Moseying: Exploring the Natural World
Seven Habitats of the Llano Estacado
November 9, 2005
The Llano Estacado is where the arid lands of the west battle the humid lands of the east. Every twenty years the arid lands win the never-ending confrontation and a multi-year drought occurs. The worst drought in 500 years appears to have finally ended. From 1992 until the fall of 2004 drought has blasted us. Just three years ago there was not a blade of grass in the pastures around Midland but now, the beauty of golden grasses blanket the landscape.
There are seven major habitats on and around the Llano Estacado. Three western habitats are found on the Llano sanddune, gypsoil, and shallow gravelly soil. The sand dunes that stretch from Crane to Fort Sumner west of the Llano are duplicated on the Llano itself, usually to the north and east of the headwater draws of the rivers to the east. Shinoak, sand penstemon, Ord's kangaroo rats, and kit foxes are indicator species of the sanddunes.
The plants and animals that live along the alkaline stretches of the Pecos River can be found near the alkaline playas on the Llano itself. Pickleweed, snowy plovers, saltbush, alkali sacaton and the introduced salt cedar are associated species of the gyp habitat.
Two habitats of shallow gravelly soils are present the shortgrass prairies of the far western reaches of the Llano Estacado, north of Hobbs and west of Plains. Pronghorn antelope are often sighted in this habitat, grazing on buffalo grass, burro grass, and nibbling the new leaves of catclaw mimosa. Very little mesquite is found in this habitat. To the south and west of the Llano, the creosotebush/tarbrush habitat on gravelly soil is often dominant. On the southern stretches of the Llano (south of Johnson Draw), this habitat, more commonly found in the Chihuahuan Desert (to our south and west), is commonly found.
On the east are the breaks of the rivers of Texas (the Concho, the Colorado, the Brazos, and the Red. Plants and animals found in the more humid regions of the state use the river bottoms and then their headwater draws for access to the Llano. The canyons (Palo Duro, Tule, White River, and Yellowhouse) can be considered a habitat of the Llano. Opossums, raccoons, chittamwood trees, and other organisms indicate this eastern influence.
The headwater draws of the Llano are an important habitant to migrating birds and monarch butterflies. Isolated groves of hackberry and soapberry give shelter to gray foxes, porcupines, massasauga rattlesnakes, and snailseed vine.
On the Llano the dominant habitat is mesquite brushland. It used to be midgrass prairie grasses up to knee-tall height. Ranchers often clear mesquite to try to reclaim what was once maintained by fire and prairie dogs. Mesquite was originally confined to draw bottoms that had deeper soils and more moisture, which allowed them to reach a height that was less damaged by herbivores and fires.
The Llano Estacado is dotted by thousands of playas. Some playas are large and have extremely alkaline bottoms with loess deposits to their east and north. Loess is extremely soil particles blown up and out of the salty playas. There are many more claybottomed playas, however, than alkaline playas. From the air after a rainy season the Llano Estacado is a plain of ponds at least one for every square mile. All of the playas (when filled) give winter homes to thousands of ducks and cranes one of the most important ecological roles the Llano Estacado.
When we Llaneros travel across our home bioregion, understanding of what we see gives us ways to discern the diversity within the landscape that newcomers often call flat, brown, boring, and ugly. I love the subtlety of our region, I love our incredible sunsets, and I love the hardiness of the plants and animals that manage to survive the extremes of temperature and rainfall.
The goal of the Sibley Nature Center is to not only educate visitors and residents about the Llano Estacado, but to also get people out exploring. What follows is an all day journey to see each of the major habitats of the region.
Get up early and head west on Interstate 20. Drive the speed limit until you reach Monahans State Park. Drive in, go through their interpretative center, and take a 30-minute walk among the dunes both the vegetated and the non-vegetated dunes. Get back in your vehicle, go to Kermit on SH 18, and then turn back east towards Notrees on SH 302. As you reach the Llano Estacados western edge (the Mescalero Escarpment) stop and walk along the road, looking for junipers, collared lizards (when warm), and smell the lemony scent of the brillo-pad-like Pectis.
For the first mile past the escarpment, you will find an isolated patch of the creosote bush habitat. To the east of Notrees, small areas of shortgrass prairie and a clay playa can be seen. Go to FM 181 and turn north. You will go through a mix of grassland, mesquite brushland, and bands of vegetated dunes. A few miles north of U.S. 87 west of Andrews turn right on FM 1967 and go east until you reach Shafter Lake, a large salt playa, and then turn south along the bluffs east and south of the lake. Walk along the road in the loess soils.
Continue on south back to U.S. 87 and go a few miles east of Andrews to S.H. 115 and turn left. Halfway to Patricia you will cross Mustang Draw. See if you can spot the small hackberry trees beyond the red fenceposts of the Scharbauer Ranch. Continue east to Patricia, and then turn north on S.H. 349 to U.S. 180 a few miles south of Lamesa. Turn east, and just before you cross U.S. 87 you will cross Sulphur Springs Draw, filled with escaped elms and other vegetation from the town.
Before you continue east to Gail, drive into Lamesa and have lunch. Then drive east on U.S. 180, admiring the red Triassic clays of the eastern escarpment of the Llano Estacado. You will cross a number of the headwater draws of the Colorado River. A mile east of Gail turn south on Willow Valley Road. Pass Mushaway (Muchaque) Peak and then park at the bridge over the Colorado River and admire the big willows and cottonwoods. To the south of the river look for Pronghorn antelope on the Beal Ranch before your next turn.
Turn west again on 1785 to S.H. 669 (the road is being worked on) and go south to Big Spring. Go south through Big Spring and drive into the City Park. Walk along the site of the Big Spring on a good paved trail, then drive to the State Park, and drive to the picnic tables on top of Scenic Mountain and eat a picnic supper before heading home. It is a full days trip of less than 300 miles. Take the time to not only walk about in each of the habitats, but also stop at antique stores, cafes, general stores and even an abandoned cotton gin along the way!