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McDonald Observatory 6 – Flora and Fauna Finale

2021.06.12 - Even though I was focused on astrophotography this trip, it was impossible for me to ignore the incredible variety of life that calls the West Texas desert home. The desert is a harsh environment that tends to hide its many secrets, but if you look carefully and wander away from the bustle of most human activity, you will always find something beautiful and amazing hiding in the dynamic landscapes of the Davis Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert.

The Milky Way Galaxy over Fort Davis State Park
A female/juvenile Black-chinned Hummingbird coming in for a drink

I didn't have much time to plan my trip to West Texas, so I spent the grueling midday hours hiking or driving around the desert looking for potential locations for night photography. The benefit of traveling alone is that I could stop at any moment to take photos of anything that caught my interest. Whenever I took a little time to slow down and observe the landscape, I always found something unique and interesting. The desert is full of life if you take the time to see it.

In the heat of the afternoon sun at the McDonald Observatory Visitor Center, I could hear the hum of massive bumble bees buzzing through the branches of a flowering desert willow, or more properly the Chilopsis Linearis. The bees were too energetic and I was too impatient in the boiling heat to get a shot in passing with my zoom lens, but a small butterfly stayed still just long enough for me to capture it on a fresh flower bud. I can’t say for certain, but given the green hue, white-spotted pattern, and the black and white stripes on the legs and antennae, I would assume this is a Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus).

While driving through the winding mountain roads north of the McDonald Observatory, I stopped on the side of the road for a picture looking down into the valley. From my position along a short rock wall, I was drawn to the magenta blooms of a large collection of Tree Cholla (Cylindropuntia imbricata) clinging desperately to the steep side of the mountain. The Tree Cholla is a particularly spiny cactus that often grows out from strong internal branches making it look more like a tree than a cactus (thus the nickname).

It was hard to get in close with my 55mm, manual-focus macro lens to capture some of the insects harvesting the bounty within the blooms without getting stabbed, but I managed with only a few pricks from the plant's ample defenses.

Upon closer inspection, the cactus was teeming with life

The cactus was covered in various insects from flies to what were likely Carpenter Ants, but deep inside one of the blooms, there was a peculiar flying insect that I found difficult to identify even after returning home. I originally thought it was a simple Texas Flower Fly, but upon closer inspection, the eyes were too small and the four wings overlapped completely at rest. In addition, the head and mandibles weren't angular enough, nor the propodeum (area between the thorax and abdomen) narrow enough to be a wasp. After some cursory research online, given the particularly large and muted abdomen and fuzzy legs, I came to the conclusion that it was likely some sort of wild bee. Fortunately, I joined a very helpful and informative group on Facebook by the name "Antman's Hill" that was able to identify this as a "Sphecodes (Blood Bee)". Sphecodes is a very interesting type of wild bee that is generally solitary instead of colonial. Additionally, they can also be kleptoparasites, which means that they often survive by stealing food from other insects, in this case usually Sweet Bees that gather nectar and produce honey.

On the subject of bees, I have been learning more and more about the diversity of bees that exist beyond the common honey bee that everyone knows so well. Our unnatural focus and purposeful breeding of the honey bee, plus the massive over-poisoned mono-cultures we continue to create across the world to feed commercial agriculture, are slowly destroying the wild bee population. Many wild bees have specifically evolved with the small variety of plants that they pollinate far better than honey bees. The artificial breeding and proliferation of honey bees into the wild bee's food supply impacts the wild bee population, and the honey bees are less successful at pollinating the plants the wild bees depend on. There are many plant species we could lose completely if the supporting bee population is eradicated. It's a very interesting and concerning area of study that I intend to continue investigating.

A Sphecodes Bee finds refuge from the heat in the pollen-rich core of a cactus bloom

Davis Mountain State Park is a birder's paradise. Dozens of species either make this area their home or pass through while migrating to and from their summer and winter homes. There are multiple bird blinds and observation rooms around the park where visitors have an exceptional opportunity to view and catalog some beautiful birds. I don't like there to be glass between my lens and the subject (it creates distortion and reduces sharpness), so I chose a spot behind a wooden blind and waited in the heat of the afternoon for the right moment. Even at 500mm, it was hard not to startle the skittish avian visitors that landed near me. One downside of an SLR for bird photography (vs a mirrorless camera for instance), is that the slap of the mirror moving out of the way with each shot often startles the birds at the short range required to get good detail.

A lean and very curious red-breasted male House Finch

Likely a juvenile House Finch

I often find it hard to identify finches in the field. Many of them look so similar (especially juveniles and females) that I often don't have a good idea until I get home and have time to compare the images with online sources such as The Cornell Lab. With that in mind, I always welcome any comments from more experienced birders who are able to better identify any of the animals I post.

Adult male Lesser Goldfinch

A brilliant Northern Cardinal taking a sip from a small fountain (with a few ant friends)

I wanted to stay and wait for even more birds to fly in, but I knew it was getting late. I headed back to my car to get on the road, but on the way there I noticed a bright Lesser Goldfinch dart over to the large, yellow blooms of a Century Plant (Agave Americana) that jutted at least 12 feet into the bright blue sky. I waited patiently in the shade of a sprawling old Oak tree, but the finch did not return. However, for the 15 minutes or so that I sat patiently waiting, I was rewarded with a brief visit from a male, Black-chinned Hummingbird. For only a few seconds it rapidly investigated the mostly-closed blooms, before disappearing into the distance. Unfortunately, I was too far away and at the wrong angle to get even a shimmer of the deep purple chin feathers that males tend to have.

Birds and butterflies are always welcome visitors in the desert, but while packing up my tent earlier that morning, I noticed this little desert demon sitting just to the side of where my head had been resting only a few minutes earlier. It was laying comfortably between the ground cover and the thin bottom fabric of my tent. Based on the orientation of the stripes running from head to tail, there is a good chance that this was a Striped Bark Scorpion. This was just another reminder to always pay attention to what you are doing and where you are putting your hands in the desert. I turned for only a moment to grab a stick to shoo it off my ground cover, but by the time I turned back, it had disappeared back into the desert.

I wanted to stay and continue to enjoy the park, but I had a very long drive ahead of me and my eyes had reached a point where I just couldn’t handle the sunlight any longer. My eyes had been dry and painful since the first windy night on Mount Locke. At first, I figured the eye pain was just from the dry, dusty air so I picked up some eye drops to help. I used the eye drops often as my eyes were hurting and very dry, but little did I know until I got back home and went to the doctor, that over-the-counter eye drops are mostly anti-redness so they have chemicals in them that will dilate your eyes. It explained why my eyes were extremely sensitive to the bright light, and why my vision was blurry. In hindsight, I should have picked up some eye drops that did not include anti-redness chemicals, but the options were very limited in the small stores around Alpine. A bottle of saline drops is now a standard part of my hiking kit, especially for trips to dryer environments.

After two short days jamb packed with countless hours of photography, it was finally time to head back to normal adult/parent life. I turned up the music, blasted the AC, and enjoyed the 9-hour drive back to San Antonio. These trips into West Texas (even the ones I take alone) are incredibly rejuvenating and positively contribute to my mental health. While I don't think I will ever live out in the desert, returning always feel like going home; so one thing I can say with certainty in this uncertain world is that I will be back in West Texas again someday soon.

© 2017-2022 Shaun C Tarpley Photography

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