South Texas coastal dunes, marshes, and prairies lies a unique, biodiverse community dominated by a variety of shrubs and small trees.  Variably referred to as South Texas brush country, mezquital, and Tamaulipan thornscrub, this semi-arid, subtropical community occurs in South Texas and the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and Coahuila.  It is home to plants and animals found nowhere else on earth, and in South Texas, marks the northern extent of several Latin American species that just barely enter the United States.

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Tamaulipan Thornscrub with blooming Lady Finger Alicoche alongside Strawberry Pitaya.

The Tamaulipan thornscrub in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas is one of the United State’s premier birding locations.  My parents and I have made a number of birding trips here in the past, drawn in by the promise of catching a glimpse of one of these South Texas specialties.  During this trip the birding was fairly slow, but we did see many of the typical Rio Grande Valley species including Plain Chachalacas (Ortalis vetula), White-tipped Doves (Leptotila verreauxi), Green Jays (Cyanocorax yncas), Long-billed Thrashers (Toxostoma longirostre), Altamira Orioles (Icterus gularis), and Olive Sparrows (Arremonops rufivirgatus).  Unfortunately these species did not present me with any good photo ops.  I did luck out, however, when we found another Valley specialist, the Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis) roosting alongside a trail.  These members of the nightjar family are nocturnal and rely on their camouflage to roost on the ground during the day.  It was nearly invisible among the dried leaves and sticks littering the earth.  I utilized the dense natural debris to create the window effect seen on the photo at the start of this blog entry.

Many mammal species also reach the northern extent of their range in deep South Texas.  Unfortunately many of them are now gone.  The last Jaguar (Panthera onca) in Texas was killed in the Tamaulipan thornscrub in the 1940’s.  There are some that still hold onto hope that there may be a few Jaguarundi left in the Rio Grande Valley.  Though there have been no verified sightings in many years, there have been unverified reports.  Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) are still hanging on in the brush country, though they are now rare, and protected under the Endangered Species Act.  In our explorations of the thornscrub we observed a number of mammals including White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and Collared Peccaries a.k.a. Javelinas (Tayassu tajacu).  The only mammal I was able to photograph was the little Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) pictured below.

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Eastern Cottontail

There are many reptile and amphibians whose United States distribution is also limited to the Rio Grande Valley.  Being an amphibian enthusiast, I was disappointed that we missed the heavy rains that brought out such rarities as the Mexican Burrowing Toad (Rhinophrynus dorsalis) and White-lipped Frog (Leptodactylus fragilis) by just a couple of days.  These species are explosive breeders that emerge to breed after heavy rains.  I did spend some time looking for the beautiful Speckled Racer (Drymobius margaritiferus), a primarily Latin American species that is known from only a couple of sites in South Texas.  I struck out on the snakes, but was able to photograph a couple of the areas conspicuous lizards: the Texas Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus) and the Rose-bellied Lizard (Sceloporus variabilis).

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Texas Spiny Lizard

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Rose-bellied Lizard

The Rio Grande Valley is also world famous for its butterflies.  While we observed many species, the only one I obtained a decent photo of was the Common Mestra (Mestra amymone).

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Common Mestra

The Tamaulipan thornscrub is named for the typically thorny shrubs and small trees that dominate the community.  Typical species of this community include Mesquite (Prosopis gladulosa), Chaparro (Ziziphus obtusifolia),  Whitebrush (Aloysia gratissima), Texas Paloverde (Parkinsonia texana), Texas goatbush (Castela erecta), Saffron Plum (Sideroxylon celastrinum), Blackbrush Acacia (Vachellia rigidula), Corona de Cristo (Koeberlina spinosa), Guayacan (Guaiacum angustifolium), and Ebano (Ebenopsis ebano).  These shrubs form often impenetrable thickets.  On some sites, particularly as one moves further west in the Rio Grand Valley the shrubs may become more scattered, forming dense clumps with areas of exposed gravel and caliche.  It was in areas such as this where we observed the rare Baretta (Helietta parvifolia).

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Texas Paloverde

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Texas Paloverde

Occasionally growing in the crooks of mature Ebano, a real botanical treasure can be found.  The epiphytic bromeliad Tillandsia baileyi, commonly known as Bailey’s Ball Moss barely enters the United States in South Texas, where it is rare.  It is much more striking than other members of its genus, which includes the familiar Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides).

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Bailey’s Ball Moss

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Bailey’s Ball Moss

A conspicuous component of the South Texas brush country is the Anacahuita or Mexican Olive (Cordia boissieri).  Its bright blooms illuminate the native brushlands, and it is a popular native ornamental in South Texas.  The tree was reportedly utilized by native cultures and Spanish settlers to make jellies and dyes.  The leaves can be brewed in a tea that may help with rheumatism and various ailments of the lungs.

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Anacahuita

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Anacahuita

Many invertebrates can be found utilizing Anacahuita leaves and flowers.  The Wild Olive Tortoise Beetle (Physonota alutacea) is found exclusively on these small trees.

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Wild Olive Tortoise Beetle

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Wild Olive Tortoise Beetle

Many pollinators also frequent the blooms.  They due so at their own risk, however, because predators lurk beneath these flowers.  We observed this crab spider (Mecaphesa sp.) awaiting an unsuspecting victim.

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Crab Spider

South Texas is also home to a variety of native lantana species.  Brushland lantana (Lantana achyranthifolia) could occasionally be found scattered about the thornscrub.

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Brushland Lantana

We also observed a couple of species of heliotrope, including the widespread Seaside Heliotrope (Heliotropium curassivicum), and the more range restricted Scorpion Tail (Heliotropium angiospermum) which occurs in South Texas and southern Florida.

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Seaside Heliotrope

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Scorpion Tail

Fiddleleaf Tobacco (Nicotiana repanda), a species of central and southern Texas, was also fairly common.

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Fiddleleaf Tobacco

Shrubby Blue Sage (Salvia ballotiflora) occurs in the U.S. only in southern and western Texas.

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Shrubby Blue Sage

Over the millennia, the meanders of the Rio Grande has slowly changed course, leaving in their wake old depressional oxbow scars.  The scars eventually filled with rainwater and runoff and developed a unique flora.  Known as Resacas these unique wetlands provide habitat for a host of rare plant and animal species.  We observed many Least Grebes (Tachybaptus domincus), another bird species whose U.S. distribution is restricted to South Texas in them.  We also observed the rare Runyon’s Water-Willow (Justicia pacifica) here.

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Runyon’s Water Willow

As one moves further west along the valley, one begins to notice more and more of a desert influence.  I observed many familiar species that I have photographed in West Texas including Snapdragon Vine (Maurandella antirrhiniflora) and Cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens).  The latter blooms in response to rainfall and humidity.

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Snapdragon Vine

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Cenizo

I observed Purple Groundcherry (Quincula lobata) here.  These showy groundcover primarily occur in the southwestern United States.

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Purple Groundcherry

I also observed Bearded Prairie-Clover (Dalea pogonathera) here.  This member of the pea family is primarily a species of the Chihuahuan Desert.

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Bearded Dalea

South Texas is also home to a few woodsorrel species that do not have the typical “lucky clover” leaf.  Pictured here is Peonyleaf Woodsorrel (Oxalis dichondrifolia).

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Peonyleaf Woodsorrel

The open caliche hills were home to the beautiful Berlandier’s Nettlespurge (Jatropha cathartica), which is restricted to South Texas and adjacent Mexico.

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Berlandier’s Nettlespurge

The most spectacular element of the Tamaulipan thornscrub, however, were the cacti.  These famed succulents were my main target in South Texas, and I was fortunate to observe many species.  Though my next two blog posts will be dedicated to the incredible diversity of South Texas cacti, I have decided to provide a preview of things to come below.

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Lady Finger Alicoche (Echinocereus pentalophus)

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Glory of Texas (Thelocactus bicolor)

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus (Mammillaria heyderi)

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.