The Hill Country, known for its beautiful displays of spring wildflowers, clear limestone-bottomed streams and quintessentially “Texas” small towns, is one of the best-loved regions in Texas.
Situated at a crossroads of desert to the west, grasslands to the south, forests to the east and sub-tropics to the south, the region supports a surprising diversity of life including a large number of species found nowhere else in the world.
In A Naturalist’s Guide to the Texas Hill Country (Texas A&M University Press, 2015), Mark Gustafson introduces residents and visitors to the history, geology, water resources, plants and animals found in the 19 counties of the Hill Country due west of Fayette County.
A professor of biology at Texas Lutheran University in Seguin, where he directs the environmental studies program and specializes in aquatic biology and ecology, Gustafson profiles 300 of the region’s most common and unique species.
Trees and Shrubs
The distribution of other species in the Hill Country is often strongly tied to tree distribution Gustafson says.
For example, the endangered golden-cheeked warbler depends on Ashe juniper for its nesting materials and, therefore, will not be found nesting in areas lacking this tree.
Ashe juniper and live oak dominate much of the land in the Hill Country. However, there are dozens of other species that occur such as the huge bald cypress trees that line Hill Country river banks. The state’s largest bald cypress, which has a circumference of 37 feet and stands 94 feet tall, is located in Real County in the western part of the Hill Country.
Wildflowers are one of the Hill Country’s main attractions, although their abundance varies from year to year primarily depending upon rainfall.
Hundreds of species of flowering plants grow in the Hill Country. These range from Indian blankets and fire wheels, which are red in the center and yellow on the edges, to old man’s beard, flowers with white sepals but no petals characterized by fruits with long silky hairs that look like puffs of cotton.
To facilitate identification, Gustafson identifies each wildflower by color as well as by family name, genus and species.
According to Gustafson, birds are important members of the ecological communities of the Hill Country, which has more than 400 resident and migrant species.
Two species in particular are strongly associated with the Hill Country—the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo—which occurs outside the Hill Country as well.
These birds, listed as endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, both breed in the Hill Country during the summer and migrate south to Mexico and Central America for the winter.
The golden-cheeked warbler is a small songbird that nests only in mature stands of Ashe juniper and deciduous trees. The black-capped vireo occurs in habitats of open shrub land where there is dense shrub vegetation near ground level.
The State of Texas has 143 species of native terrestrial mammals with about half occurring in the Hill Country.
Visitors to the region can spot Virginia opossums; Mexican free-tailed bats; a subspecies of the Brazilian free-tailed bat; a variety of rodents including Llano pocket gophers and hispid cotton rats; armadillos; hares and rabbits including black-tailed jackrabbits and eastern cottontails; carnivores including ringtails common gray foxes; deer including exotics such as Axis deer as well as white-tailed deer; and javelina and feral hogs.
Texas is home to an amazing diversity of reptiles, many species of which are widespread in the southeastern United States, the desert Southwest or the Great Plains. Map turtles, found in the Guadalupe, San Antonio and San Marcos rivers, are the only endemic reptiles in Central Texas.
In the Hill Country, visitors can see snapping turtles, map turtles, red-eared sliders, yellow mud turtles, eastern musk turtles and spiny softshell turtles.
Lizards of all kinds, including geckos, anoles and skinks, are also common as are a variety of venomous and non-venomous snakes.
Despite its fairly arid climate, the Texas Hill Country is home to a remarkable variety of amphibians concentrated in and near springs, streams and groundwater.
Gustafson says one of the easiest ways to detect the presence of frogs and toads in a region is to listen for their calls on rainy nights. Male frogs and toads make loud calls unique to each species to attract females.
With color photographs, A Naturalist’s Guide to the Texas Hill Country also provides descriptions of cacti, vines, grasses, ferns, fungi, lichens, fishes and invertebrates.
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by Holli Koster
Publicity and Advertising Manager
Texas A&M University Press
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