Each day we drove past a scaled quail (Callipepta squamata) near camp as we set out. On the morning before our hike to Emory Peak I got a picture of it. I wish I could have better quality pictures of birds and lizards from far away, so I’m planning on upgrading from my phone camera to a legit camera.
A good picture of this bird would reveal the distinctive scale-like pattern created by the feathers; a reminder of birds’ reptilian ancestors. In fact, from an anatomical stand-point feathers are just modified and specialized scales. Truly this quail is scaled… with feathers. When I look at a bird like this I can’t help but think of the dinosaurs birds evolved from.
As we started out hike I reflected on how Big Bend seems foreign and prehistoric to me, even though I was born and raised in Texas. The climate of Houston is so much more humid than west Texas that it is actually more like a tropical swamp. Prickly pear cactus (left above) and agave (right above) grow in east Texas, but not as abundantly or with nearly as many different species as in Big Bend. Prickly pears are extremely tough and have created problems on overgrazed ranch land because after the grass has been eaten away, prickly pears colonize more space. When a prickly pear pad (the big flat part covered in spines) falls to the ground it will start to grow new roots on its underside and become a full-sized clone of the parent plant. Ranchers who overgraze their land end up fighting clone wars with the cacti that cover their pastures. Fire doesn’t work to kill these things, though I’ve heard stories about ranchers who tried burning off all the cactus spines and then have cows eat the spineless pads. But then that trained the cows to eat prickly pears and later on when the spines grew back, cows were in a world of hurt. According to the rancher I talked to about this, the only real way to bring down the number of prickly pears once they’ve taken over is to spread a goo all over them that prevents photosynthesis. But this is a really expensive and time intensive process. The moral of the story is just don’t overgraze the land. In the short term, it may be profitable, but in the long run it is not worth it.
While my friends played talking games as they hiked, I fell behind to take pictures and perhaps see some wildlife in the quiet space behind them. The cholla (above, right) is another native species of cactus with a vibrant flower for attracting pollinators. Like the prickly pear, this species can clone itself when a piece of the plant breaks off and falls on the ground it can sprout its own roots and grow into another plant that is genetically identical to it (a process called budding). But still, genetic exchange is important for species to adapt to changing conditions so this plants flower is important to this plants other way of reproducing. The bees, butterflies, and even bats of this region help exchange the pollen of desert plants. The native species are matched to the species they pollinate. (More on this later in this post when I talk about tequila!)
Invasive species, such as the Japanese beetle (left, above), can damage ecosystem functions by eating up native plants or wiping out native pollinators, which causes plant populations to decline, and then the whole ecosystem starts into a downward spiral called an invasional meltdown by ecologists. I was startled to see this familiar green armored conqueror of many ecosystems in this remote and distinctive environment, where so many of the species are highly locally adapted and grow slowly, making them particularly vulnerable to invaders.
As we ascended the mountain, there were fewer cacti and more ferns and wildflowers. The flowers and ferns in the mountains appear delicate in defiance of the harsh world around them. However, it takes real grit to survive, blossom, thrive in a place with so little rainfall. I wondered if the storms earlier in the week created just the right conditions for the plethora of flowers along the trail to bloom. As a traveler passing through, I can’t observe if these plants bloom based on the time of year or based on rainfall, but luckily people who live on and study this land contribute their knowledge to resources like field guides that I can use to learn through their experience. Hallelujah! As I caught up with my friends I heard them singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and chimed in. I’m not religious, but the mountains did make me want to sing praise for all the natural wonders I was getting to experience.
The world’s wonders come in all sizes. Some are hard to miss like the great views we were hiking to and stunning trees lining the trail like the Texas Madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) (above, right), which grows in shades ranging from deep red, to orange to white. But others could easily be missed by someone hurrying along the trail for the sake of just the view from the top, such as the blue-green lichen against a backdrop of red stone (above, left). I find myself more drawn to the small things which are unappreciated for their beauty and understudied. Lichen in particular have many biochemical properties that have been used by people for centuries, but, in my humble opinion, don’t get enough attention in modern scientific research.
As we got to the steeper part of the trail we found margaritas growing right on the rocks (above, right)… Well, future margaritas, if they weren’t protected by a National Park; these agave could be used to make tequila. Agave are also known as century plants, because they flower once at the end of their life, when bats swoop in to pollinate them. But making tequila requires killing the agave before it flowers. (Anyone else see a sustainability issue here?) Agave are only pollinated by bats, but now the Mexican Long-nosed bats, which feed on nectar, not blood are endangered from habitat loss because there are fewer plants for them to drink nectar from. These bats drink only nectar, never blood. In fact only one species of bat drinks blood. Mostly bats are terribly misunderstood and their benefits to people from pollinating plants like the agave and eating incredible numbers of insects is ignored. Without them the agave could also be lost, and then we would have no tequila and no margaritas. Even people who can’t care about a bat species going extinct, probably care about their margarita being permanently off the menu. Each small part of the ecosystem is important to the functioning whole, especially when we’re talking about pollinators like bees, who are also in trouble, meaning we’re also in trouble. This is a topic that my friends and I often discuss, but being on the mountain was a rest from trying to solve entangled environmental problems, and as we climbed to the peak on our hands and knees the wind blew away any concerns other than the immediate fear of falling.
While we relaxed on top of Emory Peak, the swifts who lived their zipped around on the powerful wind. They moved so fast that on the video I took (see the Oakleigh Explorations facebook page) shows them as little black dots that are barely visible. We also got to watch a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) hover over the mountain and then dive to catch some prey. It was incredible to watch it plummet from high above us to way below us in about 2 seconds. I still haven’t figured out how it manage to hover motionless above the peak with all the wind up there. I wrote about the incredible experience in my pocket journal while my friend drew a diving hawk into her mountain view sketch.
Birds weren’t the only critters sharing the peaks with us. Hundreds of labybugs clustered on the trees and in the rocks, and we noticed a beautiful green true bug on one of my friend’s shirts, who knows how long it had been along for the ride. I wish I could identify this bug to learn more about it, but my insect field guide is for all of North America, so it wasn’t specific enough for me to find this species. But I was able to narrow it down to being in the true bug order based on the triangle shape on its back, just behind its head ( a trick that my field biology mentor taught me).
While we were on top of the mountain, the sky began to clear and we got some great views of the rock formations as we were walking down the trail. But that didn’t keep me from continuing to notice the small things, like a tarantula and the cool curvature of this plant. All the other blades on this individual curved like this, but the other plants like this one along the trail had straight blades. I wonder what made this one grow so strangely beautiful. When we got back to the trailhead, we bee-lined for the lodge where local beer brewed in Alpine, TX was on tap. I’m not usually much of a beer person, but hefeweizen was excellent! Highly recommended if you ever find yourself up in the Chisos Mountains.