As mentioned in a post over a year ago, one of our goals in retirement is to track down native species representing vascular plant families that we have not seen before in the continental U.S. and Canada (hereafter, North America). Vascular plants have water-conducting tissues, xylem and phloem, and include groups such as ferns, conifers, and flowering plants (more detail on this in the next blog post). Most botanists are reasonably familiar with vascular plants as a whole, and many books cover this assemblage, so it is a natural group on which to focus. In contrast, non-vascular plants, such as mosses and more primitive lineages, are typically the realm of specialists.
There are about 252 families of vascular plants that have at least one species naturally occurring within North America. As of the beginning of 2018, we had seen native species in 214 of these families, a solid starting point as a result of our tracking down all 162 families in California while we lived there. We set a goal of reaching 95%, or 240 families, and so needed to find another 26 families to reach this target. Most of our missing families have tropical affinities and are restricted to southerly areas, so our first few months of travel in 2018 are focused on searching these out from east Texas to south Florida. Mid-winter is a tough time for botanizing, as it’s too early for flowers, too late for most fruits, and many plants have no leaves. But this adds to the challenge, and there are still a number of families we can seek on the way to southern Florida.
We left El Paso on January 17, expecting to be on the road for about 10 months. We made our way across Texas fairly quickly, camping and briefly exploring the Davis Mountains, Seminole Canyon, and Big Bend, before searching for two new families near San Antonio. One search was successful, yielding Mexican Flowering Fern, Anemia mexicana. We continued to the Big Thicket in east Texas, a favorite area of ours. Here we looked for three more target families, finding one, a semi-aquatic herb, Stream Bogmoss, Mayaca fluviatilis.
In Mississippi, we targeted five families, finding only one, represented by Florida Star Anise, Illicium floridanum, a shrub with aromatic leaves. After finding plausible candidates, Eileen persevered and finally located a loose fruit that had caught up in a branch when it fell, and so lasted the winter, clinching the identification. In Alabama, we visited Splinter Hill Bog, administered by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). This superb property protects Longleaf Pine prairie, a highly biodiverse habitat that has been reduced to only about 3% of its original extent. Portions of this prairie are quite wet and support a remarkable twelve species of carnivorous plants. Though a poor time of year to be visiting, we did see three species of pitcher plants, and also noticed leaves of one of our missing families. However, I felt I needed flowers or fruit to make a positive identification, and so did not count this record.
This brought us to the Florida Panhandle, where we found two of four families for which we searched. Both were large aquatic species, growing rooted underwater, but with most of the plant sticking up out of the water. The two species involved were Bent Alligator Flag, Thalia geniculata, and Golden Canna, Canna flaccida. While camped in Apalachicola National Forest, we recorded bats where a pine forest and cypress-tupelo swamp met, and succeeded in detecting two lifers, Southeastern Myotis and Northern Yellow Bat! These were our last two fairly easy bats in North America, where we’ve now found 39 of 47 species. All eight remaining species are somewhat to very difficult, but we will try for four of them later in this trip.
We next detoured a bit into southern Georgia to look for an interesting, unusual, and difficult-to-see mammal, the Round-tailed Muskrat. Classified in a genus of its own, Neofiber, it has a small world range, from southern Georgia into the central Florida Peninsula. Although unsuccessful in finding it in the Grand Bay Wildlife Management Area, we did enjoy a lovely evening visiting their marvelous boardwalk and observation tower, where we obtained special permission to stay after dark. Consolation prizes were four new plant species from the boardwalk, including a spectacular pitcher plant, Sarracenia rubra.
On this leg of the trip, we camped in Reed Bingham State Park, which has an outstanding trail system. As we strolled on one of their fine boardwalks, I told Eileen we should watch for Virginia Sweetspire, Itea virginica, as the habitat looked excellent. This is the sole North American representative of one of our missing families, for which we had already searched three times, unsuccessfully, during this trip. Just a few minutes later we spotted its distinctive fruiting structure on a shrub with a few leaves remaining from last year!
We had several other possible locations for Round-tailed Muskrat in Georgia, but after talking with a local biologist who said the accessible populations had crashed, we decided instead to try the Sweetwater Wetlands Park, near Gainesville, Florida. Jon Hall, founder of the wonderful mammalwatching.com site and forum, had seen the species just 2.5 weeks earlier at this site, after having logged over 100 cumulative hours of effort spanning many trips and locations in Florida and Georgia. We arrived 3 hours before sunset, when the park closes. During this time, we located about a dozen muskrat nests, two of which looked slightly warm in the thermal scope, and so might be occupied. Shortly before sunset, Eileen noticed that one of these nests was actually moving as an animal inside shifted around, but it did not appear.
The next morning we arrived in the dark, far before opening time, hoping to luck out and get in a bit early. A kind ranger we met the night before showed up and let us in half an hour before opening, saying she figured we’d be here ahead of time. How sweet! We zipped out to the nest from the previous night, and began scanning again. At first the nest did not seem especially warm, but later Eileen checked it and in the thermal scope we could see the outlines of perhaps two animals inside it – maybe young? At last, about an hour after sunrise, I spotted a warm blob in the reeds, expecting it to be a Wilson’s Snipe or a Sora, previous false alarms with the thermal scope. But I got it in binoculars and was astonished to see the mythical Neofiber! It stayed somewhat in view for several minutes, so we got good looks and even a few photos. It was an adorable animal and a fantastic experience to finally see one! This will surely be one of the highlights of the year for us.