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

 

 

 

 

 

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February – Chronicles of an Early Spring

Thanks in part to an exceptionally early spring this year, I have been able to get a good start of my list, knocking off four species in February.  These species include:

Woolly Sunbonnets (Chaptalia tomentosa)

Texas Saxifrage (Micranthes texana)

Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis)

Spring Coralroot (Corallorhiza wisteriana)

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I’m slowly making progress on my 2017 Species List

Though tracking down the species on my list has become a priority in my explorations of the natural world, I could never neglect the special places and familiar species that I have come to love over the years.  I look forward to seeing them each year, and regardless of how many photos of a given species I might have, I can never resist the urge to try and capture new details, compositions, and natural history aspects.

I spent much of early February exploring the woods with my good pal James Childress.  On one such outing we were lucky enough to find a gravid Smallmouth Salamander (Ambystoma texanum) under a log in a false bottomland.

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Smallmouth Salamander

A few days later I received a text message from James that included a photo of a seldom seen sight: an East Texas tarantula.  Tarantulas are typically associated with deserts, however the Texas Brown Tarantula (Aphonopelma hentzi) ranges as far east as East Texas and western Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.  It is an unexpected thing to see one in the forests of the West Gulf Coastal Plain, but here they persist, though their populations seem to be declining.  I have spoken to lifelong residents of the area who remember seeing many as children, and few to none in the past 20 years.  James found this female, identifiable as such by its large abdomen, crawling in his driveway one evening.  He was kind enough to hold onto it so that I may photograph it.  It’s only the fourth tarantula I have seen in the Pineywoods, and the only female.

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Texas Brown Tarantula

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Texas Brown Tarantula Portrait

When I met James for our tarantula photo session he brought another surprise with him – a Banded Tiger Moth (Apantensis vittata) that had been attracted to his garage lights.  This boldly patterned moth is equipped with bright hindwings that it will flash in an attempt to intimidate a potential predator.

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Banded Tiger Moth

After admiring these invertebrates we went on to visit a rich mesic stream bottom that supports a variety of spring ephemeral herbs.  Representing what is essentially the southwestern limit of the range of eastern deciduous forests, East Texas is on the periphery of the range of a suite of spring ephemerals.  Spring ephemerals as a group are adapted to deciduous, hardwood forests, where they can carry out the majority of their life cycle in the early spring, when an abundance of sunlight reaches the forest floor prior to leafout of the canopy.  Species are generally less common on the periphery of their range.  As a result of this coupled with habitat loss over the past century and a half, several of these species have become rare in East Texas.  These eastern forest elements are perhaps my favorite part of the Pineywoods.

The White Trout Lily (Erytrhonium albidum) is one such spring ephemeral.  It’s leaves begin to emerge by early February and are mostly gone by late April.  Members of the genus Erythronium are known as trout lilies in the eastern U.S. due to the resemblance of their leaves to the skin of the brook trout.  In the western U.S. they are often known as fawn lilies, as the leaves look like the spotted pelage of young fawns.  In Europe, they are usually referred to as dogtooth violets, a reference to the shape of the underground bulb.  Erythronium albidum is rare in the Pineywoods, with larger populations in the Post Oak Savannah and Dallas region.

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White Trout Lily

One of my all-time favorite flowers is the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).  Another characteristic spring ephemeral of the eastern deciduous forests, it too is rare in Texas.  In a typical year I can expect to see Bloodroot blooming at this site around February 20.  This year many were already in fruit on February 10.  Bloodroot is named for the thick red sap that oozes from it’s root when injured.  This sap has a myriad of health benefits, and its abrasive nature makes it a good ingredient in toothpaste.  These desirable properties have likely led to over collection of this species, adding to its rarity in the state.

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Bloodroot

One of the more difficult to spot spring ephemerals is the Southern Twayblade Orchid (Listera australis).  It’s tiny brown stems and flowers are practically invisible against the leaf litter.  They are only betrayed by two green leaves near the base of the stem.

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Southern Twayblade Orchid

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) is an abundant spring ephemeral throughout much of East Texas.  Though it is easiest to find on lawns and other cleared areas, I prefer to photograph the individuals deep in the forest, where they are less commonly seen.

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Spring Beauty

Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is a common woody vine of the southeastern U.S.  It slowly works its way from the ground to the canopy, and in early spring it paints the forest yellow with its large, tubular flowers.

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Carolina Jessamine

It is interesting just how many species have Carolina in their common name, or some variation of it in their specific epithet.  The reason is because many species native to the eastern U.S. were initially described in the far east, including the Carolinas.  Virginia also frequently occurs in taxonomic vernacular.  I take it as a good sign that my wife lends her name to so many pretty things.

Last Sunday Carolina and I had a very productive outing chasing after spring ephemerals in Deep East Texas.  We covered a lot of ground and saw a lot of species.  One of the most striking was the Birdfoot Violet (Viola pedata), named for its leaves which bear a superficial resemblance to bird’s feet.  These are our largest violets, easily twice the size of the more common species.  It occurs in scattered populations in East Texas, where it favors open dry mesic mixed pine-hardwood forests.

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Birdfoot Violet

The Wood Violet (Viola palmata) prefers slightly moister sites with a greater hardwood element.  With a few exceptions (Birdfoot Violet being one of them) the flowers of East Texas’s violets are difficult to differentiate.  Wood violet is identified by its deeply lobed leaves.

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Wood Violet

Violet Woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea) was also blooming.  This native is often mistaken for the much more common Pink Woodsorrel (Oxalis debilis), a native of South America.

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Violet Woodsorrel

The occurrence of the Louisiana Wakerobin (Trillium ludovicianum) in Texas was only recently discovered, as botanists closely examined a group of unusual-looking sessile-flowered Trillium.  They had long been masquerading as the Sabine River Wakerobin (Trillium gracile).  Differentiating the two species is a painstaking task that requires close examination of the flowers.

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Louisiana Wakerobins

Trilliums are classic spring ephemeral flowers that occur in rich woods across much of the country.  Their center of diversity, however, is in the eastern deciduous forests.  Trillium ludovicianum occurs on rich mesic slopes dominated by American Beech and other hardwoods.  Since its discovery in Texas, the Louisiana Wakerobin has only been found at a handful of sites.

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Louisiana Wakerobin

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Louisiana Wakerobin

While exploring the rich woods I stumbled upon this scene, and could not resist.  The perfect clump of trillium with the similarily rare Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) in the background represents to me, what is most magical about spring – exploring rich forests in search of ephemeral forbs and other interesting things that are awakening following a long period of dormancy.  To me, the forest feels most alive in the springtime, and so do I.  This shot ended up being one of my favorites from 2017 thusfar.

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Rich mesic forest with Trillium ludovicianum and Phlox divaricata

This site is also one of the few areas where Wild Blue Phlox can be found in Texas.  It too is a typical denizen of the rich eastern deciduous forests that reaches the southwestern extent of its range in East Texas.  And like so many of the previously mentioned species it is rare here.

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Though one might not think it so if they were to visit this particular spot, where it blooms in spectacular profusion on the banks of a clear East Texas stream.

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Flowering trees are at their peak this time of year, and many species are beginning to decorate the understory with splashes of white and pink.  Pictured below is one of the hawthorns (Crataegus sp.).  Though habitat gives some clue, identification to species is difficult without the leaves present.

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Hawthorn in Bloom

Near the hawthorn, Carolina and I stopped a moment to admire this beautiful redbud along a small ephemeral stream.  Though it was getting late and the day was growing dim, the pink blossoms of the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) brightened the woods around us.

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Eastern Redbud

I spent February busily pursuing plants, but I have not neglected the other taxa of my list.  Carolina and I continue to visit the local otter population on a weekly basis.  Though we have not yet seen them, Carolina’s remote camera captured some incredible video of a male scent marking.  Unfortunately I’m unable to upload it here, but I will leave you with the following image, otter tracks along a stream near the Trillium ludovicianum and Phlox divaricata site.  Though I have yet to capture one on camera, the elusive river wolf continues to make its presence known.

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American River Otter Tracks