Hiking buddy Rich and I have already hiked the entirety of the Ozark Trail, doing so in 5–15 mile segments from 1996 through 2015. Since then, we have been redoing some other the segments in the reverse direction from the first time, the eventual goal thus being to hike the entirety of the Ozark Trail in both directions. Today was a small contribution to that goal, in which we did the short section between the fire tower at Taum Sauk State Park (containing Missouri’s highest point at 1,772’ asl) and Russell Mountain.
The forecast was not promising, with steady rain predicted and temperatures remaining in the 30s. Still, Rich and I are not prone to cancelling a hike due to less than ideal conditions, so we arrived at Taum Sauk Mountain mid-morning despite the periodic rain and decided to give it a go. It was a good decision—our rain jackets and warm underlayers kept us confortable, and we were rewarded for our tenacity with an serenely beautiful look at the craggy, water-soaked landscape.
It was slow going as we both forgot our hiking sticks, forcing us to more deliberately choose our footing on the rugged, rocky, boulder-strewn trail. Normally on a winter hike, it is the buds, bark, and remnant leaves that I pay attention to as I strive to identify the component trees comprising the forest around me. Today, however, with intermittent light rain, heavy moisture-laden air, and our eyes mostly looking downward to choose our next footstep, it was the ferns, mosses, and lichens—bright green and water-swollen—that captured our attention.
Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern) dotted the forest floor and along the trail. Most of the plants we saw were older, their fronds and pinnae ragged and tattered. A young individual, however, captured our eye, partly because of its fresh, bright green foliage and partly because of the close association with Polytrichum commune (common haircap moss), Flavoparmelia baltimorensis (rock greenshield lichen), and an unidentified fruticose lichen—a natural mini-terrarium.
Further along the trail, a patch of Thuidium delicatulum (delicate fern moss) was found thriving in the cold, wet conditions. As the name suggests, the leaves of this moss resemble the fronds of a small fern but form colonial mats rather than arising from a basal rosette as in true ferns. Wet conditions such as existed today are ideal for seeing this moss in its most attractive state—under dry conditions, the leaves are more appressed and contracted against the central stems.
As we descended the hillside, running water could be heard in the distance, suggesting we would be treated to the sight of a waterfall. At the bottom, the normally dry creek ran full, water crashing over the rhyolite boulders strewn further up the ravine and gushing down below us. Some careful footwork was required to scale the hillside off-trail to reach the water’s edge and get a closeup and personal view, but experience made the careful footwork down the hillside and back up well worth the effort.
Approaching the glades on Russell Mountain, the diversity of conspicuously green lichens and mosses immediately caught our attention. The normally xeric landscape was lush and moist—water pooling in depressions of the exposed rhyolite bedrock and stream over its slopes in sheets. Beds of Polytrichum commune (common haircap moss) colonized the edges of exposed bedrock, forming extensive mats of turgid, bright green, bristly vertical stems that looked like miniature primordial forests. Like Thuidium delicatulum (delicate fern moss), this moss also is more attractive when moist, its leaves widely spreading and straight, while in dry conditions they are erect with their tips often recurved.
The final leg of the hike took us through the scenic rhyolite glades (more properly called xeric rhyolite prairie) between the Ozark Trail and the Russell Mountain Trailhead. Normally, the glades are a harsh habitat—dry grasses crackling underfoot amid the searing heat and the surrounding forest of Quercus shumardii (Shumard’s oak) and Carya ovata (shagbark hickory) stunted and open. Today, however, dense fog, heavy air, and water running over every surface made the glade seem mysteriously soft and gentle.
The exposed rhyolite bedrock here represents remnants of volcanic rock formed 1.5 billion years ago. Representing one of the oldest continuously exposed landforms in North America, these craggy hills are but mere nubs of mountains that soared 15,000 feet above the salty Cambrian waters that lapped at their feet. It is only reasonable that these ancient rocks should be so heavily colonized by lichens—ancient life forms themselves resulting from a symbiotic association between fungi and a photosynthetic partner, usually algae or cyanobacteria (blue-green algae).
Like the previously seen mosses, rain brings out the best in lichen attractiveness—their hydrated tissues at their brightest and most colorful. A number of fruticose and foliose lichens can be found intermingling in the exposed rhyolite surfaces, with Flavoparmelia baltimorensis (rock greenshield lichen) being one of the most conspicuous examples of the latter.
After missing the past three weeks, I was finally able to rejoin the Webster Groves Nature Study Society Botany Group for their weekly Monday outing. It was a good outing for making my return, as the group visited one of Missouri’s most famous and unusual landmarks—Elephant Rocks State Park—on what turned out to be a sunny day with unseasonably balmy conditions. Located in Acadia Valley in the heart of the St. Francois Mountains, the park is named for its main feature—one of the mid-continent’s best examples of an unusual geological feature known as a “tor.” These piles of rounded, weathered granite boulders sitting atop a bedrock mass of the same rock resemble groups of elephants lumbering across the landscape. First shaped underground in 1.5-billion-year-old granite as vertical and horizontal fractures developed in the rock and percolating water softened and degraded the rock adjacent to the cracks, the “core stones” were eventually exposed as erosion removed the overlying layers and the disintegrated rock surround the fractures, exposing the giant boulders at the surface.
The group explored the area along the Braille Trail, which passes through dry-mesic upland deciduous forest as it circumnavigates the tor. Oaks and hickories—primarily Quercus alba (white oak), post oak (Q. stellata), blackjack oak (Q. marilandica), Carya ovata (shagbark hickory), and C. glabra (pignut hickory)—dominate the canopy, while the understory featured Viburnum rufidulum (rusty blackhaw), Cornus florida (flowering dogwood), Prunus serotina (black cherry). Unusually abundant also was Nyssa sylvatica (black or sour gum). This small tree reaches its northern limit of distribution near St. Louis, Missouri but is more common further south. Winter bud skills are necessary to recognize the species at this time of year, which can be recognized by their alternate arrangement with three reddish-brown scales and three bundle scars. The leaves of this tree turn a brilliant red in the fall, making them desirable for landscape planting.
Like Nyssa sylvatica, Viburnum rufidulum (rusty blackhaw) is also most common south of the Missouri River. However, in contrast to the former, the winter buds of the latterare immediately recognizable by their dark rusty-colored “velvety” buds and opposite arrangement. The tree we saw at the beginning of today’s outing was also heavily laden with fruits, a dark blue-black pruinose drupe.
As we examined the blackhaw tree, we noticed a robust vine entwining its trunk and ascending high into the canopy above. Heavily laden along its length was a crop of fruits that immediately identified the vine as Celastrus scandens (American bittersweet). This native species can be distinguished from the introduced C. orbiculatus (Oriental bittersweet) at this time of year by its terminal fruits with orange instead of yellow dehiscing valves.
The “fruit” theme of the day continued as we veered off the path to look at a rather magnificent specimen of Quercus marilandica (blackjack oak) and saw yet another vine bearing fruit inside its canopy. The opposite leaf remnants had us quickly thinking of some type of honeysuckle (genus Lonicera), and we arrived at Lonicera sempervirens (trumpet honeysuckle) once we noticed the fused perfoliate leaf pairs directly behind the fruits. This native honeysuckle is a desirable species and not to be confused with any of the several invasive introduced species of honeysuckle that can now be found in Missouri.
Another honeysuckle relative, Symphoricarpos orbiculatus (coralberry), was heavily laden with fruit in the shrub layer. Like Lonicera sempervirens, this species is also native to Missouri and should not be confused with the invasive introduced species—especially Lonicera mackii (bush honeysuckle), which it superficially resembles but can be immediately distinguished from during this time of year by its uniquely coral-colored fruits.
As the Braille Trail wrapped around the eastern side of its loop, we passed by a pile of granite boulders—obvious rubble fragments from the quarrying days of the area’s earlier history due to their sharp, angular shapes. Drill holes could be seen in and around the margins of some of the fragments, providing more evidence of their provenance from rock splitting operations before their eventual abandonment, perhaps not being of sufficient quality to warrant further cutting and shaping into building blocks or paving stones before shipment to St. Louis. Lichens growing sparingly on the cut faces indicated that some amount of time had passed since the stone had been cut, but it was a mere fraction of time compared to the densely colonized original exposed surfaces.
Lichens were not the only forms of life taking advantage of new habitat created by past quarrying activities. Two species of ferns were found growing in protected crevices between the boulders, especially those where water was able to collect or seep from. The first was Asplenium platyneuron (ebony spleenwort), with only sterile fronds present but distinguished by the shiny dark rachis (stem) and stipe (stem base) and alternate, basally auriculate (lobed) pinnae (leaflets). The second was at first thought to be another species of Asplenium, possibly A. trichomanes (maidenhair spleenwort), but later determined to be Woodsia obtusa (common woodsia) by virtue of its all green rachis and stipe and much more highly dissected pinnae arranged very nearly opposite on the rachis. We later found the two species again growing close to each other right along the trail—completely unnoticed despite the group having passed them three times already (i.e., 25 person passes!).
A short spur took us to the Engine House ruin—originally built to repair train engines and cars; its granite skeleton still in good condition—before passing by the park’s main geological attraction: the central tor with its famous “elephants”! Standing atop the exposed granite and boulders, I try to let my mind go back half a billion years—an utterly incomprehensible span of time—when the boulders before me are still part of a giant submerged batholith underneath volcanic peaks soaring 15,000 above the Precambrian ocean lapping at their feet; life already a billion years old and dizzyingly diverse yet still confined to those salty waters.
The landscape atop the tor seems sterile and barren, but like the rubble piles below it’s cracks and crevices abound with life. An especially fruticose stand of Vaccinium arboreum (farkleberry) found refuge in a protected area among some of the bigger boulders, their dark blue fruits continuing the “berry” theme of the day and providing an opportunity for the group to sample their flavor and compare to its cultivated blueberry cousins (I found their flavor to be quite pleasing, if somewhat subdued compared to what is my favorite fruit of all). Vaccinium arboreum is the largest of the three species in the genus occurring in Missouri, and the woody stems of larger plants make it quite unmistakable. Smaller plants, however, can be difficult to distinguish from the two other species, in which case the leaf venation can be used—that of V. arboreum being very open. This is another species that finds itself at the northwestern limit of its distribution in the craggy hills of the Ozark Highlands, where it shows a distinct preference for the dry acidic soils found in upland forests overlying igneous or sandstone bedrocks.
Despite this being a botany group outing, I rarely manage to go the entire time go by without finding and pointing out at least one interesting insect. Today, it was an adult Chilocorus stigma (twice-stabbed ladybird beetle) sitting on a Nyssa sylvatica trunk. This is a native ladybird, not to be confused with the introduced and now notorious Harmonia axyridis (Asian ladybird beetle), that lives primarily in forest habitats and is generally considered to be a beneficial species (although not sold for commercial use in orchards or on farms).
Don Robinson State Park comprises and protects much of the upper watershed of LaBarque Creek in northwestern Jefferson Co.—one of east-central Missouri’s most pristine and ecologically significant watersheds. The St. Peter’s sandstone bedrock underlying the area features box canyons, shelter caves, cliffs, and glades amidst high-quality upland and lowland deciduous forests. The property was originally purchased in the 1960s by businessman Don Robinson, who’s dream was to have a personal sanctuary as large as New York’s Central Park. Through his generosity, the property was bequeathed to the state to become part of Missouri’s state park system following his death a half-century later. The park opened to the public in 2017 and offers some of the highest-quality hiking trails within an hour’s drive from St. Louis. For those interested in more detail regarding the watershed’s geology, ecology, and conservation, an excellent summary can be found in the recently issued LaBarque Creek Watershed Conservation Plan by Friends of LaBarque Creek Watershed.
Here are a few photos from along the Sandstone Canyon Trail.
The flora along the riparian corridor inside the box canyons was of particular interest to me, as it contained nice stands of three tree species of note: Betula nigra (river birch), Ostrya virginiana (eastern hop hornbeam), and Carpinus caroliniana (blue beech, musclewood, American hornbeam). All three species belong to the family Betulaceae and have been associated with some interesting woodboring beetle species in Missouri. I have reared large series of Anthaxia (Haplanthaxia) cyanella from fallen branches of B. nigra (both blue and bronze color forms—see MacRae 2006), and in the course of doing so I also reared a series of an Agrilus species that turned out to be undescribed (to which I later gave the name Agrilus betulanigrae—see MacRae 2003). From O. virginiana, I have reared two specimens of Agrilus champlaini from galls on living trees (still the only known Missouri specimens of this species—see MacRae 1991). Finally, from dead branches of C. caroliniana, I have reared Agrilus ohioensis (see Nelson & MacRae 1990), and from a larger, punkier dead branch I reared a single Trachysida mutabilis—this also still the only known specimen from Missouri (see MacRae & Rice 2007). I think I’ll go back in late winter to early spring and see if I can find dead branches of each to place in rearing boxes or perhaps girdle some branches to leave in situ for a season before retrieving and placing in rearing boxes. Who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky with additional new finds.
MacRae, T. C. 1991. The Buprestidae (Coleoptera) of Missouri. Insecta Mundi 5(2):101–126.
MacRae, T. C. 2003.Agrilus (s. str.) betulanigrae MacRae (Coleoptera: Buprestidae), a new species from North America, with comments on subgeneric placement and a key to the otiosus species-group in North America. Zootaxa 380:1–9.
MacRae, T. C. 2006. Distributional and biological notes on North American Buprestidae (Coleoptera), with comments on variation in Anthaxia (Haplanthaxia) cyanella Gory and A. (H.) viridifrons Gory. The Pan-Pacific Entomologist 82(2):166–199.
MacRae, T. C. & M. E. Rice. 2007. Biological and distributional observations on North American Cerambycidae (Coleoptera). The Coleopterists Bulletin 61(2):227–263.
Nelson, G. H. & T. C. MacRae. 1990. Additional notes on the biology and distribution of Buprestidae (Coleoptera) in North America, Part III. The Coleopterists Bulletin 44:349–354.
Alternative title: Rich and Ted’s “Excellenter” Adventure.
This is the ninth “Collecting Trip iReport”; this one covering a 10-day trip to western Texas from April 27 to May 6, 2021 with friend and local collecting buddy Rich Thoma. Rich and I have done many shorter collecting trips (up to five days) throughout Missouri and in the neighboring states of Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma (in fact, our first joint trip was to Barber County, Kansas way back in May 1986!). This trip, however, was our first truly long one together—10 days of collecting plus a travel day on each end. To take full advantage of the amount of time we had, we chose western Texas; an area that I have visited several times from the mid-90s through 2004 but not since. We wanted to make the trip during early to mid-May, but scheduling conflicts forced us to go earlier. I reasoned that even if it was a bit too early in the season, I could still collect infested wood for rearing—as I did with great success during my April 2004 trip. For Rich, who is more of a general insect collector, the trip provided him an opportunity for extended collecting in an area that he’d not previously spent a lot of time.
Day 1 – Monahans State Park, Shin Oak Picnic Area First stop of the trip. I was hoping to see beetles on flowers and maybe some tiger beetles, but unfortunately the area hasn’t had any rain yet this spring (according to the ranger). The mesquite was in bloom, but the only beetles I beat from it were a few tiny weevils. A few other plants were in bloom, but only one—Hymenopappus flavescens—had beetles on it (mordellids, which I picked up for Enrico Ruzzier). After a lot of walking I noticed Quercus havardii (shin oak) with flagged branches of dead leaves—a bit of investigation revealed it had been attacked by what must be Chrysobothris mescalero, so I collected as many flagged branches as I could find (7 total) and will bring them back for rearing.
Monahans State Park, Sandhills Picnic Area The big dunes are in this area. We didn’t expect to see any insects but brought our nets anyway. As we were walking the ridge we saw two grouse-like birds in the distance. We tracked them for a bit before I decided to go back and get my binoculars. They kept us at bay, but eventually I was able to get close enough to get a good look at them—they turned out to be scaled quail, a new bird for me. We continued tracking them and eventually they were joined by two more individuals. Handsome birds!
Monahans State Park, Shin Oak Picnic Area After going into town and picking up some dinner, we came back out to the park and setup the ultraviolet lights. I didn’t have much optimism based on the lack of insect activity we saw during the day, but the temperatures were still plenty warm (well into the 80s) and we had nothing better to do. We returned to the Shin Oak Picnic Area since it had a mix of open and more vegetated dunes. Glad we did because two male Prionus arenarius, one Megacyllene antennata, and a tiny, unidentified elaphidiine came to the lights. I also found two small darkling beetles crawling on the sand nearby. I searched the surrounding sand hoping to find more males looking for females, or perhaps even a female herself, but found none. Wolf spiders, however, were common on the sand, their glowing eyes drawing attention beyond their abundance. I guess they are a species of Hogna, but I’m not certain—I photographed two individuals. Also got a large bostrichid (Apatides fortis?) at the light. Before we took down the lights, Rich called me over to see a tiny, slender, worm-like snake that we eventually determined was one of the blind snakes (Leptotyphlum sp.)—definitely a first for me.
Day 2 – Toyahyale We stopped here on a tip from Jason Hansen and Tyler Hedlund, who swept good numbers of Agrilus cochisei off of Ambrosia psilostachya (western ragweed)—albeit, a few weeks later during May. I found the plants, but they were very small and low to the ground. Nevertheless, adults could be swept abundantly from the plants, and I was able to take good photos of singles and a mating pair with the big camera (iPhone photo here just to show what they loook like). Also got a single specimen of an apparently undescribed Acmaeodera sp. while sweeping for A. cochisei and one of two A. cochisei adults that I saw on flowers of Sphaeralcea sp.
Davis Mountains, 15.8 mi NE Ft. Davis We stopped here to look for the undescribed species of Acmaeodera, which Jason had found in good numbers during May on blooms of Lygodesmia and Convolvulus. Both plants were present, but neither was in bloom. Still, I found one adult on flowers of Verbina sp. and swept another from roadside vegetation. Ambrosia polystachia (western ragweed) was also present—I looked visually for Agrilus cochisei and did not see any, but I did get one adult and a couple of cryptocephalines in the sweeping that produced the second Acmaeodera.
Day 3 – Point of Rocks Roadside Park The weather turned decidedly cool in the Davis Mountains—first time I’ve ever frozen camping out on a collecting trip. The high temps are expected to stay in the 50s to 60s with a chance of rain for the next few days, so we decided to head down to the Big Bend area where there is still a chance of rain but warmer temps (up to the high 70s). Maybe we’ll come back to this area next week. Before leaving, however, I wanted to check the Quercus vasseyana (vassey oak) at Point of Rocks, where in the past I collected a good series of Mastogenius texanus even earlier in April (it was actually undescribed at the time). I’ve also collected Elytroleptus lycid-mimicking cerambycids on soapberry flowers here in June, although I knew the soapberry would not be in bloom. There was nothing on the oaks, but I did collect a few miscellaneous beetles beating Prosopis glandulosa (mesquite) and found one vassey oak branch with evidence of wood-boring beetle larval feeding and which I collected for rearing.
17 mi S Alpine This is the first of two picnic areas along Hwy 118 going south from Alpine towards Big Bend National Park. There are lots of big Quercus vasseyana and Q. grisea here, so I stopped to see if I could find any infested wood. Bingo—one of the Q. grisea had a dead branch hanging from it that looked recently dead, and breaking apart a few of its smaller branches revealed fresh larval workings of some kind of buprestid (perhaps Polycesta arizonica). I cut of the branch and will bring back the bundle for rearing.
26 mi S Alpine This is the second of two picnic areas south of Alpine on Hwy 118 towards Big Bend National Park. Rich and I have both stopped here before, and Rich brought back infested wood (apparently Juglans sp.) from which I reared Chrysobothris comanche, so that was the plan again unless we saw active insects. We did not, so I scanned the trees and found a small Celtis laevigata (sugarberry) that had recently died—the bark was peeling, but there were no emergence holes that I could see. I started chopping into the trunk wood and quickly encountered a large buprestid larvae in its “pre-pupal fold”. This could be Texania fulleri based on host and location, so I cut a couple of bolts from the trunk to bring back for rearing. The branches also showed fresh larval workings, so I cut up one along with its smaller branchlets to also bring back for rearing.
3.3 mi W of Hwy 118 on Agua Fria Rd. Last stop of the day, which I was told could have water with tiger beetles. The creekbed was bone dry, and I collected but a single Chrysobothris sp. beating Prosopis glandulosa in flower—amazing given the proliferation of wildflowers that were in bloom. We did find a nautiloid/ammonite-type fossil in the bone-dry creekbed, which Rich says is of Cretaceous origin based on clam fossils in the underlying layer, and I tracked a common poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) for a little bit, eventually getting close enough for the rare iPhone bird photo. Interesting position it assumed upon landing with its wings outstretched above its back.
Big Bend Ranch State Park, West Contrabondo Campground We arrived in Study Butte with just enough time to check into a motel and get dinner before heading out to Big Bend Ranch State Park. The drive through the park was incredible as we searched for a spot to setup the lights. After finding such spot, however, we were greeted as we got out of the car by a stiff, chilly wind. I knew there was no point in going through the trouble to setup, so instead we drove further down the 2-track to an amazing scenic overlook into an impressive box canyon. Words cannot describe the contortions this acrophobiac took to find good position for these photos, but it was well worth the views.
Day 4 – Big Bend National Park, Boquillas Canyon Trail Well, the rain and cold continue to follow us. Rather than trying once again to drive somewhere else to escape, we decided to just sit this day out and visit the national park (not a bad Plan B!). Boquillas Canyon is an amazing slice through the rocks along the course of the Rio Grande River, and we hiked as far into the canyon as we could before sheet rock on the left and deep water on the right prevented any further progress. We saw only two insects—a tiger beetle larva that I “fished” out of one of the many larval burrows we saw (definitely Tetracha, and likely T. carolina) and a velvet ant (black head and pronotum, red abdomen).
Big Bend National Park, near Panther Junction Driving towards the Chisos Mountains after hiking the Boquillas Canyon Trail, we encountered this fine adult male Aphonopelmis hentzii (Texas tarantula) crossing the road.
Big Bend National Park, Chisos Basin, Window Trail After lunching at Panther Junction, we headed up the into the Chisos Mountains towards Chisos Basin. Heavy clouds shrouded the peaks, so we weren’t sure what we would encounter up there, and once in the cloud zone and then heading down into the basin we could hardly see anything. Suddenly the western side of the basin came into view, still overcast and drizzly but at least free from the heavy fog that shrouded the eastern half of the basin. That made our decision of which trail to hike easy—the Lost Mines Trail under heavy fog versus the Window Trail with semi-clear views. I’ve hiked the Window Trail several times, but the last time was 17 years ago, and Rich in his single attempt a year or two later did not make it to the “Window” due to an impatient 10-year old son in tow. The views on the way down the canyon were spectacular—not despite the rain and clouds but because of it. It is a rare opportunity to see richly moist desert mountains shrouded in mist. At one point on the way down, a Woodhouse’s scrub jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) caught our attention—sitting very nearby in a tree before hopping down to the ground and nonchalantly pecking for bugs. Another soon joined him, first landing on a branch just a few feet above me and returning my captivated stare for a few moments before joining his mate on the trail ahead of us… followed shortly by a third individual. Their soft chirpings were a charming contrast to their more familiar raucous calls, and Rich and I soaked in the moment until they moved on. The trail is not an easy hike—nearly 7 miles round trip, dropping over a thousand feet on the way down, and then gaining over a thousand feet on the way back. The “Window,” however, is a sight to behold—a narrow gap in the rocks soaring high overhead with a view out onto the desert floor almost a thousand feet below. There is tempting danger at the window—its smooth, water-carved rocks are deceptively slippery even in dry conditions, and with the rain of the day they were especially so. I would not be surprised to learn that at least one person had made a fatal error in judging how close to the window one can get. They would have had plenty of time to think about that mistake on the way down! The views on the way back up were even more breathtaking, as fog enshrouded the high peaks towering above us. Periodically the sun attempted to push through the clouds, creating surreal lighting in a battle of sun versus rain, but eventually the rain won out and fell steadily on us for the last, switchback-laden mile back to the trailhead. As for insects, we actually did see some despite the rain—a few blister beetles resting torpidly on yellow composite flowers.
Day 5 – Big Bend National Park, Sotol Overlook We’re on our way to Santa Elena Canyon and stopped at this overlook. From a distance of 14 air miles, the canyon entrance looks like a tiny split in the rocks, belying the 1000-foot canyon walls that await us. Cacti were nicely in bloom, if a bit rain battered—two species of yellow-flowered Opuntia (pricklypear) and the always extraordinary pink flowers of Cylindropuntia imbricata (tree cholla). No insects were to be found, but we did find a live Orthoporus ornatus (desert millipede)—the first that we’ve seen on this trip—who obliged us by coiling into its classic defensive pose.
Big Bend National Park, Santa Elena Canyon From 14 air miles away, Santa Elena Canyon looks like a tiny split in a little cliff (see previous post). Up close, however, it’s soaring walls tower 1000 feet overhead! The hike into the canyon features a tortuous staircase to bypass a narrows, followed by a leisurely stroll along the canyon bottoms along the Rio Grande River. Rain last night has triggered an en masse millipede emergence, and even a few insects were seen: velvet ant; Acmaeodera mixta, Trichodes sp. and Gnathium sp. on yellow composite flowers; and Omorgus sp. crawling in the sand.
Big Bend National Park, Cerro Castellan (Castolon Peak) The layers visible in Cerro Castellan reveal millions of years of volcanic events. Stacked in this tower are several lava flows and volcanic tuffs (ash deposits), with layers of gravel and clay from periods of erosion between eruptions. Cerro Castellan’s cap rock is the same lava that formed the Chisos’ South Rim. The lighter orange and gray layers beneath are tuffs.
Big Bend National Park, Tuff CanyonTrail Some of the oldest layers of volcanic rocks lie at the bottom of Tuff Canyon. It is dry most of the time, but summer thunderstorm runoff churns through the canyon, cutting it deeper. This canyon is narrower and deeper than most others in Big Bend, partly because the light gray volcanic tuff is relatively cohesive. Swift, powerful floodwaters will cut down through any kind of bedrock, but the tuff is better able to resist the widening effects of sideward erosion.
4.6 mi W of Langtry After leaving Big Bend National Park we started making our way towards the Del Rio area in Val Verde Co., where we plan to meet up tomorrow with a few other beetle collectors (Dan Heffern, Brian Raber, and Ed Riley). I noted that our path took us right by the type locality of the recently described tiger beetle, Amblycheila katzi. I didn’t have much hope of actually seeing the species, given that the season seems to have even really started yet and the earliest record of the species is the 23rd of May. Nevertheless, since we happened by the spot right as dusk was falling it seems a good idea to at least try. First we walked the limestone 2-track just to see what was out and about (just a few darkling beetles), then we started checking the limestone ledges where the tiger beetle can be found. We checked about 100 m of ledge without seeing any, and I was about ready to call it a night when we finally spotted one. It was running in a seam about 2 m above the ground and was unmistakable. My attempt tiger an in situ photo failed at first, and it almost escaped deep into a crevice before I pulled out my long forceps and pulled him out by a tarsus. It gave me a healthy pinch when I grabbed it while fumbling in my pack for a bottle, but eventually I prevailed. Later on I placed it back on the ledge and covered it with the Nalgene bottle cap, waited for it to calm down, then carefully lifted the cap and got a couple of shots before it began scurrying again. We checked another 50 m of ledge without seeing any and decided to call it a night.
Day 6 – Comstock (prologue) The owner of the motel in which we stayed was super friendly and kind enough to leave a key in the door for our very late arrival last night. Settling up this morning, I saw this on the wall (right next to his vaccination card—two doses) and just had to get a pic. He was only too happy to oblige when I told him how awesome it was and could I get a picture. Hey, no reason to reveal true political leanings if it means we can all just get along.
Amistad National Recreation Area, Spur 406 Campground A quick stop here on the way to meet up with Dan, Brian, and Ed near Devil’s River. There were lots of dead and dying Acacia constricta (whitethorn acacias), off of which I beat a diversity of cerambycids and buprestids from both the dead and dying branches. I found one small sapling of the same with evidence of fresh woodboring beetle larval feeding, so I collected it as well for rearing. Other than that I just collected a few weevils off of living Prosopis glandulosa (mesquite) for weevil-specialist Bob Anderson.
Devils River near Dry Devils River We met up with Dan, Brian, and Ed north of Del Rio and, after exchanging peasantries, followed them into a private resort surrounding a stretch of the Devils River*—considered by some to be the most unspoiled river in Texas. Dan had arranged for access after befriending Dave Barker, a commercial herpetologist who had built a home on property overlooking the Devils River and also a guest cabin on property overlooking nearby Gold Mine Canyon. We met up at the cabin and then carpooled to a spot along the Devils River where Dan and Brian had placed a variety of traps that needed servicing. While they took care of that, Rich, Ed, and I collected in the area around where the traps had been placed. I started off beating dead branches of Vachellia farnesiana (huisache), sweeping blooming Salvia sp. (sage), and beating dead branches of Acacia rigidula (blackbrush acacia) down by the river but collected only a smattering of beetles. I then clambered up the rocks and found good numbers of Acmaeodera spp. visiting flowers of Echinocereus enneacanthus (strawberry cactus) and Opuntia engelmannii (Engelmann’s pricklypear). After collecting my fill of those beetles, I returned to the riverbanks and noticed some large Carya illinoensis (pecan), from which I beat a few Anthaxia (Haplanthaxia) sp. (hoping they are one of the recently described taxa). By then, Dan and Brian had finished servicing their traps and gave me a few specimens that had been collected in their ethanol-baited Lingren funnel trap.
* The accepted usage of the name is without an apostrophe, although the reason for this is a matter of debate.
After finishing along the Devils River, Dave invited us to his home for a few post-collecting beers. Spectacular views overlooking the river.
GoldMine Canyon We setup a variety of light stations at Dave’s cabin a little east of the river. It was warm and dry, so conditions were good, if a bit windy. My two ultraviolet light stations a bit north of the cabin ended up catching the lion’s share of cerambycids, although it was mostly elaphidiines and a Lepturges sp. We also picked up a few tenebrionids and a Carabidae crawling on the ground near the lights. Ed’s mercury vapor/ ultraviolet station on the road west of the cabin attracted a few more cerambycids, including a Lagocheirus sp. Dan, however, got the catch of the night—a Goes that came to Dan’s $6 battery-powered lantern on the road south of Ed’s station. We at first thought it might be G. novus, but that Dan later decided it was just a very lightly marked G. tesselatus. Zephyranthes chlorosolen (Brazos rain lily) blossoms were beautiful at night, their stark whiteness catching the beam of the headlamp.
Day 7 – Gold Mine Canyon Rich and I spent the morning walking the grounds around Dave’s cabin while the others packed up and got ready to leave. I found some oak (Quercus vasseyana) saplings infested with cerambycid larvae, which I cut and bundled to bring back for rearing. Acmaeodera were already coming to the flowers—a couple of small ones on an undetermined white composite, three different species on Opuntia engelmannii (Engelmann’s pricklypear) and Echinocereus enneacanthus (strawberry cactus) flowers, and a couple on Coreopsis? flowers. I beat some of the Diospyros texana (Texas persimmon) looking for Spectralia robusta but did not find any. It got hotter than blazes real quick!
After Dan, Brian, and Ed left, Rich and I went down to the canyon entrance to beat on the oaks and Texas persimmons that dot the sides of the canyon. Nothing was on either plant, however, and I ended up again concentrating on the diversity of Acmaeodera that were coming to flowers of Coreopsis sp., Opuntia engelmannii, and an unidentified yellow composite. I did beat a single Cleridae off a dead branch of mesquite.
Devils Rivernear Dry Devils River After finishing at Gold Mine Canyon, we came back to the Devils River crossing near the first stop we made here for our final stop of the day. Temperatures had maxed out at 99°F! and I wasn’t too motivated to collect much more today, but when we arrived at the spot I noticed some declining Platanus occidentalis (American sycamore) with large emergence holes suggestive of Mallodon dasystomus and old fallen branches with the same suggestive of Polycesta elata. The tree with the Mallodon holes was much too large to cut (and embedded within a thicket of poison ivy), so I occupied myself by collecting a few more Acmaeodera off of Opuntia engelmannii flowers. As I walked the roadway I noticed more sycamore with some smaller trees in the grove that looked recently dead. One was dead from about three feet up and had buprestid workings under loose, peeling bark. I cut just above the live portion (3–4” diameter) and took three 4-ft sections of the trunk above that point, each cut showing internal galleries. If P. elata emerges from these pieces of wood I will be “elated” [Later edit: I did rear the species!].
Gold Mine Canyon For blacklighting tonight we decided to bring the lights down to the mouth of the canyon where we collected this afternoon so we could have acces to anything associated with the oaks. Unfortunately it was a much slower night than last night and cooled off quickly despite the high heat earlier in the day. I only got three cerambycids (one Ecyrus and two Aneflomorpha) and a few clerids at the lights. I also walked the jeep track leading to the mouth of the canyon and the main road outside and didn’t see anything until I almost got back, when I noticed a beetle sitting on the trail that looked a bit odd. When I picked it up I realized it was a buprestid in the genus Melanophila—what the heck?! Totally unexpected to see this beetle at night and especially on the ground instead of on a tree. I suppose it is one of the juniper-feeding species (since pine doesn’t occur here).
Day 8 – Gold Mine Canyon Our plan today was to head over to some spots further west in Val Verde Co., but before leaving the cabin we did a bit of walking around and took a last few photographs.
22 mi N Del Rio I had noted a few scattered plants of Senna roemeriana (two-leaved senna) at this spot a couple of days ago when meeting up with Dan but didn’t have the chance to sample them for Agrilus obtusus—one of my target species for the trip. I found one on the second plant I checked, so I went back to the truck to get my big camera hoping to photograph one in situ. I didn’t see anything on the next plant, but when I tapped it over my net there was another one! I did that for the next hour or so—inspecting and tapping—and never saw another one. Rich did get one sweeping the S. roemeriana (in an area I’d already worked) and was gracious enough to give it to me. There were also tiny bruchids and clerids on the plant. Other than that I got a couple of Acmaeodera mixta sweeping, a couple of Canthon sp. in flight, and a Euphoria kerni on the flower of Zephyranthes chlorosolen.
Hwy 90 at Del Rio River I first visited this spot nearby 30 years ago based on a tip by Dan Heffern, who had reared a Polycesta elata from Fraxinus greggii (Gregg ash). I found the ash on that visit, though I didn’t find any wood infested with that species here, but what I did find was Diospyros texana (Texas persimmon) infested with Spectralia robusta and managed to rear out a few individuals. That was my quarry today, but when I arrived the abandoned road on the northwest side of the bridge was fenced and posted. I took a look on the southwest side and found open access up top and decided to hike down towards the ravine from that point. Things seems to be about as far along here as they were at Devils River, with not much activity except for Acmaeodera coming to the Opuntia engelmannii flowers, albeit not quite the diversity. I found a few more also on flowers of an undetermined yellow composite, Coreposis sp., and an undetermined white composite. Closer towards the ravine I found just a single large F. microphylla (with no signs of infestation) and several D. texana—two of which had the half-live/half-dead branches in which S. robusta larvae live and showing the emergence holes of adults. I collected both branches and will bring them back for rearing.
Amistad National Recreation Area, Pecos River Access Nature Trail Just a quick stop at the Pecos River Access on the east side to walk the short nature trail and gaze at the 300-ft high, 100 million-year-old (Cretaceous Period) limestone bluffs that the Pecos River has cut near the junction with the Rio Grande River (the latter can be seen on the left side of photo 2). The first photo also shows the old road that was originally used to cross the river snaking down the west bluff—traffic today uses the tall bridge in the right side of the photo.
Seminole Canyon State Park, Canyon Rim Trail We came here looking for oak potentially infested with Spectralia roburella. We didn’t find any oak on this trail, but I did find a Acacia rigidula (blackbrush acacia) showing signs of infestation by buprestid larvae (difficult to find such this year because the freeze in February apparently killed or severely knocked back most of this species). I cut up and bundled the wood to bring back for rearing.
Amistad National Recreation Area, Spur 406 Campground We got to Seminole Canyon State Park too late to check with the supervisor about setting up our blacklights at the park, so we came back to Spur 406 Campground where we’d collected a few things two days earlier. Temps were okay and there was no moon or wind, but it was still a very slow night—for me just a couple of elaphidiines, two trogids, two Digitinthophagus gazella (why do I continue to pick these things up?), and a bostrichid.
Day 9 – Seminole Canyon State Park, Windmill Trail We came back to the state park since we ran out of time to look for oak yesterday. The park staff were extraordinarily helpful—both in getting me checked in with my permit and in directing me to the spots where I might be able to find oak. Their first tip—along the Window Trail—paid off, where we found a nice cluster of Quercus fusiformis (plateau live oak) clinging to the upper canyon walls. Most of them had dead branches on them, and I did some beating to see if by some chance the beetles would be out already. They were not, but on the second tree that I examined I found a main branch from near the base with the outer 4–6 ft dead but the bark not peeling and small living sprouts about 2 ft from the base. Pulling apart the dead portion revealed buprestid larval workings, likely my quarry—Spectralia roburella, but these could be old. I cut the branch at the base, however, and found fresh larval galleries in the sapwood of the still-living portion even extending into the trunk—success! I’ll bring this back for rearing and will hopefully get S. roburella out of it. Further along the trail I found a single Senna roemeriana (two-leaved senna), inspected it carefully and didn’t see anything, then tapped the plant over my beating sheet and a single Agrilus obtusus fell onto it to add to the three that I got yesterday. I really wish I could see these things before I beat them off the plants so I could take an in situ photo!
Seminole Canyon State Park, Canyon Rim Trail Another place the park staff recommended to find oaks was along the Canyon Rim Trail. We hiked that trail yesterday for a bit and didn’t see any oaks, but it turns out they were farther down the trail then we went. We headed back out on the trail to find them, along the way checking Opuntia engelmannii flowers for Acmaeodera and seeing only one for the time being. Just past the first of two east-facing ravines where we expected to find oaks, we found one on the canyon edge that looked rather bedraggled. There were some completely dead branches with bark already sloughed but also one large fresher-looking dead branch that had one live branchlet coming out of it about a third of the way up (meaning there was at least a strip of live wood within the branch). I broke of one of the dead branches near the live/dead junction, and there in its gallery was a smallish buprestid larva that almost certainly is Spectralia roburella! I took the entire branch and cut it up to bring back for rearing. We continued hiking along the canyon rim and saw the most amazing views—sheer Cretaceous limestone walls towering 300 feet above the narrow canyon bottoms! Farther down the trail we finally started seeing Acmaeodera on O. engelmannii flowers. By then we’d hiked more than a mile and a half down the trail and temps were beginning to soar, so we turned back, picked up the wood we’d cut as we came back by, and finished the long, hot slog back to the truck.
Comstock As Rich and I were lunching after our last stop, I got a text from Ed Riley about a spot near Comstock where he’d collected what he believed to be Acmaeodera starrae—a species I’ve never encountered. It just so happened that we would be passing by Comstock on our way back east this afternoon, so we stopped to see if we could find it. Bingo—right where and in the flowers he said it would be (an undetermined white composite that I later determined to be Aphanostephus ramosissimus [lazy daisy]). Together we found about 15 specimens, and interestingly about 25% have red rather than yellow elytra markings. [EDIT: I’m not convinced these are A. starrae, but I do not yet know what they are.]
Day 10 – Garner State Park, Wild Horse Creek/Highway/Campos Trails It’s the final day of collecting for the trip, and for our last stop we picked Garner State Park along the Frío River. I was last here back in the mid 90s—nearly 30 years ago, Acmaeodera ornatoides and Polycesta elata being the two species of note that I remember finding. I remember during that first visit that the area reminded me of my beloved Ozark Mountains, especially the White River Hills region in southwestern Missouri—scraggly forests of oak and juniper on steep, rocky slopes over craggy hill and lazy dale. It still does, although the species are a bit different—Juniperus ashei (Ashe juniper) dominates instead of J. virginiana (eastern red-cedar), and a variety of other oaks replace the familiar Ozarkian Quercus stellata and Q. marilandica (post and blackjack oaks, respectively). We hiked a series of trails on the western side of the park, thinking the west-facing slopes would tend to be drier and result in more open, glade-like habitats, and for the most part this was true. Almost immediately after reaching the first glade along Wild Horse Creek Trail, we found A. ornatoides and at least two smaller congeners on flowers of Coreopsis sp. Flowers of Viguiera dentata have been uncharacteristically depauperate of buprestids on this trip, but I picked up a couple of Acmaeodera neglecta/neoneglecta nearby as well. On the Highway Trail a good series of Acmaeodera was found on flowers of an undetermined small white composite, and a few were also found on flowers of Senna roemeriana (two-leaved senna)—though no Agrilus obtusus. The Campos Trail ascended steeply and ruggedly to a nice overlook, where I found one Acmaeodera sp. on the flower of Zephyranthes chlorosolen and then the mother-load—the biggest diversity and abundance of Acmaeodera I’ve ever seen on cactus flowers occurred nearby in a single flowering Opuntia engelmannii. The final specimen of the day’s “Acmaeodera-a-thon” was taken a bit further up the trail on the flower of Echinocereus enneacanthus (strawberry cactus). Fortunately, the trail was all downhill from there (albeit a bit too steep and rocky at times for these no-longer-nimble legs!). We finished off the hike back along the Wild Horse Creek Trail by collecting a branch off a fallen oak that I hope proves fruitful in the rearing box back home and had some lunch. As we were getting ready to leave, I noticed most of the trees in the camping area were Carya illinoensis (pecans)—a great host for buprestids (especially Xenorhipis brendeli), so I picked up several fallen branches from under the trees to complete the wood collecting portion of the trip.
Garner State Park, Brazos River (epilogue) We visited the nearby Frio River for one last look at the park, took a shower, and settled in for the 15-hour trek back to St. Louis.
This month’s destination for the WGNSS Natural History Photography Group was Orchid Valley Natural Area in Hawn State Park. This natural area is south of the main park and not normally open to the public, but we were granted permission to enter by the park administration. Our targets were several species of orchids and other rare plants that are known to occur in the area—showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis) being the one I hoped most to see.
There are no trails here—not even a place to park, as we squeezed our cars against the side of the road at a spot that appeared to provide good access. A bit of GPS-guided bushwhacking brought us to increasingly rough and sloping ground that ended up at the edge of a cliff overlooking one of the sandstone box canyons that this area is know for—down below was where we wanted to go. Wild azaleas lined the upper canyon edges with their stunning pink blossoms. We followed the canyon edge and found a way down, then circled back into the canyon to find a stunning waterfall, its sandstone walls dripping with mosses and ferns. We spent quite a bit of time here photographing the waterfall and surrounding area before eventually resuming the search for the orchids that we came to see.
Sadly, the orchids were not yet in bloom—not even close, another victim of the cold, late spring we’ve been experiencing. Casey, our group leader, did find some very small showy orchis leaves, and we saw some nice clumps of another native orchid, rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens), an evergreen orchid that blooms during late summer. We hiked up another drainage that led to another box canyon—lacking a waterfall but equally impressive, nonetheless—but found no orchids in bloom there, either. We did, however, see cinnamon ferns sending up their spike-like fertile fronds and aggregations of antlion larvae (a.k.a. “doodlebugs”) in the soil beneath the sandstone ledges.
You might think failure to find what we were looking for would result in a disappointing field trip—far from it! Time in the field with like-minded friends in a beautiful spot is always a pleasure, and when it comes to searching for rare plants (or insects, or whatever), failure is the norm—making success, when it does come, that much sweeter. There will be other chances to see showy orchis (perhaps in a couple of weeks).
My passion for insect macro-photography is well known, so it may come as a surprise to learn that I have, during the past year or so, also become an avid “iPhone photographer”—i.e., I actually use my iPhone for “real” photography and not just selfies or quick snapshots. This is not to say that an iPhone can do everything that a digital SLR camera can do, especially when one considers the resolution of and wealth of lens options available for the latter. Nevertheless, as the world’s best selling smart phone, the iPhone has, by way of its camera function, also become the world’s best selling camera, and even though it cannot match the power of a dSLR, there are certain situations and types of photos for which the iPhone is perfectly adapted. Having gained some level of proficiency in learning what the iPhone can and cannot do when it comes to photography, I thought I would offer this photo set of a hike I did today along the Courtois Section of the Ozark Trail as a primer for the types of photos at which iPhones excel, along with some tips and tricks I’ve learned to get the most of the iPhone’s capabilities.
An iPhone is basically a fully automated, wide-angle camera (although the user can control exposure to some extent by touching the screen at the desired point). As such, it excels at landscape and general nature photos, and its small-diameter lens also allows some use for “wide-angle macro.” iPhones do not do well in low light situations or take true macro photographs (although one can use a variety of “clip-on” lenses to achieve fairly decent macro-photographs of larger insects—I have not tried this myself). As a result, I tend to use the iPhone mostly in good light situations and break out the big camera when the lighting is more challenging or if I want to take “real” macrophotographs. As with all digital photographs, good post-processing is necessary for making iPhone photos look their best, and in general a more aggressive approach than is typical for dSLR photographs will be required. The photos that follow are intended not only to give a flavor of the day’s hike, but also demonstrate my photographic approach and provide tips on composition, exposure, and post-processing. If you have gained experience in iPhone photography and have additional tips and tricks that you would like to share, I would greatly appreciate hearing about them in the comments.
Courtois Creek – immediately at the start we had to make a decision whether we could ford the creek. It was obviously too deep in most places, and we almost turned back, but then saw a path that looked like it might be passable. With air temps of 22F, we stripped off our pants, boots, and socks, packed them in our backpacks, and waded through frigid water that reached just below our hips before reaching the other side. Rich brought a towel, so we were able to dry off before getting dressed again. The whole process took almost a full half-hour.
This photo was taken into the sun, which can easily result in a washed out sky. To avoid this, I minimized the amount of sky in the photo (which also allowed the ripples in the foreground to be included for a sense of motion) and then touched the screen on the sky to set the exposure. This resulted in a dark photo, but it preserved the rich colors which could then be brought out with aggressive brightening and increasing the contrast in Photoshop. A standard set of commands that I generally use for all iPhone photos (slightly increased saturation, sharpening, and de-speckling) produced the finished version.
Bluffs along Courtois Creek – massive bluffs along the other side of the creek sported fallen boulders the size of dump trucks.
Another photo taken in the direction of the sun, causing the shadowed side of the rock to turn out very dark. Again I touched the screen on the sky to preserve the blue color and then aggressively lightened in Photoshop. Aggressive brightening generally requires a more aggressive increase in contrast, followed by the standard command set mentioned for the first photo.
We were feeling good about our decision to ford the creek as we hiked below spectacular bluffs.
This photo required fairly minimal post-processing since it was shot away from the sun and, thus, had decent native exposure. The bluff face was a little dark and needed minor brightening, but as always I set the exposure in the brightest area of the photo and then post-corrected the dark areas (this is much easier than the opposite, i.e., darkening areas that are too bright, as such areas are often blown and cannot be fixed).
Ozark Trail blaze.
A very close-up shot of a trail blaze. The main watch out with such photos is to ensure the plane of the camera matches the subject precisely, otherwise distortion will cause elongation of one side (making the blaze a trapezoid rather than a rectangle). In post-processing I set the white point in levels by greatly magnifying the image and clicking on a very white part of the blaze to get a more natural looking white rather than the dirty gray that often results when shooting largely white subjects.
Blufftop view of Courtois Creek – from a vantage point several hundred feet above the creek we could look down on our crossing point. I have a fear of heights but nevertheless hung onto the tree fall in front of me to inch out for a clear view.
This was another photo taken fairly towards the sun. I wanted just a thin band of sky to add a sense of scale to the downward-looking view, but with little sky the camera automatically wanted to expose for the darker foreground, thus blowing the sky. To prevent this, I tilted the camera up slightly to get more sky, touched the screen on the sky to set exposure, then tilted back down to the composition I wanted and took the shot. Post-processing involved aggressive brightening as described for the first two photos above.
Sapsucker damage on an old tree.
I approached this tree from an angle facing the sun, so I simply waited until we passed it and could turn to place the sun behind me while shooting this tree. The trick is to get the right distance for a composition that doesn’t include too much wasted space at the foot of the tree or in its canopy, so this requires some walking back and forth until the right composition is achieved (I do not use the zoom function on the camera unless I have to because of the loss of resolution).
Close-up view of sapsucker damage. Obviously they have been using this tree for many years
A closer view of the sapsucker damage—again this is mostly a compositional challenge, which I met by getting close enough to have this interesting “looking up” perspective but still far enough away to include the lowest ring of damage at the bottom of the photo and the highest at the top. Little post-processing other than the standard set was required for this sun-behind-me photograph.
Crystallofolia forms when water drawn from the soil by certain plants oozes out of the stem and contacts frigid air. Additional water pushes out the ice, then freezes itself, resulting in long, thin ribbons of ice that curl around themselves
For photographing crystallofolia and other small, ground-dwelling features, I like to turn the iPhone so that the lens is on the bottom edge to achieve a true ground-level perspective. The macro capabilities of the iPhone are limited, so in this case I used the zoom function (maybe about 1/3 to full zoom), centered the feature in the photo to get the best exposure and focus, and then did a little more cropping post-processing at the bottom of the photo to minimize the amount of blurred foreground. Again, a mostly white subject such as this tends to come out dull in the native photograph, so I enlarged the image greatly in Photoshop, opened Levels, clicked on set white point, and then clicked on the whitest portion of the subject that I could find to achieve a more ‘naturally’ white subject. It can take a few tries to find a spot in the image that doesn’t result in unnatural over-whitening of the subject—one must play around a bit to find it.
Crustose lichens abound on the dolomite bedrock exposures along the “Narrows” – a long, narrow ridge between the Courtois and Huzzah Creek Valleys.
Again, I like to use a low perspective for ground features such as these lichen-encrusted rocks strewn across the forest floor. If you let the iPhone focus naturally, it tends to focus on subjects closer to the middle of the photo, so be sure to touch the screen on the foremost subject to set the focus in the foreground. Photos with contrasting colors such as the greens, browns, and blues in this one generally benefit from a little more aggressive increase in saturation (maybe 15-20%) than I normally use for iPhone photos (usually 5-10%).
Close-up view of crustose lichens.
A semi- wide-angle macro photograph that combines a lichen encrusted rock in the foreground with forest and sky in the background. The camera will automatically focus on the background, so touch the screen at the top of the foreground object to set focus. It also helps to pan back a little bit to include more in the frame than is desired, then crop a little in Photoshop as the lower part of the foreground object will tend to be out of focus unless it is a perfectly vertical surface (rare). In this photo I cropped out about 1/5 from the bottom and a corresponding amount on each side to maintain original aspect ratio.
More dolomite exposures with crustose lichens.
Highly dimensional foreground objects add depth and perspective to low-angle shots. Again, it is better to get a little more in the photo than desired and the crop slightly afterwards than to get too close and not be able to do anything about it. Taking the native shot a little further back also ensures that the entire foreground object is in focus.
Fruticose lichens and moss intermingle in particularly moist spots.
Like the close-up photo of the lichen-encrusted rock above, this photo of intermingled moss and fruticose lichens benefits from a low perspective with a high color contrast immediate background (fallen leaves) and blurred deep background (forest/sky) to add perspective. While the latter is not completely blurred, but it’s enough that it doesn’t detract from the main subject. The latter has maximal focus by backing up slightly for the shot and then cropping off the bottom out-of-focus portion in Photoshop. Again, I increased saturation a little more than usual to emphasize the value contrast.
Friend and Ozark Trail co-conspirator Rich Thoma looks out over the Huzzah Creek Valley.
The main challenge with this photo was the shadow cast over Rich by the trees behind him. Setting the exposure on him resulted in a washed out sky, which I really wanted to preserve because of the textured clouds. I also wanted to include a good portion of the sky to give the sense of looking out over a far-below valley, so I set the exposure for the sky. The resulting photo had a good sky, but Rich was hidden in a darkly shadowed area. I used lighten shadows in Photoshop to brighten Rich and the shadowed area where he is standing, and I used aggressively increased saturation to make the many different shades of brown in the rest of the photo pop out.
An ancient red-cedar snag hugs the bluff tops overlooking the Huzzah Creek Valley.
This photo had largely the same challenges and was dealt with in the same manner as the previous. The ancient red-cedar snag is an interesting and unusual subject, and I first tried a portrait orientation, but I decided I liked this landscape orientation better because of the ability to include living red-cedar to add a sense of time contrast.
Icicles form on an undercut below the bluff top.
Whenever I find icicles hanging from a rock overhang, I like to provide a more unusual perspective by getting behind the icicles and looking out onto the landscape. It can be hard to get the camera to focus on the icicles rather than the distant landscape—just keep touching them on the screen until it works. I used shadow lightening in Photoshop to brighten the dark rock surfaces in the foreground.
A cap of resistant dolomite lines the top of the Huzzah Creek Valley.
This was a difficult photograph—sun on the pines/cedars on the left overexposed them, while shadows on the naturally dark rock bluff surfaces left them underexposed. This photo was made fairly acceptable by using both “darken highlights” and “lighten shadows” (careful—too aggressive with these features results in unnatural-looking photos), followed by brightening and increasing the contrast, and finally by increasing the saturation. It’s still not a great photo, but sometimes you get what you get.
This larger set of icicles was nicely positioned in front of an interestingly sloped landscape with the sun coming from the left. Again, I got behind them, kept touching the screen on the icicles until the iPhone focused on them, and then adjusted the white point setting in Levels in Photoshop to really make them pop against the rich browns of the landscape behind.
Icicles were especially abundant in this section of the bluff tops.
A fairly easy shot due to the direction of the sun that required no more than the usual amount of post-processing. Note the perspective, which was to have the rock feature begin right at the bottom left corner of the photograph with some sky above it.
Despite subfreezing air temperatures, sunlight causes water to drip from overhanging icicles, causing ice stalagmites on the ground beneath.
This photo had some dark areas in the foreground that were cropped out, and to emphasize the ice I was more aggressive post-processing with brightening and increasing the contrast. Again, as with most photos with a lot of white in the subject, I adjusted the white point in Photoshop Levels to reduce the “dinginess” that seems natural for ambient light iPhone photos.
Icicles glisten in the frigid sunlight.
In this case, the sun glistening on the icicles and a deep recess behind them provided a natural contrast that I further emphasized in post-processing, along with brightening and setting white point. The icicles suffer from distortion due to my low angle (I’m not that tall!), which I tried to fix with Photoshop’s distort feature but wasn’t satisfied with the result.
Close-up of ice stalagmites, revealing the twigs and petioles around which they have formed.
The approach with this photo was very much like that used for the close-ups of the lichen-encrusted rocks and intermingled lichens/moss photos—i.e., I backed up a bit to include more foreground than I wanted (which will be blurred at the bottom after setting the focus point on one of the stalagmites) and then cropped it out in post-processing. White subject = setting white point and using more aggressive brightening and contrast.
Rock, ice, and sunlight converge along the bluff tops
Again, the formation starts at the lower corner, and in this case the foreground (the right side) also contains an interesting clump of icicles. With the sun behind me, little was required to assure proper exposure, and only normal post-processing was required.
Moss with fruiting structures on a fallen log.
This moss on a fallen log was actually one of the more difficult photographs I took. I took the photo at an angle so that the background fruiting structures would form a solid, blurred red horizon to add depth, but in doing this the iPhone didn’t know where I wanted to focus and kept choosing the background. To force it to “choose” the foreground fruiting structures, I tilted the camera down so that only the foreground was in the frame, touched the screen on the fruiting structures in the back part of the screen to set focus where I wanted, then tilted the screen back again to include the background fruiting structures distant blurred background for perspective. One must shoot quickly when doing this or the iPhone will automatically readjust its focus to the background. I’ve tried shots such as this with the sky in the background, but in my experience the iPhone cannot focus on very thin foreground objects with the sky in the background, and the difference in brightness between the background and foreground is especially difficult to correct. Like the other semi- wide-angle macro shots above, I used the zoom feature (slightly), included a little more in the photo than I wanted, and then cropped out the overly blurred bottom portion of the photo.
Mushrooms on a fallen log.
Here is a typical photograph that someone might take of these large, saucer-sized mushrooms on a fallen log. In addition to being a pedestrian view of such a subject, it seems that iPhones sometimes have difficulty registering the correct color for photos taken straight down to the ground. This photo required quite a bit of color correction, and I’m still not overly satisfied with the result.
“Bug’s eye” view of mushrooms on a fallen log.
As an alternative, I suggest getting low to photograph subjects such as this. The iPhone, with its lens against one edge and screen view, is well-adapted to take such low-angle photos, resulting in a much more interesting photo than the typical “looking down” perspective exemplified above. Inclusion of a little bit of sky in the background also provided some nice color contrast, made easier by shooting away from the sun, which was further emphasized in post-processing by increasing the saturation. As with the other semi- wide-angle macro photographs, a little bit of cropping along the bottom (but do keep the original aspect ratio) also benefited the photograph.
Moss covering the rock exposures in a delightful valley leading up from the Huzzah Creek Valley indicate an abundance of moisture.
Last, but not least, this photograph of shaded, heavily moss-laden rock outcroppings bordering a small waterfall needed to be shot very dark in order to avoid “blowing” the sky in the background. Simply pointing and shooting into the shade will cause the iPhone to correctly expose the rocks, but the sky will be blown rather than retaining its blue color. Like the first two photos, I composed the image, then touched the screen on the sky to reduce the exposure. Again, this resulted in a photo that was very dark in the foreground, but this was easily corrected by aggressive brightening, adding contrast, and increasing the saturation post-processing to achieve a nice mix of browns and greens while preserving the blue sky background. In forest shots such as this with a lot of vertical objects, pay attention to distortion while composing the photo to avoid having trees at the edge of the photo “bowing” inwards at their tops. Sometimes this can be avoided by minor adjustments to the tilt of the iPhone while taking the shot, but if your position in the landscape is such that camera tilt alone is not enough to prevent this without losing the desired composition then go ahead and shoot the desired composition and use the “distortion” tool in Photoshop to correct the distortion this works best if bowing is minor).
I hope you have enjoyed this iPhone nature photography tutorial. If you have additional ideas or suggestions please let me know, and also I would be glad to hear of any related subjects you would like me to cover.
Is there any question why these are called the Smoky Mountains?
Last week I attended the Entomological Society of America (ESA) meetings in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was my first ESA attendance in more than ten years, so I took full advantage of the opportunity by speaking at the insect macrophotography symposium, presenting a poster on my soybean insect research, and enjoying face-to-face conversations with an extraordinary number of colleagues—some of whom I had not seen since my last ESA meeting and many more for which this was my first opportunity to meet them in person. I admit to having grown a little complacent in recent years about the importance of regular personal contact in cultivating these relationships—my attendance at this year’s ESA reminded me of that fact, and I’ve renewed my commitment to make ESA attendance a priority in the coming years.
Of course, no meeting should be all work and no play, and for me the chance to sample the local natural or cultural history is an added benefit of meeting attendance. This year’s destination for such was a no-brainer—located less than an hour’s drive from Knoxville, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the largest federally protected area east of the Mississippi River. Straddling some of the highest peaks of one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, the park has been designated an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations due to its rich biota.
One afternoon is not nearly enough time to even scratch the surface of the park’s 800 square miles, but it’s enough to get a taste of the diverse habitats they encompass and whet the appetite for further exploration. Highly recommended for those short on time is Clingman’s Dome—the park’s highest point at 6,643 ft. An observation tower allows spectacular vistas (provided the day has good visibility) of the surrounding mountains and the evergreen forests that cloak them. Unfortunately, the view has been marred in recent years by the accidental introduction of an exotic woolly adelgid (a relative of aphids) from Europe and its subsequent establishment on the forest’s Frazier firs. Dead trunks rise from the forest like tombstones—ghostly reminders of what has been lost. The starkness of the high elevation forest contrasts with the lush mixed hemlock forest that dominates the park’s lower elevations, and the 2.4-mile Alum Creek Trail provides an intimate experience with this rich forest and its thick understory of native rhododendron. I hope the following slide show imparts some essence of the experience, and larger versions of each photo can be seen by clicking on the thumbnails in the gallery that follows.
View south from Clingman’s Dome
View east from Clingman’s Dome
View east from Clingman’s Dome
View south from Clingman’s Dome
View north from Clingman’s Dome Overlook Tower
Rhododendrons line Alum Creek
Snow melt rushes through Alum Creek
Small rapids are common in the upper reaches of Alum Creek
Beetles, spiders, and snakes were not the only delights that Rich and I saw as we hiked the lower stretch of the Ozark Trail’sWappapello Section in early April. Entering the rich, moist, east-facing slopes overlooking the Black River valley, the oaks and hickories were still in the early stages of bud break. A lush, green understory, however, spread out before us, punctuated by the striking inflorescences of red buckeye, Aesculus pavia (family Hippocastanaceae). Among the first trees to bloom in spring, red buckeye is unmistakable in the field due to its red flowers and palmately divided leaves.
Red buckeye is native to the southeastern U.S., just reaching Missouri in the southeastern Ozarks (though cultivated further north). This makes it less well-known than the more widely distributed Ohio buckeye, Aesculus glabra (absent only from the southeastern lowlands and northwestern corner of the state, and easily distinguished by its white inflorescences, larger size, and spreading growth habit). Like that species, the seeds and young foliage especially are poisonous if eaten due to glycosidic alkaloids and saponins. Native Americans roasted, peeled and mashed the nuts into a meal called “Hetuck.”
I first encountered this species in 2001 along Fox Creek in the White River Hills of extreme southwestern Missouri. It was one of several species that I had selectively “cut” and left in situ for a season to allow infestation by wood boring beetles. I retrieved the wood the following spring and reared five species of longhorned beetles (family Cerambycidae) from the dead branches, including Astyleiopus variegatus, Hyperplatys maculata, Leptostylus transversus, Lepturges angulatus, and the prize – the very uncommonly encountered Lepturges regularis. All of these represented new larval host records; however, it was not until after I published those records (MacRae and Rice 2007) that I realized the plant itself was not known by Steyermark (1963) to occur naturally outside of the southeastern Ozark Highlands.
Speaking of early spring flowers, many such delights can be found at Berry Go Round #27 which is now up at Mary Farmer’s A Neotropical Savanna. It’s not just spring ephemerals, however, as another Missouri blogger and I show that winter has it’s own botanical charms. Stop by and enjoy the feast!