Habitats of the Llano Estacado
Photoessay – Shinoak-Covered Sanddunes (August, 2009)
Nathan Taylor’s family farms cotton west of Lamesa. In 2009 Nathan was 15 years old. He is homeschooled, and before or after lessons, or while he is working on the farm (hoeing or driving the tractor) he explores his homestead. His family’s house sits in the middle of shinoak covered sanddunes. His photography records the changing seasons, and through the year he discovered a number of organisms (both plants and animals) that had not been recorded in western Dawson County before his observations. In November 2009 he was elected Vice-President of the Llano Estacado Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists.
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Related Photoessays: April | June | July | September | October | Early November | Mid-November | Early December
The area around Nathanís farm received enough rain on enough days for puddles to form long enough to have algae grow at the surface of the soil. When the water dried, a crust of green algae was left.
Since careless weeds (amaranths) are a common weed in cotton fields, Nathan has plenty of time to observe variation in the genus and in species. Here, the blooms are on branches.
And here, the blooms are in a cone.
Some species have white splotches on their wide leaves,
and some have white splotches on narrow leaves,
and some have no white splotches at all.
Texas bindweed is usually found as single plants, unlike European bindweed that forms dense mats covering many square feet.
What is the advantage (ecologically) for the shape of a birdís nest mushroom?
One of Nathanís cats brought in a black headed snake. This species feeds on arthropods, such as centipedes, scorpions, and spiders.
If you count the rings on one scute (section of shell) you can see that this is a 2 year old turtle.
The white seeds on this bristlegrass are ripe, but the green ones are not.
Perennial broomweed is resinous, and sticky to the touch when it is actively growing.
A buffalo bur was swallowed up by a growing tumbleweed. Notice the open tube of the style on the bloom in the back, while the style on the bloom in front appears closed. Which has been fertilized, or is the difference an indication of fertilization?
James rush pea can bloom every month of the growing season, if there is enough rain.
With plants actively growing from the rain, Nathan found several caterpillars. This one is orange, black and white,
While this one is a hornworm with purple spots,
And this one is yellow black and white,
And this one is orange and black with thick clumps of short black hair. Maybe we can eventually learn what each of these will become!
One grassbur plant was covered with tiny white balls but we have not learned what caused the phenomenon.
White petalostemum or dalea is shuffled back and forth between the two genera by taxonomists.
Wire lettuce blooms are tiny blue stars on a ball of brush.
The fruit of Comanche prickly pear is pinkish, instead of the deep red of most other species and varieties of prickly pear.
A cottontail rabbit hid behind trompillo as it investigated the cowpen daisy plants.
A damselfly rested on a mulberry tree, possibly drawn by the watering of the plant.
Mutated flowers, like this dayflower, are somewhat uncommon.
A tiny assassin bug hid on the devilís claw blossom.
A whitetail dragonfly (genus Libellula) rested on a shinoak, a long way from water.
Nathanís house is set inside a dune field created by blowing sands from farmland. The farmland has been under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Sandsage from the dune area has spread into the CRP land, while weeping lovegrass from the CRP land has moved into the dune area. These dunes were probably first created in the 1930s dust bowl days, and became much larger during the long 1950s drought.
Nathan found another amaranth, and this one displayed fasciation caused by a bacteria.
Fence lizards are a subspecies of southern prairie lizards, and Nathan has both varieties on his dune field.
Flowering straw has ray flowers only.
One shinoak plant had galls covering its leaves.
And the whole plant had galls on almost every leaf, but no other shinoak on the property displayed the phenomenon.
A few shinoaks had singular small red galls.
Grasshoppers molt their skin as they grow.
This grasshopper had a striking pattern on its wings.
And this grasshopper might be melanistic (genes that make it darker than normal).
There are many black and white jumping spiders species,
But not many that are tan and black.
The tan and black species turned to face the camera. Most jumping spiders demonstrate remarkable awareness of photographers because they are the only group of spiders that can form images similar to what we see.
Phyllanthes abnormis (leafflower) has blooms and seedpods under its leaves,
Which you can see in this closeup.
A brown leafhopper sought sap from the red mesquite bean.
Lesser earless lizards are common in the sandy soil habitat.
The markings on lesser earless lizards are intricate.
This brown lichen seems to only grow on the taller shinoaks (which are about 15 feet tall). Nathan has found at least 5 different strains or varieties of shinoaks on his property, and is working on a research paper that might better explain the variation within shinoaks.
August brought baby fence lizards.
Longnose snakes specialize in lizards. The shinoak habitat seems to have a high population density of several species of lizards, but their major predator, longnose snakes, are rarely seen.
These deformed mesquite pods are a type of gall caused by a midge (fly).
Milkweed aphids will swarm on redbloomed milkweed, too.
Asclepias oenerothoides blooms are pale green/white.
The sepals of the tall 4 o clock often turn red.
These are probably curved bill thrasher eggs, since the nest is made of grass roots and sticks.
With the rain, Nathan added more varieties of mushrooms to the list of mushrooms that appear in the shinoak habitat, like these small brown ones,
And this one, already decaying,
And puffball mushroom spores have slight purplish cast,
And small tan mushrooms appeared, too.
Balsam apple vines normally have very dissected leaves, but this mutated leaf form can occasionally be found.
A prickly pear pad also mutated.
Fledgling robins appeared in August. Robins nest in the towns of the region, and possibly in the densest hackberry and soapberry forests in the draw habitat.
Some mushrooms do not get slimy or turn black.
A gray and white orb weaver spider hid on a leaf,
While this yellow and brown orb weaver had a very skinny abdomen, indicating she had not eaten for several days.
Potato beetles visited buffalo bur, and buffalo bur is in the same plant family as potato.
A southern prairie clambered up a tumbleweed.
They often climb trees, shrubs, houses, fences, and old wooden pallets, if handy.
A pupa case for a beetle was exposed by rain.
This unusual specimen has been identified as Portulaca halimoides.
Ragweed has tight budspikes that open up before they bloom (as the spike in the center of the photo is doing).
Who is winning? Does the robberfly really have the grasshopper under control? Or is the grasshopper biting the robberfly? The grasshopper has lost a legÖbut sometimes grasshoppers are cannibalistic, so would it eat the robberfly, or just limp away?
Sand innocence is rarely more than a few inches across.
Sand love grass fills some of the space between the sand sage, shinoak, and mesquite with a frothy swirl of bloomstalks.
Sand rabbitbrush has a distinctive pattern on the bottom bracts of the bloom.
Sand rabbitbrush can be 4 feet across and 4 feet tall in the best of conditions.
Seepwillow blooms in August. This was found at a playa about a mile from Nathanís house.
Sometimes the shelf fungus on mesquite has orange on its new growth.
Why is one of the shinoak acorns black? It appears there is a small hole on the black one, so maybe it has a grub or larvae of something inside.
Why was the shinoak putting out blooms in August? Does it always do so, if there is sufficient rainfall, no matter what time of the growing season?
Shrubby dalea was found in some caliche gravel road base.
Sida filicaulis was also down at the playa, in the clay soil.
Sideoats grama blooms are purple and red, too Ė Nathanís July photoessay, what other species of grass had purple and red bloom parts?
The southern end of the range of the sixlined whiptails is somewhere between Lamesa and Midland.
Nathan likes to take portraits of reptiles!
The hairy cocoon sticking out of the snake cotton bloom is probably unknown to science Ė it is doubtful anyone has ever studied the insects found on snake cotton. Snake cotton is an amaranth that looks nothing like careless weed!
A prairie rattler tried to sneak away into a patch of grass and broomweed growing on old cotton gin trash.
This stink bug on a mesquite appears to be the same species Cathy Hoak found east of Iraan on a juniper in the limestone canyon and breaks habitat.
Tall milkweed can be six feet tall. There are two similar appearing species of milkweed, but the other is shorter, and is rhizomatous so it forms dense patches.
This ďspeciesĒ of lichen looks like a target for an archer.
Three awn seeds detach from the panicle, and then rest lightly on other awns of the panicle, waiting for someone to walk by so the sharp barbs can find lodging in socks.
Variegated fritillaries are never plentiful, but usually a few can be found almost every day in August.
What caused this webbing in a broomweed?
A whitewinged dove scoped out the scene before dropping to the ground.
Yellow spined thistles can cause serious welts if someone brushes up against it.
Is this a species of Artemisia?
An is this an Artemisia, too? Both of these puzzle the Sibley Nature Center staff.
Paronychia in close up reveals the tiny yellow blossoms. It is strange that it will grow in the sanddune habitat, for it is most common in rocky gravelly soil in the canyon and breaks habitat.
Nathan also found this beautiful wildflower, and it is probably the furthest south it has ever been seen. Botanists love "range extensions"; they are often evidence of climate change (relic species from long ago), or to show the constantly changing landscape...with the ebb and flow of rainy versus dry years, or the increasing brushification changing the habitat itself. The botanical name is Phemeranthus calycinus, but there is no common name. Google the name, and you might find out that it has been used as a garden plant...but not in West Texas!
This is the bloom of a Panicum, but whether it is reverchonii or ramiseta (for the species) needs a more astute grass taxonomist.
Hairy grama is common in the sand dune country, and is common in the gravel soils of the canyon and breaks habitat, too. Species like this one and the Paronychia must require excellent drainage, which is the most common similarity between the two habitats.
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