The Prairie Ecologist Goes to the Beach

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent last week on a family vacation near Corpus Christi, Texas.  The kids really liked swimming in the ocean, looking for shells, and playing in the sand.  I enjoyed all of those things too, but I also spent quite a bit of time wandering the beaches and adjacent dunes with my camera.

Hermit crab

Along the beach near our hotel in Corpus Christi, we found several largish intact shells and didn’t immediately realize that all of them hosted hermit crabs.  Once we figured that out, we put them back on the beach and watched them crawl back into the water.

Waiting for hermit crabs

My wife and stepson waiting for hermit crabs to emerge and start moving around.

It was fun to see what the waves were washing up on the beach.  Even the trash – and there was a lot of that – was interesting.

Sea shell on beach. San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.

Sea shell on beach.  I know that some snails drill holes into mollusk shells and feed on the animal inside, but I don’t know how to explain the high abundance of holes in this particular shell.  San Jose Island near Port Aransas, Texas.

Barnacles on driftwood.  On the beach at San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.

Barnacle shells on a big driftwood log. San Jose Island near Port Aransas, Texas.

There were others walking the beach too – especially gulls and various shorebirds.  I was just looking for interesting objects and photo subjects.  The birds were looking for food.

Gull at Padre Island National Seashore.  Corpus Christi, Texas.

Laughing gulls and other birds were walking the edge of the surf at Padre Island National Seashore, feeding on various small animals washed up on the beach.

Stink bug washed up on beach at Padre Island National Seashore.  Corpus Christi, Texas.  Seemed to be major food source for gulls.

As I followed gulls to see what they were eating, much of what they seemed to be feeding on were small terrestrial invertebrates that had apparently gotten caught in the water and washed ashore.  Stinkbugs were very abundant, along with a few different beetle species.  I saw 20 or 30 stinkbugs washed up in a pretty short stretch of beach.

The starkest reminders that I was far from the prairies of Nebraska were the crabs.  Those of you who have followed this blog for a while know about my minor obsession about photographing crab spiders in prairies.  I think I could probably develop a similar addiction to photographing crabs.  They’re just so otherworldly and fantastic.

Crab at Padre Island National Seashore.  Corpus Christi, Texas.

Ghost crabs (and other species?) were very common on the beaches at Padre Island National Seashore and San Jose Island.  They seemed to spend a lot of time carrying sand out of their holes, and skittered back into those holes quickly as we approached them.  This one eventually came back out after I sat quietly next to its burrow.

Crab.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.

The crabs along the beaches ranged from very small (this one was about an inch or inch and a half wide – including legs) to maybe 5 or 6 inches wide.

Crab at Padre Island National Seashore.  Corpus Christi, Texas.

A larger crab at Padre Island National Seashore.  I don’t know how many species are there, and couldn’t find much information on them.  Maybe they are all ghost crabs, but the coloration patterns seemed to vary somewhat between individuals.

Crab larva(?) the beach at Padre Island National Seashore.  Gulf coast of Texas near Corpus Christi.

I’m guessing this is a larval crab, but I really don’t know.  It was only about 1/2 inch wide and was moving around by squirting water out a tiny jet engine-like appendage coming out its rear end.  Padre Island National Seashore.

Tiger beetles were a more familiar sight to me than the crabs.  I know tiger beetles, though not the species I was seeing on the beach last week.  It turns out beach tiger beetles are just as fun to stalk with a camera as those in prairies.  And their faces are just as cute.

Tiger beetle.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.

Tiger beetle. San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.

Tiger beetle.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.

Tiger beetle. San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.

Unfortunately, much of what we saw washed up along the beaches was debris from the human race.  A huge range of objects, especially plastic ones, were strewn about along the base of the dunes.  I tried for a while to compose photos that avoided the trash, but eventually gave up and just photographed the trash itself.

Trash washed in on beach.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.

Trash washed in on beach. San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.

While the beaches were pretty different from prairies, the dunes right next to them felt much more like home.  As I walked through them, I felt as if I should know the plants I was seeing.  They looked just like prairie plants I am familiar with in Nebraska except that they weren’t quite.  I saw grasses that were almost prairie sandreed, wildflowers that were almost purple prairie clover, and many others.  If I squinted my eyes, it felt like home.

Padre Island National Seashore.  Corpus Christi, Texas.

Dunes at Padre Island National Seashore. Corpus Christi, Texas.

Ldunes along the beach at Padre Island National Seashore.  Gulf coast of Texas near Corpus Christi.

The plant community in the dunes looked and felt just like the sandhills prairie of Nebraska.

Not only did walking the dunes feel familiar, photographing the little creatures living in them did too.  I heard this cicada before I saw it, and was able to slowly creep up close enough for a photo.

Cicada. San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.

Cicada. San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.

Grasshoppers were very abundant in the dunes.  Every time I stopped to photograph one, I’d see several others right next to it.  The result was a kind of neverending cascade of photographic opportunities.  Even with a stiff breeze blowing, I managed to get a few decent portraits taken.

Grasshopper.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.

Grasshopper. San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.

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Grasshopper.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.

Grasshopper. San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.

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Grasshopper.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.

Grasshopper. San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.

Lizards were also a comforting sight.  The habitat looked like it should have lizards in it, and sure enough, there they were.  I had to look up the species online (I think I got it right)?

Lizard.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.

Keeled earless lizard (Holbrookia propinqua). San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.

Lizard in the dunes along the beach at Padre Island National Seashore.  Gulf coast of Texas near Corpus Christi.

Another keeled earless lizard.  (You can tell they’re related by their identical facial expressions…?)  I’m not sure if the more colorful one is a juvenile or different gender – I couldn’t figure that out online, but I’m sure readers can help me out.  Padre Island National Seashore. Gulf coast of Texas near Corpus Christi.

Atticus Miller (stepson of photographer) looking at a lizard found on the beach.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.

Atticus (my stepson) looking at a lizard found on the beach. San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.

As always, it was great to be on vacation but nice to be home again.  I enjoyed walking through the familiar black-eyed susans and big bluestem of the Platte River Prairies yesterday.

Though I do miss those crabs…

 

 

 

 

 

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Watching the Sandhills Bounce Back at the Niobrara Valley Preserve

I took our Hubbard Fellows up to the Niobrara Valley Preserve in north-central Nebraska last week.  While we were there, I spent quite a bit of time in the east bison pasture, where the recovery of prairie plants from last year’s summer wildfire was in full swing.

sunflowers and grass

Prairie grasses such as sand bluestem (front left) and many others were growing well across the bison pasture during the first growing season since last July’s wildfire.

The lush green growth was in strong contrast to the burned prairie’s appearance back in late April when only a few sedges and yucca looked alive – and both were being cropped short by hungry bison.

April 23

These sedges were about the only green in the bison pasture on April 23 of this year.  Since the bison were mainly eating brown grass and hay all winter, anything green was pretty attractive.

We knew the prairie would survive the fire, but it was still good to see the quick strong growth after some nice rains this spring.  The Preserve staff reduced the size of the east bison herd last year because more than 90% of the bison pasture had burned.  The biggest concern was getting the bison through the winter with very little residual grass available to eat.  With the help of a little fall growth and some supplemental hay, the bison survived just fine.

bison

The bison are enjoying having a wide selection of green plants to choose from after a long winter of sparse brown grass.

The drought and wildfire definitely weakened the vigor of perennial plants in the prairie, and there is a flush of annuals and other short-lived plants taking advantage of that this year.  Species such as goosefoot (an annual Chenopodium species), annual sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris) and six-weeks fescue (Vulpia octoflora) are abundant throughout the grassland.  At the same time, however, perennial plants such as prairie wild rose (Rosa arkansana), spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis), cutleaf ironplant (Haploppus spinulosus), and many more are having a great year too.

wildflowers

Flower species such as cutleaf ironplant (left) and spiderwort (right) are coloring the sandhills in the burned bison pasture.

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flowers

Goosefoot (the tall skinny light blue plants) and other annuals are abundant, but so are perennials such as wild rose (pink) and hairy puccoon (yellow).

Besides the bison, we saw numerous other creatures throughout the prairie.  I wandered through the area where I’d seen sharp-tailed grouse displaying back in May, and flushed up a couple birds.  Upland sandpipers, western meadowlarks, and lark sparrows were all over the place.  Insects, of course, were easy to find too, including a number of species feeding on the pollen of the ubiquitous flowers.

Gr asshopper nymph

Grasshopper nymph on annual sunflower.

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antlion

Adult antlions were EVERYWHERE during my morning walk in the prairie.  A few were feeding on the pollen of spiderwort flowers.

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fence lizard

A  lesser earless lizard (Holbrookia maculata) near a small sand blowout.

This spring brought a big new batch of bison calves, a testament to the toughness of the females, who were able to get through a hard winter of sparse brown grass and a little hay.  There should be plenty to eat now – not only did the Preserve staff reduce the herd size to about 150 adults after the fire, they also increased the pasture size to about 10,000 acres.  While the prairie grasses are still weak, that light stocking rate should give those plants plenty of opportunity to recover, depending upon the consistency of rainfall during the remainder of the season, of course.  The staff will allow the herd size to grow again over the next few years, aiming for an eventual stocking rate of about 30 acres per animal.

bison calves

This year’s bison calves looked as cute and healthy as always.

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bison bull

The big bulls looked healthy too…

In other news, the extent of erosion on the ridges where the pine woodland burned last year didn’t look any worse than the last time I was there.  In addition to a lot of deciduous trees re-sprouting from their bases, we saw a fair number of oak trees with at least some leaves on last year’s branches – though it’s not clear whether they’ll actually survive long-term or not.  Most importantly, we haven’t yet found any invasive plants moving into those burned woodland areas, which is good.

The burned woodlands will be significantly different – but fine – in the coming years.  The prairies, however, have been able to absorb the impacts of the drought and wildfire without breaking stride.

It’s like they’ve done this before…