Our last week at High Island was generally disappointing. We stayed through the morning of the 7th, about 5 days longer than tentatively planned, because of favorable wind forecasts on the 6th. We were hoping to see a rare May day with good trans-Gulf migrant numbers, plus perhaps some of the later circum-Gulf migrants like Canada Warbler, but it was a non-event. However, on our way out, we checked farm fields northeast of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and were excited to see a flock of 30 Buff-breasted Sandpipers! This beautiful shorebird is not very easy to see; it nests in the high Arctic and winters in South America, migrating primarily through the prairies. Other nice shorebirds in the area were American Golden-Plover and White-rumped Sandpiper.
We stayed a couple nights about 20 miles north of Houston to botanize in three local parks, and to paddle on Spring Creek from one of these, Jesse H. Jones Park. We also visited Brazos Bend State Park, south of Houston, for several genera at the northern edge of their ranges, but were apparently too early. But the park was interesting with good wildlife and photography; a highlight was hearing an alligator “roar” shortly after dawn. We then started heading inland, towards Austin but with a bit of a detour to the north to see some deep sand habitat. In a lot for sale near Hempstead, which was covered in wildflowers, we found three new genera in a few minutes!
The first few days around Austin were slightly cooler than near the coast, but no less humid. Nearly the entirety of each night was at 100% relative humidity, causing water to condense inside the camper, a very uncomfortable and undesirable situation. We had been so consistently uncomfortable on the coast that we had looked into installing an air conditioner, but could not find one. Campers and almost everything associated with them are in very short supply. Most manufacturers closed down for a while in Spring 2020 due to COVID, putting them behind, and then demand skyrocketed in summer, as many reasoned that RVs would let them travel during the pandemic. The industry still has not caught up, either in terms of component parts nor campers themselves.
As compensation for the weather, we had excellent luck around Austin, visiting locations such as Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, McKinney Roughs Nature Park, McKinney Falls State Park, Covert Park at Mt. Bonnell, and the Bull Creek Greenbelt. In five days we racked up 30 new species and 17 new genera! Some particularly interesting genera were Hamatocactus, with bicolored yellow and red flowers; Hexalectris, a saprophytic orchid; and Phyllanthopsis, a rare shrub in a family we had seen only once before.
One challenge here (and continuing through San Antonio) was convincing ourselves that plants we encountered were in genuine natural occurrences, as a lot of natives are planted on public lands and extensive restoration work has been done in some locations. While this is a good thing, it did complicate our lives, and we ultimately did not count three new genera we found in this part of the state, because of concern about their pedigree.
Continuing southwest to San Antonio, our streak of good luck dissipated and we experienced quite a few unsuccessful searches. A discussion with a knowledgeable ranger at one location, which had beautiful habitat but disappointing wildflowers, led us to conclude that the primary problem was the serious drought in the region. Ironically, though, while we were in the area, it rained a great deal, causing flooding, and closing some of the trails we wanted to hike. On two days there were truly severe thunderstorms lasting hours; while driving through one, I saw a lightning strike that caused a large streetlamp to explode in a shower of sparks and smoke.
While in the area we camped well north of the city, in Guadalupe River State Park. Golden-cheeked Warbler, a strikingly beautiful bird with a small worldwide breeding range, was fairly common here. One day we paddled on the Guadalupe River, going upstream from the park. We had to get out frequently and drag the canoe though riffles or portage around rapids, but the scenery was gorgeous, and we only saw two parties the whole day. The trip back downstream was pretty quick. Good botanical areas we visited near San Antonio included Government Canyon State Natural Area and Friedrich Wilderness Park. Over the course of the week since leaving Austin, we added 21 new species and 10 new genera, a decent result but only about half the daily rate in the Austin area.
In both the Austin and San Antonio areas, we visited some sites to the west, on the edge of the Edwards Plateau, a large uplifted limestone region. Now we headed generally west, but zig-zagging north and south, to completely cross the plateau, visiting selected locations for particular genera, including two interesting ferns. In the natural sciences in general, there has been a trend in recent decades towards “splitting”, or separating what was once one species (or genus, or family) into two or more entities. One example of this trend is the large, familiar lipfern genus Cheilanthes, which, in the Continental U.S. and Canada, was split into three genera: 25 species went to Myriopteris (of which we have seen 14); two rarities were segregated into Gaga (yes, named for Lady Gaga); and a single rarity remained in Cheilanthes. This made both Gaga and Cheilanthes target genera for us. We found the first, Gaga kaulfussii, in the lovely Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, which contains a granite monolith arising from the surrounding limestone. We located the second, Cheilanthes leucopoda west of Camp Wood, in the heart of the plateau.
Other highlights during this part of the trip included Black-capped Vireo, an Edwards Plateau endemic, in Kerr Wildlife Management Area; and Nyctaginia capitata in South Llano River State Park. We were sorry not to have more time to spend in the latter as it seemed like a very interesting spot, but if we dawdled too much, we would be too late to find targets near the end of our spring loop. At the western edge of the plateau, we found three new genera in Seminole Canyon State Park, and one new genus along the Pecos River. After having crossed that, needless to say, we were officially in the Trans-Pecos.
Many of our most exciting finds in the next few days were of cacti. This family has 33 genera in the Continental U.S. and Canada, and at the beginning of the year there were a dozen we had not seen, six of which we would search for during 2021. In the town of Sanderson, which bills itself as the “Cactus Capital of Texas” (defendably, we think), we found both Neolloydia conoidea and Coryphantha ramillosa in flower, the former a vibrant magenta, the latter a lovely pale pink. Between Sanderson and Marathon, we found Thelocactus bicolor, as well as Glandulicactus uncinatus, which we had seen only once before. In Big Bend National Park, we tracked down both species of button cacti in genus Epithelantha, also finding the bizarre “living rock” cactus, Ariocarpus fissuratus, just a few miles from our only other sighting of this species.
Our day in Big Bend was the hottest of the year, reaching 107°F. To search for one rare shrub, we had to drive 10 miles one-way on the River Road, a remote, gravel, four-wheel drive route. We have travelled its length (51 miles) several times in cooler weather. I drove very slowly to reduce the chances of a flat, but to no avail. It typically takes close to an hour to change a tire, but this was a much more drawn-out affair because we had to keep stopping to drink and rest. Even with the tools kept in the few inches of shade from the truck, the metal implements were too hot to handle. It was exhausting and we were concerned enough about heat prostration that once the spare was on, we turned around, even though we were just three miles from the target site. We stopped at a store, bought Gatorade and salty food, and kept drinking and eating the rest of the day without ever feeling totally recovered. Eileen even mixed up a rehydration formula recommended by the World Health Organization, and we forced that down. Despite all this, the next morning my weight was down 2.5 lbs, suggesting continued dehydration. Yikes!
Our last few stops in the Trans-Pecos and adjacent New Mexico sampled two of the botanically interesting habitats in the region: sand dunes and gypsiferous soils. Opposite the entrance to Monahans Sandhills State Park, we found one new genus and six new species in less than 100 yards of roadside botanizing. Gypsum is hydrated calcium sulfate, and the crystalline mineral with this composition is called selenite. Few plants grow well in a sulfate-rich soil, and many of those that do are quite interesting. While I was keying an obscure aster family member in gypsum in Crane County, TX, Eileen was photographing and when we met up, she showed me a photo of a lovely, unusual orange flower. I couldn’t quite place it and she took me back to the plant, where, to paraphrase the robot in Lost in Space, it still did not compute, and I began to suspect it was something really good. And it was: Talinum aurantiacum, not merely a new genus, but a new *family* of vascular plants for us!!
Just a couple of days later, in Hudspeth Co., TX, we searched for another new family, Nitrariaceae, containing two species in the genus Peganum, one native, one alien. I run internet searches each winter to try to find locations for our remaining families, and for many years this family seemed pretty hopeless. But I finally got coordinates and a location description that did not agree with one another at all (miles apart), but each of which was easily reached. We headed for the coordinates and upon our arrival I was disappointed to see the alien species, but quickly realized that the less obvious native species was mixed in! This leaves us just five missing families out of 239, and we hope to look for three of the remaining families later this year.
We finished our Texas transect by staying in El Paso (at the extreme western end of the state) for a couple of nights, on our way to south-central New Mexico and southeast Arizona. We enjoyed a relaxing Memorial Day with Eileen’s family, including sister Lizzie, who was visiting from California. In total, during the 29 days covered by this blog post, we saw 55 new genera and 109 new species, a prodigious haul. Over the entire year, we have conducted 105 genus searches, of which 61 (58%) have been successful. We have also serendipitously encountered another 21 genera, making 82 new genera for the year.
Unless I get inspired to write about a special topic, our next blog post will likely be in about two months, as after a couple more weeks of field work, we plan to take a month break from the heat, during the mid-summer botanical lull in the arid southwest.